When you say coaching or mentoring, what do you really mean?

As the profession moves forward in the personal development that we sorely need, have you noticed that the terminology is changing as well? Words like development or support in job adverts and articles are being replaced with better sounding words like coaching, mentoring and consultancy. It’s especially important as vet businesses strive to differentiate themselves in the race to recruit new vets or to describe their company culture, values and space for personal growth.

However, as I speak to colleagues who operate in the coaching space, see adverts for academies or courses and indeed as I promote my consultancy services to vets and companies, I’m noticing a worrying trend. As a profession, we seem to be using coaching and mentoring interchangeably and this is a problem, because they’re very different activities and its all about one thing.

The amount of input from the facilitator and the client.

In a coaching or mentoring relationship there are generally two parties. Both provide input to the conversation, but depending upon the activity, one side provides more input than the other.

In a classic Harvard Business Review article in the spring of 1973, Robert Tannenbaum and Warren Schmidt described a continuum of leadership and management styles. They used a simple diagram to illustrate different styles of leadership and how much influence the boss or employee contributed to the discussion. It’s a seminal article to read as part of any leadership journey and a must read for managers seeking to understand how to empower and motivate staff.

The same continuum can be used to illustrate the relationship between consultancy, mentoring and coaching, so I’ve redrawn it below to help frame this discussion.

Coaching vs Mentoring

In my consultancy business, I’m paid for my expertise and knowledge in the field, for problem solving or I’m paid to do something that clients can’t do themselves. That’s how I add the value and it’s a directive process led by me.

In a mentoring relationship, the mentor provides advice and guidance and may well provide some coaching in addition, but that’s not the primary role. It’s a 50/50 relationship where the mentee assimilates the advice and synthesizes something new with it.

In coaching, advice isn’t given and the primary objective is to help a client improve performance to reach a goal. A coach will operate in a non-directive manner by asking questions and using various different tools to help the client draw out or crystalise their own thinking. Skills and independence are assumed in the coachee and you often find a secondary benefit of increasing self awareness.

So when we use mentoring and coaching interchangeably, we inevitably change the relationship between the facilitator and client. When most people think of a coach, they think of a classic sports coach that helps develop additional skills. This is training and skills acquisition and not the kind of coaching I’m talking about. If you think of more recent coaching examples, e.g. Dr Steve Peters1 with cycling stars like Sir Chris Hoy or Victoria Pendleton or Dr Dave Aldred2 coaching Jonny Wilkinson, it wasn’t their ability to do the sport that was important, it was their coaching skill that unlocked the potential of the athlete to perform.

I’m absolutely sure that this is an innocent mistake made by well meaning people when seeking to describe the support given to their teams, but it sets up a potential mismatch between employees and their employer and perpetuates one of our challenges in developing ourselves as vets. We find ourselves asking the question, “What could a non-veterinary coach know about my world and therefore do to help me?” We limit our thinking and performance.

It doesn’t matter what a coach knows about your world, because they’re not there to help you with advice. They’re there to help develop your performance and that’s a skill in it’s own right.

So if you are an employer, consider what you’re offering and if you’re a job seeker or employee, consider what you need. Sometimes the support you need is knowledge based, to grow your capabilities and become consciously competent at doing something in your job role. That means you need a mentor. Other times, you’ll be consciously competent already and you need support to improve your performance or to meet a goal. This is a coaching need. Without a goal to work towards, coaching doesn’t work.

Many vets I know would benefit from coaching, either personally, as a small business owner or for building and developing teams. I know I benefited from both a coach and a mentor at my old job and in fact I still do. It’s our blind spot and we owe it to ourselves to recognize this and act on it.

Get in touch with the VBC and we’ll be able to help. If we can’t provide the service ourselves, then we know someone who can.

  1. The Chimp Paradox by Dr Steve Peters
  2. The Pressure Principle by Dr Dave Aldred

Why Brexit & uncertainty might be the perfect innovation incubators for vets

Action R of the Vet Futures Action Plan calls for an Innovation symposium. I understand that plans are afoot at the RCVS to deliver the first event in September this year and I, for one, am really quite excited. It reinforces a growing feeling of excitement and a sense of being on the cusp of something special in the veterinary profession. The apocryphal ancient Chinese curse says, “May you live in interesting times”. We’re definitely living in interesting times and whilst this generates uncertainty, it’s an old English proverb that says, “Necessity is the mother of invention”. We certainly have the need!

When we think of innovation, we tend to think technology or things like telemedicine or pet wearables. I’d likely to try and reframe that thought to be more all encompassing because innovation can occur anywhere.

