Finding Your Carrot with Senani Ratnayake

Senani Ratnayake, BSc, RVT founder of Motivatum Consulting, talks to Central Line: The AAHA Podcast host Katie Berlin, DVM, about her experience helping teams build trust through personal stories.

By Katie Berlin

Building Teams Through Personal Stories

Like most of us in veterinary medicine, Senani Ratnayake, BSc, RVT, wanted a dog when she was little. She wore her parents down in the end, but instead of a dog, she got a bunny called Nibbles who would end up changing the shape of Senani’s dreams.

Nibbles was euthanized one sad Christmas by a veterinarian they didn’t know, under circumstances that were less than ideal. Senani turned toward a career in veterinary medicine because she knew she could make a difference for people who would one day say goodbye to their own best friends—and thanks to meeting just the right role model while Nibbles was sick, she chose to become a technician.

Senani quickly realized that she was surrounded by extraordinary people doing difficult work—and that the most efficient and productive teams are the ones who take time to understand and listen to one another. In our conversation for Central Line, Senani discusses how she’s seen walls get broken down, teams start talking, and connections begin to build, all through intentionally sitting down to ask each other, “What brought you here?”

Katie Berlin: You’ve done some work with vet teams, helping them “find their why.” I was wondering if you could share a little bit about how that came about.

Senani Ratnayake: For sure . . . So the logo of [my business] Motivatum Consulting is a bunny chasing a carrot. I love bunnies in case you don’t know. Bunnies are my jam. I always pictured people [as having] a “carrot,” and I have to figure out what that carrot is and dangle it in front of them to get them to do what I want. And so in my mind, everyone was just bunnies running around chasing their carrots.

It allowed me to see people differently and frame my questions differently…so when I started getting into team workshops and doing more private consulting, I would always find it fascinating, [when] I’d sit down with someone that was identified as a toxic team member, as someone that wasn’t good in some way, not following the rules or getting along well with other people, whatever it was. And as we get talking, we inevitably would get into some kind of a personal story, something that was happening or that had happened that triggered how they felt about the situation, even right down to “they don’t do well with large dogs because…” And I would think, if you could just tell your team this, then everyone would have more empathy for you—they’d be able to cut you some slack.

And so when I first started doing this work with the teams it was about [finding out] “What is your carrot?” I would send everyone a letter, and we’d go through this process, and it was so cool because you would see people start to actually relate to each other.

KB: I feel like a lot of vet techs choose [the technician] route rather than the veterinarian route because you get so much patient contact, so it’s really interesting to hear about somebody who was premed and then chose to go to vet tech school in order to impact the client experience.

SR: I was just lucky in that I ended up volunteering in the practice where we took [our bunny] Nibbles… [One of the technicians there, Tammy] was an incredible RVT and made a really big impression on me and did all the things, literally all the things, and was a fully utilized technician. Had I volunteered in another hospital where the technicians weren’t allowed to do certain things, maybe I would not have appreciated the scope of that role. Maybe I would have thought, “Well, you have to be a doctor to make a difference, you have to.” But it was Tammy who we always talked to, it was Tammy who we always saw, she’s the one that was always explaining stuff to us, she was nice to us all the time, and it was just like she had this cool job.

So I think that’s part of it too, depending on where someone who’s excited about medicine has that first experience—we forget how we influence people’s decisions later on. We were all the high school student once, and…you may never know, but they may have that in the back of their head where they’re thinking, “I want to be like that person when I grow up.”

KB: Absolutely, and I feel like that’s a common denominator with all the technicians that I’ve talked to for this podcast—they’ve stretched that role to so much more than you would see on paper and had a technician that they learned from or who mentored them or who they saw as an example.

I’m trying to picture a lot of the vet teams that I’ve known, sitting in a room and all talking about their whys. It’s powerful and a little scary. It’s hard to picture, if that hasn’t been something that your team has worked on.

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“Some people are really willing to talk about it. Sometimes you have to push them a little. They’ll tell a story and you’re like, “That’s not your real story.”

—Senani Ratnayake, BSc, RVT

 

SR: It gives me goosebumps—I’m smiling, and I’m also tearing up a bit. I can literally put myself into several different treatment areas and rooms and reception areas where I’ve sat in a circle and then just watched magic happen. But it’s not easy, it doesn’t come naturally to everybody. Normally what I do is I send a letter out to everyone in advance [and] tell everyone, “Go and find an object or a photo that reminds you of why you first wanted to work with animals, what inspired you to first want to work with animals, but don’t tell anyone what it is and bring it.” And then we just go around the circle, and everyone tells their story.

Some people are really willing to talk about it. Sometimes you have to push them a little. They’ll tell a story and you’re like, “That’s not your real story.” And they’ll say, “No, that’s the story I got.” And it’s like, “That’s the story you’ve got. But I think you’re avoiding telling us the real story,” and then they’ll go quiet and then usually something comes out. There’s always going to be someone that’s shy, there’s always going to be someone that finds it uncomfortable, but we’ll joke about it.

Sometimes someone will start crying before it’s even been their turn, because they’re thinking about what they’re going to say. And I’ll say, “Okay, Katie is going to go and we’re all going to face the other way and no one’s going to make eye contact with Katie,” and everyone looks at the floor, the ceiling. And then Katie goes and is like, “I’m not looking at anyone, I’m just telling my story.”

People tell incredible stories. Sometimes they show you photos of when they were little, a family pet, a grandparent’s farm. They have stories of large animal vets who would come out to the farm, and there was this relationship. “My granddad would chat with the vet. My grandma would make tea, we’d all hang out…and it looked like such a cool job.”

