A lot of the work that I do with veterinary hospitals is around culture change. Most practices have the potential to be more successful if their environment is one that causes the people in the organization to fully commit to its mission. The right culture, along with the coaching and connection that happens in the organization, is the key to creating that kind of commitment.
What is culture in a veterinary practice?
The culture in your practice is a set of shared values, beliefs, and ways of doing things. Think of it as a living, ever changing organism that can be influenced by the world around us, personalities, and ideas. And, it serves as the “glue” that binds the people and behaviors together in your practice.
Because your culture is constantly evolving, changing it is no easy task. Many practices attack culture change the same way they would introduce new procedures or technology. They use a linear, process-oriented approach that is applied across all of the affected employees.
Culture change is different. It’s not based on a simple change in action like using a new computer system to manage patient files. Culture change is harder because it’s essentially a change in how people in the organization think. There is a process for culture change (which we discuss in our course content) but before any change can be made, we have to leap a few big hurdles, and that makes it hard.
What makes culture change hard?
Here are three things central to changing the culture of your veterinary practice. They are equally important to building the culture you want and difficult to adopt.
1. We have to admit that we built the wrong culture.
Unless we are new to a practice and inheriting a culture that has been built by someone else, we have to face the fact that as leaders, we created, or at least allowed, the wrong culture. Culture is the job of leaders, and we have to first acknowledge that we need to change ourselves and how we operate, to change the culture.
When I do cultural assessments with veterinary practices, the doctors and managers virtually always have a much better perception of the culture than the employees at other levels. It’s natural to want to think we did a better job at creating it. The reality is though, if you want to change culture, you have to be willing to break up with the one you built and admit that it needs changing.
2. We have to take accountability for the new culture.
There are some leaders who didn’t even believe that they were in charge of creating it in the first place, much less changing it. As long as that’s the case, there will be no change. If I don’t believe I control something, my chances of changing it are right up there with my ability to change the weather.
Leaders, every day, with every action, with every conversation, dictate the culture of the organization. It’s not about more posters in the hallway; it’s about how we act and how we expect others to act. What we allow to happen is every bit as responsible for culture as what we do ourselves. Deciding to look the other way when an employee has solid performance on the balance sheet, but has a terrible attitude, sends a strong negative message to the culture, no matter what the posters say.
3. It takes time and commitment to create and sustain the change.
If we want our people to be committed to a new environment in our practice, we have to go first. Culture change is like weight loss, or getting out of debt, it takes time and effort. If you are not willing to invest time and energy into real, meaningful change that will create new opportunities for success, then don’t start. The message you will send to the employees is that culture is not as important as we said it was. The underlying message will be, “We here in leadership don’t have what it takes to change, but we’d still like you to.”
Culture drives employee engagement.
Culture may be the single biggest factor in driving employee commitment and engagement. Multiple studies are showing us over and over that organizations with engaged committed employees perform better over time in virtually any category you can measure. They are more profitable, have lower turnover, higher client satisfaction, stronger growth and more sustainable results.
It would be nice to think that we could affect culture change with a 90 day project and a relatively small investment in time, effort and money. But culture change is hard. It is, however, worth the effort. And the competitive advantage it brings is stronger than any other, because culture change is hard for our competitors too.