Developing and retaining the ‘A’ team! Reducing high staff turnover starts with you…The GREAT LEADER!

by By Heather Prendergast

13 min read

Staff retention is a hot topic for practice managers and owners. “We have such high staff turnover” I frequently hear. I have even heard “employee turnover is very common in the veterinary industry…” When these types of comments are made, the first place I turn to make corrections is leadership. It all starts with you—the great leader—and the culture that you develop, nurture and grow. You see, people quit their ‘boss’, not their ‘career’.

So, what are you doing to grow your culture and nurture your team?

How developing a positive culture helps reduce staff turnover

Culture is defined as a set of goals, shared values, and practices that characterize an organization.[i] It is created by leadership and represented by actions, decision making, and role modeling. If you say one thing and hold the staff accountable to something else, your culture is disjointed; you are a contributor to employee turnover. If you are a leader and late for your shift, then you are giving your employees permission to be late for their shift. It doesn’t matter that you are the ‘boss’.

[bctt tweet=”Actions speak louder than words: do as you say and say as you do.”]

Engaging your employees starts on day one

Employee engagement is defined as the extent to which employees feel passionate about their jobs, are committed to the practice, and put discretionary effort into their work.[ii] The more team members are engaged in your business, the more loyal they become and internally hold themselves accountable for their actions. But employees can’t become engaged when they have disjointed leadership. Team members follow their leaders (good or bad) and practice the same behaviors as their leader. If your team has some bad habits, take a good look in the mirror.

Employees can’t be engaged without having a clear job description that outlines expectations and accountabilities. Ensure these documents are created and updated on a yearly basis as expectations may change with yearly practice goals. In addition to clearly outlining expectations, ensure a solid training program is in place. Don’t train for 2 days and throw the team member out to the wolves on day 3. Employee loyalty is built in the first 60 days of employment. Creating an excellent onboarding experience is the 2nd step (closely following culture development) to increasing staff retention.

What does empowering your team really mean?

Empowerment is an overused term, but severely underutilized in the veterinary practice. Let’s first define the difference between delegation and empowerment. Delegation is the assignment of tasks, whereas empowerment is giving permission to act when tasks have been delegated. Don’t empower a team member then micromanage the task; rather empower the right people for the right task(s), provide the appropriate tools and resources, and give the permission to be successful by acting on their own decisions.

Follow the SMART guidelines:

be Specific,
ensure the task is Measurable,
Relevant and

TIP: Be sure to define and discuss the goals of the task that the team member is being empowered to perform.

Coaching needs to be a daily activity; part of your DNA

Coaching employees to greatness is more than just completing a performance evaluation once a year. Recognize employees for the great things they do and correct bad behaviors immediately when they occur. It makes no sense to discipline for a behavior that occurred weeks or months ago via a performance review. Instead, use performance reviews to create goals together for the upcoming year. Creating goals together opens lines for communication, sets expectations, drives employee engagement, and sets the stage for successful empowerment to take place.

TIP: Coach daily, weekly, and monthly through recognition, role modeling, and when asking for changes.

Your role in motivating the team

Motivation is defined as the desire to act and move toward a goal. It has both intrinsic (motivation that comes from within) and extrinsic (motivation driven by the environment or people) forces.[iii] Your role as a leader is to influence the extrinsic forces as much as possible and provide good leadership in the first place.

Start by creating (if you don’t already have them) a Mission and Vision statement and establish Core Values that every team member must abide by. Establish practice goals and ask each team member how they (individually and departmentally) contribute to those goals. When team members understand their role in achieving goals, they are much more likely to contribute without management oversight.

Delegating and empowering also contribute to employee motivation (when done properly), whereas micromanaging detracts. When you really empower your team, they will deliver. Appropriately leveraging the skills that each team member brings to the practice drives employee engagement, motivation and accountability.

Does your team have a ‘job’ or a ‘career’?

The ideal answer is career—but when turnover is high and the culture is negative, most team members feel they have a ‘job’. Having a ‘job’ does not drive loyalty, passion, or commitment. When employees feel they have a ‘career, all of these are driven, along with the initiative to drive professionalism.

But people don’t just establish careers in a veterinary practice (except the Associate DVM); the direction to create a career is driven by leadership. Create positions in your practice that provide long-term employability. Create a career ladder to climb, embody continuous CE, recognize achievements, and pay your people well. Good people cost money. Invest in them and allow them to have a career in your practice.

[bctt tweet=”The key to client satisfaction is a happy team with low turnover. Happy people produce. Happy clients pay for good service. Good service is produced by happy employees. This my friends, is the key to lowering your staff turnover.(iv)”]

The high cost of staff turnover

Take a moment to consider the lost opportunities every time a team member quits (or is terminated):

  • The practice becomes short staffed immediately;
  • The practice is even more short-staffed once you hire and train appropriately (down by 2 team members who would normally be serving clientele);
  • Mistakes are made by staff as they try to multi-task;
  • Mistakes are made by new team members as they learn;
  • As a result of all the above, revenue is lost due to lack of recommendation(s) being made by the overtaxed staff or new team member.

[bctt tweet=”The Society for Professional Human Resources estimates that the dollars lost (per person) due to turnover is equivalent to 1.5x the person’s yearly salary.”] Let’s look at a scenario in which you lose a technician who receives $15.00 an hour and is full time.

$15.00 x 40 hrs./week = $600 x 52 weeks per year = $31,200 (before taxes).

$31,200 x 1.5 = $46,800 – lost. That is only one person per year. If the average turnover in a practice is 10 team members per year, that is over $450,000 lost revenue due to turnover. It’s time to rethink why employee turnover is occurring in your practice and do something about it. Staff turnover in your practice should not be any greater than 1% per year.

Take a hard look in the mirror. What will you change today?

Heather Prendergast, RVT, CVPM, SPHR is the Director of Education at Encore Veterinary Group. She lectures internationally and has authored a book authored and several articles on leadership and management structure in the veterinary practice. She can be reached at [email protected].

[i]; Accessed January 2019.
[ii]; Accessed January 2019.
[iii]; Accessed January 2019.
[iv] Hock, J; PVU Executive Course; Nashville TN; November 2018.
Heather Prendergast

Heather Prendergast

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