Why your veterinary practice needs a chief culture officer and how to make it happen

by By Danielle Grimley

11 min read

Hearing the term “chief culture officer” might make you feel like you’re at Google headquarters, not a veterinary hospital. But don’t brush off this new concept. It’s a modern solution to an age-old problem that affects industries around the world: How the heck do you maintain a healthy, happy team culture?

It’s no secret that of all the industries out there, veterinary medicine has a desperate need to answer that question. Problems such as burnout, compassion fatigue, toxic behavior, poor communication, and blind spots in leadership are all substantially reduced when the team culture becomes the first priority. Empowering one person, or even a committee, as a steward of the practice’s culture helps to make this dream a reality by providing accountability, strategy, oversight, and support.

What is a chief culture officer?

The chief culture officer (CCO) is responsible for crafting a workplace experience that authentically reflects the mission, vision, and values of the practice. Keeping the hospital culture moving in the right direction is a team effort, but a chief culture officer can keep an impartial eye on the organization and act as a positive change agent. This person might help with onboarding employees, facilitating one-on-one discussions, sending out team engagement surveys, or organizing hospital-wide activities to help shape employee ownership of the culture.

A CCO is not:

  • A manager
  • A babysitter
  • A “forced fun” director
  • A dumping ground for all team morale issues
  • A wizard at changing people’s behavior

Instead, this person provides resources, recommendations, and support to ensure the practice values remain an integral part of the day-to-day work experience. On a regular basis, the CCO should report metrics and feedback to the practice leadership team regarding the overall health of employee engagement, well-being, and culture development efforts.

Who should be the chief culture officer?

This cross-functional role can be set up however you’d like, as long as it is centered around discussing, planning, and driving all hospital culture matters. You can consider this a promoted position or supplemental to another role. Your CCO should be creative, empathetic, emotionally intelligent, self-aware, and consistent. Maybe you already know someone in the hospital who would be the perfect fit, and you can start by simply having a conversation. If not, call for volunteers!

Consider appointing someone who is not in leadership, or at least not at the top, to be your CCO. This person needs to act as a liaison between key decision makers and managers and the rest of the team. With the right boundaries and established expectations, they can provide a fresh, unbiased perspective.

If you’re concerned about it being too much work for one person, consider taking volunteers for a “Culture Committee” or “Culture Champions.” This would be great for large hospitals and could consist of a few people from various departments in the practice to ensure diversity and multi-level representation.

Your committee members could serve different roles and work together to continually evolve the hospital culture (like a “chief of fun” for team events or a “welcoming director” for new team members). If you choose to open it up to multiple people, keep the committee size proportional to your team, and ensure everyone is represented.

How should you implement a chief culture officer?

Setting up this role takes thought, planning, and commitment, so before you get started, ensure you have the following:

  • Leadership buy-in — If the key decision-makers are not on board, this role simply will not work. You wouldn’t ask a chef to cook a 5-star meal in a straightjacket because that would remove the very freedom they need to do what they do best, right? In the same way, the CCO needs permission and empowerment to speak up when needed and to use their best judgment. Leadership must also commit to taking recommendations seriously and responding in a timely manner.
  • A defined culture and values — It’s an easy word to toss around, but you can’t enforce something that is not defined. Ask yourselves, “What are we committed to as a veterinary practice? What sets our team apart? What kind of environment do we want to create?”
  • Team buy-in — The process of implementing a CCO should be transparent, and establishing your practice values should be a team conversation. Even if you can’t include everyone’s input into your final culture definitions, it’s important to start this process by allowing the space for everyone to be heard.
  • A purpose — Establishing a purpose for even having this role to begin with will provide clear expectations to everyone on the team (sadly, this person is not the “magic fix” to all of life’s problems). Type up a job description once you determine the CCO’s tasks and responsibilities. You might also want to consider developing a 30-60-90-day plan to detail a clear direction for the role, always ensuring that it’s in line with the overall purpose and visible to the team.
  • An accountability system — Culture work, just like any new idea or habit, has a chance of fizzling out if it gets stagnant, so be proactive by creating a system that gives the highest chance for success. Start with small, measurable goals that have clear deadlines. Pre-schedule meetings, with a prepared agenda, between the CCO and the leadership team to keep the lines of communication open. Add reminders on the calendar to start planning the next team-building activity or send out engagement surveys. And most importantly, make sure the CCO has their own line of support and someone to detect if they are overwhelmed.

It will take partnership and trust on all sides to tackle cultural challenges, but you don’t have to work at Google to do it successfully! Consider adding your own chief culture officer to the team to take the next step in your organizational development and re-energize your practice goals. Gallup suggests a strong organizational culture can offer:

  • 50-point increase in employee engagement over a three-year period
  • 25% growth in the workforce over a three-year period
  • 85% net profit increase over a five-year period
  • 138% improvement in patronage over a five-year period

With such incredible returns on investing in your practice’s culture, there should be nothing holding you back.

As chief culture officer and a former practice manager, I love helping practices succeed in implementing their own CCO, so please shoot me an email if you have any questions! And, if you aren’t currently a Vetsource customer, consider scheduling a demo to find out how Vetsource can simplify your team’s tasks and make their days easier (another way to win with your team!).

Danielle Grimley

Danielle Grimley

Danielle graduated from Austin College with a major in nonprofit management and began working in veterinary ophthalmology. In 2015, she helped open an AAHA-accredited general practice, where she worked as the practice manager for 5 years. As a success coach, Danielle helps new practices launch their app effectively and assists current customers find ongoing success.

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