What Vets can learn from Theresa May and the Mountain

First things first; this is NOT a political blog. I’m going to use Theresa May’s trip to Snowdonia, where she decided to call a snap general election, as an example of the relationship between nature, mindfulness and clear thinking. We could explore the Prime Minister’s decision in the context of a leader engaging with their team and seeking a mandate for action, but that’s a whole other blog and fraught with political innuendo, so I’m not going there!

On the 18th April Theresa May walked out of possibly the most famous front door in the world and stood at a lectern to announce a general election on the 8th of June. That was the story of the day and as usual the pundits and journalists went in to overdrive.

What surfaced later in the same day was a secondary story that the Prime Minister had decided upon the general election whilst on a walking trip in Snowdonia. Gore-Tex clad correspondents were dispatched to North Wales and conducted on the fly interviews with bemused walkers from the Miners Track, one of the established routes to climb a mountain that I’ve loved for as long as I can remember.

What I find incredulous is that the tone of the story in the mass media suggested she’d done something wrong by going to the mountains and that the general public wouldn’t understand why on earth she was “up a hill” whilst all the world went to rack and ruin around her.

I’ve always walked, cycled, camped and partaken of outdoor activities. It’s been part of our family DNA through the Scout movement and friends over the years. I’ve always valued the mindfulness of it, the exercise and the opportunity to disconnect from everyday life. I just enjoy it and always come home refreshed and calm whilst paradoxically being tired, sweaty and sore from the exertion. That’s the cleansing or cathartic part.

A simple Google search yields several articles from 10th April where Mr & Mrs May are pictured attending church in Dolgellau and quotes a Walesonline article where Mrs May says:

“Walking in Wales is an opportunity to get out and about and see scenery and clear your mind and your thinking. We stay in a hotel and try to walk every day. Walking is about relaxing, getting exercise and fresh air.”

It’s completely sensible to me that a major decision should be made after a reflective period and this could be up a mountain. It surprises me that others think not, so I did some digging. It turns out that there’s a lot of science behind the impact of nature on mindfulness, wellbeing and your psychology.

In his 2005 book, Richard Louv coined the phrase Nature Deficit Disorder, which encapsulates the idea that human beings, especially children, are spending progressively less and less time in nature and that is an underlying factor in a wide range of behavioral problems. The description of Nature Deficit Disorder has been criticized as a medical diagnosis, because it glosses over a myriad of underlying reasons for the decline of time spent in nature. However it serves well as a description of the alienation of humans from the natural world. The list of associated problems includes dissociation from nature with a lack of respect for the natural world, a lack of ecological or environmental awareness, depression, attention disorders, anxiety disorders, obesity, reduced creativity and even rickets from the lack of sunlight. We’re now beginning to understand the impact that a lack of nature might represent on our lives in a much deeper way.

So if a lack of nature can cause problems or even disease, is it possible that an experience in nature could be therapeutic? I’ve always thought so, but it turns out that there is lots of evidence for this too. I’m going to look at some specific examples, but there’s a really nice paper entitled “A Dose of Nature: Addressing chronic health conditions by using the environment” that summarises it well.

Green Prescriptions are becoming more widely established and the New Zealand Ministry of Health has been pioneering in this field. Adoption within the NHS has followed as the evidence based has expanded. Examples include:

  • Referrals to appropriate voluntary sector organisations have been shown to improve patient outcomes in managing psychosocial problems, compared to GP inputs alone.
  • Studies in the BMJ show that a Green Prescription improves physical activity and quality of life over 12 months without adverse side effects and with a 20-30% reduction in all cause mortality.
  • An Asian study in the Journal of cardiology has shown spending time in the forest has therapeutic effects on hypertension.

Ecopsychology studies the relationship between human beings and the natural world, using psychological and ecological principles. The emotional connection between a human, shaped by their normal social construct, and the “more-than-human” natural world is deeply innate, crafted by eons of evolution and it’s one that we’re inevitably adapted to. This relatively new science is seeking to explore how we can develop sustainable lifestyles and remedy the alienation from nature, for example:

  • Eco-therapy, a facilitated experience in nature, but with a safety net of more formal support.
  • Using nature to enable significant change, decision-making and personal development. There are many providers offering development programmes in this area.