I’ve also heard such sad and powerful [stories], ones of parents who did or didn’t want them to get into this profession, parents who passed away before they saw them get into the profession. And it’s a privilege to be able to hear people’s stories like that and have them really dig deep. People have brought stuffed toys, paw prints of pets that have passed away.

And, as people are telling their stories, you start to see walls break down a little bit. People start to see [teammates] they weren’t as connected to slightly differently, with a different lens. It humanizes people.

[As Simon Sinek says], “People don’t care what you do. They care why you do it.” Why does each person on the team do what they do? Because frankly, some people show up and they’re so passionate about what they do and they care so deeply, and we see that that impacts every behavior, every action, every word… And then there are other people who genuinely love animals, but they have other priorities, and so their “why” is different and impacts how they choose to do certain things. It’s good for us to be able to understand that of each other, right?

KB: As you’re talking, I’m picturing people I’ve worked with that I wish I had asked, not only why they’re in vet med and why they chose the role they’re in, but why they do things a certain way that I might have seen as strange or a little bit difficult. There’s always a reason. And it just never occurred to me to dig.

SR: And sometimes it’s because you’re not seeing something they see [or] because they don’t have as much information as you. So then you can say, “Oh, well, have you ever thought about [doing it like] this?” And maybe you both decide to continue doing it your way, but now have better understanding, or we find some kind of middle ground or at least a better appreciation for the other person.

I think we can be reactive and, especially right now, we’re not making time for things that matter. [Thinking] “Oh, we don’t have a moment to spare” is ruining how the rest of the day plays out…because we’re not stopping to prioritize our relationships with people we spend more time with than the people at home.

KB: Have you ever met anybody who did not have a why?

SR: I’ve met people who think they don’t have a why. Because they think their why is supposed to be an animal answer, and they get nervous even as they hear other people [talk about] a childhood pet, a misdiagnosed pet, a cat who drowns in a pool, and now I know better. They don’t think they have a why because they don’t have a story like that. “Well, I never had pets growing up.”

Okay, somehow along the way, you still chose this, right? But your why doesn’t have to be animal related. Your why might be your family at home now, and it’s okay to this job so that you can make money to do things for the people around you, to take care of yourself. To get things for yourself, to pay your own bills. That is totally an acceptable thing.

KB: Okay, one more time for the people in the back. It’s okay to want to make money in veterinary medicine.

SR: It is okay to want to make money. It is also really important that you show up knowing what your value is. Right now, I see people asking for more and more, and it’s not that you’re not worth it…but it’s also that this is a give and take. You’re asking someone to invest in you; why? Are you showing up as your best self now? Are you doing the CE? Are you treating the people around you well? Are you looking for opportunities to mentor the people around you? Make sure you’ve checked those boxes, because if you can help the business, the hospital, to be successful, that’s where the money comes from for us to all get paid more.

We have to work collaboratively together, understand each other’s whys, and then elevate the whole thing so that that money is there so that we can re-invest in our people and take care of each other in that way.

KB: Do you think there are teams that are not prepared to do this work?

SR: I think that it’s a challenging question to answer, because I want to say every team should be able to do this, but I know realistically not all practice owners and team leads have that leadership style or skill set yet that lends itself well to facilitating conversation. I would love to see everyone try a version of this, but I think some tips would be to make sure that no one talks over top of each other, that there are some ground rules for the meeting. When one person is talking, they have the floor, and if they say, “Don’t look at me,” that’s fine, but they still have the floor.

And you have to listen to understand. Not listen to reply. Really hear them, and try to really connect with their story, not be giggling. We’ve actually had situations where I said, “Hey, we need to not pass around the photos yet, we’ll do that at the end.” Because respect is everything in this exercise.

KB: Even just perceived disrespect could be a problem.

SR: Exactly. And we’re asking people to share a part of themselves. We have to create safety for that, and I would say there are teams where maybe it’s not quite safe enough. So yes, maybe there are some hospitals that aren’t quite ready for this. But the flip side is, this might be one of the things that allows us to break down some barriers. So it needs to be something that we understand the value of, and we take it really seriously. This isn’t something you cram into a half an hour, that ends up being 20 minutes, and we go answer the door and sell a bag of food. This is not that kind of exercise. This is phones off, no one’s at the door, everyone is here, we do not exclude anybody. The Saturday evening kennel person does this too.

Leaders have to show that this is something that they are committed to and believe is important; if they don’t start with that and lead by example, then no one else will be bought in. “Oh great, now you’re making us do this thing” is not good.

[But this] isn’t something you push on the team. Even with this, you start with why… They need to want it also, and we need to make sure we’re explaining why we think this is so important. I can 100% make a case for how this will improve revenue, this will improve profitability. The stronger the team, the better the business. We have a strong team that works well together, that is all rowing in the same direction—all with different whys, all with different hows, but we’re focused on those goals… That’s how the money comes. It’s the people. Without the people, we have nothing.

Catch a new episode of Central Line: The AAHA Podcast every Tuesday on all major podcast platforms, YouTube, and aaha.org.podcast. Send us feedback or questions anytime at podcast@aaha.org.

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Senani Ratnayake, BSc, RVT, has been educating veterinary professionals since 2004. Senani has received multiple awards, including the 2021 RVTTC RVT of the Year, is a past president of the Ontario Association of Veterinary Technicians, and was the first non-DVM president of the Toronto Academy of Veterinary Medicine. She is the founder of Motivatum Consulting and is currently the Director of Learning and Engagement at Vet Alliance/Globalvet.

Photo credits: Eoneren/E+ via Getty Images, valentinarr/iStock via Getty Images Plus, SDI Productions/E+ via Getty Images

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