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Leadership in a new world

How will leaders need to adapt to the rapidly changing profession?

26 October 2018, at 8:46am

The veterinary profession is in the midst of unprecedented change. With corporatisation, Brexit, a retention crisis, gender shift, technology and well-being issues, the profession is a perfect example of a VUCA world.

First coined by the US military, VUCA stands for volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. Used to describe the new world order after the Cold War, it has been adopted by academics and the business community to describe our rapidly changing world. Gordon first came across the concept of VUCA about 10 years ago, when working in financial services. He used the model to help change leaders’ mindsets in the aftermath of the financial crisis – helping recalibrate how they led in a world they were not expecting or indeed prepared for.

VUCA describes how the world is changing at speed:

  • Volatility is best described as the increased nature, speed, volume and magnitude of change.
  • Uncertainty highlights the lack of predictability in the new world and the increasing prospect of unexpected events or outcomes.
  • Complexity focuses on the range of issues we deal with at the same time and a move away from “cause and effect” outcomes.
  • Ambiguity is about mixed or multiple meanings and the potential to misinterpret people, data or events.

Who could have predicted 10 years ago the general landscape of the veterinary profession today? It has evolved from veterinary owner-led businesses to a range of business models – plc-led groups, privately owned multi-site groups, joint venture ownership models and independent practices (both established and “start-ups”). No one can predict what the landscape will look like in 2030.

The veterinary workforce is also undergoing a major shift – the drivers are another example of VUCA. There is a systemic and multi-faceted workforce issue. For example, people are leaving practice in large numbers, as their perceived needs are not being met – whether this is around “hygiene factors” (like working hours, working conditions or pay) or emotional needs (like well-being or the working culture).

The gender shift continues – 80 percent of current vet students in the UK are female. There will be increased pressure on employers for flexible and agile working options – and not just from female employees. This is not unique to the profession and reflects the broader changing attitudes to work; however, the profession has been slower to respond; according to the CIPD (Chartered Institute for Personal Development), in 2016, 54 percent of the UK working population was working flexibly.

Linked to this trend is the move from permanent employment to locum work: the profession’s own version of the “contingent workforce”. Whatever the drivers for vets and nurses to move out of permanent employment, all the research indicates that the “contingent workforce” will be an essential component of the UK economy across all sectors – and is attractive to all age groups, not just millennials.

Brexit is perhaps the best live example of VUCA – with the potential impact being felt across all areas of the profession from medicines to workforce. The effect could be a minor ripple or a tsunami. Given the reliance on EU vets across all parts of the UK veterinary workforce, it is necessary to prepare for a range of possible outcomes.

Leaders in every organisation (including government) are challenged by how to lead in this VUCA world. This is amplified in the veterinary sector, not just for the reasons outlined above, but also because leadership capability and experience are not as developed as in other sectors. There are numerous key leadership challenges and opportunities, both immediate and emerging.

The profession is at a crossroads. We can either choose to ignore the impact of a VUCA world, or choose to embrace it, along with the opportunities available. A fundamental shift in mindset and skills will be required for the profession to thrive. It will be important to:

Learn and collaborate – both inside and outside of the sector to understand the world we operate in.

Invest in leadership capability – whether in a formal leadership role or not. CPD does not just need to be clinical or confined to the veterinary profession. Podcasts, books, TED talks and leadership programmes are available.

Learn to flip your perspective – from seeing everything that the VUCA world brings as problems, to opportunities and trying something different.

In summary, we all need to be prepared to adapt our mindsets and develop new skills, to not only remain relevant, but to thrive in the new world.

Gordon Dunn is People Director at the Pets at Home Vet Group. He has over 30 years of experience in human resources and organisational development. Gordon is particularly interested in recruitment and retention, developing leadership capability and well-being.

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Catriona Curtis, BVM&S, MRCVS, is Veterinary Talent Manager at the Pets at Home Vet Group. In 2019, she will become President of SPVS. Catriona has an active interest in how the profession is adapting to ongoing changes.

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