Every veterinarian can tell you a story about an intelligent, hard working and competent doctor whose practice failed to achieve growth. On the flip side, they can also tell you stories of highly successful veterinarians with merely average technical competency and intelligence.

Why? What accounts for such discrepancies between the success of a veterinary practice and the skill levels and IQ of the veterinarian? Why do some practices experience rapid growth while others struggle to compete? Leaving aside exterior factors – market, economy and so forth – we can begin to explore the internal characteristics that most reliably set up a veterinary practice for success.

One reason successful practices – and successful businesses in general – flourish is the strength and effectiveness of their leadership. The fact is, not every practice leader – even the most intelligent, technically competent and successful veterinarian – employs the most effective strategies for driving productivity. The practices in the opening anecdotes (a successful practice helmed by an average veterinarian and its unsuccessful counterpart) are both led by smart, technically proficient and cognitively capable people. The difference maker is likely the strength of the successful veterinarian’s emotional intelligence.

Recent studies have demonstrated that, in comparing similar practices, departments or teams across industries, one factor that reliably predicts growth and success is the emotional intelligence of its leadership.

 What is Emotional Intelligence?

The capacity to understand and judiciously express one’s emotions and effectively manage relationships is called emotional intelligence (EI). Building strong networks, motivating employees, managing impulsive behavior and decision-making, and recruiting and leading teams of talented people are all part of emotional intelligence.

In short: EI is everything in the mind that an I.Q. test doesn’t measure.

There are five competencies emotionally intelligent people exhibit consistently.

They are:

  • Self-awareness
  • Self-regulation
  • Motivation
  • Empathy
  • Social skills

We’ll explore them each in depth later on. For now it’s important to notice that EI encompasses two kinds of management skills: self management and relationship management.

EI: Central to Effective Leadership?

The most effective leaders, from middle school soccer coaches to Fortune 500 CEOs, generate productivity in others. In other words, an effective leader can recruit talented people, keep them happy and passionate about their work and drive their productivity to levels above even their own expectations.

So, what makes EI in particular so crucial to the success of a leader?

To answer that, let’s look at the three personal qualities of leaders.

They are:

  • Technical skills: stitching a wound, setting a broken bone, and drawing blood from a large unwilling Doberman
  • Cognitive abilities: diagnosing a patient presenting with a complicated maze of symptoms, developing a long term treatment plan, and analyzing the effectiveness of differing marketing strategies
  • Emotional intelligence: seeking out a veterinary technician who was late to work to learn and understand the reasons for the tardiness and establish a co-beneficial plan to avoid the circumstance in the future

The first two – technical and cognitive abilities – are known as the “threshold capabilities” of leaders; most everyone who has made it to the position of managing or owning a veterinary practice exhibits these at a high level.

And, among the industry’s star performers, differences in technical and cognitive skills are negligible. The difference, again, is in their emotional intelligence. Combining the threshold capabilities of leadership with highly developed emotional intelligence is in fact a bulletproof recipe for an effective leader.

5 Components of Emotional Intelligence

Let’s take a look at each component of EI, plus how we can practice it and recognize it in others.

  • Self-awareness

The first characteristic that all emotionally intelligent people have in common is their self-awareness. To “know thyself” is to understand one’s own emotions, moods and feelings, and recognize their effect on others.

Self-aware people are honest about their own capabilities, strengths and weaknesses. They are rarely overly hopeful or unrealistically pessimistic. They make career decisions with realistic goals in mind and they’re usually passionate about what they’re doing.

Because they’re both passionate about their work and aware of their limitations, self-aware people are constantly searching for constructive criticism. That veterinary technician who is constantly asking questions about the subtleties of a treatment may indeed be more than just curious. That receptionist who seems overly inquisitive about her own performance may be exhibiting a thirst for improvement tips.

Characteristics of self-assessors include:

  • Honesty and candor in self-assessment
  • Self-depreciating humor
  • Confidence
  • Self-regulation

An extension of self-awareness, self-regulation is the capability to free oneself from one’s emotions and feelings.

We all have bad moods and emotional impulses; self-regulators consistently find ways to control their emotions and avoid letting them dictate their actions. They don’t jump at every impulse, and make important decisions only after thoughtful consideration of the consequences.

As a leader of a veterinary practice, self-regulating your bad moods can translate to more consistently positive demeanors from your employees and greater trust throughout the practice.