Shinrin-yoko, or Japanese Tree Bathing was first spoken about in the 1980’s and has since developed a robust body of work. The idea is deceptively simple: if a person visits a natural area or forest and simply walks in a calm and relaxed way, calming, restorative and rejuvenating benefits can be gained. It seems intuitive, but the list of reported benefits includes:

  • Reduced stress, reduced blood pressure and boosted immune system
  • Improved mood, energy and sleep patterns
  • Improved, deeper intuition and creativity
  • Increased ability to focus, even in people with diagnosed ADHD.
  • Overall increased sense of happiness.

So, at the risk of making a political statement: Theresa May is right. There is copious evidence on the benefits of taking a break in nature. Not only should you walk in the fresh air, you should disconnect from your technology and allow yourself an immersive experience. I know a few people who work in this area and it’s possible to experience such powerful flow experiences as to be life changing.

The obvious call to action is to literally go for a walk. For vets as a profession, with our well documented mental health and wellbeing issues, the main issue becomes managing your time in a way that gives us the chance to go for that walk. The dog owners among us might get that regularly but personally, with a Border Terrier and Labrador both less than 3 years of age, I don’t find the dog walk a mindful experience. Try it solo and you might find a completely different perspective.

The VBC can help develop your practice nature strategy, whether it’s time management strategies, people management requirements or other business development activities to help you see the wood from the trees. Drop us a line and you can have a free, confidential preliminary chat.

The three behaviours holding back veterinary leadership

I’ve just spent the last couple of days recovering from and reflecting on BSAVA Congress 2017. Like many others, I have an unbroken run of 15 years or more attendance, although until recently I’ve been on the exhibitor side of the fence. Even as a pure delegate, Congress continues to delight and frustrate in equal measure.

The delights are the quality of the event, the people and the opportunities that it presents, whether for networking, learning or business. Having a sunny couple of days also really helps charge the batteries after periods spent in lecture halls. However, it markedly impacts the exhibition’s performance and I know people who will have been hoping for rain to drive the crowds indoors at the BarclayCard Arena.

The frustrations from me this year fall in to two areas. Firstly, the distributed nature of ICC, Arena and linking walkways give all kinds of logistics issues. Yes, it gets the blood going round after two hours seated but it challenges my timeliness. Secondly, I find myself frustrated by us as vets. Let me explain because it’s a question of language.

At a rough count, of the 350 or so lectures at congress, about 10% were on non clinical subjects, with a nice proportion of those addressing personal development and leadership topics. That’s great to see and the improvement in the number and quality of non-clinical topics continues. However, having sat through a number of these sessions, despite excellent content, it doesn’t seem to be widely sinking in that leadership is a personal thing, delivered by the individual, on behalf of organisations.

There are three key behaviours that we, as a profession, need to work on.

  1. Use the language of leadership. There is no place for mickey taking, sarcastic witticisms, lack of respect and anything less than carefully chosen language. If you need help, let me know because I’ve spent the last 15 years of my life working on it and it’s not easy to get right.
  2. Behave as leaders. This is a choice. We choose the perspective that we take and we can choose to stop moaning, take a positive outlook or a broader view and accept that we are masters of our own destiny. Yes, some of the things that are happening right now are contentious, but they’re happening nonetheless and whilst it’s great to be passionate, we must channel our passion into a positive approach these issues. The next generation of vets and the pet owning public are watching.
  3. Move to a solution oriented position. The problems of the profession are well elucidated and there is a plethora of published materials on it. The Journal of Veterinary Medical Education, the Vet Futures Report, the Mind Matters Initiative, the VetLife statistics about the number of vets seeking help or the RCVS Strategic plan all demonstrate the problems. But we’re in a tailspin. We’re sitting with our heads bowed arguing about who has it worst. It might be because we use a “problem oriented learning” approach to clinical cases, but we’ve got to move on.

We need to look up and see that veterinary leaders are now starting to move forward and that a vision of the future profession is being painted. We’re being invited in to the future. We all need to talk like leaders, act like leaders and bring solutions, not problems to the table. Don’t you want to be part of the solution rather than one of the problems?

