People Power

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When people feel empowered, Michael Shirley believes independent veterinary practices can successfully hire and retain team members.

Michael Shirley doesn’t mind when reviews come in for his veterinary practice. In fact, he looks forward to them. Even the 1-star reviews.

As chief empowerment officer of Family Pet Health, an independent veterinary hospital based in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, Shirley knows potential clients will be reading those unflattering reviews first. Plus, a response to the review is a chance to share the purpose and core values their veterinary hospital has put into action.


Family Pet Health’s vision is to be an independently owned, 7- to 10-doctor practice. They’re at four doctors and 22 employees now, with plans to add a fifth veterinarian sometime later this year. They even opened a new state-of-the-art facility last year.

Family Pet Health’s grand vision is to be a veterinary hospital that provides a high quality, concierge type of experience for clients, while offering an individualized career path for team members through an employee-owned company.

How it started

Amy Shirley, DVM, the clinical leader behind the veterinary hospital – and Michael’s wife – never intended to be a business owner. Originally from Tracy City, Tennessee, she first came to Murfreesboro as an MTSU student and met her husband Michael while both were studying animal science in college. Dr. Shirley went on to graduate with her veterinary degree from the University of Tennessee in Knoxville in 2005. After graduation, Dr. Shirley moved back to Murfreesboro to practice as a small animal veterinarian. She stayed at that practice for 10 years, then left to do relief work for veterinary practices outside of the Murfreesboro area for three years. In that span of time, Dr. Shirley worked at almost 30 different hospitals, but never felt like any of those hospitals was the place that she was going to work for the rest of her career before retiring.

One day she came home and told Michael that she’d had a change of heart and was thinking that maybe she did want to open her own veterinary hospital. Dr. Shirley wanted to create the type of work environment where she would want to go to work every day and surround herself with people she would want to do that work with.

“I could not have been more shocked,” said Michael. But after that initial shock, he jumped up and gave her a high five and said: “‘You’re going to do great. What do you need from me?’”

At the time, Michael worked as an educator. He would have to get up to speed on some of the more technical business functions needed to run a veterinary hospital, but he was confident the experience of teaching and equipping students with life and leadership skills would help him manage and lead the team operationally.

In March 2018, the Shirleys bought an existing practice and rebranded it as Family Pet Health, with Dr. Shirley handling the clinical duties, and Michael responsible for managing the hospital.

But on his business card, you won’t see anything about practice management or business operations. Instead, Shirley is the veterinary hospital’s “chief empowerment officer.” He got the idea while participating in an industry panel. The moderator asked him about his role and responsibilities at the hospital. Shirley responded, “‘Basically, I hire and put together our team, and then I empower them to reach their potential and be the veterinary professionals that they are.’ Because I empower the team more than anything else, after that, I put the title on my business cards.”

Shirley believes part of his job is to empower the Family Pet Health team to “be the veterinary professionals that we knew that they were when we hired them,” he said. “That belief gives team members more job satisfaction.”

Veterinary technicians usually only stay in their career for three to seven years. After that, many leave veterinary medicine completely. Veterinarians themselves are frequently moving from one hospital to another. But Family Pet Health’s leadership team believes that if you build a good culture, and maintain a high functioning team with high standards, people will be more likely to stay – and stay committed.

“Six years into this, we truly believe in what we’re doing, and the people we have hired and are still a part of our team also believe in it,” Shirley said. “I don’t have to be there every day. I can go to community events to build relationships outside of our walls that we may need later on. We had two people call out sick today, and I’m not there this morning, but the office is doing just fine, because our team knows that they are in charge.”

 

Dr. Amy Shirley using a microscope.
Dr. Shirley set out with a mission to create a positive and collaborative work environment.

 

Bought in

Independent veterinary practice owners can’t control what happens in the marketplace, but Shirley believes they can control their response. He has made sure that his team has the tools needed to respond to challenges they may face at the hospital, and life. Most of that involves emotional intelligence. Do the people on Shirley’s team have the ability to handle conflict in a productive and positive way? Do they have financial skills so that they’re managing their household budgets and not bringing that stress with them to work?

“Those are things I learned in my teaching early on,” he said. “I can create a safe classroom, but if my students have really terrible home lives, they’re going to bring that with them. It affected their ability to learn in my classroom. At Family Pet Health, it doesn’t matter how great the culture is inside. If issues on the outside are bringing people down, team members are going to come to work down. My job is to help make sure that they have the tools that they need, at work and at home, to thrive.”

