The first time that I tried to make sense of a compass was on Sunday, 27th January many more years ago than I care to remember.

I was 8 days into my officer training at Duntroon and with Australia Day gone virtually unnoticed, we were in the bush, starting to learn our craft.

The compass is close to all field commander’s hearts, not only because losing it is punishable by court martial, but it’s the only thing, other than the sun – with its obvious limitations in bad weather – and the stars, that is your source of truth as to where you are on the map.

The Australian bush presents many obstacles that will ‘take you off course’ and it’s easy to misinterpret what the terrain is telling you relative to the map and before you know it, you’re lost.

When this happens on operations, you raise a hand to signal for everyone to stop, raise two fingers in the air (like a peace sign), holding this configuration with your fingers, tap your opposite upper arm (to indicate two stripes, the rank of section commander), tap the top of your head to signal ‘come here’ and then show the palm of your hand with your fingers together and outstretched to indicate a map. Within seconds, the section commander is by your side with their map and compass out to conduct a ‘check-nav’.

Captain Paul Ainsowrth

Why am I telling you about maps and compasses and what has field craft got to do with you?

As we try to navigate yet another COVID lock-down (or potential lockdown), deal with increasing client numbers, face multiple emotionally driven decisions and deal with increasing pressure on teams that may struggle at the best of times to get along, it’s easy to feel the ‘fog of war’ descending upon us.  

We have our map – it’s our plan to get through the clinical case load for the day. A slightly larger map illustrates the terrain as we adjust to the seasons, each year.  We know what needs to be done and if we lived in a bubble, life would be pretty easy. 

But we don’t live in a bubble. We face physical, mental and emotional challenges that try to pull us off course. Sometimes, so far off course that we get lost.

Yesterday I spoke with a number of veterinary teams during our monthly on-line training session about Purpose and Values. I said that the compass was analogous to these two elements in so far as, like magnetic north on a compass, they are immovable, no matter what terrain we walk over or what weather we find ourselves in.

For many veterinary practices, it’s been way too long since they last ‘pulled out their compass’

This, despite Values and in particular Purpose being one of our greatest intrinsic motivators – and who wouldn’t mind a bit of that sauce right now!

One of the reasons they lie dormant or framed on the wall in all their glory, only to be now walked past, unseen is that we lack a framework to think about or talk about them with our teams.

Before I go into this though – a quick story – and if this is ‘you’, you really need to read on!

A number of years ago, I was coaching a veterinary practice owner who said to me…

“I don’t care what they (a collective noun for his esteemed colleagues) think about our Values, I’m not changing them and if they don’t like them, they can leave!!”

I’ve left out the more colourful language, but before you run to your moral high ground, we’d be less than honest with ourselves if we didn’t admit to occasionally having the same thought at times when members of our team fall short of what we expect, at least behaviourally.

After all, you started the business, you took on the financial risks and so you have a big say in what is important. What does need to be understood by everyone however is what each practice value means to them and how they manifest in our daily work.

Let’s take the value of Collaboration (however you want to express it). If you ask your team what this means to them, they will reflect on their role, their daily interactions with others and their lived experience before they even started working with you and give you an equally valid yet different take on what this value means to them.

This is a great conversation to have because if there’s a misalignment, we need to get on top of this as quickly as we can (there are 3 ‘Norths’ – I’ll let you google that – so don’t assume you’re using the correct interpretation). Then, document their thoughts in bullet points on the same piece of paper, get it up on the wall and pull it down regularly and ask “where are we winning and where do we have more work to do?”

From there; starting as many subsequent meetings as it makes sense to with this discussion is akin to pulling out your compass alongside your section commander and conducting a ‘nav-check’.

To round out my military analogy, there are 360 degrees on a compass. If you walk for 10 minutes, 10 degrees off course, you’ll be 145m away from the line you’re meant to be on.

When was the last time you did a ‘nav-check’?

If you feel you’re not where you think you should be on the ‘map’, maybe it’s time to pull out your compass?

All the best.

If you found this article helpful, you might be interested in this…

The Veterinary Industry Correction… How prepared are you?

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