Practice Smarter columnist Mark Opperman is the president and founder of Veterinary Management Consultation Inc., director of veterinary practice management at Mission Veterinary Partners, and founder of the Veterinary Hospital Managers Association. His column won first place in the Florida Magazine Association’s 2020 Charlie Awards.Read Articles Written by Mark Opperman
Recently, while consulting at a veterinary practice, I saw the manager being constantly interrupted by team members. Many times, a line of people formed at the door. One team member was requesting a day off, another was asking for authorization to dispense heartworm medication, another was upset about how a co-worker had treated her, and on and on. I am certain the manager spent almost her entire day dealing with employees’ problems instead of getting her work done. In fact, the manager told me she was coming in early and on weekends so that she could get her work done.
A manager’s job is not to be a babysitter. They are not a father or mother for the practice. A manager’s job is to manage the hospital and, to me, that means growing the practice, improving profitability and efficiency, providing vision and direction, and, in short, helping to make the practice more successful. The manager is not there to serve as a therapist for the practice.
I had the privilege of managing many team members over the years, and what I learned is that they are the best delegators in the practice. Let me explain what I mean.
Empower and Teach
Let’s say that you, the manager, delegate inventory control to a team member. The next thing you know, she is standing in front of you and saying a vendor is offering a special on a certain product. Do you want to take advantage of the special?
What has that employee done? She has redelegated to you the responsibility for inventory control. Like I said, employees are the best delegators in the practice.
An experienced manager would respond: “You are in charge of inventory. Why don’t you make that decision and let me know what you decide?” If the team member’s decision was correct, then use positive reinforcement. If it was not, then coach her. Empower employees and teach them to think for themselves.
In another example, two of your team members are at odds. You are not sure what the conflict is all about, but you are fairly certain it has something to do with a personality clash. You heard through the grapevine that they aren’t getting along and everyone in the practice is now involved in this drama.
What do you do? Some managers would call the employees into the office separately, hear each side of the story and then try to mediate the situation. Not me. I would call them into my office together and inform them that I am aware of an issue between them and that the problem is affecting my work environment and other employees. I would tell the two employees that I am not sure what the problem is exactly and, in fact, do not care to know, but they need to realize that their behavior is unacceptable.
I would instruct both employees to go to lunch together immediately and discuss the problem. Once the problem is resolved, they can come back to work, but if they are unable to resolve the problem, then I don’t want them to return to the practice.
I have used this technique with many employees over the years and have seen just about every outcome. In most instances, both employees will come back after lunch and the problem has been resolved. In other situations, only one returns, or neither of them! All those outcomes are fine with me. If the employees can’t resolve their problem, then I don’t want them in my practice. They are toxic.
If the problem centers on a practice policy or procedure, I would use a different approach, but when the situation involves two individuals who just don’t get along, then I don’t want to get involved. I am the practice manager, not their mommy or daddy. They need to learn how to resolve problems and get along. Practice managers spend way too much time being therapists.
A manager must empower employees. If you tie your children’s shoes all their life, they will never learn to tie shoes on their own. Employees must have direction, and that direction starts with a comprehensive, well-thought-out job description. If you don’t have up-to-date job descriptions, you are going to find managing team members to be truly difficult.
Train and Evaluate
Once you have effective job descriptions, the next step is to have an effective training program. I have used phased training programs for years. These are normally four-week programs in which you take each aspect of the job and list it on a training schedule. You would then assign a qualified team member to train the new employee on that task. At the end of the week, the manager would review that week’s program with the new employee to ensure that the training was successful. We have developed phased training programs for every position in a veterinary practice, and I can tell you there is no better way to train your team.
Once you have developed job descriptions and phased training programs, the next step is to conduct performance evaluations. To do this, you need to develop an effective evaluation form. I suggest that your form consist of 20 specific criteria. Don’t ask general or vague questions such as, “How effective is the employee in his or her communication?” A better question might be, “Does the employee answer the telephone with the prescribed greeting in a positive and friendly manner and project a smile while on the phone?”
Using individual forms for each position, team members are asked to evaluate themselves. The direct supervisor uses the same form to evaluate the employee, too, and solicits input regarding the employee’s performance from the practice owner and other managers.
Once the evaluations are completed, the supervisor sits down with the employee and goes over each item in an open discussion. Performance evaluations should be done after an employee’s three-month introductory period and at least yearly thereafter.
Get Everyone Together
What’s also important in a practice is to hold a forum in which team members are updated on new policies and procedures and can discuss any issues or problems. For this reason, team meetings are an essential component of management. I suggest that team meetings be held at least once a month.
When in the best time for a team meeting? The answer is, when most of your employees can attend.
I used to be the administrator of a 24-hour hospital that had three shifts: 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., 4 p.m. to midnight and midnight to 8 a.m. At that hospital, the best time for a team meeting was between the daytime and evening shifts, but most practices find that lunchtime works well.
My experience has found that team meetings should be scheduled for no longer than an hour and a half. Anything longer normally turns into a complaint session. The manager should establish an agenda, start the meeting on time and end on time.
I suggest that attendance be made mandatory, and yes, team members should get paid for time spent at the meeting. This might be the most important hour and a half of the entire month. If you aren’t having consistent team meetings, you are probably dealing with problems after they have caught fire instead of when they are smoking.
Set Aside ‘Me’ Time
Managers, I hope you will ask yourself, are you truly managing your practice or are you the social counselor? Look at your job description and ask yourself if you are completing the things you need to do as manager.
I believe in an open-door policy, but I also believe in a closed-door policy. I used to hang a sign on my office door for an hour or two each day that basically said, “Leave me alone.” Unless the building is burning down or an animal needs my help or a family member needs me, leave me alone! You know, I got more done in that hour or two than at any other time of the day.
Managers, manage your practices. Don’t babysit your employees. Teach your team members to solve problems on their own. Both you and your team will be so much better if you do.