Thought Leadership Series: The Role of Learning and Development in Veterinary Medicine

Posted by Mara Hyman on January 31, 2021

Has the importance of employee upskilling changed as a result of the pandemic? What can managers do to position their veterinary staff for growth? We spoke with Melissa J. Supernor, LVT, CVT, VTS (SAIM), a long-time learning and development strategist and instructor, to learn about why she loves her work and what practices need to consider as they think about the long-term success of their business.

How did you get started in your field? What drew you to veterinary medicine in particular?

Melissa: I’ve always wanted to work in some type of animal medicine, but I didn’t know it was going to be vet med. From the earliest age, I wanted to work with animals, not knowing what that was going to lead me to; when I went to high school, I started to explore what that actually meant. I thought about being a veterinarian or animal behaviorist because I loved psychology too, and I was interested in the mutual bond between humans and animals. When I went to the vet tech program at Becker College, I fell in love with the medical side of the veterinary field. When I started my first job and really saw what a veterinary technician was, I fell in love with it. Then as I advanced my career, every single day was something new, and it just made me love the field even more. Even up until this day I discover new things. I love working with my colleagues, the animals and clients. And that just drew me in, so I never left. There have been times where I’ve thought about leaving the field, but when I look back at my 30-year career, I still love it as if I was just graduating.


Melissa Supernor delivering keynote.

What’s your favorite part of your work? Most challenging?

Melissa: My favorite part is working with the pets. But looking back at vet med and really looking at what I enjoy the most, it’s the education portion. Not only working with, training, and educating other colleagues and students, but also educating the client and having clear communication with them. Client education is so important because the client and pet are essentially part of that healthcare team, and we really need them to understand what’s going on with their pet to really be able to get their pet better, or at least understand what’s going on so that they can make informed decisions. It's important for us to understand both communication methods and the medical side so you can get that through to the client.

The most challenging part can be working with people, because everyone has their own personality, and it doesn’t matter if it’s a client or if it’s people within the team itself. That’s our real challenge. And that’s actually why I got my psych degree, because I wanted to be able to work and understand people as individuals. Part of managing learning and development initiatives is understanding that everybody is an individual, and they all learn on their own basis. Everybody is a student every day, and we should be learning something new every day. That’s why I love formal education, because every student that came through my classroom was an individual. If I had 100 students in front of me, they all learned differently. It’s important to understand that so we provide the best skill and knowledge for everyone to get the best for their pet and their families.

What do you think makes an effective practice leader? How can managers best support the growth of their veterinary teams?

Melissa: I think they can best support it by staying up to date with their own knowledge, skills, and resources to be able to share with their staff. A lot of my education came from the people I worked with. If I didn’t understand something, I would ask them. It’s important to make it a comfortable atmosphere and have a great culture, to be somebody that has empathy, has compassion, has high EQ, and the love for their team. Because if you’re not leading by example, your team is going to be stuck and not as effective at their jobs. And resources, whether they’re educational or other resources like wellbeing, should come from within the practice.

Communication is also so important. And that’s the one thing that I think that, throughout the entire world, vet med and elsewhere, we’re lacking- communication, and clear concise communication. To be able to provide constructive feedback and really help folks understand what they’re doing right and what they’re doing wrong so those team members can improve themselves, and be able to help the pets and their families.

Why is learning and development so important, especially in the vet industry? Has COVID reinforced the importance of employee upskilling?

Melissa: I don’t think COVID times has changed learning and development per se, but I do think we have a lot more opportunities for not only online education but classroom education. If you’re a vet assistant and you want to move up to a vet tech, having that opportunity to go into an online program to be able to do that, or being able to do some formal education towards becoming a practice manager, there’s online programs through that. I think COVID has taught us a lot about our timeframe and doing continuing education online.

The challenge is that there’s more animals that are coming into their practice, so they have more appointments, so they don’t have as much time. But if they utilize their staff and their time in the proper way, we can give our teams the opportunity to take advantage of online learning. Every conference from February on was online, and a lot of them are still open. But online programs are also expanding-Penn Foster is online, and they’re expanding their programs to betterment of the veterinary field.

