Veterinary practice management — the importance of leadership during a crisis

Learn how your veterinary management team can practice effective leadership during times of global crisis.

Leadership has a direct correlation with the efficiency, productivity and success of your veterinary business. When utilized effectively, leadership helps a practice thrive; on the other hand, a lack of leadership can cause its demise. Earlier this year, I read a book called Great By Choice by Jim Collins, and was struck by this quote: “Throw leaders into an extreme environment and it will separate the stark difference between greatness and mediocrity.” (Jim Collins and Morten T. Hansen. Great by Choice. Random House Business Book, 2011.) It is easy to focus on improving your leadership skills as they relate to your normal day-to-day business activities. But do you have the leadership skills your team will need when you are presented with a crisis or “extreme environment”?

We are all still recovering from the shock and impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. No doubt, it has been an unprecedented crisis for you, requiring good leadership. However, the truth is, you’ve experienced crises before. Think about past experiences in which your team was presented with significant difficulties or hardships. Personally, I’m recalling hurricanes, internet outages, power outages and IT issues. Unfortunately, these situations create a negative shift at their onset. Client service, patient care, and team attitude can all decline, adding fuel to the fire of compassion fatigue. It is your job as a leader to put a halt to that negative shift in your practice, and do what you can to lead your team through it.

What follows is a recipe I’ve put together for great leadership during a crisis.

1. Admit to what you can’t control and commit to what you can

During any kind of crisis, there will be things you cannot control. As frustrating as this is, you must take a moment to admit it. Spending your time and energy on things you have no control over is a waste, and does not help your team. Rather, make a list of things you can do to alleviate stress despite the barrier that’s in your way, and throw all of your energy into those!

The fall of 2016 presented our own practice with the threat of Hurricane Matthew. It was the first time in our years of business that we found ourselves navigating our community’s reaction to an approaching hurricane. I could not change the fact that all our clients simultaneously realized they had a short window of time to get what they needed from us. For 48 hours, our phones rang nonstop. Appointments were being cancelled and prescription and food requests were coming in faster than we could fill them. We quickly realized we needed to redistribute our staff to accommodate this unprecedented demand.  We moved tech staff to help our client care coordinators handle incoming phone calls; we pulled one doctor away from appointments to weed through and approve all the prescription requests; we increased the number of technicians filling the prescription labels that were printing; and we changed our voicemail and auto email responses so our clients were aware we were working as hard and as fast as we could.

If we hadn’t promptly identified and changed what we were capable of changing to alleviate the stress of the situation, our staff morale would have been diminished, our clients could have turned to another vet practice, and our patients could have been without important medications. I’m grateful that our team quickly jumped to resolution mode, and by the time the storm came, every client and patient had their needs met.

2. Over-communicate

Now is not the time to be worried about annoying anyone. Your staff members are probably scared, even if they seem fine. Hearing from the leaders in your practice will empower them to stay the course. Communicate with them via email or in-person two to three times a week. For shorter crises that last only a few days to a week, communicate daily. Feelings of uncertainty create anxiety and fear. Do not leave staff wondering what is happening or what to expect. Your team will be much better prepared to withstand the crisis if they are informed, feel supported, and know what to do.

Staff communications should identify what you know about the situation, what you are doing to help, what they should be doing, and your projected thoughts about the foreseeable future. I also recommend devoting one communication each week (or at the end of a short crisis) on self-care. Remind and encourage your team to care for themselves. Showering them with tools and resources is a great way to do this.

Don’t forget about communicating with your clients! With COVID-19 specifically, we have found our weekly client updates to be very beneficial. We include any new information we have to share, what is still the same regarding process and client/pet safety, and what our team is doing to help. The response from our clients has been overwhelmingly positive. We’ve taken out the guesswork for them. If their pets need us while they’re sheltering in place, they know what to do and don’t panic. Regardless of what you will face as a practice, your patients are still going to need you. Make sure your clients are informed and prepared!

3. Be present, be positive, and be real

Your office desk is not the place to be right now. Get out there and be with your team. Endure the struggle with them. Let them see that you are in it, too. If you can do it, they can do it. Ask them questions. What do they think would help? Do they have any great ideas they are holding back? Utilize them as your greatest resource for what is working and what is not. Make yourself available to their concerns. Perform routine one-on-one check-ins to ensure they are doing well. They need that. They need you.

Stressful times create dark clouds. Be the light in the darkness. Work against it with calmness and positivity. If you are calm, your staff will be calm. If you are positive, they will be positive. What fun can you create to fight off negativity? During COVID-19, we’ve been taking an hour-long break on one day, closing the practice, and having lunch delivered for everyone. We sit outside in the beautiful weather and “social distance” in the daycare yard. Then, our two owners reminisce about their younger gymnastics days and have hand-walking and back-handspring competitions before we return to finish the rest of our day. It’s refreshing and just what our staff needs during the stress of a global pandemic. We haven’t weighed them down with staff meetings on process or new training. We’ve chosen something light and beneficial to rejuvenate them and keep them going during this time.

Be real. You may be worried or scared too. It’s okay to show your staff that you are human. Covering up your feelings with excessive optimism isn’t going to help anyone. It may actually make your staff feel they’re doing something wrong if you seem to feel good about things when they don’t. However, they will feel inspired if you are real with your stance on the situation, while maintaining a positive attitude that you are all in this together and will endure. Jim Collins refers to this as the Stockdale Paradox, in which successful outcomes are more likely when optimism and positivity are balanced with acknowledgement of the reality of a situation.

Ultimately, leadership skills are not about how you lead when things are easy and all seems to be going right. It is about how you lead when circumstances are challenging and you are thrown that curve ball you never expected. Life is uncertain, this we know. You can’t predict the next obstacle you will face. But what you can do is prepare yourself and strengthen your leadership ability for the next crisis, whatever it may be.


Marian Rowland has been working in the veterinary industry for 11 years, eight of which have been in practice management. She earned a bachelor’s degree in business management from Clemson University, obtained the designation of Certified Veterinary Practice Manager in 2015, and received the South Carolina Association of Veterinarians Veterinary Hospital Employee of the Year Award in 2016. Her special interests are leadership, practice culture, human resources, staff training, and hospital policies.


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