Leading Your Veterinary Team Through Change

This is the first in a series of blog posts written by Louise S. Dunn, who’s partnered with VetMatrix to provide educational content for veterinarians in different areas of their practice. Louise has 45+ years of experience in the veterinary field. She’s the owner of Snowgoose Veterinary Management Consulting, author of multiple books including “The 5 Minute Consult,” “Pathways to Ownership,” and “Veterinary Clinics of North America,” she is also a Fear Free certified professional.

veterinary clinical practice team approach

Although the pandemic created sudden and drastic changes for the veterinary team, moving forward will still require the team to pivot, adjust, and handle changes. It is the responsibility of the management team to provide what is necessary to navigate through transitions.

Your Learning Objectives:

Do you consider yourself an expert at handling organizational change after surviving the year of the pandemic? For some, that may be the new skill to list on the resume. For others, the thought of changing anything evokes the feeling of dread and the need to avoid it.

Even though the pandemic created sudden and drastic changes for the veterinary team, it is not one-and-done. Moving forward will still require change, pivoting and adjusting, scrapping the old way (even recently ‘old’), and implementing something new. The veterinary team will continue to be faced with the need to change.

Change does not come easy, especially when suddenly sprung on the team. Leaders in the veterinary practice have the responsibility to guide the team through the transition. To make it easier on everyone, it is best to be prepared – plan for change, follow a change process, and build a team that welcomes change.

Plan For Change

Even though we know the veterinary industry is constantly changing and the practice team will need to deal with it, we are not good at adapting to change. Just think back to when there was a purchase of a new medical device or an update to the practice management software – how well did it go? How long did it take the team to adjust and become proficient? 

It is no surprise that many change efforts fail to deliver anticipated results – as evident by equipment gathering dust, pharmaceuticals expiring on the shelf, and apps and platforms (i.e., social media and telehealth) going unused. Without the positive mindset for a change, it is not always successful.

Planning for change means looking for opportunities and mitigating danger. Everyone on the team must participate – from the owner of the business to part-time team members. And management must be open to hearing about opportunities or dangers noticed by others on the team. Front-line workers are often the first to recognize the need for change (be it a standard operating procedure, skills or competencies, or staffing). Noticing and speaking up should be ingrained in the culture.

veterinary key performance indicators

Of course, managers are front and center when it comes to looking for opportunities or threats. There are a few tools to help – key practice indicator (KPI) reports, client surveys, pet owner trends, new technology, client and team retention stats, and changes in the competitive landscape are just a few ways that management can keep a finger on the pulse of the business and respond when numbers start to show a negative trend. 

Notice that financials are not the only signal for change. Staff turnover and pet owner trends are also signals for change. When a red flag is noticed, it is time to move into the change process.

Learn More: How to Attract and Support Pet Owners in the Post-COVID Era

Change does not happen automatically. It requires effort, and it happens more smoothly if specific steps are followed to move the team through the transition. There are change management models to help facilitate change in a business. ADKAR, Kubler Ross, McKinsey 7S, Lewin’s 3 Step, and Kotter’s 8 Step all provide a manager with a process to follow. 

Each comes with pros and cons – different models work better for different situations. That said, let’s focus on just one, the ADKAR model.

  • Awareness – start with WHY we need to change, and why now
  • Desire – appeal to the emotional and logical side of employees, how the change relates to their current position, WIIFT (What’s In It For Them)
  • Knowledge – what the team needs to know, how the change will be implemented
  • Ability – train the team, build the SKAs (skills, knowledge, ability) of each person on the team
  • Reinforcement – use incentives, rewards, and support to keep the momentum going

It is imperative to realize that communication is critical in each of the stages – and this requires a  communication strategy.

  • Communicate the message consistently and frequently (the rumor mill starts when there is a vacuum)
  • Use multiple channels – email, text, video, training, meetings, focus groups, bulletin boards…
  • Speak to the different learning styles – visual, auditory, reading, kinesthetic…
  • Communicate milestones – timelines, progress
  • Review metrics that are in place – keep the team updated
  • Recognize and reward – celebrate small wins publicly with the team
  • Listen – seek feedback from the team, identify barriers
communicating with the team veterinary practice

Communication must be two-way, even when managing a change. There must be dialogue, not directives. A poor communication strategy or a lack of an organized process will make resisting change more likely because the team will not understand the need for change or what is expected of them. 

Once a roadmap is established, the transition process will be more successful. In the end, the team will enjoy the process, and they will become more agile and no longer fear change. Managers take note – you can work with the team to help them view change positively.

How to Create an Adaptable, Flexible Veterinary Team

As stated in the opening, some people resist change. When the veterinary healthcare team consists of mainly change avoiders, it makes the manager’s job that much more difficult.  For those responsible for change management, taking proactive steps to understand why people resist change and how to build a more resilient team will make implementing change more effective and successful.

A strategy to build a more agile and flexible team starts with the hiring of team members. Don’t hesitate to have a conversation with a candidate that the work environment is one of the ongoing changes, and not everyone is comfortable dealing with changes all the time. Look for adaptability skills when interviewing a candidate. 

Ask “have you ever” or “describe a time when” to explore past work history and how he/she adapted to a challenge. Look for responses that include problem-solving skills, strategic thinking, communication, and teamwork skills.

Next, understand the common reasons why people on the team are resisting change:

  • Fear of job loss – being replaced by technology, job duties now obsolete, etc.
  • Fear of the unknown – lack of security, unsure of new responsibilities, what if…
  • Loss of control – familiar routines equal a sense of control; change means confusion and chaos
  • Lack of competence – a new technology, new routines, new skills, new duties
  • Poor timing – already too busy, caught up in trying to master earlier changes
  • Lack of reward – WIIFT as listed above
  • Poor communication techniques – see discussion above
  • Office politics and peer pressure – the culture, the way we do things around here, protecting co-workers that have expressed fear
  • Lack of trust or support – mistrust leaders or fellow team members,
  • Former experiences – attitudes about change determined by past experiences

When resistance rears its head, stop and listen. Find out what the concerns are, get to the root of the fears, and brainstorm solutions. When the team sees that it is ok to voice concerns and work through them, they will be more inclined to have an open dialogue rather than sabotaging the change process.

team building veterinary practice

Finally, take a look at the culture. Is change considered an opportunity? Does management seek feedback from the team? When change is implemented, does management recognize reactions to change and take the time to address any issues? Does management lead by example – or does management always appear frustrated and hesitant about change? Is it safe to try something new and fail? 

Establishing a workplace culture that accepts and embraces change does not come easy, and management must recognize its role because an inflexible manager will limit the team’s adaptability.

Not everyone enjoys change. However, for any business or individual to grow or advance, there must be change. Managers can not simply dictate “learn it, live it, love it” when implementing something new. Managers are the first people who must be prepared to look for the need and have a clear pathway through any change process. 

Before announcing any new change, spend time with the management team – assessing the culture, learning the best change model to follow, communication techniques to apply, and common reasons of resistance to be mindful of. Once the change management team is prepared, then move out to the rest of the team. Implementing a change does not have to be a battle; it can be pretty easy with preparation.

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