A tabby cat looks on into the distance.

Care Comes First

I’ve been working with management teams over the last couple of decades (yeah, I’m that old). During my experiences, I’ve noticed a certain trend. At some point, usually early in a meeting, I find myself writing the same quote on a whiteboard:

“People need to know you care before they care what you know.”

I think I need to buy a chisel and carve that out on a big piece of granite. Or maybe I’ll go all in and tattoo it on my arm. In my humble opinion, it’s a universal management truth — worthy of being posted somewhere in plain view every day. It’s a reminder about the order of what’s important.

It’s about passion.

“People need to know you care before they care what you know” is really about passion. It’s easy to trust passionate people. In our industry, that means the people who care about the job and about the humans and animals they interact with every day. Many managers seek agreement through consensus rather than agreement led by passion. In my experience, consensus is overrated and passion is underrated. Consensus equals mediocrity. It potentially means 1 percent more than half are on board. I’d rather have a handful of passionate people than half a roomful of people who don’t really care.

Showing your board and your community you care endears you to them. Showing your staff you care sets you up as a trusted leader. It helps you relate to Millennials, it positions you as a champion and it strengthens bonds with every interaction you have. So if you care about demonstrating care, follow these steps to prove it.

  • Be the second-best person at every function in the building.
    Okay, not literally. Unless you’ve spent a lot of years learning the practice of veterinary medicine, you’re not going to be the second-best resource for spay and neuters in your organization. The point is that you need to have a fundamental understanding of every aspect of the organization. Not because you might have to fill in and take on every task, but it’s important to understand what people face, and how you can help. Understanding is the very important first step towards empathy, and people need to know you truly get it before they’ll rally behind you. Make sure when you are nodding in agreement in a meeting that you’re agreeing because you understand the issue.


  • Remember you have two ears and one mouth. Use them in that proportion.
    How do you get to a point where you really understanding an issue? One way is by listening twice as much as you speak. Pay close attention in an environment that will deliver the most honesty. Eavesdrop in the intake areas to hear what your community is saying and how they are being received. Sit with a veterinarian when they speak with staff or deliver news — good or bad — to a pet parent. Join the maintenance crew at lunch. Whatever it takes to create a comfort level so people will speak from the heart and identify the things that really matter to them, and you.


  • Hire experts and let them be experts.
    “You don’t get a dog and then bark for it.” Dogs are really good at barking and as hard as we may try, they’re better at it than we are. They’re experts. Surround yourself with experts and empower them to use their expertise. The ultimate sign of successful empowerment is when you find yourself leading an important meeting and saying, “Well you’re the expert and that’s not my call.” Jack Welch, my boss at GE (he was everyone’s boss when I was at GE) used to tell us to hire people smarter than we were. Contrary to popular belief, Jack was humble and passionate about the business he led and the people he brought on to help. Humility is a friend to effective leaders.


  • Stop managing and start leading.
    I’ve referenced this one before. To use Jack as an example again, he was all-in on this concept. His point was that we needed more leaders and fewer managers. Leaders roll up their sleeves and contribute to team achievements. Managers direct the resources from afar and tend to judge outcomes. Jack was also a fan of “management by walking around.” When you spend time walking the halls, peering in on the day’s activities and interacting with the people that make your organization run, you’ll get a greater sense of the pulse of the operation. You’ll know who people are, what makes them tick, and how you as a leader can make their jobs more effective and more satisfying.

Demonstrating the level of your care before displaying your credentials is an essential behavior in businesses like ours. I’d wager it’s an essential behavior in any business. And while whiteboards, granite or even ink embedded into your own skin might be a very good way to remember the words, it’s how you bring that concept to life that will really make a difference.

Tom Tholen

Tom Tholen is SAWA's Senior Vice President of Marketing & Development. The SAWA member has served as President of Companion Channel, a cloud-based digital screen media service that streamed into partner shelters. Tom is perhaps best known in the animal welfare industry as the former President & Chief Marketing Officer for Callahan Creek, which was the agency of record for Hill’s in the early days of their shelter program. Over the years, he has worked for several agencies, as well as major corporations including Hallmark, Sprint and General Electric. A Colorado native, Tom received his BS in Journalism from the University of Colorado at Boulder, and he lives with his family in the Kansas City area.

2018 Copyright Society of Animal Welfare Administrators