Indeed the recent Veterinary Innovation Summit at Texas A&M University was such an example. I didn’t have the opportunity to attend, but having spoken to people that did and seen some of the live streaming it seems to have been an inspirational event. The format was innovative in and of itself, with a set of keynote lectures on each theme and then breakouts in one of three styles; Understanding the theme and context better; Implementation, where experts tutored on how to get things done; Creation where you could get down and dirty by practicing with tools or methodologies around the theme.

The summit focused on three themes and it’s not for me to tell you about them, but they illustrate the wider context of innovation in the veterinary world.

  • The quantified patient
  • The connected clinic
  • The exponential practitioner

I hope the RCVS can deliver an equally inspirational symposium for the UK and indeed show leadership globally.

So if we consider innovation at a much higher level and not just about technology where could we start? At the most fundamental level, our veterinary world in the UK is defined by the Veterinary Surgeons Act 1966. Although Legislative Reform Orders and a Royal Charter have helped to keep regulation and the RCVS fit for purpose, Brexit necessitates an overhaul of many legislative processes. That makes it like the right time to put innovation on the table and indeed the RCVS is actively doing so. What opportunities does that give us to innovate? A Veterinary Services Act, bringing all veterinary and paraprofessionals under a single regulatory instrument is one. Can you imagine what your new multidisciplinary practice team would look like with that in mind? Redefining what RVNs can do with a protected title and new regulatory framework could revolutionize how practices run or how animal health is delivered. The same is true for equine vets, dentists, herd health managers and as yet undiscovered opportunities for new specialisms. If you do one thing after reading this blog, complete the RCVS Survey on Schedule 3 of the VSA.

Another clear sign of change is the recent RCVS council elections with record voting turnout and a pleasing number of new faces. I hope it shows a new engagement with the RCVS and the work that lies ahead of us but of those eligible to vote only 22.8% of vets and 14.5% of VNs turned out. That’s still a small number even if markedly increased compared to 2016 voting. We all need to participate and it irks me that we will inevitably read negative letters in the back pages of various vet journals or magazines complaining about status quo.

Our future is our own and we must actively own it.

Think also about a new VSA with compulsory CPD, new definitions of specialization or compulsory practice inspections and what that would do for our veterinary clinics. We can view this as scary, because it’s human nature to be change averse, or we can take an opportunity to be brave and imagine a better world.

The second opportunity for innovation is Brexit. The RCVS, supported by the BVA, has established a Brexit task force and adopted three Brexit principles. These provide a framework for negotiation during Brexit, but critically provide a framework for innovative thinking as well. The principles are

  1. Vital veterinary work continues to get done.
  2. High standards of animal health and welfare remain and improve
  3. The RCVS is a global force for good

Each principle is underpinned by a number of policies that will be the foundations for negotiation. You can imagine “getting the work done” requires the right number of vets, reflecting concerns about EU workers in the sector, that “animal welfare legislation”, once a pan-European issue, now becomes a case of global accreditation for UK producers and that the “global force for good” ensures the rights of UK graduates working in the EU or in a world leading capacity in some way.

Whilst these might seem distant concerns for the average UK based, UK graduate or veterinary business owner, they’re real opportunities to be innovative in education, employment, practice systems and business management. There’s openings for innovative recruiters, CPD organizations and yes, technologies too.

The danger we face is that the world is moving around us very fast. We cannot afford to wait and see, or to move slowly. None of the conditions I’ve noted so far are exclusive to the veterinary profession. Consumers, pet owners and farmers who are moving faster than us surround us. If we don’t get a move on then we face the interesting proposition of having people steal opportunities from us. Remember the rise of the online pharmacy or pet food supplier? We can’t sit around and complain about losing sales to the Internet like we have done so far. It’s not the fault of companies selling online or your suppliers selling you out. Consumers demanded it and entrepreneurs stepped up.

We must innovate or die.

But here is the rub; we fall foul of our usual problem; busy-ness. It’s the mind killer because we don’t give ourselves the brain space to reflect and consider. We’re so busy working in the business; we give ourselves little time to work on the business.

So here’s the final call to action. At some point during the month of May, schedule yourself a minimum of 2 sessions, preferably longer than an hour each, to sit and reflect on how you see our profession evolving. Here’s a few tips for ensuring this works and you get something out of it, however restrain your inner achiever and realize that even if you don’t have inspiration, you’ll have spent a quality couple of hours with yourself.

  • Schedule your reflective time in your diary.
  • Preferably do it outdoors, in the fresh air and a sunny spot or at a slow steady amble
  • Take a note pad and pen, even if only for show
  • Turn your phone off. (If you need it on because you’re on call, then it’s not the right time to do this kind of reflective exercise).
  • Allow your mind to wander and just capture the thoughts.
  • When the session is over, either because the real world is intruding or because it just “feels right”, stash the notepad until the day after. The following day, re-read your notes and refresh your thinking.

