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Monday, March 13, 2000
 
2000 Small Business profiles

Broadway Veterinary Hospital

by Daneen Skube
Special to The Seattle Times

Entrepreneurs go into business for themselves often looking for career satisfaction that's as much emotional as it is financial. But it can be just as tough for an owner or manager to deal with workplace conflicts as it is for their employees.

That's what veterinarian Sandy Coon and Val Lodholm, her husband and business partner, found when they opened Broadway Veterinary Hospital in 1994.

"If this was a job working for somebody else, I would have quit," Coon recalled about her early years owning the veterinary clinic on Seattle's Capitol Hill.

"We were overwhelmed by how hard it was to go from being an employee to being an employer," said Lodholm.

Lodholm and Coon were confident about becoming managers when they opened the clinic.

Lodholm had done extensive negotiating on teachers' contracts for the Issaquah School District.

Coon grew up watching her father conduct union negotiations.

They eagerly anticipated using their negotiation background and theories about management developed by working for others.

When they became managers, they found their theories seriously flawed. They were dismayed to find their employees weren't working together as a team -- and, in fact, often were working against each other.

"The biggest headache was dealing with employees and all the problems that stem from managing people," Coon recalled. "I knew everyone working for me were genuinely good people and all this infighting seemed so senseless. They were all working for the same goal, but couldn't work together to get there."

As their ideals came crashing into reality, Lodholm remembers feeling like a deer trapped in headlights: Something had to be done, but what?

When faced with a tough animal medical case, they knew they'd go to a specialist for help. They decided to take the same approach with their staff challenges and hired me as a consultant to provide communication training.

Immediately, their efforts to improve organizational functioning were noticed by their employees, but not necessarily in the ways they had hoped.

Suddenly there were all kinds of open conflicts, and employees wouldn't agree on times and dates for the training.

Coon and Lodholm finally realized their employees' resistance to setting a date was not about the seminar. Before, during and after the seminar, the staff started to express interpersonal issues previously hidden during everyday business.

One of the employees gave notice as soon as she heard about the communication training. All of the staff, including Lodholm and Coon, felt silly trying to use the skills at work.

The owners found their employees believed they shouldn't have to take classes to learn communication.

Said Coon, "One of our employees actually said before the first training, 'Why do I have to do this, I've been talking my whole life.' "

After the sessions, Coon said, "We experienced 50 to 60 percent staff turnover, but what was raised out of those ashes was the best team that we have ever had."

Coon winced as she recalled the challenge of implementing better interpersonal skills: "It was agonizing working through all the ramifications. I knew it would give us a better outcome, but it was kind of like recovery must be for an alcoholic.

"In the sessions, the skills made so much sense. There were many examples given that showed the power these communication tools could lend in all the situations where we needed help."

With employees walking out the door and blaming the owners, Coon and Lodholm started to see they hadn't been hiring the right people.

They changed to group interviews, where they told would-be employees they expected more than just competence in veterinary medicine.

Lodholm now tells potential employees they will be expected to learn and use interpersonal skills and to deal with conflict directly. He uses what he calls the "squirm factor" during interviews, asking tough questions and evaluating interpersonal competence.

When new employees say they aren't having any interpersonal issues, Lodholm and Coon point out that either the employee isn't recognizing problems or isn't talking about them.

After six years of teaching and modeling emotional intelligence, Lodholm and Coon feel strongly about the edge these skills give their business.

"People say I really love you guys, and they aren't talking about me -- they're talking about our staff," Lodholm said. "The business has doubled since we've started implementing these skills."

"There are a huge number of vets," Coon said. "We want to stay at the cutting edge and that costs money. We have to be able to tell and show our clients what they are getting for their extra dollars.

"I'm also a much better vet when I can hear the emotions my clients have behind the medical issues," she said.

Coon and Lodholm said their efforts to create an emotionally intelligent business have ultimately been worthwhile.

"No communication tool is a magic pill," said Coon.

"It takes hard dedicated work. When the work is applied, it does pay off," said Lodholm.

"We've found our team works together well and helps each other grow technically as long as they are able to talk together personally," Coon said. "Our clients now also get a lot more attention to detail and service than we could have mandated with a thousand protocols."

Daneen Skube, Ph.D., a speaker and psychotherapist, coaches local companies and executives in interpersonal communications. Readers can write to Skube in care of No. 2845, 1420 N.W. Gilman Blvd., Issaquah, WA 98027-7001; e-mail: dr.skube@home.com or fax: 206-382-8879. Include a daytime phone number.

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