A career to grow on—How great teams empower individual dreams

As part of our “Stay, Please” series, Debbie Boone, CVPM, talks about the power of living your mission statement, the strengths of diverse teams, and creating a culture of personal connection at work.

By Tony McReynolds

The question of how to create strong teams that make people want to stay in their jobs is at the core of AAHA’s “Stay, Please” research. In previous articles in this series, we’ve explored how psychological safety is essential to team performance, and how we can be proactive to counteract negativity bias and “othering” in the workplace.

We continue to unpack this topic with Debbie Boone, CVPM, owner of 2 Manage Vets Consulting Service, co-founder of the new North American Association of Veterinary Receptionists (NAAVR), and author of Hospitality in Healthcare. Boone shares how great teams embody their organization’s mission while empowering employees toward upward mobility and career progression.

Beyond technical skills—Hiring for core values

Team communication and creating positive practice culture starts with hiring the right people—which is something most organizations don’t do well, Boone said.

“We tend to spend about five minutes reviewing our candidates’ information and then run them through a series of questions,” she said. “And we don’t even run [all] the candidates through the same series of questions!”

Beyond skillsets, she said, we need to look at how people feel about their jobs. Otherwise, we could end up with staff who “will always be a square peg in a round hole.”

For example, rather than asking a potential CSR, “Do you enjoy working with the public?” Boone suggests a question like: “Tell me a story about a time when you had a difficult client and how did you manage that? What was the outcome?”

The same applies to the technical team.

“We tend to be very skill-focused: How do you place a catheter? What is your experience in the operatory?” she said. “But we also need to ask them about working together with others at previous jobs. Who did they have a conflict with and how did that play out? We want to hear the stories behind how they behave.”

It’s important to remember that veterinarians’ jobs are people-focused too.

“They’re dealing with the public and this is a public-facing job,” she said. “If someone comes in and they’re medically skilled but they’re going to cause conflict with the humans in your world, then they’re still not a good fit.”

Before posting the job opening, teams need to identify the practice’s core values. And if you don’t have those figured out yet, Boone said there are tools available.

“One of my favorite tools is a book called How to Choose the Right Person for the Right Job Every Time by Lori Davilla,” she said. “It’s a great book because it has a list of core values, and a list of questions that you can ask to reveal the core values of your interviewees.”

By taking the time to work on the hiring process, we really get more of a deep insight into the person that we’re hiring, rather than just “Do they know the front end of a dog from the back?” she said.

Embodying the mission statement

The organization’s mission needs to be “in the front of everyone’s mind every day.” And that doesn’t mean just hanging a poster on the wall.

“Most practices kind of have a similar mission, and that is to heal animals and to have success with medicine and to give a good client experience,” Boone said. “But over years of training, I’ve asked thousands of people, ‘How many of you know your mission statement?’ I ask for a raise of hands and out of a group of 25 to 30 people, maybe two raise their hand.”

How do you expect people to live your mission if they don’t even know what it is, and you don’t keep it in front of them? Boone asked.

It comes down to embodying those core values and modeling them. For example, if your practice wants to align around the value of integrity, how is each member of the team going to live that?

“Maybe one thing I’m going to do is, I’m never going to intentionally pad the bill because I want to make sure that I’m living with integrity. I’m going to tell my clients the truth. I’m going to tell my coworkers the truth.”

“We talk about what the living the core value looks like,” she said. “And then when people manifest it, we celebrate it.”

Mistakes as learning opportunities

Practices with a culture of integrity are less likely to sweep problems under the rug.

“If somebody comes to me and says, ‘Hey, I screwed up.’ I’m going to say, ‘Gosh, thank you for telling me that. Let’s dissect the situation. Tell me how it went south, and let’s figure out how to make sure that doesn’t happen again. And then let’s talk about it in our next staff meeting because you didn’t want to make that mistake and we don’t want anybody else to make it either. So let’s use it as a learning experience,’” Boone said.

When there is psychological safety for the team, it can also extend to the client community.

“Clients can tell when we’re judgy and they’ll hide the truth from us,” she said, “So we want to make sure our whole environment is psychologically safe. And we do that by having a team that’s willing to own their own errors.”

“That doesn’t mean telling the client, ‘Hey, we screw up every day,’ but we can admit to our own mistakes, like, ‘I work in a veterinary hospital so I should know better, but my dog still got into the garbage at home, and I still had to bring him into the vet,’” she said.

“I think that combination of storytelling and owning your own foibles is a good way to build safety from the client’s and the team’s perspective.”

Leading with curiosity—not accusations

How you onboard new employees also matters. For example, Boone said even she’s been guilty of “hiring somebody who has some very specific talent and then not bothering to tell the people on the team what the new person’s talent is.”

