Mar 01, 2004

Today it takes a winning team to run a successful practice.

No one person can know it all or do it all alone. Today is the age of teamwork and getting it right has never been more important.

Karyn Gavzer, MBA, CVPM
True magicWhen it works, teamwork is magic! Work becomes more rewarding and fun. People enjoy and respect one another more. Staff morale, patient care and practice finances all benefit.

Yet, teamwork often breaks down or fails to develop in even the most well-intentioned practices. To get it right takes concrete skills, structure, patience and practice.

Experts say seven critical elements must be in place for successful teamwork to occur. Do you have them in your practice?

1. An inspiring, unifying mission

People in your practice may be of different ages, sexes, dispositions and abilities. No matter how different they are, however, chances are that they all long to be part of something that matters, to feel that what they do counts and that their work is important.

This is the common ground upon which teamwork is built. It is the glue that holds disparate people together and inspires them to work as a team to achieve common goals. Without an inspiring mission at work, people might still show up, but they will spend their best efforts elsewhere, where they feel they can make a difference.

An inspiring, unifying mission statement might look something like this:

Our mission is to foster better pet health care by celebrating the human animal bond, educating clients and providing cutting edge veterinary care in an attractive, inviting practice.

A mission statement is a living document. It needs to be reviewed, discussed, interpreted and applied to each new decision to maintain alignment and focus with practice values. This is how a mission statement is brought to life and how it becomes an inspirational and guiding force for teams to use as they pursue their goals.

The test of a mission statement is not how nice the words look on a sheet of paper, but rather, how well you use it to give meaning and direction to the work of the practice.

Your mission statement should be a "touchstone" for making decisions. It should be used to evaluate major undertakings and purchases. For instance, how well would purchasing a new, wireless computer system fit with the above mission? Alternatively, how would you weigh the computer purchase against the purchase of a digitized X-ray unit, or needed, extensive remodeling, if you could only afford one of the three?

Used properly, the mission statement can help you have thoughtful discussions with your team to rank order needs and establish priorities in a way that makes sense for the practice. Using it this way creates team support: How much more accepting would your team be if they were included in a decision-making process that was based on a mission statement that everyone believed in and lived by?

2. Concrete, specific goals

Once the mission statement is in place, goals give the team members a target for their work. Goals bring clarity! They let team members know exactly what success looks like and what they need to do to achieve it.

A mission statement might be forever, but goals are short-term and urgent. Goals let the team know where to focus its attention, right now, this year, to bring the mission statement to life.

Goals should always grow out of the mission statement. They need to be in writing and shared with the entire practice team.

To say, "We need to do better," is not a clear goal. Goals need to spell out what "better" looks like.

An example of a good goal statement for a practice with the above mission might look like this:

Goal: To consistently screen no less than 25 senior pets a week, every week, for common health problems associated with older pets.

It is easy to see the difference in clarity between this goal and "do better." This is a goal that people can understand and measure. The goal is also clearly aligned with the mission statement. It celebrates the human animal bond, fosters better pet health care and uses new preventive medicine. It will be the team's job to decide how to best educate clients about the new service. The owner's and practice manager's job will be to set a fee that makes economic sense, and supports the growth and continuation of the practice.

3. Individual and team accountability

No team can win if the players don't know their roles or if they are not held accountable for doing them.

Think of a winning volleyball team and how clear the goals and roles are. Everyone has a position to play. Each member of the team is responsible for playing his or her position well and trust his/her teammates to do the same. Players do not cross over into their team members' areas, unless they need help, and they support and encourage one another throughout the game. Winning hospital teams are equally well organized and clear about their team members' roles and responsibilities. Each team member knows exactly who does what and how his or her role contributes to the team's success.

In winning teams, members are held accountable for team goals and for individual performance. Performance reviews need to reflect the expectation of how well employees performed and how well they supported the team.

To reinforce the importance of teamwork, ask each team member to prepare a list of his or her personal accomplishments for the next performance review. Also, ask the team member to show how he/she has contributed to team goals over the last period. Each team member needs to be able to provide specific examples. A generic statement such as, "I always check to see if I can help somebody else," is not acceptable. "I helped Jannie clean cages and feed pets in between appointments when we were swamped with boarders over the holiday," is a concrete example that shows true teamwork.

Holding whole team responsibleIf teamwork is important, team self-assessments are important. Periodically as the team meets on a project, hold members accountable for asking themselves how well they think they are working together as a team, and how they might improve the process. Without this kind of self-evaluation, even though the team may be accomplishing its goals, relationships may become damaged or inefficient processes may crop up that impair future success.

A team process check forces team members to consider not only how well they are doing at meeting goals, but how well they are doing working together as a team. It also encourages continuous improvement by holding them accountable for finding better ways to do things.

Performance feedback for leaders Finally, team leaders, practice managers and owners need performance feedback, too. How else can they improve?

Job number one for a leader is to lead his/her team. The leader's job is to set a clear course and take good care of the team. A helpful assessment tool for leaders is the 360°-Feedback. It is a form that employees complete on their managers. It is anonymous. Its purpose is to encourage honest feedback to help leaders improve.

When asked to critique their leaders and managers, it is not unusual for employees to rate them highly and only say good things. It could be because they are enthusiastic, loyal team members, or they may feel it is the only safe thing to do. Conversely, disgruntled employees may "dump" on their leadership team. In either case, the feedback is not helpful. To encourage useful feedback, ask team members to provide specific examples and recommendations for actions that leaders can take to improve, rather than vague statements. This will help to encourage constructive feedback that a leader can act on and use. Useful feedback might look like the following example:

"It would be helpful if you would let us know in advance when you send out a client mailing. For instance, when the senior pet care mailing went out, we would have been better able to respond to callers if we had known what it said and when it went out."

Even though it is sometimes painful to hear that you have let your team down, collecting performance feedback like this is a good way to give leaders ideas for how they can improve and grow. How else will they know how they are doing and what their team needs from them?

Leaders need to be role models for the practice and "walk the talk." If they do not solicit feedback on their own performance, they risk alienating their teams. Team members may feel devalued (nobody cares what we think). Holding team members accountable for that which you don't do yourself, encourages cynicism. Over time, a negative "them" versus "us" mindset usually develops that erodes trust and makes true teamwork almost impossible.