The Family Pet Health teams works hard to foster a collaborative environment. When the team was smaller, they would meet every week to discuss one of four topics from medical, departments, personal development and fun. Now with a larger staff, the veterinary practice team holds departmental meetings and tracks for the leadership team. “Our team has grown so much that I can’t know everything that’s going on with everybody anymore,” Shirley said. “So, we had to create structure in place so that everybody feels like they have an opportunity to be heard.”

Every morning, Family Pet Health conducts rounds and covers different topics or themes for the week. They discuss patient care, the plan for the day, and who’s working where. Then they discuss topics such as retirement by making sure employees understand the 401k that’s offered by the business. Other topics include conflict resolution, health and wellness, and even New Year’s resolutions.

The business checks in on its team members regularly. Through those check-ins, they may discover some people are struggling in areas of retirement or finances. Leadership will then try and cover those topics by either discussing it themselves, scheduling guest speakers or providing outside counseling contacts that the team members can have access to.

There is also a lot of coaching on interpersonal skills and how to handle interpersonal conflict.

“I want to show them how they can handle a problem with somebody,” Shirley said. “That’s usually a one-on-one meeting. We know that that is not a comfortable thing for most people to do because most people do not enjoy conflict. We just acknowledge that and work on it.”

The leaders also acknowledge the issues that team members may have complaints about, and work to find a way to fix them. Recently, the team read through the book “Lead To Thive” by Josh Vaisman, which covers positive psychology in the veterinary workplace. Shirley took one of the activity suggestions from the book and did an anonymous survey of his team members to ask whether they thought they were working in a positive work environment. The results were that 85% (all but two people) said that it was a place where they could do their best work every day. Shirley also asked anonymously, “What’s the one thing Family Pet Health could do to maintain a positive work environment?”

Shirley read through the responses and saw a common theme. There was a stress point of staff worried there weren’t enough people to handle the patient volume. “I listened, I acknowledged that in the morning round, and we went over the survey results,” Shirley said. He said he would look and see if they could afford to add somebody to the payroll. The leaders ran numbers, and talked about what adding a team member would do for the veterinary hospital. Then, they announced to the team that they were going to hire somebody. The process was quick because they had a waiting list of people wanting to work for Family Pet Health. Within two weeks, they hired a licensed veterinary technician to join the team.

The waiting list is a good sign of a healthy work culture, if people are being recommended to submit their resumes to job openings that haven’t happened yet. Low turnover, too, is a sign that a veterinary hospital has a healthy workplace. But low turnover doesn’t necessarily mean no turnover, Shirley said. “You could have a bad culture, but everybody is just used to it, so they stick around forever.” Veterinary practices need a healthy amount of turnover, he said. “What I mean by that is that I expect many of the people that are at Family Pet Health right now will not be there in five years, because they’re going to move on to bigger things. I can see it in them, and I want them to move on, because I think that they can do so much. Hopefully, I’ll get to be a part of that and invest in them as they move on.”

Distributor reps can gauge whether a veterinary practice has a healthy workplace and culture with one simple exercise. When they walk into a hospital and ask a front staff or team member the hospital’s goals for the year, three years and five years – if the team member doesn’t have an answer to at least one of those, that’s a red flag.

Shirley said unfortunately, many veterinary hospitals have mission statements or purpose statements, but nobody on their team knows what they are. “If I walk into your hospital, and nobody there can tell me what makes your hospital special, what you’re doing and where you’re going, then that’s a red flag too,” Shirley said. “If you walk into Family Pet Health, and you ask our team why we exist, what’s our purpose, I believe that 100% of them will be able to tell you that.”

They can tell you the vision because the veterinary hospital has invested in their emotional intelligence, life skills, and well-being. It’s a simple concept, really – take care of your people, and they’re going to take care of everything else. “Is it easy? No, it takes a lot of work to do,” Shirley said. “And it must come from the top all the way through the whole business. Everybody has to believe it.”

 

Michael Shirley headshotMichael Shirley chief empowerment officer of Family Pet Heath

 

 

 

 

Dr. Amy Shirley headshot

Amy Shirley, DVM clinical leader for Family Pet Health

 

 

 

 

 

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