3 ways to support new veterinary practice managers

by By Kate Zirkle

16 min read

Being a new veterinary practice manager can be an extremely overwhelming experience even with the best training and preparation. So imagine if someone moved into this position without the required support and resources. Sound scary? It should, especially because this happens all the time. 

Whether it is a matter of a newer practice hiring their first practice manager or a technician suddenly being promoted when the previous manager leaves. Practice owners have a lot to think about when hiring a new practice manager or even trying to decide if they’re ready to have one. 

New veterinary practice manager expectations

While it is fair to consider that each practice has a different definition and description of what a practice manager does, we can all agree that there will be many components they will be responsible for, no matter how restricted the position is. 

The majority of the time, there is little to nothing documented in the way of SOPs (Standard Operating Procedures) or protocols for the new manager to follow. Those duties have either been done by the practice owner or the previous manager “just knew” how and what to do. 

“I once asked a practice manager where I could find the current written documents on how to do her job and she tapped her head with her finger and said, ‘It’s all in here.’ “

Now that’s a single point of failure

We know that a practice can suffer and even fail in the hands of an untrained and unskilled manager, so how do we set new veterinary practice managers up for success from the start?

3 ways to support new practice managers

1: Training and resources

a woman showing a colleague something on a computer screenTraining and resources come in many forms. 

Books, webinars, conferences, and memberships are all valuable resources and access to all of them can help add to the success of a new manager. Books provide a reference point and basic explanation but more advanced concepts are easier to learn with the support of an experienced teacher. Hands-on training at conferences and institutes is a great way to submerse a new manager into practice management. 

There are now several programs that can be done either through actual physical attendance or interactive online classes and webinars. The key difference between book learning and attending a class or institute is the ability to ask questions and have a dialogue with an instructor who can confirm your understanding of concepts. 

When we start talking about moderate and advanced concepts, it is important to make sure that they are being interpreted and applied correctly, particularly in the role of a practice manager. A misunderstanding of financial or human resources concepts can very easily land a practice in hot water and that’s a risk not worth taking. 

Resources also come in the form of memberships to organizations like the Veterinary Hospital Managers Association and the Society for Human Resource Management. Both of these memberships provide education via many sources such as articles, webinars, and up-to-date industry/legal data. 

One of the most rewarding parts of membership is the incredible support from others in the membership body, particularly in the VHMA. There is a comfort in knowing that whatever scenario you face, there are other managers who have likely already experienced it and are happy to help you through it. 

2: Sufficient support 

a woman veterinarian standing with her colleagues behind herWhile we are talking about support, let’s talk about it from within the practice itself. 

There can be many issues that flare up with new management, particularly when someone is promoted from within. It’s natural to have some disarray when the pecking order has changed. 

New managers will need full support from owners, including allowing the staff to settle under new management, even in the face of a mistake or a bad call. Now obviously if the same mistakes persist despite retraining then we may need to consider more serious things like, is this person qualified for this position? 

However, every brand new manager will absolutely make a mistake. There’s a lot to learn and it will take time before they find and develop a good sense of judgment. When they make that honest mistake or bad call, it’s important for owners to help them grow from it and not shame them for it. 

Trust me, they are most likely already mortified. They’re probably worried that the owners and support staff are questioning their ability to do the job and they might even question their own ability. Handling mistakes is every bit as important as training protocols. We know they’re going to happen, so it’s important to make sure the practice environment is accepting of mistakes made in good faith. This doesn’t mean accountability and correction are foregone, just that shame isn’t a part of it. 

Every new staff member, from kennel help to veterinarians, makes mistakes, but there are definitely higher consequences depending on who makes an error. For example, a receptionist scheduling an appointment incorrectly is obviously less devastating than a medication error made by a veterinarian that results in a patient’s death. A mistake from a practice manager could be anything from accidentally understaffing a shift to violating an HR law and getting sued. And there’s a big difference between an honest mistake and a purposeful violation of known protocol.  

That being said, the more resources, training and support a new manager has, the less likely they are to make major mistakes. New managers need support through the good and the bad.

3: Clear communication

two people shaking handsLastly, the element that I’ve seen cause the most trouble and miscommunication when it comes to new practice management is the expectations of a practice owner vs the expectations of a manager. 

This is why detailed job descriptions are needed. Does your practice actually utilize them? Like many other hospitals, mine didn’t have a practice manager job description until I wrote it several years in. 

Where does the responsibility for the business lie between the owner and the manager? Many times, one thought the other was handling something until it fell through or a mistake was made. It is also common for owners to believe their managers are failing or not meeting their expectations when the managers thought they were doing just fine. 

Some practice owners have no idea what their practice manager even does all day. The responsibilities and expectations must be crystal clear from both perspectives. I often say that miscommunication or lack of communication causes most of the problems we deal with on a daily basis. Wouldn’t it be wise to make sure the communication of duties and expectations of the person running a business be as clear as it can be? 

It’s also important to note that not all people are successful at communicating in the same way as others. Maybe you meet over coffee while talking and taking notes. Maybe you email each other back and forth because one of you is better at writing your expectations. Whatever it is, do it and do it consistently. 

Routine check-ins are just as critical as clear expectations of job duties and responsibilities. As the great Brené Brown says in her book Dare to Lead, “Paint done.” This means to paint what the finished goal looks like to you so we can make sure we are on the same page. She implies that discussing clear expectations of even the simplest tasks allows the performer to focus their time and perform better and the person asking the task to end up with what they’re looking for. Done to you may be completely different than done to me. We both may feel like we did the “right” thing yet we both end in disagreement. 

So next time, paint done. Communication will be everything as you grow together. Be clear, be consistent, and be available. 

Practice owners can help new veterinary practice managers

It’s almost guaranteed that new practice managers will inevitably experience imposter syndrome, aka feeling inadequate despite clearly demonstrated success and competency. Practice management is a great job but let’s be honest, it’s a hard one. There’s an incredible amount of responsibility. We are required to master the management of human resources, marketing, financing, laws, and hospital operation. 

That’s a lot to take on at once and no one can master it right out of the gate. 

However, as a practice owner, you can give your new manager a good leg up by providing them with great training, communicating clearly, and supporting them as they flourish and grow. Be that practice owner that all managers crave. One that supports us and raises us up and then lets us grow into our expertise, taking your practice to the next level. 

It will take time, but with your investments, we’ll get all there. 

Kate Zirkle

Kate Zirkle

Kate Zirkle is a Product Marketing Manager for Vetsource. She is passionate about animal rescue, personal development, and travel. When not working to advance the veterinary industry, she can be found kayaking, reading, and planning her next trip.

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