The Business of Healing Pets, Trupanion’s blog series written by Stith Keiser of Blue Heron Consulting, takes a deep dive into the business side of animal medicine. Look for new installments featuring topics such as business best practices, effective leadership, strategic hiring, and more.
The Ulitmate Measure of Leadership
Almost a month under new ownership, a newly appointed Lead Veterinary Nurse—let’s call her Brittany—shared with me how impactful the experience had been on her definition of leadership. The new owner, a long-time associate at the practice, immediately shed the shackles of authoritative leadership and asked her team, regardless of title, to be leaders in their roles.
Brittany proclaimed herself a student from the school of hard knocks and said her first instinct was to flex her leadership muscles. She did so by ensuring everyone knew their place, actively looking for mistakes, and shouldering as much responsibility as possible in order to convey her worth. The compounding result, she confessed, was resentment from her team and a constant sense of being overwhelmed.
Unfortunately, for many in leadership roles, their experience more closely resembles Brittany’s than what I alluded to early in our series. If you’ll recall, I proposed that on this leadership journey we would position ourselves to achieve:
Greater work/life balance.
A more self-sufficient, leveraged team.
Improved patient care.
Enhanced client experience.
Increased profitability, which means more money in your pocket, invested in your hospital, or shared with your team.
How, then, do we choose the leadership path that leads to these results?
It starts with realizing leadership limited to our own abilities is hardly leadership at all. True leadership isn’t measured simply by what we can achieve as individuals, but instead by what we can lead others to achieve. Whether you’re a designated team lead, team member, or practice owner, sustainable leadership comes down to what you’re able to help your team accomplish.
Expanding your leadership influence begins by cultivating leaders in your hospital.
Whether you use a formal discovery tool, like a 360-degree evaluation, or organic conversation within your department, I suggest asking something along the lines of the following:
What’s your “why?” Why veterinary medicine and why this hospital specifically?
Which of your unique qualities and strengths adds value to the practice and sets you apart from others in your role (i.e. experience, knowledge, skills)?
What skills or talents do you possess and think would be beneficial to the practice but aren’t currently using?
What are your short and long-term professional goals for yourself and the practice?
Potential leaders tend to respond to questions like these by acknowledging room for development. Identifying a problem doesn’t make someone a leader, but if a team member is able to identify an opportunity, and then recognize the role she can have in capitalizing on that opportunity, we’ve got someone ripe for growth.
In short, our goal with an exercise like this is to:
Determine what makes a team member tick.
Ascertain their strengths and areas of interest.
Connect those to individual and/or hospital growth opportunities.
This is where it can get dicey.
Staging someone to pursue their passion and help the hospital in the process can quickly backfire if we don’t give them the tools to do it successfully. This is what happened in Brittany’s case. Brittany wanted to be a team lead and she recognized room for improvement in hospital flow and team efficiency. What Brittany lacked was the training and tools to effectively lead others to solve those problems.
Too many of us have made the mistake of designating a lead based only on tenure or technical skills. While both can be of value, a lead should be defined by more than those two components. If a lead is expected to lead others and grow those around himself, it’s helpful if we can aid him in laying a foundation consisting of:
Emotional intelligence—the capacity to be aware of, control, and express one’s emotions, and to handle interpersonal relationships judiciously and empathetically.
Communication and listening skills.
The autonomy to master his area of expertise.
The training and tools to solve the problem(s) at hand.
Ongoing feedback and support
Set them up for success.
I’ve often found that newly appointed leaders struggle with another one of Brittany’s experiences: being overwhelmed. Whether driven by a desire to prove they’re worthy of the position or burdened by an unfamiliarity with prioritization, there are few quicker ways to discourage leadership than to burn someone out. I’ve found it helpful to share the Eisenhower Matrix and, in some cases, sit down with the team member to review their task list and discuss how to prioritize. For those in positions leading others, a conversation around delegation can prove a useful investment. When I have a new manager, for example, I request they break their responsibility list into three components:
Tasks for which only she is qualified to do and should do.
Tasks for which only she is currently qualified to do, but someone else could be trained to do.
Tasks for which someone else is qualified to do and could be appointed to do.
Once we’ve identified what that person should do and is uniquely qualified to do, we can delegate much of the rest. This probably goes without saying, but delegation doesn’t mean assigning and turning a blind eye, especially if delegation is a new concept for the hospital team. As with any new behavior, with delegated items, it’s constructive to help define what you expect and then inspect what you expect.
The ultimate measure of leadership is what happens after the leader is gone.
Leadership, as Brittany discovered, isn’t always easy. Leadership is as much about cultivating those around you to achieve their full potential as it is about maximizing your own potential. As leaders, if we’re willing to invest the time and energy into the strategies we’ve reviewed in this series, the benefits are well worth it.
Stith Keiser is the Chief Executive Officer for Blue Heron Consulting, a group specializing in veterinary practice management coaching. In addition to consulting, Stith is a managing partner at a handful of veterinary practices and collaborates on the advancement of professional development curriculums at several veterinary schools as an adjunct faculty member. In his free time, Stith enjoys spending time with his wife, family, friends, and two dogs, a Red Heeler and black Lab, in the outdoors.
Mairi brings her dog, Nox, to Trupanion every day, where she works on the marketing team and Nox supervises in between play time. She's a fan of superhero movies and must go into every bookstore that crosses her path. In her free time you can probably catch her reading, hanging out with Nox, planning her next trip, or binging a new show.