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Veterinarian Technician August 2006 (Vol 27, No 8) Focus: Reproduction

Management Matters: "Taking the Plunge into Management"

by Katherine Dobbs, RVT, CVPM, PHR

    It can happen so slowly that you don't even feel the water rising until you're in over your head. It starts innocently enough — you take a job as a veterinary technician, receptionist, or kennel assistant because, like all of us, you love animals. You perform your assigned tasks well, and someone notices. You're asked to do a few "extra" things. Perhaps you solve a few problems successfully. Before you know it, the boss decides that you are capable of taking on more responsibility. It may be subtle, without even an announcement, promotion, or title change, or it may be with pomp and circumstance that you are inducted into a position of management. Either way, you now have a decision to make — sink or swim.

    Being an exceptional technician, receptionist, or kennel assistant may not have prepared you for a management role. It may be a mistake to think that because you can manage a kennel full of unruly animals you can handle a group of unruly kennel workers. Being able to cope with 10 incoming phone lines is certainly an asset, but it cannot fully prepare you for coping with 10 incoming employee complaints. Maintaining anesthesia on a critical patient is no easy task, but you can't just "gas down" your boss when he or she overwhelms you with paperwork. So what do you need to know about the world of management before you get in too deep? Are you ready, willing, and able to take the plunge? Hang on; you may be in for rough seas ahead, but it can be a highly rewarding voyage.

    Are You Ready …

    … to lead by example?

    The skills that got you noticed as an outstanding employee will not be taken for granted once you become a manager. To gain the respect of the people who now report to you, you need to let them know that you are knowledgeable about and capable of doing the same work you are asking them to perform. So you have to maintain your original skills and learn new ones as advances in the field become available. However, you need to be prepared for the fact that your added managerial duties will not leave you as much time to stay capable and current in other areas.

    … to drop that mop, phone, or syringe for administrative tasks?

    If you are in veterinary medicine because you love being a technician, or you don't want to leave the kennel or front desk to spend time on other tasks, then reconsider whether a move into management is right for you, particularly if your current position involves more interaction with animals than people and you like it that way. Keep in mind that when you're in management, you must be ready to move your focus to dealing with the human animal.

    to challenge your people skills?

    The standard joke in veterinary medicine is that animals don't talk back (or if they do, we don't often have to respond). Once you become a manager, your people skills will make or break you. In the beginning, you may deal with more paperwork than people, but as your responsibilities increase, you will be challenged by the people around you. The schedule that you create must be accepted by the staff, the employee who takes the last item off the shelf needs to be reminded to relay that information to you, and the people coming to you for advice must be handled with efficiency and consistency. If you believe that a difficult employee is the greatest challenge in management, look in the mirror to see the truth — your greatest challenge will be you.

    to be a consistent and constant role model?

    You've heard the phrase "walk the walk," and nothing is more difficult for a manager than managing his or her own behavior. You must be ready to be a role model at all times for everyone on the staff. Even in front of employees you don't directly manage, you must uphold the principles of the organization. This is particularly challenging when you are frustrated or angry. The best rule of thumb is to always "vent up," meaning that if you need to complain or let off some steam, go to someone at your level or above you, but never to those who are considered your subordinates. A good support system beside and above you is important and should be assessed before you consider how willing you are to step into a management role.

    Are You Willing ...

    to lead the team?

    Be prepared for mixed reactions when you are promoted or designated as a member of management. Some of your teammates will be enthusiastic and supportive and understand that you earned the position. A few may be discouraged because they have been with the company longer or they judge your performance to be inadequate. If your new position involves responsibility for others, then part of your coworkers' reaction is that they understand your relationship with them will change. They will be losing a friend and gaining a "boss." Emphasize that you are still part of the team and that by being in management you will be in a position to help them achieve their professional goals in a more effective manner. Be prepared to work on finding the right relationship with each person you manage, particularly those whom you once worked beside.

    … to find the balance between being a friend and being a boss?

    Balance is a constant challenge for a manager. You need to establish a rapport and good relationship with each person you manage to bring out the best in him or her and to create positive results for the organization. But you also must know when you are getting close to stepping over the line between approachable and dismissible. There is absolutely no way to demand or even ask for respect. Respect is truly earned by showing that you em­pathize with your employees, are trustworthy in every regard, and are loyal to the organization. The best-case scenario is a relationship in which you can be light and friendly most of the time, but when you must be "the boss," your employees understand and respect your position. This is particularly true when you must address employee performance.

    … to recognize good performance and correct bad performance?

    It is easy to recognize good perfor­mance, but it's difficult to ensure that you are giving the right amount of positive reinforcement in response. Managers are busy people, and if you are located away from the group you manage and do not spend much time working in that area anymore, you must solve the problem of how to consistently pay close enough attention to performance. One suggestion is to require employees to submit a weekly report in which they list their main ac­complishments for the week. It can be assumed that employees are doing their "regular" tasks, so the weekly report is especially useful in pointing out anything out of the ordinary, such as a special project in progress, a shift covered for someone else, or a particularly difficult client dealt with successfully.

    Correcting bad performance is not easy, no matter how you go about it. But if you communicate your expectations from the beginning and address issues as they occur, you will avoid some of the misery associated with this unenviable task. The way you address each incident will depend mainly on the person involved and the style of communication that works best for him or her. Does she tend to be direct? Then tell it to her straight. Does he tend to get overly emotional and suffer from low self-esteem? Then you will need to adapt to that personality and bring along some tissues. Your communication skills relate to all the employee-related tasks that you must now perform, and your performance will be reflected in the performance of others and the overall success of your area.

    to be held accountable for the work of others?

    Managers quickly learn the truth of the statement, "It's not your fault, but it is your problem." As an individual employee, you only have yourself to blame or praise for your performance. As a manager, you are responsible for the performance of your staff, the results they create, and at least part of the overall success of the organization. It is a huge responsibility. It can also be the most challenging, rewarding, and enlightening position you will ever take on. When you see an em­ployee you have mentored overcome a hurdle or gain his or her own promotion, it is the most satisfying experience since hitting that first vein with a 28-gauge catheter or calming your first irate client at the reception desk in front of an audience in the lobby.

    Are You Able?

    No one will know your ability in management until you step in and try it. But if you are offered the pro­motion, tasks, or title of management, you should know that someone already believes that you are able. Now you have to decide if you are ready — are you at that point in your career where you will welcome a new challenge and change? Are you willing — do you see the future full of possibilities, and are you committed to giving it your best shot? Then go back and review each question above and ask yourself whether you are also able to meet that challenge. If you can answer yes to some or many of the questions or are willing to find the resources within yourself to accomplish these tasks, then you are ready to set sail for a brand-new destination ... management.

    NEXT: On the Cover: "A Talk with Mary Cotter, EdD, LVT"


    Did you know... Skill-based communication training provides clinicians and teams with practice tools to improve client and staff relationships. Read More

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