Between the first and second session, take the time to do any background reading to further illuminate or develop the thoughts you had. In the second session, where all the same recommendations apply, you can ruminate on the thoughts, develop them further or even just sleep on them. We do a lot of problem solving in our sleep.

Running an innovation workshop for your practice can be a great exercise to do, but only if you have your basics under control. If you need help, want to run a workshop or structure your time to enable some reflective thought, then the VBC is the place to start. Vision, strategy and tactical delivery are specialties and we can support you at a practice or personal level. Get in touch, we’d love to help you paint your vision.

Why vets need to stop selling products & take lessons from their accountant

I’ve been looking at a great forum for vets who are at a turning point in their careers. Should they stay in the profession, diversify or do something completely different? I found myself offering advice about limited company start up, having done it myself recently. In my previous role I was used to managing the macro business, supported by a finance team of full of accountants and administrators. When you are self-employed and starting from scratch you have to learn the micro side of the business such as registering the company, your own invoicing and bookkeeping, because the buck stops with you.

So in answering the forum question about the cost of registering a limited company, I used the bundle figure from my accountant of £300. I was rightly challenged about this, because registering a company online at www.gov.uk costs £12, so what was the rest for?

Time and effort.

On reflection the charge I paid was for the accountant’s time, advice, use of their address as my registered company address and filling in the paperwork for me. So that got me thinking about how my accountant charges me for their work and how ironic it was that a vet was asking about the cheapest way to register a company without having to pay a professional for their time. Does that ring any bells with you about how our customers behave?

So let’s draw some parallels and for good measure I’m going to compare accountants to lawyers. Having just sold and bought houses, I’m going to use conveyancing as a fixed price legal “product” to compare to the accountancy example. Dear reader, please do the vet extrapolation yourself and please get in touch if you don’t get the penny drop moment, because the parallels are clear.

My accountant:

  • Gave a free first meeting, as a business development opportunity for themselves, to meet me, get to know what I needed and make a proposal.
  • Gave me a written set of business terms at the first meeting, which I have to sign to become a client. The business terms spell out our relationship, their charging and the mutual expectations we have in our business relationship.
  • Has a fixed hourly rate for everything, which I pay as a multiple of 5 minute allocations. This is for telephone calls, letters, and meetings and for every other conceivable interaction.
  • Has a specific hourly rate for each of the disciplines in his practice, for example his partner rate is highest, a junior accountant is lower and administrators lower still. Therefore my monthly bill is a composite of his and his staff’s time, dependent on who did the work or the level of responsibility needed.
  • Estimates the time required to manage my financial affairs for the year, communicates this in advance and then we agree a monthly direct debit payment. I receive monthly updates about how well I’m tracking to the agreed budget.

My conveyance solicitor:

  • Was chosen on two criteria for our house move: first was locality and the second was price point, because conveyancing services are a loss leading, shop-able, legal product.
  • Provided me with terms of business up front, required me to sign them and provide the proof of identity documents required for the conveyance.
  • Was great, until I had problems with the survey and extra work was required. As this was unexpected, the value driven product had no scope for charges to ramp up. Therefore I ended up paying an hourly rate for the extra work.
  • What I didn’t know, until I got the bill, was that clerks and a junior solicitor did the conveyancing, but the more complex work was a partner. This was an unexpected and significantly higher charge.
  • Having started with a fixed price, value led product, which then required ad hoc work, I ended up paying significantly more than planned.
  • As a shop-able product and as a client who was moving away, the legal practice were not inclined to treat me as a valued client.
  • As a practice with a high proportion of conveyancing work, I did not have a great customer experience and their communication was mediocre at best.

In the vet world, costs and products fixate us. We find it challenging to charge for our time or to demonstrate value. I used to think was generational, lost in the mists of time and a different model of providing veterinary care in 1950. Yet we lament our ability to earn the same kind of salaries as other professional colleagues.

It’s not generational though, because there’s little evidence of the situation improving. That means it’s institutional. We’re effectively doing this to ourselves when we’re surrounded by examples of better ways to do it, in other professions and in veterinary models around the world.

What would our practice finances look like if we were legally required to sell drugs at cost + 10% plus VAT? That’s the situation in large parts of Europe and to me is eminently sensible and socially acceptable given the bad press about profiteering in pharmaceutical sales.

What would our practice finances look like if that first consultation with a new client was free, established the business relationship, T&Cs and then we charge properly for our time? It would mean the death knell for the depreciating sliding consultation scale. You can never charge Cons1 again once you’ve charged a client Cons3 or ConsFOC during a case. Imagine that paradigm shift.

If you’re feeling brave and you’d like to try something a little different, please get in touch for a free preliminary discussion. It’s one part of the quest for better practice finance that the VBC can help you with.