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I was a crappy practice owner. And that’s not okay.

veterinary management

Perhaps you work for a crappy practice owner – or used to because you couldn’t handle it anymore.

Or maybe IT’S YOU. That’s okay. You know what they say about the first step to recovery….

There’s also crappy managers and crappy coworkers.

What do all of these have in common? The way they are executing their role as a team player is making other peoples lives miserable.

Often it’s just ignorance. Most of us are not purposely trying to ruin other people’s lives. But the consequence is the same as if we were someone who knew how we were affecting other people, yet chose not to change just “because that’s who we are” – or god forbid, “that’s how we’ve always done things around here.”

(By the way, if you’ve said either of those phrases above, you are now contractually obligated to read to the end of this article.)

My history as a crappy owner

Let me give you a bit of history on my background as a practice owner first. You might be feeling a bit duped that “The Business Vet” just admitted to be being a terrible business owner. However, this story is an important part of how I made it to where I am now, so bear with me:

In my first job as a veterinarian, I worked at a satellite clinic as a mobile equine vet all by myself…as in literally ALL by myself. No tech, assistant, manager. Just me. It did not set me up for success in many ways.

My boss was not a bad person. If I needed advice on a case, I could call him, and he would give me his thoughts. I was extremely grateful to have a job at all. It was 2010, and jobs as an equine vet were precious coming off of the 2008 recession.

veterinary associate
Not pictured: Stomach near-perforation.

What he wasn’t was a good practice owner and mentor – in that I felt completely abandoned in a brand-new clinic, in an area that was new to me, with, honestly, no real guidance as to how to be successful. I didn’t sign up to run an entire clinic single-handedly, all by myself. I did not sign up to be on-call for two years straight, including those two months when I was on crutches. I signed up for a job as an associate, and even in hindsight, the tasks that I had to take on were above and beyond what should have been asked of anyone in an associate job with proper boundaries.

I got stomach ulcers twice during those first two years. During one urgent care visit (there were multiple), they said my blood pH was basic. I had been chugging so much Maalox that I changed my blood pH. That’s….not what normal people do.

I was miserable.

At the end of two years, I approached the owner and asked to buy the practice, otherwise I would be moving on. Amazingly, he was immediately on-board with this idea. (In hindsight, the lack of hesitancy makes sense: I doubt the practice was profitable at that point and was likely more hassle than it was worth, especially from a distance.)

So I bought the phone number and the supplies, and I started my own business entity. It was going to be awesome, and I was going to have so much fun now that I controlled my fate. The future was looking bright now.

veterinary practice ownership
Turns out, this is NOT what running your own business is like. :(

Well, it turns out being a practice owner is super hard. And people get really mad at you. And that’s not fun. And suddenly ALL the liability’s on you.

Don’t get me wrong – I loved ownership – but there were a lot of really rough parts.

During the course of my ownership, I had one part time vet and three full-time associates. The part-time one was awesome. She taught me something I will never forget: have really clear expectations from day one. She explained to me that she was looking for an academic job, and in turn, she knew we were in search of a full-time vet. It worked out for both of us perfectly.

During my first two full-time vets, I was that crappy practice owner of which I speak. I had no clue what I was doing as a business owner; I had a large dose of doe-eyed optimism that had not yet been ruined by reality; and I had no clue how to pay attention to the needs of employees.

By the time my third associate came around, I’d say I was only a moderately crappy practice owner, but at least I tried a lot harder on the mentorship side. I could see (some) of what I did wrong and the effect it had. And I improved.

Why this happened

I am going to take a big leap here and say that I bet that most veterinary practices have some similar level of cluelessness going on in one area or another. I was great at social media, but I had no clue what a financial statement was until the year before I sold. Some practices might be exactly the opposite, and truthfully, that’s not okay either.

We are trained to be veterinarians, scientists. The very little business education I received in school got me to the point I just described, which was underwhelming, if I say so myself.

I pursued no addition business education – VBMA or the like – because I had no clue I would follow this pathway. It just happened. Life is unpredictable, and you never know what interests you will develop. (Please take note if you’re still in school and NOT involved in VBMA!)

veterinary business
Gee, golly! I'd totally prefer this over hugging puppies!

Here’s the honest truth: as a business owner, I had no idea how to read financial statements, write a business plan, manage people, or run a marketing campaign. I can do all of those things now only because I have taken it upon myself to pursue formal business education.

