Throughout her career journey, Dr. Linda Lehmkuhl’s focus has shifted.
You become a veterinarian to help puppies and kittens, the CEO says. But the first time you’re on the other side of the exam table, you realize it’s not just about helping the pet. It’s also about helping that owner preserve his or her special bond.
Lehmkuhl joined MedVet Medical & Cancer Centers for Pets in 2000, leaving her role as an academic cardiologist at The Ohio State University. In private practice at a specialty animal hospital, she had another aha moment, and her focus shifted to referral partners.
“They’re the general practitioners in the community that send us the pets and clients,” Lehmkuhl says. “They trust us with their pet and their client.”
MedVet — and Lehmkuhl — could deliver a greater impact by helping these referral partners. If they’re successful, MedVet can help thousands of patients and clients.
“Do I still love the patient and the client and care about them?” she says. “Yeah. But I realized my career, at that point, became, How do we help referral partners better? How do we serve them?”
When Lehmkuhl started leading teams — as medical director, regional medical director, chief medical officer and now CEO — her attention moved to MedVet’s employees. How could she deliver a great employee experience and ensure they were engaged and empowered?
“The focus of my career changed,” she says. “They’re all important to MedVet — patients, clients, referral partners and our team — but as I journeyed through my career, the laser focus moved.”
Each stakeholder has been there the whole time, but the way Lehmkuhl makes an impact is different.
Growing into the role
Lehmkuhl learned much of her managerial skills on the job, reading books and listening to others. MedVet’s former CEO, Dr. Eric Schertel, also prepared her to take his role — often without her realizing it. He exposed her to more of the organization, doing things like inviting her to meetings with the CFO and letting her take the lead on her idea of how to restructure the leadership team.
Lehmkuhl became CEO in January 2019, as Schertel moved into the executive chairman role and MedVet hired a president with the business knowledge to help the organization scale. With the transition, Lehmkuhl hired an executive coach.
“I had wanted to get a coach before,” she says. “I was an athlete. I really believe in coaches. A couple times I thought about it, and Eric would be like, ‘You don’t have time for that. You’re too busy.’”
The timing finally seemed right, though, and Lehmkuhl met with the coach every two weeks for a year, which included a six-month transition as interim CEO. He challenged her to pause and redefine her roles and responsibilities. What does success look like? What does MedVet need now, as opposed to when Schertel was in the role?
Today, she still sees him monthly because she finds it helpful.
“There are some things as a CEO that I might not want to talk to anybody about on the leadership team,” she says. “Maybe I’m struggling on how to support one of my executive leaders and I don’t want to talk about that to somebody else on the team.”She’s also taken one more step along the journey to be a developer, rather than a doer.
“I think the biggest change, for me — and this the coach did help — was really seeing that the role of CEO requires much less diving in and doing, and much more lifting up and supporting,” Lehmkuhl says. “That was still a challenge for me. Throughout my career, that’s a pretty common struggle from physician to people leader. Physicians are doers and not necessarily natural people leaders.”
She’s defined her CEO role as two things — being MedVet’s storyteller and building the best leadership team and health care steering committee she can.
The leadership transition isn’t the only change at MedVet, which is growing rapidly. Three years ago, the company had 12 hospitals. At the end of the first quarter of 2020, MedVet will have 29 hospitals in 15 states. The company also recapitalized last year to gain funds to continue to acquire hospitals, build its first practice in a new geography from the ground up and invest in its current facilities, Lehmkuhl says.
MedVet has a great integration playbook when it buys a hospital in a new market, but it also has to preserve the organizational culture as it grows and scales.
“We’re very strong believers that leaders drive culture, culture drives behavior and behavior drives results,” she says. “My team gets tired of hearing me say it.”
Helping ensure the organization is aligned across its purpose, mission, values, visions and strategies is something Lehmkuhl enjoys working on. As a larger organization, however, MedVet has to approach its culture more deliberately. Culture is no longer a side effect of having good people who are aligned around the mission and values.
“You have to work more at it,” she says. “You have to be aware that culture is a factor and that you’re driving it, or not, because it’s happening, regardless.”
This hit home for Lehmkuhl a few years ago. Some MedVet executives traveled to Cleveland Clinic for a health care meeting that focused on employee experience, while in the middle of a three-month strategic planning process.
“We came back and met with the group and said, ‘Yeah, we’re missing the boat. We value our team, but we’re not focusing on them as hard as we’re focusing on delivery of the MedVet experience,’” Lehmkuhl says.
