Crafting a Culture

July 2023 |

The team at Advanced Animal Care made their practice a place where people love coming to work.

Advanced Animal CareBack in 2019, no one at Advanced Animal Care in Richmond, Ky., looked forward to coming in to work. “We had monstrous, explosive revenue growth of 32.1% that year,” remembers Business Manager John Martin. “It was great for the bottom line, but it wrecked our culture and our staff. Overtime became the norm, and everybody was exhausted and at their limit.”

Adds Marketing and Culture Director Ella Morin (John’s daughter), “Once seven people quit at once; it was terrible.”

Determined to save their family business, Martin and Morin devised a plan to turn things around. Today the practice is living out its revamped mission: “To be a place that never turns clients away, and where staff look forward to coming to work.”

Redefining Culture

Morin started with a break room, turning a large extra room in the back of the clinic into a comfortable space where staff could retreat and recharge when needed. “That small change laid the foundation for the big change, because people realized we were serious about doing things for them,” she says.

After that, they held a culture change meeting, creating new practice values (See box below) and put the values on an “Our Culture!” poster that everyone signed.  “It’s the signature that really helps hold everyone accountable equally,” says Martin. “We reagree to it annually, every new hire signs it, and it’s up in the break room for all to see.”

The practice’s other ideas for culture change:

  • Celebrate successes. Morin created a “culture box” in the break room that staff can use to recognize each other for acting out the values on the poster. Morin draws a slip monthly, and winners receive a $25 gift card to the establishment of their choice. “It’s a constant reminder to be on the lookout for your team members’ positive actions,” she says.
  • Provide tangible recognition. Based on a staff suggestion, Morin also created a “culture level-up program” with a series of online quizzes based on the five cultural values. Staff can elect to complete these self-evaluations and solicit anonymous peer reviews to earn culture levels from C1 to C5, which are displayed on their name badges. “Clients don’t know what it means, but we do,” says Morin.
  • Throw a party. After their Berea, Ky., location decided to develop five cultural values of their own, Morin revamped the annual staff party to a “10 Top Dogs” awards banquet, a lavish evening for staff and families from all the clinic locations.
  • Give culture a line item in your budget. Martin advises designating a part-time culture leader and devoting 1% of gross revenue to culture initiatives such as events, awards, gifts, food, appreciation weeks, branded clinic swag and other morale boosters. At Advanced Animal Care, much of the practice’s marketing budget was shifted from attracting and keeping clients to attracting and keeping staff.
  • Hold people accountable. Don’t be afraid to fire team members who hurt your defined practice culture, advises Martin. “You can’t allow a team member to stay on board who drags everyone down, no matter how well they perform,” he says. “Within six months, we fired a key top-performing employee based solely on culture. It sent shock waves through the whole hospital, as people realized that doing your job well is no justification for being a jerk.” The practice had three record-breaking weeks within two months of the firing.

Avoiding Burnout

Hand-in-hand with the new cultural values, Martin addressed the practice’s problem of being understaffed. “You can’t have a good culture if you’re understaffed,” he says. “Being short-staffed can demoralize people quicker than anything.”

He took tangible steps to make current employees happier and attract new employees, and was able to raise his staff numbers from 21 to 37 FTE, as well as hiring two additional doctors. His top tips:

  • Reduce overtime percentages. Martin put his hiring director in charge of measuring the overtime percentage every four weeks and gave her a scaled bonus for lowering it. “To us, that’s a critical measure of culture,” says Martin.
  • Increase staff compensation. All support staff received a 7.94% pay increase, which got labor percentages back in line with the practice goal of 18.4%. “Before, 75% of people we offered jobs to turned them down or didn’t show up; now 70% accept,” he adds.
  • Pay doctors well. Along the same lines, the practice pays doctors about 24% of the hospital’s gross revenue, far over the recommended benchmarks. “We decided to overpay our doctors and take a hit on profit margins,” says Martin.
  • Provide more autonomy. Martin created autonomous, accountable teams for reception, triage and treatment, and appointed team leads for each. “I decided we need to quit being the bottleneck as leaders and let more people make their own decisions,” he says. “In our clinic, a lot of ideas come from the bottom. People who come up with ideas are far more enthusiastic to carry them out.”

According to Martin, investing in your culture is worth it. “It’s what you do if you want to see years of healthy, strong growth,” he says. “Culture is the long game.”

1 Mission, 5 Values

The Advanced Animal Care team decided on five core cultural values that define everything they do and help them achieve their practice mission.

To be a place that never turns clients away, and where staff look forward to coming to work.

Cultural Values:

  1. Teamwork: Have each other’s back.
  2. Respectful communication: Know what to say and how to say it.
  3. Do unto others: Treat others the way you would want to be treated.
  4. Positive solution-based work environment: Don’t find problems, find answers.
  5. Commitment to growth and best medicine: Increase your skills and knowledge.