We’re so busy living the medicine every day that we forget that we’re humans, she said. “When we start to give opportunity for people to get to know each other as human beings, then we start to find that we are closer together than we think.”

And, she said, regardless of what a team member is dealing with—from caring for elderly parents, dealing with their own pets’ health issues, or raising kids—others on the team will be more understanding.

“When we can relate to the person who’s suddenly late to work two or three mornings a week because their kid is going through the terrible twos and they’re determined to go to daycare naked every day (true story, by the way), it enables you to humanize each other and to give each other a little leeway in life,” she said.

This allows us to lead “with our curiosity rather than our accusations.”

Getting to know each other

When we know more about each other’s lives, we are more likely to bring our whole selves to work. For example, she suggested asking the team what they want to do together.

Her team has done things like the American Heart Association Walk to raise money for the Heart Association. Why did they choose that?

“Because one of my team member’s dads had a heart attack. And one of my clients had a heart transplant, and so we kind of honored those people in our walk and we raised $2,000.”

They ended up raising the second highest amount of money of any group that participated. “The group that raised the most was from the human hospital in our town,” Boone said. “They have 2,000 employees and we raised almost as much money as they did with just 25 people.”

“They were so proud,” she said of her team.

The power of a diverse team

Accomplishing things together can be even sweeter when the team can use its diverse skills to address needs in the community.

“I had a practice that was very close to a school for the deaf and we had a lot of people who lived in the community so they could access the school’s resources. So having someone on my team that knew sign language was extremely helpful,” Boone said.

She’s also had team members who translated for Spanish-speaking clients. “A lot of the time, in that situation, the client’s children are the ones who do the interpreting, and that’s so hard on the child when you’re giving a poor diagnosis and or talking about euthanasia,” she said. “It’s so much more appropriate to have an adult staffer do the interpreting.”

Having a diverse team can send a message to the community that your practice is a safe zone.

“I had a large community of gay people who came to our hospital because they were our friends,” she said. “Our staff had a wonderful time with them and built a strong relationship with them. Because of that we got referral after referral.”

It comes down to paying attention and anticipating what clients might need.

“If I had a client come in who could not see or could not hear or had some kind of other-ableness, how can I be proactive in thinking of ‘What can I do for them?’” she said. “The time to do that is ahead of time.”

Career progression and upward mobility

When it comes to keeping good people in veterinary practice, Boone said that it’s “absolute foolishness” that there is so much turnover on account of wages—especially when what employees are really looking for is more than money: It’s a career path.

Losing an experienced tech or CSR because your practice refuses to pay them a couple dollars more an hour “makes no sense for your practice” she said, “because if you would just pay them more to stay then you would have their historical knowledge of the practice; you would have a team that runs like a well-oiled machine.”

And the truth is, you may “wind up hiring in a replacement for $2.00 an hour more than you were paying the person who left.”

Beyond pay, she said the other way to retain people is to give them a career path by investing in them. If that CSR wants to become a veterinary assistant, a lead receptionist, or even a practice manager one day, they’ll need specialized training.

“Let’s say some tech’s really good at their job, so somebody talks them into being the manager but gives them no training,” she said. “So they take the job and become unhappy and burned out so they wind up leaving.”

“We’ve got to invest in our team and give them a career path if we want them to stay,” she said. “And I tell you from my personal experience that when you teach people, when you constantly train them, when they are good at their jobs and you pay them, your bottom line rises. ”

Paying a living wage—and charging enough to afford it

But the more you pay people, the more you have to charge, right?

Boone said: “If we would just charge for the stuff we’re already doing but not charging for, then we could afford to pay our people more.”

“The other thing we need to do is to make sure that we make it affordable for clients to be able to pay the prices we need to charge to pay our team a living wage, and that’s absolutely possible to do,” she said. “We have plenty of tools out there. We have Care Credit. We have Scratch pay. We have all kinds of different vendors for credit.”

She also said we have to get creative with practice management.

“Split services so that people who maybe aren’t credit-worthy can pay for a few services today and then pay for a few more the next time they get paid,” she said. “We cannot strictly run numbers all the time and expect to keep our people or our clients. We can figure it out.”


This article is part of our Stay, Please series, which focuses on providing resources (as identified in our Stay, Please retention study) to retain the 30% of all veterinary professionals considering leaving their clinical practice. Here at AAHA, we believe you were made for this work, and we’re committed to making clinical practice a sustainable career choice for every member of the team.

Disclaimer: The views expressed, and topics discussed, in any NEWStat column or article are intended to inform, educate, or entertain, and do not represent an official position by the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) or its Board of Directors.



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