Another year has wound down, and in the veterinary world, that means things are about to amp up. The holiday season went by fast, and most likely has increased the tension from people around us. The past year has been tough for most of us in the veterinary space.
During a recent conversation, I was reminded about how differentiating who you are apart from what you do is vital. It can keep you from burning out and losing hope. We spend so much of our day in our professional space it becomes who we are. We can also be in an environment where it feels if we take time off or need time away, we are not being a good veterinary professional because we are not as committed to it as others. Catering to that pressure, we fast-track ourselves and others to burn out by proving how dedicated we are to our own professional demise.
Never stop learning
I was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease that sidelined me from full-time practice management. The year before my diagnosis was my worst year professionally. I was extremely unwell and made poor decisions about myself and the team around me. I just was not aware of it at the time, working long hours covering shifts, being a manager, and trying to be all things to everyone except myself. The team did not know why I was acting and thinking the way I was, the owners were reactive to the team and me, and all together, we were creating a warm, humid environment for a toxic cultural infection. Of course, we succeeded.
A toxic environment requires every employee in the practice to play their part. Owners, managers, technicians, front office, kennel, owners’ wives, partners of the team members, everyone. The thing I have always tried to be is transparent in my “‘hindsight is 20/20”’ teachings.
As a person, professional, chronically ill person, educator, presenter, writer, business owner, marketer, life coach, mother, friend, daughter, sister, master gardener, and so much more, I have learned I never stop learning. Sometimes, this is much to my frustration—lessons are always being taught and learned. Becoming ill meant my drive and ambition would have to be reevaluated and my pace would have to be slower than most others. I sat in my room at home a few short months after my heart attack and filed for my business formation. I know it was an interesting decision to make at the time, my family thought so, too. The heart attack event was what eventually led to the discovery of my illness. I knew things would forever be different for me and I was not done, so I started my own business. Admittedly, I was at the lowest point in my life.
I was depressed, but also really angry that my life just abruptly changed and all the plans I had for myself were done. I had achieved my Certified Veterinary Practice Manager (CVPM) certification two years prior and was learning all I could about practice management. I had hoped someday I would be in the place to mentor someone, maybe. I was active in the local managers’ group, and the focus of that group was to support local veterinary managers and mentor budding CVPMs. It is a great organization, and I was heartbroken I might be sidelined. That group of ladies looked at me and asked me what was next? So, what if I was sick, then what? I stayed involved in the group and was asked to mentor and present at the local symposium to share my experiences.
Now that I was chronically ill and officially disabled, I had an extremely unique perspective of what it is like to work and rebuild within the veterinary industry. I later learned through conversations with other professionals that many in the veterinary industry also dealt with chronic illness, disability, and mental health conditions. That was the highlight for me; I made it. I never thought I would be one of those managers who anyone would listen to, much less seek their advice on anything.
There are smarter, wiser veterinary professionals than I am. I was struggling with the loss of my identity of being a practice manager without a practice.
Learning through experience was happening in every breath I took at that point. If you asked me though, in my mind, I was in a hopeless place that had no acceptable solutions for me. I never got so dark that I was beyond hope. The cycle of everything I thought I could do to reconstruct my life was met with brick walls and impossibility. Even creating an LLC so I could be a management consultant was not happening because I could not travel to practices at that point. I had just begun immunocompromising medications, so being in the public was not advised. Most practice owners and managers then were less willing to consider working with someone virtually. Brick wall.
During this time, I decided to keep going, just keep trying. This was not the end of the story for me, and I deeply believed that. I kept learning about myself. I also learned something beautiful about the people around me. My friends were backing me and supporting me. You never know who your friends are until something like this happens. The network I built was solid and I did not fully recognize it until I “retired” from practice management and had to rebuild.
Learning and goal setting became my daily activity. I had to have help washing my hair and getting dressed, but I could use my mind as much as possible. This was where I began to develop what I now use as my coaching layout, but I did not know what it was at the time. I daydreamed about what I wanted to achieve with my career. Indeed, the sky was the limit because why not think that way? I wanted to have a successful consulting business that supported the veterinary industry. I wanted to be able to help others going through what I have been through and to share with them my lessons, or at the very least, my faith in their ability to thrive.
We all have the same hours in the day, the same number of days in the week, and the same number of weeks in the year. Most importantly, we can all choose what we will focus our energy and mindset on. I did not want to spend any more of my energy on negative mindsets that did not allow me to grow or create a new life for myself. I also began to take notice of the negative people around me who were not going to be helpful in retraining my mind to seek healthy growth energy. They really began to stick out to me.
Looking today at the life and career I have built for myself over the past five years is not what I even thought it was going to be. I have learned not to set limiting goals. Why set goals that box me in? Being able to pivot and adjust to continue to grow as you learn and grow is vital. I did not even know some of the opportunities that I have had even existed five years ago.
If I would have set rigid expectations of what success or accomplishment looked like, I would have missed out on some tremendous experiences and the ability to work with some truly phenomenal people. Oh, the lessons I have learned.
Set goals for yourself and use your experiences and environment to fuel you. It is hard to see past a toxic environment or bad relationship, but it is possible. I had to see past a death sentence and the end of a career. I am not coming at this from a passing fancy or blasé approach. It is a mindset conditioning exercise that begins and should never end.
Set goals for yourself no matter your role in the practice. Personal, professional, physical, or financial. Set them. Then picture in your mind what that goal looks like when you have reached it. What will it be like? What are you doing? I encourage you to write this down, but even if you are just thinking about it right now, that is fine, too.
Now deconstruct that goal and think about what it would take to get there. If you are a presenter teaching your audience how to be an amazing client service representative and dealing with fractious clients, then think about how you got on the stage. You needed your first speaking opportunity somewhere, right? So now you know you need to put it out there; that you are willing to present and coach other client service reps on what you have learned. Let’s envision that you are a veterinarian who needs to prepare for their exit, and you are five to 10 years out. Should you reach out to a financial advisor and start those conversations? Maybe you have a lot of medical and management experience, and you don’t know what to do to help grow your career beyond veterinary medicine. How can you build more income so you can survive 30 to 40 years after you retire? Do you create an online course or write a book? Where do you start if you deconstructed those goals?
Technicians, what about you? What ideas can you bring to the table? You are the unicorns. You have skill sets that are in demand. We all know that training and coaching are woefully underwhelming right now for many reasons. There is a big opportunity to share your experiences with your peers or as consultants for other practices.
If you are in a toxic situation, you are not stuck there. You can immediately begin building your way out of it. Spend your time and energy applying a different mindset to your experiences within the practice to build your arsenal of lessons learned and corrections you would teach. Some practices are just a bubbling swamp, and there is no place for you to grow in that practice. However, that does not mean you cannot grow yourself and use that environment as your classroom and your fire. A lot of the lessons I have learned along the way is what I would not do, not what I would do.
I challenge you to take advantage of this time of year. It is a great time to think about what your future looks like. What do you want to create for yourself personally, professionally, physically, and financially? Don’t let your environment, co-workers, managers, practice owners, or your own mind space limit your future and your ability to create a growth mindset, additional revenue, or opportunity for yourself.
Rhonda Bell, CVPM, CCFP, CDMP, is founder and co-owner of Dog Days Consulting, a social media and brand management company. She spent 15 years as a practice manager working the day-to-day challenges of the veterinary practice and experienced firsthand the stresses, joys, communication dilemmas, and wonders of working in veterinary medicine. She now dedicates her work and energy to helping practices succeed online and to coaching team members with the skills that will hopefully prolong their careers.