But a colleague recently asked me how I would be training if I was in a practice right now. And I said, it’s actually the best time because we don’t have clients that are in the building. So they’re not hearing their animal barking, or screaming, and worrying if it’s their pet. All that training that we could be doing – catheter placements, or blood draws, or any of that stuff – can be done now, so it’s actually a great time for in person learning.

So it really is that it can be done, it just has to be done kind of in a, I say a two-tier, doing it online and then doing it in a hospital. And it’s not easy, but it can be done. And COVID’s not going to be around forever, so how do we keep it so they keep continuing to learn both the hard skills and the soft skills? And I think you can do a lot of soft skills online and a lot of the hard skills, obviously, in a hospital setting.

When thinking about the increase in pet ownership combined with greater employee burnout, how we can educate employees and make sure that they’re equipped or at least have the confidence to be able to take on these extra responsibilities?

Melissa: A good way to work through the burnout is to give your teams another challenge. So how do we do that? The only way we can do it is with learning and development. To let them learn and let them find a new challenge. If you sit down with every single one of your team members, and I did this at every practice I was at, and ask what they wanted for their future, for their professional development and their personal development, they know what they want. They may not know it in the fact of like oh, I want to go to school here, or whatever the case may be, but they might say, I want to go get my vet tech bachelor’s degree- and then you work through, how are they going to do that? They might want to go and get a vet tech specialty. Maybe they just want to go and get their CVT, so how do you get them to go through and get the license in their state? The burnout is there and I lecture about it a lot. But the other side of that is, our teams are stuck in a thought of, they can’t do anything else. All they can do is this. And they need to be able to have that encouragement to be able to advance themselves further into their professional and personal development.

Would you give any advice to someone looking to enter the veterinary field today? Or, thinking retrospectively, is there anything that you wish you knew going in that you know now? Or for someone who’s particularly interested in the area of learning and development?

Melissa: I think I would want to learn more and stay curious. I was very much a shy person in some aspects and didn’t want people to think that I didn’t know something. I wanted to make it look like I was the professional. And I didn’t know everything every day, but I did learn a lot on my own, and I think it’s important that if you feel you don’t know something, to go learn and ask questions.

Find somebody that is a great mentor. I think that was something that was so helpful. And I have probably a good six of them now, but whenever I have any question, if I have any career question, a learning question, if I want to learn about a certain disease process or whatever, I have somebody I can go to. I always made sure that I learned something new every day. It doesn’t have to be vet med. It was something in the world.

And then, enjoy what you’re doing. I think that’s what we lose, because we’re so busy, and there’s so much to do, and so much to learn, and we’re just sometimes losing out on that enjoyment that we’re seeing. Look at everything in the moment and stay as mindful as you can, because I think that that was one thing that I could say about earlier in my career, is I was never mindful. I was never in the moment. I was a sponge, I really just wanted to learn everything, but I didn’t really take the time to understand what I was learning. I always wanted to make sure that I was also in the moment for that pet, because if I wasn’t doing the best I could do for that pet, I wasn’t doing anything for him.

It’s so important to stay in the moment and know that they understand our energy. And if we have very high energy, then they actually do better medically and physically and emotionally, and I think that’s important to understand. Stay positive, even in these challenging times. COVID is a challenge, we know that, but on the other hand, every day there is a challenge. Every day there is a challenge for our clients, our pets, ourselves, our colleagues, there’s stuff that we don’t know that’s happening behind the scenes with different colleagues.

We all have our struggles, and each position has their own unique struggles. Utilize your friends and your colleagues to the best you can, even if you reach out to somebody you don’t know, or you meet somebody at a conference. Reach out to them. And finally, don’t take life so seriously. Live your own life, and really stay as resilient as you can and stay happy, positive, and enjoy what you’re doing, because it is difficult.