Let me give some of examples: –

  • I have chosen to use Doctor as a title. I have had friends, both PhD and not PhD question this. Its been done in private and also in front of an audience. One example is, “I’m a real Doctor because I earned my PhD”. I respect and understand this, however why don’t you respect and understand my right to use the title? If we can’t offer each other the mutual respect and courtesy, how can we expect to get along? It’s just not acceptable. My old American DVM boss always called me Dr Pratt out of respect, long before I was able to use the title. Imagine the sea change in public and professional perception we could drive with that level of respect.
  • The Vet Futures report has a list of 24 jobs that need doing. Each has a draft plan, but there’s no roadmap or sense of urgency. We need to prioritise the jobs, communicate the plans and hold people accountable. Not in a punitive way, but through leadership. I think at least 4 of the jobs represent mandates for action and are commercial opportunities for entrepreneurial vets. Facebook use the phrase, “Better done than perfect”. Our instinctive perfectionism holds us back, but perfection is an asymptote, meaning it’s unobtainable, so let’s just get going.
  • I heard the phrase “fear of the RCVS” used in several contexts, several times and it’s clear that a population of vets live in fear of the RCVS or of a mistake costing them their career. What’s driving this fear? It can’t help that the RCVS has a Disciplinary Committee rather than a Fitness to Practice Committee or that Communication in Practice seminars delivered by well meaning organsitions have jokey references to how not to get sued. We need to carefully choose our language, because we can’t know the impact on people were trying to reach. Read the RCVS strategic plan, because it might just change your perspective. You should have had an email from them yesterday.

We are a bunch of passionate, caring, professionals who do an incredibly skilled job, often under suboptimal conditions. We owe it to ourselves, the next generation and to the public and animals that we serve, to walk and talk like the leaders we aspire to be.

If you’re an entrepreneurial vet service provider that would like to sit down and explore Vet Futures with a view to writing a business plan, then get in touch, we’ve got lots of ideas.

If you’re a vet who finds themselves wanting help getting out of a tailspin, personally or on a clinic level, then the VBC can help. Get in touch via our contact page.

Why Veterinary Leadership has a problem with intellect.

In the history of psychology, two names loom large. Carl Jung, a Swiss psychologist, developed the discipline of analytical psychology, rooted in the understanding of personal psyche and the human quest for wholeness. The other name, Sigmund Freud, was an Austrian neurologist who created psychoanalysis and in so doing, the medical discipline of psychotherapeutics.

They worked together in the early twentieth century but developed divergent views on how humans could seek to understand, manage and treat the mind.

Why am I talking about Jung and Freud? Well for this blog I’m going to focus on Jungian theory and show why vets have a problem with intellect*. I’m going to illustrate a couple of specific issues, which are not only vet problems, but societal as well. Then I’m going to make a proposal and I want to know if you’d like to come along for the ride?

In his 1921 publication, Psychological Types, Jung proposed a theory of cognitive functions and how people perceive and judge. He elaborated four main cognitive functions; thinking, feeling, intuition and sensing. He then applied an extroverted or introverted versions of each, giving 16 main personality types. You may have heard these terms before because of the work of the earlier pioneers of personality testing, Isabel Myers and Katherine Cook-Briggs. They took Jungian Theory and evolved it into the Myers Briggs Type Indicator test. MBTI is one of the world’s most popular personality “tests” but remains controversial in the world of psychology. Businesses and users of MBTI often use it to explain personality types and behaviours in the context of teams, relationships and business.

Thinking is often referred to as intellect, where concepts are subjected to a judging function and an action is made. This includes objective assessments, measurements and hard facts. In the day-to-day parlance of “head over heart” judgments, this is clearly “the head”.

Intuition is played out as hunches or visions and is an unconscious sensation of right or wrong. It’s a perceiving function and is often represented as the opposite of Thinking, in that the judgment is made upon intangible, unconscious perceptions. Something intuitively “seems right”.

Feeling is also a kind of judging function, but it’s different from intellectual judgment in that it is a subjective feeling of acceptance or rejection. It also deals with the emotional aspects of objects and subjects. It’s the “heart” in head over heart decision making.

Sensing is the function that transmits a physical stimulus to perception. It’s primarily the perceptions of the sense organs and hence of physical objects or the physical world.

So how do vets or society have a problem with this construct? Why doesn’t this understanding serve us well yet? For example, MBTI enables you to understand your dominant thinking types, to understand the primary modes of others and how this interplay works in teams and relationships. However, it has the down side of tending to pigeonhole people or to over simplify the whole theory and people end up labelled instead.

There are also some general tendencies that we’ve adopted in the modern world and which do us no favours.

Modern society prizes Thinking or intellect. Why? Well it can be measured, objectified and rewarded. In the vet context, we’ve taken this to extreme by selecting the highest achieving students, hothousing them in a university to cram all that veterinary knowledge into their brains and prizing the clinical outcome over everything else. We compound that with evidence based medicine and often eschew alternative therapies that lack evidence.

Others have commented on the loss of the Art of Veterinary Medicine. You might see that in a new graduate who orders a barrage of tests to support an intellectual judgment, compared to a seasoned vet who follows a hunch. The NHS has recognized this in the clinical phrase “Doesn’t Look Well” as an intuitive diagnosis that something, as yet uncharacterized, is happening and warrants further attention.

