How healthy is your practice culture?

When you have team members who believe in what they do, feel appreciated and heard, and share your goals, then you have a healthy culture

When your team members believe in what they do, feel appreciated and share your goals, then you have a healthy culture. Photo ©
When your team members believe in what they do, feel appreciated and share your goals, then you have a healthy culture.

You’ve heard it before: Whether you create it, inherit it, or don’t care about it, your practice has a culture. How is it? Exceptional? Borderline? Repelling? Toxic? But first, what is culture?

As Jason Barger, founder of Step Back Leadership Consulting puts it: “Culture is the way you think, act, and interact.”

A positive culture stems from strong leadership. If you haven’t instilled an intentional culture in your practice, there’s still time to work on it and transform it. Where should you start?

What follows is a simple guide to three foundational documents you need to live by.

1) Vision statement

Most practice owners start with their vision. Take a good, long look at your practice. Your vision is where you’re going. It’s the roadmap of your practice.

Where do you aspire to be in five or 10 years? How do you envision your practice in 20 years? Having a grand vision can become an inspiring and welcoming motivator to others who feel similarly, and want to dedicate their time and energy to the same goal.

Questions to ask include:

  • What is the purpose of your practice?
  • What problems does your practice seek to solve?
  • What results can your practice achieve?
  • What are the greatest strengths of your practice?
  • What are your wildest dreams for your practice?
  • How would things be different if your dreams came true?

Your vision needs to be shared with your team in a detailed and descriptive way so they can fully embrace it and live it. You will then need to decide whether your vision should be shared with your clients or not. One reason in favor of sharing it is the effect it can have on pet owners. They are more likely to stay loyal to a practice whose beliefs and ideals they share. (Hint: if your vision is to run a $10-million practice, please don’t share it with your clients.)

2) Mission statement

With a strong vision in place, you now need to turn it into your mission statement. It explains how you fulfill your goals through behaviors and daily actions.

Let it stand as an inspiration to those around you. Most practice mission statements are bland, generic (I didn’t say boring), and full of buzzwords, almost to the point of being strikingly identical. A classic and not very good example is: “Our caring and compassionate staff provides quality medicine in a family atmosphere.”

Your mission statement should exude passion. It should evoke the same strong feelings in others. A true mission statement can also help weed out people who do not belong.

Ask yourself:

  • Why are you in practice?
  • What do you stand for?
  • Why do you do what you do?
  • What level of service do you provide?
  • What roles do you and your team fulfill?
  • What is your practice philosophy?
  • How are you different from your friendly competitors?
  • What do you want for your team, patients, and clients?
  • How do we treat one another, our clients, and our patients?
  • What do we want to be known for?

This last question may very well be the most important one to answer.

Chris Bart, professor of strategy and governance at McMaster University, suggests three parts to your mission statement:

  1. Key market: your target audience.
  2. Contribution: the service you provide.
  3. Distinction: what makes your service unique, and why your clients should choose it over others.

A mission statement does not need to be a page-long diatribe filled with meaningless words. It should be short, sweet, and to the point. It needs to be a heartfelt statement of your deepest beliefs, intentions, and aspirations.

Make it practical and actionable: something you can do and prove. Show your team and clients you mean every word. Put it out there for the world to see and read.

Have your team recite it before meetings to make sure they feel the same. The most important thing is to live up to it. It shouldn’t be some vague statement. It should be a promise to be your best, do your best, and expect the best from those surrounding you.

Who says a mission statement can’t change? Your vision and goals change, which means your mission statement should be amended, as well.

Involve your team in developing and adapting the statement to ensure they agree with the direction the practice is heading.

3) Core values

Next up are your core values. They will help you create a practice with a healthy culture. Culture can be defined as a set of shared values, attitudes, goals, and practices that characterize an organization.

They are the fundamental beliefs of an organization. These guiding principles dictate behaviors. They help team members understand the difference between right and wrong.

If practice culture is not taken seriously or invested in, it can lead to negative behaviors, high turnover, and burnout. When employees are part of a positive culture, they feel free to speak their mind, admit mistakes, learn, grow, and have a willingness to work with each other to make the practice better in everything they do.

It is important for the team to believe in shared core values. If everyone is working toward a common goal, they will be more likely to help each other. Ask your team what principles drive the way they interact with team members, clients, and patients.

Ideally, your team should be an active part in choosing your core values. They will be more likely to take ownership. They will use these core values in every interaction with clients and coworkers. As the saying goes, “clear values make for clear decisions.”

Questions to ask in a team meeting include:

  • What attracts you to a practice?
  • What makes our clinic culture unique?
  • What do we do better than anybody else?
  • What should we do better than anybody else?
  • How do we, or should we, behave on a daily basis?
  • How will clients and patients benefit from our core values?

Core values should serve as a filter to hire and fire team members. Use your core values to determine what behaviors are considered acceptable and unacceptable. When interviewing people, you can target your questions to determine if their mindset would benefit or damage your culture. If someone no longer shares the values and beliefs of the team, then maybe it is time they move on.

These three foundational documents should not be pretty ornaments on the wall. They should be known by heart. They should be lived daily. They should be at the core of everything you do.

The ultimate challenge is to make all three documents short and impactful. Study statements of companies (and practices) you admire.

When you have team members who believe in what they do, feel appreciated and heard, and share your goals, then you have a healthy culture.

Your practice culture is created by design or by default. You get to choose.


Here are a few examples to get you started.

Please don’t copy and paste, rather improve upon them.

  • “Your other family doctor”
  • “Making pet ownership easy again”
  • “High tech with a gentle touch”
  • “We stand by your SIDE: Sensitivity, Integrity, Dedication, Excellence”
  • “Our 4 Is: Impact, Innovation, Inspiration, Involvement”
  • “Our ABCs: Accountability, Balance, Compassion”
  • “Our 3 Ps: Passion, Professionalism, Principles”
  • “Our 3 Es: Ethics, Efficiency, Empathy”
  • “Our 3 Ts: Teamwork, Trust, TLC”

Phil Zeltzman, DVM, DACVS, CVJ, Fear Free Certified, is a board-certified veterinary surgeon and serial entrepreneur whose traveling surgery practice takes him all over Eastern Pennsylvania and Western New Jersey. He also is cofounder of Veterinary Financial Summit, an online community and conference dedicated to personal and practice finance
( Kat Christman, a certified veterinary technician in Effort, Pa., contributed to this article.

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