Learning to lead


Leader Concept.How you lead your staff is just as important as how you treat clients. So, why do so few practice owners get it right, and what can you do to improve your management style? By Angela Tufvesson

In a classic anthropological study, researcher Dr Lionel Tiger discovered that the average baboon looks at the alpha male two or three times per minute for guidance. Humans aren’t much different—we look to those in charge for cues about what is acceptable behaviour and what is not in any given situation.

In veterinary practices—as in most workplaces—all eyes are on the boss to set the standard for behaviour. As a small business owner, one of your primary roles is to lead your staff but, worryingly, many vets aren’t equipped with adequate leadership skills. Why? Because university education and on-the-job training mostly focuses on animals, not people.

If you’re new to being the boss or if leading doesn’t come naturally, the good news is there is a lot you can do to improve your leadership skills.

Trouble at the top

According to Diederik Gelderman, president of the Australian Veterinary Business Association, many vet practice owners have a leadership style that is akin to “herding cats” rather than a method that uses coherent management techniques.

“Most vets aren’t out the front leading the team by weight of vision, belief and passion,” he says. “They need to be able to engage their team to be passionate and focused on patient outcomes. Unfortunately, they don’t usually have the skills, especially communication skills.”

Gelderman says the main culprit is a lack of training and focus on leadership as an essential skill required to run a practice. “People go into veterinary science to be vets—they don’t go into veterinary science to be leaders,” he says. “Realistically, they’ve had no training at university. Most training at university focuses on individual achievement and certainly not group achievement.

“They’re not taught leadership or chosen based on leadership. Most of the time they’ve got no idea leadership is necessary to run a team. What’s more, if they do realise that leadership is important, they don’t know where to get the training.”

Specifically, leadership consultant Karen Schmidt says vet practice owners often struggle to understand staff motivation. “The big one is not being clear on expectations and assuming that other people will be as passionate and dedicated to their business as they are,” she says. “Nobody is ever going to be as invested in the business as the owners.”

Highlighting negative behaviour and failing to recognise achievement is also a common leadership error.

“In a lot of cases in small businesses, the bosses are really good at pointing out when people are doing things wrong but not very quick to point out when people are getting things right. It becomes a negative situation where the only time the owners are talking to staff is when they’ve done something wrong,” says Schmidt.

Why leadership matters

Of course, problems with workplace leadership aren’t confined to veterinary practices. Research by the Centre for Workplace Leadership at the University of Melbourne that tracked employee perceptions of management and leadership in workplaces revealed a whopping 75 per cent of employees believe workplaces need better managers and leaders.

And an increasing body of international evidence suggests that the quality of leadership and management skills in a workplace can have significant direct effects on productivity. Indirectly, good leadership also improves an organisation’s ability to adapt to changing business conditions and innovate.

These findings are just as important for small businesses such as vet practices as they are for global conglomerates as effective leadership will help to improve your bottom line. “Being a good leader of a vet practice is something that’s really going to boost your business,” says Schmidt. “It’s not just nice to have, it’s something that’s going to help you attract and keep clients. So, rather than looking at it as something you do when you have time, it’s something that you really need to prioritise.”

Gelderman says many practice owners aren’t focused on leadership because they’re satisfied with the progress of their business, but he warns that this approach can lead to complacency. “For many vets, often their practice is at a good level, they can meet their mortgage repayments and go on holidays, but they’re stuck in that mould,” he says.

“If you really want to have a practice that stands out and becomes a workplace of choice then you need to have leadership skills and you need to learn how to be a leader. That’s the difference between ordinary practices and the practices that excel.”

Psychologist Peter Doyle, director of Guidelight Psychology, agrees. “Obviously the bread and butter work is fixing sick animals but the reward, momentum and longevity of a business is determined not only by that service delivery model but by how well you create a healthy workplace by growing your leadership capacity.”

Be the boss

So, what can you do to improve your leadership skills?

First, Gelderman says, it’s important to understand that leadership can be learned. “There are born leaders who can do it well naturally, but all leadership can be
learned and even people who don’t have many natural attributes can learn them,” he says. “It’s not about being a better
vet—it’s all about how you inspire and motivate your team. That’s what
leadership really is.”

If you’re keen to undertake formal training, Doyle says, it needn’t be expensive. “You don’t need a lot of money to learn to be an effective leader,” he says. “Start with small steps within your budget. Getting around the basics is a good starting point to help you operate more strongly and efficiently. Too many people in small business don’t start the journey because they think they need to undertake formal training like an MBA.”

Schmidt says that consulting with a senior member of staff or an external organisation with more knowledge in a particular area, such as recruitment or people management, is an effective strategy. “Getting advice from people who are more experienced than you is exactly what business is all about,” she says. “You don’t have to do it all yourself.”

When it comes to staff management, Doyle says, helping staff to develop a clear purpose for coming to work—for example, to improve their technical skills or help clients—will improve staff morale and productivity. “Truly stepping people into their highest level of potential means the business will flourish and stress levels will diminish,” he says.

Doyle says focusing on having “win-win” conversations with staff where both parties gain something positive from the interaction will improve communication in the practice. He suggests describing situations in terms of patterns of behaviour rather than personal judgement. So, ‘keeping clients waiting for their appointment is an inconvenience that we try to avoid’ is preferable to, ‘you take too long with clients, which means that everyone else has to wait and I lose money because clients are unhappy’.

And just like oxygen masks on airplanes, looking after yourself first will help you to better lead others. “You can’t lead people well and develop your staff if you’re not looking after your own emotional journey,” Doyle says. “Make sure you sleep well, your self-talk is positive, focused and task-oriented, and that you don’t let the emotional rollercoaster [of running a business] intrude on your conversations or interactions with staff.”


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