As vets, we need to revisit urgently the balance between the highly prized Intellect and the often-demoted Intuition.

Another worrying tendency is to disregard Feeling in favour of Sensing. The tangibility of what our senses perceive reinforces our tendency to Thinking mode. Consider a business phrase that I used regularly, “Let’s see what the sales numbers tell us”. We objectify with the senses and relegate feelings as being soft or feminine and label people emotional.

To a degree we’ve demonised feelings and devalued them. In a profession that’s now predominately female and that deals with the emotional impact of animal health on human life, I think we’re woefully under resourced to understand and manage this facet of our cognitive makeup.

So what’s my proposal? We need to reframe veterinary leadership in a different context. Most of the leadership taught in vet world right now is actually management skills. Don’t get me wrong; These skills are vital in our development but it’s not what I’m talking about.

What I’m advocating here is a paradigm shift in the leadership discussion. I’m talking about addressing our well-reported career retention, mental health and suicide issues in the context of Personal Leadership. Based upon a foundation understanding of self, then nurtured in an environment of coaching and mentoring and delivered in a highly experiential way.

I’m proposing a leadership quest. A quest that is different from a journey, because on a journey from A to B, you know where the fixed points A and B are. In a quest, you don’t know where the destination is.

It’s a journey of discovery; self discovery.

Are you along for the ride? Tell me what you think.

*Disclaimer: I’m not a psychologist, I’m a vet, so please forgive any inaccuracies in interpretation of theory!

Are you a culture vulture?

A veterinary friend of mine was asking the other day, whilst you should recruit for culture, what happens when you’re desperate to recruit? Don’t you just get a person in the gap; what if you’re up against it?

She was very exercised about it, as she tends to be about most things, but it got me thinking. There are two blogs’ worth here for sure but firstly, here’s my perspective:

  1. 1. Yes you should recruit for culture, but most vet clinics haven’t got a clue about their culture.
  2. 2. No, you absolutely should not “just fill the gap”. The opportunity cost is just too high if you get it wrong.

So this blog topic: Company Culture and how to grow it.

Next week: Recruiting for culture and being the employer of choice.

Your company culture is what your team says and does when they think no one is looking. The trouble is, in this age of connectivity, someone is always looking. Your boss is probably looking the least but your consumer is most certainly looking and they’re tweeting it, posting it and blogging it. It can be highly costly to your business if you’ve got a cultural problem.

I believe the absence of company culture in vet clinics is one of the core problems with the vet profession right now. We’re a bunch of highly qualified individuals, working for a large number of small to medium enterprises. If we’re lucky, then the schools have stepped up and are teaching teamwork, leadership and those horribly misnamed “soft skills”. These soft skills weren’t taught to my generation or until recently and are the hardest and most impactful skills in the book. Clinical competency is a given whilst the other stuff isn’t. Developing culture is one of these skills but it cannot be contrived and has to be earned. To help you, here are a few things to reflect on, but if you’re really struggling, please get in touch and I’ll help frame it for you:

Culture starts at the top

It starts with the founding team. Your team looks to you for guidance, energy and validation. The health of your business is directly linked to the health of your leadership culture.

Culture is actions, not words

Actions speak volumes and consistent behaviours are essential.

Culture takes time

Built on clarity of purpose, passion and consistency and nurtured in an environment where your team can flourish, culture will develop. You must support it with careful, thoughtful decision making and this is often the challenge with partnerships or small groups of vet directors.

Values need to be lived daily

You should unfailingly live and breath the core values of your culture. They are the lifeblood coursing through the veins of your business. It’s what you actually do, rather than what is written down, that your team will take as the example. Think carefully; act deliberately.

Be a culture Vulture

New employees bring their own values to the business; meaning company culture changes over time. One of the key decisions to make when hiring is assessing how good a cultural fit a prospective employee will be. No chalk and cheese, it’ll never work out.

Consumers can spot fake culture a mile off

It’s the dissonance between what you say and what you do that will catch you out. You can’t impose culture or spin it. At best an imposed culture is a thin veneer of false promises.

A great company culture is the glue that bonds a team or a business together. It should be authentic, honest and lived. Without it, we’re just a bunch of people in the same building, doing roughly the same thing. That’s hardly a recipe for outstanding success.

If you need help herding cats, knitting your team or getting your head around your leadership group and establishing your company culture, drop us a line and I’ll call you back.