Since his epiphany five years ago, Dr Geoff Golovsky has been able to engage better with his employees and so drive the growth of his two Sydney practices. Cameron Cooper reports
As a highly trained veterinarian with experience in Thailand, the United Kingdom and Australia, Dr Geoff Golovsky has always had confidence in his animal skills.
He candidly admits, however, that in the past his management of people was not always up to scratch. The wake-up call for Dr Golovsky, now the owner and director of Vet HQ veterinary clinics in Sydney’s Double Bay and Darlinghurst, came about five years ago when he realised that an overly self-confident approach was upsetting his staff and, potentially, hurting his business.
“Self-confidence without awareness of how you impact others is just seen as arrogance,” Golovsky says. “Most staff join a vet clinic because they love animals and suddenly they are dealing with a very outspoken and opinionated person and it really affects them in a negative way.”
With the cajoling and support of his HR manager, Kate Fahy, he decided to address his people skills to ensure they were not undermining the science training that is so crucial to being a good vet. That has put Dr Golovsky, Fahy and their team of more than 40 staff on a journey of discovery courtesy of the study of emotional intelligence and conflict-competence behaviour. With the benefit of hindsight, Dr Golovsky can now appreciate how important it has been to transform his management style.
“The impact of my lack of social awareness and lack of relationship management was really quite pronounced and it all came down to emotional intelligence, or a lack of it.”
Going for growth
Today, Dr Golovsky and the Double Bay and Darlinghurst clinics are thriving, with the former “ticking over nicely” and the latter, which he acquired about 15 months ago, having doubled turnover in that time.
The purchase last year of the Darlinghurst clinic, complementing a decade-long presence in Double Bay, has reinforced his beliefs about the importance of excellent management, great service and a sound knowledge of client demographics. Whereas the Double Bay clinic is full of families, children and au pairs, Darlinghurst is built on DINK households (those with dual incomes and no kids).
“We’ve gone back to basics in Darlinghurst,” Dr Golovsky says. “I went in there somewhat naively thinking we could just replicate what we’ve done in Double Bay, but there’s definitely some tweaks we’ve had to make to make it more acceptable to Darlinghurst. It’s certainly been a learning curve.”
Working across the two clinics, Dr Golovsky has indulged his dual passions for client engagement and animal surgery. He spends about three-and-a-half days being a vet and one-and-a-half days as a manager. “I love general practice. I love seeing animals grow up and get old.”
Such a sentiment is a far cry from Dr Golovsky’s days soon after graduating from Sydney University in 1998 when he got his first veterinary job and became so disillusioned that he contemplated going back to university to study medicine. A stint as a vet educator in Thailand as part of the then AusAID development program, followed by two years in London, reignited his passion for vet work and led ultimately to his return to the eastern suburbs of Sydney where he’d grown up and attended Cranbrook Senior School. “After Thailand, I knew I really wanted to be a veterinarian,” Dr Golovsky says.
Emotional intelligence is key
There is no doubt that Dr Golovsky’s decision to change his business model—and his personal approach—have been instrumental to his success. Before the conversion, he battled to cope with long hours, financial pressure, stress and disgruntled employees. Now, he embraces a better work-life balance and manages his staff and business better—and he is much happier.
The turning point came after heeding the advice of management consultant Shawn McVey, now of Veterinary Growth Partners, a group for veterinary practice owners who aim to maximise their success. McVey’s sessions empowered Dr Golovsky to deal better with conflict and to develop his own emotional intelligence so that he would be able to better communicate with staff, even when having the tougher conversations.
In McVey’s world, emotional intelligence is more important than general intelligence, and he wants team members who are “book smart and have heart”, not who are prone to blaming others, displaying poor impulse control and being disrespectful.
The book, Becoming a Conflict Competent Leader by Craig E. Runde & Tim A. Flanagan, has also provided guidance for Dr Golovsky through its messages advising people to manage their emotions during crises, such as ‘cool down’, ‘slow down’, ‘reflect’ and ‘engage constructively’. Using such techniques, Dr Golovsky has learnt how to breathe, pause and contemplate his response to issues rather than respond too quickly based on a gut reaction.
Too often, he suggests, vets have to run from one task to another “putting out fires. But some problems you can’t just solve instantaneously and if I’ve learnt anything, it’s that you don’t need to respond straight away. You can think about it.”
What else has he learnt? To listen; to appreciate that everyone deserves a say; and to translate desired actions into a structured process at work to ensure that positive outcomes occur rather than being left to chance.
The human touch
The new approach is paying off at work in the form of a happier team, and at home. “Just the ability to slow down and think about things has helped with the most important thing in my life—my wife and three children.”
