The Eagle Has Landed: Developing Leadership Skills Within the Entire Veterinary Team; a female veterinarian looking at a white dog
By Louise Dunn

nce upon a time, a bustling veterinary practice was open 12 hours a day, six days a week, which meant that the owner was not always in the building. But when the owner’s vehicle pulled in, an announcement buzzed over the intercom system: “The eagle has landed.” Immediately, everyone snaps to attention. Some prepare to pounce on the owner as soon as the doorknob turns, others disappear into exam rooms, while a few continue doing the task at hand.

Down the hall, two technicians are dealing with a client. The client was uncomfortable with the recommendation made by the first technician, yet gave the OK when the second technician delivered the same recommendation. The second technician just laughed it off and told the first tech to recognize greatness when she sees it. They hear the announcement and proceed to the next exam room.

In the office, the manager and an associate veterinarian are at odds over how to implement virtual progress exams. One wants to jump into it, and the other wants to move slower. The two want to grab the owner to mediate the disagreement.

Of those involved these scenarios, who would benefit from leadership skills? The answer is, all of them!

The obvious choice would be the practice owner and office manager, but the others can benefit too. Think about the technician needing to take advantage of the opportunity to coach the other tech on how to work with difficult clients. Even the first technician can use leadership skills in the exam room to improve upon communicating medical information and assisting the client with making a decision. As for the associate veterinarian wanting to implement a project, leadership skills would also help with this situation.

Leadership is about influencing and directing a group toward a goal or mission. As leadership gurus James Kouzes and Barry Posner found through extensive research, leadership is about challenging the process, inspiring a shared vision, enabling others to act, modeling the way and encouraging the heart.1

blue silhouette of an eagle
Aside from the obvious need for leadership skills in practice owners and managers, others on the team find themselves in a position of influence every day and can use some leadership skill strengthening too.

When talking about leadership skills, here are some critical competencies:

  • Decision-making
  • Problem-solving
  • Communication
  • Relationship building
  • Accountability
  • Conflict management
  • Time management
  • Change management
  • Integrity
  • Critical thinking
  • Inspiring and influencing

Are these competencies only for the management team, or can a technician use them in the exam room? Could a person leading a project benefit from some of these skills? The answer is a resounding “Yes!”

The veterinary practice needs to have a plan to develop a team of confident and responsible leaders—leaders for the business, a particular project, training team members, client service and patient care. Leadership skills will build productive, efficient, engaged teams. And when team members learn how to lead, they can “grab the bull by the horns” and get things done, rather than walking away and saying, “Not my job.” As a result, there is trust and cooperation within the team rather than cliques and passive-aggressive behaviors.

So how can this be accomplished? By having a strategic plan!

The goal is not to create a bunch of mini-managers, each claiming their mini-army, but rather it is about building character and giving each team member the tools to lead when the situation calls for it. Look back over the list above and imagine what tools an exam room technician can use. Communication, relationship building, conflict management and inspiring another can be helpful.

Leadership is about challenging the process, inspiring a shared vision, enabling others to act, modeling the way and encouraging the heart.
Likewise, the associate trying to implement virtual progress exams can benefit from critical thinking, change management and communication. Even though neither of these team members has a management title, they can still utilize leadership skills.

Leadership training activities can occur via different methods, including the following:

1 Group activities such as debriefing a scenario and role-playing.
2 Mentoring and coaching using experienced subject-matter experts within the team to coach others.
3 On-the-job training to build leadership skills into the training modules the practice already uses.
4 Stretch assignments to assign a project that will expand knowledge and utilize leadership skills.
5 Feedback including leadership skills in performance reviews.
We all know the importance of culture and the effects of poor leadership. And while key individuals such as the practice owner(s) and managers must possess strong leadership skills, everyone else on the team could also use some skill-building.

Too often, managers are faced with an issue of team accountability. Unfortunately, the practice culture goes down the wrong road of finger-pointing, confusion or “not-my-job” syndrome. In some cases, this is because team members do not have the tools to handle a situation, be it a difficult client, spearheading a project or coordinating the day’s activities. Leadership skills can improve accountability.

What type of practice can be imagined if everyone on the team sees it, owns it, solves it and does it?2

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Recognizes the internal barriers to success.
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Admits one’s personal responsibility for the failure.
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Follows through on actions.
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Crafts solutions to implement to remove the barrier.
If the two technicians recognized a barrier in the exam room with the client, asked for/offered help, implemented changes and followed through with a better way of communicating with the client, then the next client (and the next, and the next) would receive better client service through building a better relationship and trusting the technician. The manager and the associate veterinarian could discuss the project and work out an implementation plan. Leadership skills are tools that can be applied to any situation encountered every day in veterinary practice.

Managers and practice owners must keep in mind that there will be the need to have someone step into a vacated leadership position or step up and take on a newly created position at some point in the business cycle. The position could be the practice manager, lead tech, training coordinator or inventory coordinator, to name a few. All of these roles require leadership skills. So, the question to ask yourself is, “Do I have someone ready to step in?”

blue silhouette of a flying eagle
For many practice managers, their plate is already full, so any non-urgent or unimportant tasks get pushed to the side. For example, if the manager only considers succession management, this is one of those things that gets pushed to the side until it becomes urgent. However, there are many other areas in the practice in need of someone with leadership skills. The lead surgery tech seems like an obvious position requiring leadership skills, but what about the inventory coordinator? A training coordinator—sure, but what about the person who is spearheading the virtual care team? Are there team members ready for these roles?

It is all too common to point at a great nurse/tech or CSR and tell them they are now in charge. The problem with this quick promotion is that there has been no preparation, no training and no idea if the person is ready to handle all those other issues that come with being in charge. In essence, you are setting the person up for failure. Practices wishing to be successful in today’s business environment must take steps to develop tomorrow’s leaders today.

Many of those in the veterinary profession are natural problem solvers (aka medical problem solvers). However, the training to be a medical problem solver does not include leadership skills. That’s why it is important to proactively build leadership skills into the training modules and continuously review the skills in team meetings. The result will be a cultural improvement. Trained in leadership skills, the eagle(s) can land at the start of every shift.

  1. Kouzes, J., Posner, B. (1999). Encouraging the Heart: A Leader’s Guide to Rewarding and Recognizing Others. Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, CA.
  2. Connors, R., Smith, T., & Hickman, C. (2004). The Oz Principle: Getting results through individual and organizational accountability. New York: Penguin Group.
Louise Dunn
Louise Dunn is a renowned award-winning speaker, writer and consultant. She brings over 40 years of in-the-trenches experience and her business education to veterinary management. Louise is founder and CEO of Snowgoose Veterinary Management Consulting. SVMC works with veterinarians who want to develop a strategic plan that consistently produces results. Most recently Louise received many awards including the WVC Educator of the Year numerous times and VetPartner’s The Life Time achievement Award in January 2016.