Technicians, administrative staff and veterinarians alike will trust your judgment implicitly in the face of troubling times when you self-regulate. They’ll notice how you calmly and reasonably react to troubling or frustrating news and will absorb your even-keel attitude.

This kind of mutual trust between you and your staff can increase your employee retention; talented people will notice your integrity and won’t be tempted to leave.

Do you want to completely overhaul every line in the employee handbook? No problem. Your staff will have seen their self-regulating leader take on many challenges calmly and enthusiastically, and they’ll strive to demonstrate a similar aptitude.

Characteristics of self-regulators include:

  • Ability and willingness to adapt
  • Thoughtful and calm behavior in the face of difficulty
  • Trustworthiness; avoidance of impulsive behavior
  • Motivation

All leaders exhibit great motivation: the internal drive and energy for success. They’re highly motivated by their internal desire to exceed their own expectations and those of others. Emotionally intelligent leaders are driven to achieve for achievement’s sake, rather than for an impressive title or big salary.

Motivated leaders are always trying to improve; they have a restless energy for going forward, always striving to raise the bar. They take pride in overcoming challenges and, like self-regulators, are always curious about exploring different methods for their work.  They’re innovators, never satisfied with the status quo.

Motivated leaders are results-oriented, and look to track their performance whenever possible. And, when a particular initiative underperforms, the motivated leader stays optimistic, searching for solutions rather than giving up.

And, in a veterinary practice, where emotions can run high every single day, a leader who can radiate optimism and positivity will motivate his or her team to maintain productivity in the face of difficult circumstances.

Characteristics include of a motivated leader include:

  • Strong desire to outperform expectations
  • Optimism
  • Commitment to work
  • Empathy

Empathy may seem like a concept unfit for the competitive, every-person-for-himself/herself business world, but it’s more than just mushiness. Empathy, at a leadership level, means considering the feelings of others in making business decisions. An emotionally intelligent leader can sense and understand the viewpoint of everyone at the table.

Now, that’s not to say that, as the leader of a veterinary practice, you must consider the feelings of your staff in every decision, or that it’s your job to please everybody – that would be impossible and unproductive. Rather, being able to listen to and understand your co-workers and staff will strengthen your practice’s internal collaborations.

Empathy is an important component of service in any industry, especially in veterinary medicine where distraught clients are part of the daily routine. Actively listening to your clients, maintaining eye contact and presenting an attentive and understanding posture will act as subtle reassurances that let them know they’re in the right place – and they’ll come back.

Characteristics of an empathetic person include:

  • Attentive listener
  • Sensitivity to differing viewpoints
  • Consideration of input from all levels of employees and co-workers
  • Social skills

The final component of EI is social skill: friendliness with a purpose. It’s guiding people toward wherever you want them to go using the other four components of EI. Social skill is really the culmination of the other components; it is EI put to work.

If a leader is self-aware and regulating, motivated and emphatic, EI will manifest as social skills; this leader will have a wide network of friends and colleagues and an aptitude for finding common ground. This person will be popular, and his or her motivated positivity will spread to those in the company. He or she is an effective team leader for these reasons and coworkers will naturally follow his or her lead.

Characteristics of a person with social skills include:

  • Expertise in leading teams
  • Having a wide network of colleagues and acquaintances
  • Popular, upbeat persona

EI In Practice

Building a veterinary practice with high EI starts in the hiring process. Look for emotionally intelligent candidates who exhibit the characteristics listed above.

Ask interviewees about a time they let their emotions get the better of them (we all have, once or twice). Candidates with a high EI will describe one with a smile. Ask about their goals; motivated potential leaders will answer with specific targets and strategies to achieve them.

But, EI starts at the top. As the leader of a veterinary practice, the most effective way to develop EI in your practice is to demonstrate it yourself, though it won’t happen overnight. But, with commitment and dedicated practice, EI can be learned over time in your practice and in yourself.

Technical ability and cognitive skills are no doubt crucial to the success of a veterinary practice leader. But, just as important, maybe more so, is emotional intelligence. Building networks, managing impulses, generating positive relationships and driving productivity in staff all stem from the emotional intelligence of the leader. Your staff will admire your upbeat optimism, your level headed approach to conflict and your motivation to achieve. Your passion for your work and your empathy for your patients and their owners will ignite the same in them.

Your clients will receive better care, your staff will love working in your office and you’ll be able to focus on your job – running an efficient and successful veterinary practice – without getting bogged down by in-house distractions.

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