When you start practicing as a veterinarian you are expected to partake in continuing education to keep your skills and knowledge base current. You should do the same with your leadership skills. By learning how to be more assertive or tweaking your current knowledge base to become a more effective leader, you can help your clinic run more efficiently. When you are a leader, the idea of becoming more assertive is not just being confident in what you are asking your co-workers or employees to do, but also in getting them to buy into the overarching goals of the practice. The following are ways in which you can make changes to become a better leader.
Effective leaders are also coaches, and the letters in the word “coach” can be reminders of how to act.
Clarify practice goals, and make sure that your team knows what you are working towards. Communicate to each team member how his or her job is important in achieving the goals that you have set for the practice. An example would be to tell your technician that he or she is responsible for keeping supplies in the exam room, such as alcohol bottles filled to a certain level.
Obtain commitment. You feel as though you have explained every single detail about practice goals, but if people don’t understand or don’t feel like there is anything in it for them, you won’t get anywhere. It is important to help them understand what the benefits are if they help you work towards this goal. For example, impress up on the receptionist the importance of charging all fees associated with the visit so that there is a better chance for a profit sharing bonus. Not only are you making her understand that it is important to capture the charges but also how it benefits her in the long run. Make sure that you praise these team members when you see them doing something correctly. The praise will make them feel good and they are likely to do that again.
Analyze and appraise. Assess the performance of individuals and the team objectively. Are you moving towards your goals? Are you watching for teachable moments so that you can keep the team on track? Perhaps you notice that when a certain technician works the supplies in the exam rooms run lower than you are comfortable with, tell them! Show them the levels that you want, sometimes people don’t understand when you tell them and it is helpful to reinforce the learning with a visual aid.
Challenge the status quo. You want to make sure you have created an environment that is comfortable with change. Be open and willing to hear what your team has to say. If they feel like they can contribute to the goal in a more material way than just following orders, they are more likely to buy into the goal as a whole. Say your technician notices that the phone rings more in the morning and she often gets pulled between helping you, the doctor, and helping the receptionist answer the phones. She comes to you with the idea of hiring someone to work from 9-1 (the busiest phone hours) so she isn’t getting pulled away from you and ensuring the phones get answered in a timely manner. Having an atmosphere where your technician feels comfortable coming to you with a solution like that is wonderful. Let your team contribute and impress upon each individual that they are important in the success of the business.
Help your team succeed. If you see that someone is not performing well, take some extra time to help him or her get back on track. If someone is doing well, keep coaching. Think of the athletes you know, they all have coaches to keep pushing them, right? You are the coach of your clinic team! If your technician is busy helping another doctor or with another patient and you notice treatments need to be done, jump in and do some treatments! Your message of working together as a team toward clinic goals will go further if you are willing to jump in and help out.
Sometimes we don’t need to COACH the team to move toward the goals of the clinic. Rather, we need to persuade him or her to find solutions to any problem that the clinic has. By empowering the team to bring you solutions you can open dialogue where there was none before. There are eight steps to encouraging the team to solve problems:
- Define the problem. It is said that a problem named is a problem solved and so drawing attention to the problem is the first step. Looking back at the questions we asked earlier, maybe the problem is there are not enough surgery packs to get through all the surgeries scheduled for the day.
- Outline the basic facts. Allow the team to organize their thoughts by asking for the facts of the problem. This is a two-way conversation. You are helping empower your team to solve the problem and are a resource for them to utilize. The facts of the above situation are that there are not enough sterile instruments to perform all of the surgeries scheduled. The closing technician did not clean the instruments. The opening technician didn’t notice the dirty instruments or she didn’t know to check to make sure all the instruments were cleaned.
- Generate as many potential solutions as possible. This is a brainstorming exercise and helps your team member work through the problem solving exercise. If a team member gets stuck, you can show them how you would work through the problem and together you can generate solutions. One solution to the dirty instrument problem would be to have a nightly check off sheet that the closing technician has to perform and a morning checklist for the opening technician to perform. Perhaps you, as the leader, can communicate better with the team the importance of having enough sterile supplies to make it through the day. Make sure all the technicians know how to clean the instruments appropriately, how to pack the packs and how to run the autoclave machine.
- Group solutions into categories. Once a list of solutions exists, ask your technician or receptionist to put the solutions in categories. This is an organization tool. By organizing solutions, one may find an approach that stands out more than the others. The categories to fit the solutions above are communication, training and protocols.
- Prioritize into an action plan. This is when the team works together to decide which ideas or categories to act on. The solution categories can be ranked in any way that works for the team. For example, put the easiest solution to implement or the cheapest solution at the top of the priority list. Perhaps the first step to fixing this problem is to have a short training to enforce how to clean, pack and work the autoclave so you are sure all of the technicians know how to perform the task. It will take time that you may or may not have, and how often are all of your technicians at the clinic at the same time? A faster solution may be to create the morning and evening checklists. Just remember that if you create a checklist, someone should follow up every now and then to make sure technicians are not just checking things off.
