What types of skills are needed to succeed in veterinary management?

3 skills that are vital

It’s a classic story. You have, or you are, a great technician. Or a great receptionist. One day, all this greatness leads to a promotion as head technician, lead receptionist, or office manager. More money, more glory, more responsibility. Yet without the proper skills, knowledge, and training, this very well could be a recipe for faux-pas, frustration, and failure.

Let’s review the three types of skills required to succeed in a management position.

Technical skills

In order to be a good manager, you must have an excellent set of technical skills. You need to know every facet of the job. You have to master the skills required of the people you manage. In fact, it is very often because you have an excellent set of technical skills that you were promoted to your management position to begin with.

They will come in handy to assess the quality of the work of your teammates and continue to support them.

But even if these skills are important, several problems might start to appear.

You may not enjoy your management position as much, precisely because your work as a manager does not involve as many technical skills as before. You may get a rush from successfully placing an IV catheter in a crazy dehydrated feral cat in shock. Or you may feel proud of taming an aggressive client. Yet you may not look forward to working on yearly reviews for your team.

You will quickly discover that you need to learn a whole new set of management skills you weren’t aware of and didn’t care much about before. For example, you may now be in charge of interviewing new potential recruits. Interviewing requires some serious skills to read between the lines. Applicants know what you want to hear. It takes experience to know which questions to ask to look into your prospect’s soul.

Most managers are so desperate to find a new technician or receptionist that they tend to hire anyone with a pulse (as the saying goes) rather than look for the right person with the right skills, attitude, and cultural sensibilities.

Further, there are legal traps you could fall into without proper knowledge. Some questions may be asked casually and seemingly in good faith, but they are completely illegal. Such questions include asking about age, marital status, kids/planning to have kids, and whether someone suffers from medical conditions or disabilities.

On the surface, these questions may seem important to fill a position. Who wants to hire somebody who will be on maternity leave in six months? Being a nurse can be very physical. You need to be able to get to work on time, no matter when the school bus shows up or whether little Johnny has a diaper crisis. Yet asking those questions may lead to a discrimination lawsuit, which is likely not something you want to be responsible for.

The only questions you are allowed to ask need to answer one central question: How well could this person fill the position we offer?

Regardless of your management position, you still need to keep up with the technical details of your former position. You need to be an example for your teammates. You will likely be the go-to person when something breaks down, you may need to train your colleagues and share your immense technical knowledge.

In other words, being a manager doesn’t mean that you will never use your former skills. You simply will use them differently and will acquire new ones to fulfill your new position.

Critical thinking skills

A great manager also should have good critical thinking skills. Usually, that is not a big obstacle. Nurses and receptionists who are promoted to a management position are typically both book smart and street smart.

But now things are going to change. Your teammates will look up to you for guidance. They will observe everything you do and say. And everything you do and say will participate in creating the culture of the practice.

If you’re negative, complain, cuss, gossip, and eat your lunch in the treatment room, don’t be surprised if your team does more of the same.

Conversely, arrive on time and be positive, respectful, nurturing, and enthusiastic, and watch your practice blossom into the happiest place on earth.

People skills

Last but not least, a great manager should have great people skills.

This is where I have seen most great nurses and amazing receptionists who were promoted to a management position fail, sometimes miserably.

They had great technical skills “on the floor” and were able to learn and apply the skills required to be a manager. They also had excellent critical thinking skills, simply because they were wicked smart.

But they lacked people skills. Being in a management position can affect your ego. You feel like everything that happens is ultimately your responsibility, so you decide to run a tight ship. This may involve disciplining coworkers you used to work with very closely, some of which became good friends. But now you are their manager.

A receptionist may be great with clients, and a technician may be great with patients. Yet once they become managers, they may not be so great dealing with the same underlings day after day, week after week, month after month. The honeymoon may soon be over.

What will you do if they are chronically late? How will you react if they are rude with clients on the phone? What will you say if they are incapable of calculating injectable drug dosages despite hours of training?

You need to become the head motivator, the chief trainer, a master confidant, a devoted coach, and an expert interviewer. You have to create the schedule. You need to coordinate yearly reviews. You may even have to decide on yearly raises.

Yet, you likely have not received any training in any of these skills. The best of the best learn them, more or less quickly. The rest fail. They become resentful. Some end up quitting after a few months of silent frustration. Some leave the profession altogether.

So what is the solution? The solution is training. There are countless online and print resources. There are many CE opportunities, inside and outside our profession. Connect with others in your position. They can be in the same town or across the country.

Last but not least, the owner of the practice or the practice manager should make sure that the person they are thinking of promoting has a chance to demonstrate or acquire all three critical skills. Again, important people skills may be lacking, so be sure that your protégé has the required emotional intelligence. This will ensure a happy transition into a very important position. l

Dr. Phil Zeltzman is a board-certified veterinary surgeon and serial entrepreneur. His traveling surgery practice takes him all over Eastern Pennsylvania and Western New Jersey. Visit his websites at DrPhilZeltzman.com and VeterinariansInParadise.com.

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