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Helping team members be their best: Assembling your team (Proceedings)

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Aug 01, 2009

Hiring people and having them all work within the same 4 walls doesn't make them a team. Building a team that actually functions as a team, in other words working together to accomplish goals, is a great feat, in my mind. We all work in a pressure cooker environment that's a recipe for strained relationships, turnover and stress. It's not enough to hire the right people, although that's important, but you also have to train them, nurture them, lead them and correct mistakes. The first thing you have to realize when it comes to hiring and training is that you are going to make mistakes. Don't feel bad if you have problems – we all do!

I also am a realist when it comes to the employees I already have In my opinion, most things in life fit on a bell curve. Teachers you've had, books you've read, movies, clients – and, of course, employees. There will be a few really good, a few really bad and a whole bunch of average in between. As my husband says, "There's always a worst employee." So sit back and learn to enjoy the ride and the challenge, because there's no bigger one in business than hiring and keeping good employees.

That said, now what? Unfortunately, I think there's a lot of bunk out there when it comes to hiring that you might as well get over now. First, the myth that if you carry your business cards with you and give them to the nice waitress or the nice check-out girl and ask if they want to apply you'll get good employees. The reality is, they can make a lot better money being a waitress, so unless they have that animal care calling – and if they did they'd be working in the field already – they probably won't be too interested.

Secondly, I'm looking for someone who shares my team's work ethic and philosophy on pet care. That eliminates a lot of people right there. Just as 20% of your clients are your "A" clients who pay 80% of your bills because they treat their pets like children, only 20% of the people you interview will probably have that sort of match with my practice. They then must meet my other hiring criteria as well. In addition, they have to be willing to put in crappy hours when we're open on Saturdays and evenings. The pay isn't great compared to many other things they could be doing. The work is challenging and sometimes dangerous. The odds of that waitress or check out person actually turning out to be a good fit for my hospital, and staying for the long haul, are probably about 1000 to 1.

OK, now I'm depressed. Really, what do you do? Everyone has their own theories. Things that have worked for me: send your chatty receptionist to hang out at the dog park and talk with pet owners. Tap your local humane society. Strike up a conversation with the pet store employee. Think about clients who care about their pets, have their head on straight, and are unhappy with their current job. I think going straight to animal related places narrows your focus right away

Second myth: keep a prospective employee on the back burner at all times. Come on – people can't afford to wait for you to call. By the time you get back to them it's too late, they took another job. Better to hire them when you find them and wait for your worst employee to make their move. If the new person turns out to be good they'll find a way to make themselves useful. So hire 2 for every 1 you need – one or the other is sure to leave. Some of my best employees I hired on the spot because I thought they would be great to have, not because I was looking for someone.

Third myth: you should hire technicians to leverage the doctor's time. In my area, and probably in yours, you can't find a technician for love nor money. You have to train people to do as much tech stuff as possible, which takes a huge amount of time and effort. In a profession consisting primarily of women, tenure is a huge issue for us. People's lives and goals change. Again, take good people when you find them, and hope for the best.

Fourth myth – if you ask all those brilliant, probing questions, you'll be able to identify a winner. First off, job applicants lie. "What's your greatest weakness?" "I work too hard and care too much." Give me a break! If they sound like they're reciting a script, be careful.

I've seen hundreds of good interview questions that are supposed to reveal someone's true personality – but the people that write the questions seldom tell you what the right answers are or how to interpret them. Do I still ask the questions? Yes, but I take the answers with a grain of salt, too. I know the person may be lying, or they may be someone who interviews well or poorly without that being a true picture of their personality. You don't know if they falsified their resume – an amazingly high percentage of people do. You're always taking a chance.

Questions I ask and what I'm looking for: Tell me about the best boss you've ever had. Tell me about the worst boss you've ever had. If the best sounds nothing like me, and the worst one does, we won't get along. People that like a lot of sugar coating and hand-holding don't last long in my practice.

What did you like most about your past job? Least? Again, if they like a quiet, slow pace or having their own cubicle – not a good fit. If they like variety and a fast pace, that's good. If they didn't like the back-stabbing or gossiping at the old place, they won't contribute to it at yours, on the one hand, but if that's a problem in your practice, she may not stay. If they like routine, and steady hours – bad. If they don't like stress – double bad.

What activities and hobbies do you participate in? What issues are you passionate about? If they have none, they won't generally take home extra work, read up on something on their own time, volunteer for the dog wash or help anyone else out. The best employees are busy people. They volunteer at the shelter, spend time on charity work, go to classes, have hobbies or sports. Look for those go-getters.

Give me an example of the human animal bond and what it means. If they don't get the HAB, I won't hire them. I want to know a little bit about how they care for their own pets and how they feel about them. Everyone who applies says "I love animals," but that doesn't mean they take care of them or will encourage other pet owners to do so.

Give me an example of a stressful situation and how you responded. If I were working next to you, how would I know if you were stressed or upset? Then ask their references the same questions. Do they manage their stress or frustration or take it out on others? What frustrates them – is it things they will likely encounter in your hospital? Ask about strengths or weaknesses and again, ask references, too. If they are self-aware you will get the same responses.

I also give them scenarios to see how they would respond. "What would you say when: the client who dropped the dog off in the morning for a bath, specifically requesting that it be ready to go at 3 p.m., is standing in front of you, upset because it's 3 p.m., and the dog is not ready to go yet?" "What would you do if you forgot to give a customer the pet's medication on their way out?" Can they solve a problem? Do they have some idea of appropriate customer service?

For more good interview questions, I like Dr. Tom Catanzaro's book Building the Successful Veterinary Practice, vol. 3, Innovation and Creativity.