- Implement a solution. Implement the solution that you and your team think will be most effective in solving the problem. See how the solution that the group chose works. Pick one solution that you think would work for the problem at hand and implement it. The checklist is the fastest and easiest to implement.
- Assign monitoring responsibilities. Once the solution is in place you need someone to keep track as to whether it is solving the problem. In assigning one of your team members to monitor the solution you are giving him or her some ownership in the solution. This will empower your team with self-accountability. If the solution doesn’t work, they will have to explain why or what went wrong. If you chose the checklist as the solution, make sure that you also choose someone to monitor that the checklists are being completed. This person would make sure the checklists are getting filled out and that the tasks are getting completed.
- If desired results are not met, implement another solution. If the first solution doesn’t work, take a step back, talk to the team and try a different solution from the list. Your head tech has been keeping track of the checklists and they notice that two of the newer technicians often aren’t cleaning the instruments. This gives you an idea that maybe it is time to retrain those specific technicians on how to make sure packs are ready for surgery. Finding a time where two people can be retrained is easier than finding time for five to seven people to be retrained.
By giving ownership to your team to help solve the problems, you can be seen as a more engaging leader, even if you have a hard time being assertive. If a passive leader can ask his or her team to help solve a problem they not only empower the team, but also take that first step to being a more effective leader. Remember, assertiveness is a spectrum and you can take small steps to help you get to the good-leader part of the spectrum.
Going the Extra Mile
No matter how good of a leader you are, or how well your team works together, you can always do a little bit better. And, it can be hard to find the right way to admit mistakes. There is a professional way and there are several steps:
- Admit the mistake. Don’t be afraid of being judged. Admitting the mistake is an opportunity to make something right. This is a great way to lead by example.
- Use “I” language. By using the “I” language you show that you are willing to accept not only the mistake but the consequences that come with making the mistake. If you’ve yelled at a technician for something you later discover wasn’t their fault, say “I made a mistake, I shouldn’t have yelled at you.” It shows integrity and that you are willing to make things right.
- Offer an apology and help with any cleanup that needs to be done. Saying “I’m sorry,” can make a world of difference. This is an opportunity to own the mistake and help make it right. Maybe you forgot to highlight that a treatment needed to be made and that’s why it wasn’t done. Apologize to your technician, “I’m sorry I didn’t highlight the treatment and then yelled at you because it wasn’t done.”
- Take damage-control actions (if necessary). It is necessary not only to fix the mistake but to make sure there is not further fallout from the mistake.
- Don’t shift blame to the employees. This is a prime time to be the example and show your team that everyone is in the boat together. Think of a time when you may have been blamed for something that you didn’t do. You probably got angry. But if you, as the leader, take the blame for your mistake you are setting a great precedence for yourself and team. If you are talking to a receptionist about something that went wrong, don’t say that the technician missed a treatment. A better way to approach it would be to say “we messed up and missed a treatment today.”
- Avoid excuses. By avoiding excuses, you fix the problem and shift to a new behavior. This new behavior will help focus on fixing mistakes in the future. If you make excuses for the mistake, the focus is more on the excuse rather than the fix. Owners leave their animals with us so that we can take care of the animals. Owners won’t care if we are busy as long as they feel their animal is getting the best care. So when something happens, say “I messed up and didn’t get the treatment done appropriately today.” Saying that you were busy is an excuse and not one that an owner wants to hear.
- Review the situation and what went wrong. Learn from your mistake! Look back and analyze what went wrong to avoid making the mistake a second time. You may be more diligent about marking treatments if you forget once.
- Return to business as usual. It is important to not hold past mistakes against yourself, or your team. It is far worse for people to be afraid to try something because of the repercussions of a mistake than for people to be willing to try and fail but try again. This is a great way to show your team that one can learn from failure and move on.
When you take ownership for your mistakes, you not only help to build trust between you and your staff, but you also show that you are a person of integrity. You could take it a little further and have meetings where everyone shares their mistakes for the week and what they learned from them. Being open and honest about mistakes will help create an atmosphere where people will look for the lessons rather than fear being judged. Your staff will more likely follow in your steps and then the clinic will run smoother than ever before!
Being an assertive leader is not just about making yourself more assertive but also helping to facilitate an atmosphere of teamwork and assertiveness in your practice. If by giving your technicians, receptionists and other support staff ownership in the clinic’s goals they are able to point things out that could help achieve those goals or keep you on track, you are doing a good job. Even small changes can make a world of difference.