Back in my academic homeland of business administration, the discussion on the differences between the role of a manager and that of a leader was a hot one. It is not one, I’ve found, that translates well into the world of veterinary practice. So hot is the topic in business academia that I even have a favourite set of definitions for it. Pioneer in leadership studies Warren Bennis (1989) articulated 12 practical differences between the roles, and for good reason.
What’s in a name?
Defining a role sets an expectation, which in turn provides an opportunity to meet or exceed that expectation, resulting in job satisfaction for the employee and productivity for the employer – or to fall short of it, highlighting the need for further coaching and potentially performance management. Either way, the outcome should be the fulfilled, motivated and skilled team you desire. Conversely, when you fail to effectively communicate what you want from your team members, you essentially forgo your ability to provide constructive feedback. This is especially true when someone is promoted to a management role based on their seniority, or success, in a previous, non-management, position.
“The manager focuses on systems and structure; the leader focuses on people.”
Systems and structure are important in any administrative task: when executed well they ensure everything functions, from the consult diary being organised, to there being paper in the printer. But a receptionist who is preoccupied with such tasks, prioritising them above the needs of their colleagues and clients, is not ideal. In fact, chances are they earned their role for their stand-out communication skills and personability! So by weighing them down with this burdensome management title, you promote them beyond the realms of their specific skillset, taking away the source of their job satisfaction. Unless of course you qualify their new job title with your specific expectations.
“The manager accepts the status quo; the leader challenges it.”
Traditionally the first foray into the world of management, and last stop before practice management, the head nurse role is shrouded in variance: from being the person who does the rota to performing an active role in recruiting, practice profitability and everything in between. Depending on where your practice falls on this spectrum of expectation – and the size and composition of your existing practice team – it’s feasible that you might actually find a highly driven, dynamic person in this role to be disruptive. The important thing is that you identify and recruit for the unique blend of people management, clinical, financial and administration skills required to fulfil whatever it means to be a head nurse in your practice, and share that vision with the whole team.
“The manager relies on control; the leader inspires trust.”
In veterinary practice we seem to spend a disproportionate amount of time together in close quarters, in high-pressure and highly emotive situations, compared to other industries. This is where trust is inspired, and engaged and bonded teams are built. Not to mention, respecting clinical freedom will always limit the scope to which a practice manager can “control” members of their clinical team. Transferring traditional management skills from other industries, or from generic textbooks, doesn’t work. You have to find a collaborative approach.
By now I hope you’re thinking this is all semantics, because you’d be right. But bear with me: it doesn’t mean it’s not relevant. If you don’t explain to the newest member of the practice’s upper echelons precisely what you envisage their role to be, then they are liable to turn to Google for the “top 10 ways to assert their seniority”, to Amazon for an “Idiot’s Guide”, or worse; they’ll begin to mirror the behaviour of the managers of their past – which by their very virtue of being “past”, may indicate they weren’t very good managers. You only have to look at the Stanford Prison Experiment (Haney et al., 1973) – and do; it’s fascinating – to see how far untamed authority can go!
The veterinary world is really good at defining clinical roles. You have codes, committees and acts of legislation that tell you what you can and cannot do. Think about it: when you have a dog to castrate, no one wastes time by asking who would like to wield the scalpel today. Everyone already knows their part. Defining the roles of your practice leaders should be no different, and of course it doesn’t have to be academically correct, it just has to be understood.