The company needed to focus on its employees first; they are the ones who deliver the MedVet experience that leads to healthy growth.
“We’re all about serving,” she says. “We want every pet to get the best outcome. We want every client to get the best experience. We want every referral partner to have a trusted place where they can send pets. But you get so focused on what you do that you aren’t focused on who does it.”
Lehmkuhl says your team needs to be supported, given a voice and developed into leaders.
It’s also important to sometimes look outside your organization to find answers.
“Some things just hit you at the right time, but you’ve got to be out there and be exposed to them,” Lehmkuhl says. “Widen your box a little bit.”
Once MedVet saw the need to prioritize the employee experience, it re-evaluated, identifying gaps that needed to be addressed. It had to know the employees’ voices and respond to them, while helping them develop as leaders.
“Not that we had bad culture, and not that we didn’t care about our employees, but it was a new focus,” Lehmkuhl says.
The company created training, which worked on controlling responses and delivering exceptional experiences to others, and then put it into action at each hospital.
“It transformed culture in some of our hospitals because it gave leaders and the people a common language to drive accountability of behavior,” Lehmkuhl says. “That was instrumental.”
MedVet also defined key elements of the employee experience and worked on those five buckets, and brought in a new chief human resources officer to help build a stronger culture.
The organization did an employee experience survey for the first time in February 2018, and the 4,000 comments it received demonstrated that it was overdue. Lehmkuhl says there is still work to be done on employee engagement, but increased scores over the past few years show progress.
Finally, MedVet emphasized leadership development with an in-house program, Leadership in Action, she says. This helps technicians develop into leaders who can administer change management, conflict resolution and business management.As an added benefit, it brought people from across the country closer together. They built relationships in which they reach out more and share best practices.
Homing in on the employee experience drove visible results. Lehmkuhl says the next step for the organization is learning how to stay focused consistently, in order to execute great ideas in an elite manner.
This is a lesson MedVet has been given repeatedly, but it is something it still struggles with.
“You can’t layer on too many things at once,” she says, adding that it takes time to roll things out across the organization, as change is never easy.
The leadership team and health care steering committee need to keep asking, “Is this something to dive in on? Should it be identified as problem for later, or should the organization look for a bigger issue that might solve both problems?”
“We’re great at getting excited about good ideas, but we need to reserve our efforts for the great ideas, because again, we’ve got a team that is process-improvement minded,” Lehmkuhl says. “Anybody says, ‘Oh, this would be better,’ and we are all ready to dive in, and you can’t do that at our size and actually execute, because you won’t bring the team with you.”
- At each stage of your career, identify where to put your focus.
- Employees drive your strategies, so take care of them.
- Don’t trust your corporate culture to luck; work at it.
Name: Dr. Linda Lehmkuhl
Company: MedVet Medical & Cancer Centers for Pets
Born: Beverly, Massachusetts, but grew up in Baltimore
Education: Bachelor’s degree in biochemistry from Virginia Tech, and a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine from The Ohio State University, which included a master’s degree
What was your first job and what did you learn from it? When I was 15, I started working at Armstrong Board and Groom. I wanted a job at a veterinary hospital, but no one would hire me. Instead, I found a kennel that had a hospital upstairs. After a couple of summers, I started working for John and Al Armstrong at Armstrong Animal Hospital. I worked for them every summer until I graduated from veterinary school.
They were old-school clinicians who had been practicing for 50 years. I learned about service, bedside manner and compassion. For example, one Christmas Eve, John called and asked me to come in. Someone had hit a dog. The guy didn’t own the dog and wasn’t going to pay, but John went in and treated that hit-by-car.
What was the hardest management skill for you to learn and why? Learning to teach, rather than do. That transition to coach, mentor and developer.
As a young clinician with staff, if I didn’t like how they did something, I would sit down and do it. I realized I needed to be developing people.
That was hard for me to let go of, for a while. Once I did, it was obvious how beneficial and rewarding it was to develop a team. My natural instinct was to be a doer. You solve the problem — read the test, perform the test, interpret the test, write up your results and go talk to the client. Plus, perfectionism is a pretty common physician trait. You want to get it right.
Where might someone find you on the weekend? I don’t mind being a bit of weekend worker. You might find me sitting at home, typing with my dogs around me. I also read a lot, fiction and nonfiction.
I have three adult children in college that I hang out with. I became an empty nester this year. My husband encourages me to exercise, so we work out together. We also play a lot with our three dogs.