Team member dynamics: Six things I’ve learned in six years of practice ownership

Always keep in mind a practice owner is only as good as her least reliable team member

A practice owner is only as good as her least reliable team memberAbout five years back, I raved about practice ownership in this very column. It’s a lot easier than I thought it’d be, I gushed back then. Everyone should do it!

While I’m still bullish on practice ownership (even more so, perhaps), I no longer have cause to rave or gush. If there’s one thing a wider perspective has shown me, it’s that practice ownership is really more of a slog than anything else.

While it’s true that five years back I’d not yet experienced a hurricane or a pandemic, neither of these have fundamentally changed my take on practice ownership. What I’d really failed to understand back then was that humans are far more destructive than disasters and plagues. Sure, external forces like Irma and COVID are unwelcome challenges to survival and growth, but it’s people who are way more likely to take us down.

It was the first thing I had to relearn after buying a practice, erroneously believing that doing so had automatically conferred any kind of control. Not so! Below are more things I learned along the way:

1) Being the boss is no cure-all

I used to think that once I’d become master of my own personal workplace universe, including control over hiring and firing, all my human resources stresses would become instantly manageable. Wrong! In fact, if anything, the human resources bit is the trickiest part.

As a practice owner, I can hire and fire anyone I want––in theory. But the reality is that great hires rarely arrive fully prepared. Moreover, some that seem perfect may never cut it. While owners and managers can motivate, incentivize, reward, and punish, most people can only be driven so far in one direction or another. In other words, you can’t change someone’s behavior in the context of the team you’re working in. The group’s dynamics make that really difficult.

2) Humans are the ultimate business disruptors

While we can muzzle, sedate, wrangle, and otherwise restrain our patients, no such niceties are on offer for those of us who simply expect people to behave properly and play fair with one another. Humans being humans, there’s only so much we can do to control their fundamental inadequacies and innate quirks. After all, we are all flawed.

Lest you misunderstand, let it be clear I’m not talking about pet owners here. While always frustrating to lead and dangerous to corral on any given day, clients turned out to be the least of my worries. You can always hang up the phone, delete your Yelp app, or ask them to wait in their own cars. They will always go away at some point. Team members, on the other hand, you’re stuck with.

3) Veterinary practices are unique workplaces

Think about it: You need to cram a lot of people into a relatively small space if you want to make a practice work seamlessly and efficiently. In a veterinary practice, people will be working more intensively than in other workplaces. They’ll be rubbing elbows, bumping heads, and jockeying for position amidst the stress of shift rushes and the need to accomplish a wide range of overlapping tasks in a team-like fashion.

When it works well, it’s like a well-oiled machine emitting a pleasant, steady hum. When it doesn’t, even the slightest sound of friction becomes unbearable fairly quickly, which sets everyone off on a rail-to-rail, Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride of a day. Even the sanest among us can’t survive many of these in a row before cracking.

4) Stick to the no-tox veterinary team diet

Given a practice’s close quarters, we all know there’s little wiggle room for toxicity among team members. And because poison may arrive disarmingly dressed as the uber-charming, crack associate who plays technicians off one another, or the super-organized, much-adored receptionist who is nevertheless a “no” person, it can be tough to suss out true toxicity in the workplace.

Even when you know for sure the toxicity is there, it can be hard to say goodbye. Dramatic sorts and sloths are easy. It’s the hard workers and the likable types that take us too long to winnow out. But bid them farewell we must. Otherwise we’ll forever spin our wheels trying to make round pegs fit into square holes and lose plenty of otherwise excellent employees along the way.

5) Hiring is a permanent state of mind

Whenever anyone asks if you’re hiring, the answer should be, “Yes,” each and every time. I always figured hiring was a temporary thing for any practice, where we’d be looking for people sporadically. Now that I’ve come to understand how precious good team members are, I’m always willing to hire (and fire, of course).

6) Team members may be your family, but they are not your friends

It’s the biggest mistake we all seem to make—the earlier in our professional lives, we accept this truism, the happier we’ll be. Perhaps it took me longer than most to figure this one out, but after being burned multiple times by friendships that went off the rails for professional reasons, I finally got the message. Treat them like a team and show them your vision for working like a functional professional family—one you care deeply about—but know your boundaries. Forging close friendships leads either to unconscious biases, perceived favoritism, or personal betrayals that always culminate in calamitous team disruptions you might otherwise have avoided.

Bonus: Teams are only as good as their lowest common denominator

Yes, thinking about managing people consumes way more of my time than I ever expected it to. Team members are, without a doubt, the greatest source of my day-to-day stress, because without stability, positivity, and a willingness to improve, I might as well do something else for a living. Moreover, I’m ultimately responsible for everything my employees do, which, in turn, means a practice owner is only as good as her least reliable team member.

With that in mind, it stands to reason practice ownership would be a slog. More than that, it’s a leap of faith resting not only on how good a judge of skills and character you are, but also how well you motivate them. This includes communicating your vision, leading by example, and knowing when to flex your boss-girl muscles.

Patty Khuly, VMD, MBA, owns a small animal practice in Miami and is a passionate blogger at Columnists’ opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Veterinary Practice News.

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