Utilising organisational development within the veterinary profession

Rob Williams vet
I chose to be a surgeon and pursued it with varying degrees of success and failure until I finally got well and truly bored (seriously, mind-numbingly bored) with clinical work. Luckily, I discovered something I was good at — and find endlessly fascinating – organisational development.

What is organisational development?

Simplistically, it’s about having the right person in the right place, doing the right job with the right attitude and behaviours, and giving them the support and training they need to allow them to flourish. For a big veterinary corporate business it’s essential.

For too long the veterinary profession has had a laissez faire attitude to good management and leadership. This has led us to where we are now, engulfed in a fog of disillusionment and crisis about wellbeing.

Most of the issues touted as wellbeing problems are not that at all. As I see it, most of them are a manifestation of or the result of poor behaviours, either on the part of employees or employers, or more often a mixture of both. The issues vets face are:

  • Placing unrealistic expectations on themselves

  • Having a poor understanding of risk and medical uncertainty (which is the norm)

  • Suffering from poor, inconsistent or absent management and leadership

  • Having no obvious career structure or pathway and no route to highly paid jobs

The good news is that these are all solvable, it just takes the right mindset and a determination not to take no for an answer. And this is where organisational development comes in.

Graduate development programme 

While I was still working as clinician for Vet Partners, I learned that the company wanted to create a graduate programme; however, after several months nothing seemed to be happening so I decided to have a go at developing one. Two days later I had created from scratch our Graduate Development Programme. I presented it to my boss Jo Malone and said, rather sheepishly: ‘Here you go, see if this is any use to you’.

Turns out it was, and I became the programme director – just like that – and it was my route out of clinical work.

Management training programme 

Next, I created a management training programme to give newly promoted managers some of the foundational knowledge and skills required to run a practice or manage a team. It was based on my own uncomfortable experience earlier in my career when I had been promoted to a clinical director role with only my wits to save me from disaster.

It was during one of these management training sessions attended by our newly appointed human resources director that I first heard him say, ‘that’s organisational development that you’re doing, you won’t know what that means but that’s what it is’.

Career pathways based on competencies

Following on from this I created a career pathway for vets based on a competency and behaviour framework. It allows them to create the career they want and tracks them from newly qualified vet, along their route through the group to the very top.

Once we have fully developed it as a tool, we will introduce it to all our vet teams and create similar pathways for our nurse, reception, administration and head office teams.

No typical day 

There isn’t a typical day in this role. I might be leading one of our management programme training events, organising something for our graduates, liaising with a practice that is introducing our career pathway or hosting an appreciative inquiry or action research session with a small group to figure out the next initiative to solve a problem.

The most satisfying part of my job is making a difference to people’s working lives. Their problems are solutions waiting to be discovered (to mince a cliché), and it just so happens that after 17 years I’ve found that I’m good at finding solutions and making things happen.

Most of the time this is as simple as listening to them – not judging them – and then figuring out how we can improve the situation they find themselves in.

In this way, I have also overcome my low boredom threshold as I don’t know from one day to the next what I’m going to be working on.

At VetPartners we have a different approach to running a veterinary business. There isn’t a top-down, autocratic, command and control management culture. Our name sums up our approach; we work in partnership with our practices to allow them to become the best they can be.

We work on the assumption that if we delegate responsibility across every level of the business and trust our teams to do their job to the best of their ability, they will flourish and so will the business.

We have our chief executive officer Jo Malone to thank for this, and I personally owe her a debt of gratitude for giving me the opportunity to perform this role. within a veterinary business.

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