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Learning on the Edge, from Karaoke to “Crocodile Mikey”

Michael Cavanaugh, DVM, earns his 2017 Changemaker status with his unconventional attitude toward risk, reward, and giving back to the next generation of planners.

MeetingsNet’s annual Changemaker list recognizes 20 outstanding meetings professionals for their efforts to move their organizations and the industry forward in unique and positive ways. Find all the profiles here.

Michael Cavanaugh, DVM
Chief Executive Officer
The American Animal Hospital Association
For replacing the association’s traditional annual conference with a rebranded, mission-driven, member-focused experience

Making Change
One of the biggest changes I’ve accomplished is a gradual cultural transformation within our headquarters and on our board. We used to be very risk-averse—if you couldn’t guarantee a program would be a home run right off the bat, you didn’t try it. That stifled a lot of creativity and opportunity. Now, once we complete our due diligence, we try things that make sense, knowing they will need to be tweaked and knowing not every one will be a winner. We learn a lot from that process.

We now are in the midst of a reorganization in our headquarters. My dream is to have service to our members become legendary. We recently changed our membership structure—and our conference model—to focus completely on our AAHA-accredited practice teams. We brought together our customer-facing departments into a single unit called Member Experience. The two people who lead this group, one for the inside team and one for the field-based team, will soon be attending the Disney Institute. I want them to inject some magic into our Member Experience. It is a process, but I am confident my team will make this happen.

Giving Back
I have been involved in a lot of leadership and veterinary medical communication training over the last 15 years, including being on a team that developed a program that has helped thousands of veterinarians and veterinary students learn to communicate more effectively with their clients. For the past 10 years, I have helped with orientation for incoming first-year students at the Colorado State University College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences. As my alter ego, Crocodile Mikey, I talk to the students about key tenets of success in vet school and in life. It is a blast. I also have an out-of-control karaoke habit, and I use my system to do an evening of karaoke for the students.

Change Management
Clearly, concisely, and consistently communicate your message, and never give up.

Best Business Advice
No creative, unique thoughts or solutions ever come from a “busy mind” that is full of thought storms. To solve a problem, don’t sit and focus on the problem, but rather clear your mind and allow your innate wisdom and creativity to speak to you.

Got a Spare Hour? 
I have too many interests! I might play with my border collie Seamus. I might sit down and play my drums. I might do yoga. I might meditate. I might work around my property. I might talk to my wife or my grown kids or a sibling. So, it is the same answer I would give to the “boxers or briefs” question…Depends!


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