I KNOW I am not alone. Vets usually start practices because we want to provide great medical care the way we want to, not because we have a passion for business.

Unfortunately there are consequences to that reasoning, and I think a lot of us forget that we bring everyone else in the business down when we don’t do everything possible to make it a success.

What does crappy management look like + Why does it matter?

When you’ve been employed for a while, it’s easy to get accustomed to someone’s style or the culture of your workplace. However, sometimes you need to take a huge step bad and objectively look at what’s going on around you (or what you’re doing).

Bad management at the least brings down the efficiency of an organization and, in turn, profits. If that’s all you care about, that’s totally fine (and yes, I mean that). But know that not addressing that “touchy-feely” subsection of business is ruining your bottom line.

One example alone: It drives up employee turnover. Have you ever calculated how much it costs to recruit and train a new employee? It’s astounding! Exact numbers obviously vary considerably by profession and exact job title, but this source pins it at 90-200% of an employee’s annual salary.

If you have an associate making $70,000 a year right now, that means it’s going to cost you anywhere between $63,000-140,000 in various costs to replace them and get them up to speed.

That is, if you can find one at all right now…

You know what might cost less than that? Asking your current employees what would make their lives easier or happier and trying to implement some of those things.

Let’s now go a bit darker. What could the worst consequence of bad management be? Think about it for a minute…

People die. I’m not being overdramatic here. We all know the vet field is plagued with suicides, and a workplace that is not conducive to mental wellness is certainly not helping the situation. Suicides are not the fault of the people around the victim. However, our industry has a big issue.

veterinary management
I'm suggesting that we try to create a better work environment because maybe we're not the only one who matters??? Note: I still 100% like animals more than people AND I'm an only child, and I've been able to slowly come around to this idea.

It is not the responsibility of managers and coworkers to make sure someone’s personal life is well-adjusted. But it is the responsibility of the management to make each employees work life NOT miserable by enabling them to do their job in the most efficient way possible and to not be harassed, degraded, or taken advantage of while doing so.

The same goes for coworkers. Just because you’re not management doesn’t mean you automatically get a pass on bad behavior.

Our profession has a lot of unique aspects that most likely contribute to the suicide issue: our familiarity with euthanasia, our strong emotional connection to our patients, and perhaps just the type of people who choose to pursue this field.

There’s a lot we cannot control. However, we can control how we take care of each other, and I would encourage you to pursue life-long growth as a team member.

How can you grow?

Management skills do not come naturally. Let me reword that: you need to educate yourself on how to become a better manager, leader, mentor, and co-worker. Some of us do interact more naturally with others, but no one is perfect just as they are.

Just like every other field, management has a ton of research behind it: if you want to grow, you need to start learning about these recommendations, which are based on peer-reviewed research – just like ours.

veterinary management
So, no - I didn't kick my employees off cliffs. But I also didn't do very well to make sure they weren't accidentally falling off them either.

Let me be honest: I seriously screwed up stuff as an owner that I know hurt the feelings of my employees. Did it go deeper than that? Probably. I’ve even thought about apologizing to one specifically, but the longer time goes on the weirder it seems.

However, what I did do was do better. I know I like to teach, and I am willing to take the time to do so, so I hope I did better with my last associate. I know I was not perfect, but I truly hope it was better.

You can do better, too. All it takes is recognizing that you’re not perfect and opening yourself up to growth.

There are so many options to learn in the area of management of people (FYI: this is what Human Resources actually is! It’s not just that department you have to go to when you’re in trouble.)

Start learning about Human Resources and team work. You will be a much more acceptable human being for having learned skills in this area.

Social media is rampant with educational opportunities. Online courses have emerged as a lower-cost, more time-efficient way to gain education in literally anything you can think of. You can take part-time classes at the local universities.

One of the best classes I have taken in this subject was about “leading effective teams.” If you really want to dive into this topic more, this was the textbook for the class. If you want to learn how to break down, understand, and fix all the team issues within your company, this is a great resource!

So to conclude, I’m far from perfect, you’re not perfect, nor is anyone around you. But if each of us can learn how to interact a little less dysfunctionally at work, we’d all be happier, healthier, and might be making more money while we’re at it!

. . . . . . .

What do you think? Let me know over on Instagram and Facebook!

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