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4. A supportive team environment

One of the most rewarding aspects of successful teamwork is that good teams have the opportunity to earn their leaders' trust. Teams that do should be rewarded with increased freedom and the power to make and implement their own decisions. Practice owners and managers, in turn, discover that they finally let go and can confidently delegate important tasks, knowing that their experienced team members will carry the ball on their own. It takes time to get to this level of teamwork.

A supportive environment means that teams are given new challenges to tackle, and that they are allowed enough room to grow and earn increasingly higher levels of trust and responsibility. These three things are necessary to build a supportive team environment:

*Timely, accurate information has to be shared with the team members on key performance indicators. To meet the senior pet goal mentioned earlier, the team needs to know how many senior pets have been tested each week. If the team is hitting or exceeding its goal of 25 pets per week, team members will be reinforced that their plan is working and encouraged to continue-they're winning! If they are not making goal, they will know early on and can fix it. In the absence of timely information, however, the team can only stall. Team members will lose their enthusiasm and motivation to keep on trying.

Providing performance information is like sharing the game score. It is vital information that lets the team know how they are doing and encourages them to take action to win.

*A supportive environment means team members are allowed to make mistakes. When team members come up with new plays (plans), they should be allowed to try them. This is a frightening proposition to most leaders, but it is the best way to encourage reasonable risk-taking and build the team's (and your) confidence that they have the ability to get things done. Sometimes things will not turn out as well as planned, or there may be unexpected, unintended outcomes, such as a cost overrun. A supportive environment encourages calculated risk-taking (so long as no patients are endangered). Team members and management alike understand that the occasional mistake simply means that people are trying new things and that they are on a learning curve. The important thing is not to cast blame, but rather, to help the team learn from a mistake, correct the course, and do better the next time. In a supportive environment, the only real mistake people can make is to keep on making the same mistake over and over again.

A supportive environment usually reflects a culture that values teamwork over individual performance. It doesn't matter that one team member is a veterinarian, another a manager, an assistant, technician, receptionist or kennel attendant. The team knows that everyone's role is important. They respect and value each position and their interdependence because they know that this is what powers success uncommon in more fragmented practices.

5. Trained team members

There is an old joke about how to tell the difference between whether something is a training issue or a motivational issue. The test is: If you hold a gun to someone's head and ask him to do something and he cannot, then you can be sure it is a training issue!

The truth is that training and motivation go hand-in-hand. Most people want to do well and be successful, but without proper training it is hard to be successful. Over time, frustration destroys motivation and performance declines. At that point the practice usually loses what could have been a valuable team member, had they invested time and effort in training.

The typical veterinary practice provides little formal training. The standard method seems to be "hang around and you'll get it." Can you imagine how well a sports team would do with a similar philosophy? Employees need training and they need coaching, just as a winning sports team would. Winning practice teams know this and they set up formal training programs and provide coaching from senior team members to help everyone move ahead.

Training, at minimum, should include a tour of the hospital and spending time with key people in each department to learn what they do and how they interact and support other areas of the hospital. This gives the new employee a chance to see the big picture and get to know his/her team members. The employee also needs training to learn new job skill sets.

Finally, coaching sessions with an immediate supervisor needs to be scheduled at least weekly, even if someone else is training the employee. At this time formal performance feedback is provided and the individual is given areas to improve and recommendations for new things to tackle to build his or her skills and better fit into the team.

6. Reward and goal alignment

Rewards, even in the best-intentioned practices, can easily be misused. It is almost impossible, for instance, to attain team success when incentives are set up to reward the opposite. Many production-based salary systems are set up this way. In other instances, contests are set up that only one person can win.

In successful team practices, there are rewards for both individual and team goal attainment. Each individual's pay raises and bonuses are contingent on how well the team member supported his/her teammates as well as his or her individual contributions to the practice.

In addition to financial incentives, positive reinforcement and public celebration of team accomplishments reward and build a solid teamwork culture.

7. Good team communication

It is impossible to have good teamwork without good communication.

A prime team-building opportunity in most practices is the staff meeting. Without everyone's participation, however, a staff meeting quickly degenerates into an expensive waste of time. Staff meetings need to have an agenda and everyone, especially the owners and veterinarians, must participate.

It is not uncommon that veterinarians find themselves impatient with team meetings. They often feel that meetings interfere with the "real work" of taking care of patients. What they don't realize is that they are perceived as team leaders and that taking time to build their teams is the best way to take care of their patients. If they, or other team members, are allowed to skip meetings or work on other things during the meetings, meetings will not be productive and teamwork cannot occur. If people fail to show up, or fail to fully engage in a staff meeting, the leadership message is that meetings are a waste of time and very soon they will be.

Badly run staff meetings are a waste of time. Each meeting needs to have a clear agenda and the leadership team needs to set a good example by listening and contributing to the meeting.

Everyone who attends a staff meeting deserves to have their time respected. There should be a reason for the meeting and firm start and stop times. If decisions are made, they need to be assigned to someone on the team for implementation, and the decisions need to be formally recorded in the minutes of the meeting.

Staff meetings are for team communication: updates, changes, news, brainstorming, problem-solving and training. Meetings provide the opportunity to obtain the receptionists', technicians' and veterinarians' perspectives and ideas so that everyone on the team can benefit from one another's thinking. Discussing and resolving differences is part of the work of meetings. It is how team values are created and reinforced. It is the way to align the team and focus its attention on the things that matter.

It is no secret that teamwork is hard work! It is a different way of working for most practices. Teamwork takes a different mindset and different skills to do well. Hopefully, these "seven secrets" will help you improve teamwork and enjoy greater success!


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