“Most staff join a veterinary clinic because they love animals and suddenly they are dealing with a very outspoken and opinionated person and it really affects them in a negative way.”—Dr Geoff Golovsky, owner, Vet HQ
The person at work who has most noticed the difference in Dr Golovsky is Kate Fahy, a former veterinary nurse who for the past four years has held a senior management role after studying for a degree in human resources.
She recalls the time some years ago when she pulled her boss aside and warned him that “everyone’s walking on eggshells” because of his strong personality. Through emotional-intelligence workshops and learning how to deal with conflict and people, Fahy says there has been a dramatic change. Whereas Dr Golovsky once bordered on being arrogant and over the top, he is now enthusiastic and driven.
“Geoff’s really made a huge effort to improve and his leadership style is great now and we’ve got a really happy team,” she says. “He’s naturally a charismatic person and he’s always striving for new opportunities and educating himself and the team.”
Improving communication between all team members has been at the heart of the cultural change at Vet HQ. Employees are expected to speak appropriately and directly with each other rather than defaulting to criticism behind the scenes. Also issues are dealt with straight away through a structured response “rather than letting things stew”.
The leadership focus is now on building a great team at Vet HQ where everyone pitches in, rather than a clinic that is dominated by a magnetic leader.
“Everyone puts their hand up and tries to help,” Fahy says. “They’re all a great bunch of people.”
In an industry that has a high incidence of suicide and mental health issues, Dr Golovsky and Fahy are also creating a culture that emphasises wellness. Dr Golovsky can regularly be found surfing at one of his beloved eastern suburbs beaches, Fahy has introduced tai chi into the office, and vets and nursing staff are encouraged to work regular shifts and take holidays throughout the year.
The big four
Aside from improving emotional intelligence and conflict competence, Vet HQ’s success has been built on some other strong foundations. For example, the clinics seek to abide at all times by four key principles that place value on time, respect, experience and care. “We live by those things,” Golovsky says.
He believes veterinary clinics should ideally be located close to major supermarkets or businesses rather than being a destination in their own right. That has paid off handsomely in Double Bay in the form of a major adjacent Woolworths outlet with lots of car parks.
Dr Golovsky also takes the view—based on some early flirtations with possible partnerships with other veterinarians that “luckily” fell through in the early days of his career—that veterinarians should realise that business alliances can be difficult and should not be rushed into.
“I’ve learnt so much over time. There are mentors and friends and then there are business associates and you can’t really mix them together because most people are out to do the best thing for themselves,” he says.
Finally, he warns his fellow colleagues to be wary of the rise and rise of the corporatisation of veterinary practice. Noting that he is “fiercely independent”, he worries that corporate models with an emphasis on shareholder returns may not deliver the best outcomes for vets.
“My view is that the true way to create good vets is in nurturing practices where there is owner involvement, where there is backup, where there is strong communication and management. And I’m not sure that corporates do that.”
With the Double Bay and Darlinghurst operations in good shape and his own leadership style bedded down, Dr Golovsky can take time to smell the salt air of the Eastern Suburbs and perhaps think about buying or establishing other clinics down the track. He will not hurry things, though.
“I love what I do. I love every day and I love being a veterinarian. If that means I buy another practice, which means that I can take on some more young vets with dreams and aspirations like I had, then that’s a possibility.”
Regardless of what the future holds, Golovsky will continue to try to build his emotional intelligence in the belief that it will deliver better outcomes for his family, business and colleagues. He is encouraged that a recent assessment of his emotional intelligence shows that he has come a long way since his first test five years ago.
“I’m not saying I’m really good at it, but I’m now at a point where I can do things as a normal run-of-the-mill person would be able to do things.”
8 ways to improve your conflict competence
1 Take advantage of situations involving conflict by exploring diverse viewpoints.
2 Avoid trouble by not reacting rashly when your ‘hot buttons’ are pushed.
3 Resist the temptation to avoid all conflict because doing so will probably allow it to fester and erupt at a later stage.
4 Understand why others behave the way they do and appreciate that it is easy to misconstrue colleagues’ motives and goals.
5 Focus on ‘interests’ rather than ‘positions’ when conflict arises.
6 Resist the urge to retaliate because it engenders a never-ending cycle of revenge.
7 Listen to others to understand their views with the intent to summarise the essence of their statements, rather than to appear polite or prepare a response.
8 Set aside ‘face time’ with new colleagues, in particular, to build familiarity and trust.
Source: Becoming a Conflict Competent Leader: How You and Your Organization Can Manage Conflict Effectively, by Craig E. Runde & Tim A. Flanagan