Young veterinarians can benefit from great mentors

Most of us suffer self-doubt in the early years of our veterinary practice, and need the reassurance and guidance of mentors – both for clinical skills, and for the critical skills of running a business. 

Whether you’re just opening your first veterinary clinic, or have been in practice for many years, you can probably remember the uncertainty and self-doubt you felt on your very first day as a veterinarian. For any young vet just starting out, those early days become much easier to navigate if they have a mentor to guide them on their way, not only in terms of clinical skills but also in the skills of running a successful business. In this article, I’ll look at the relationship between mentor and mentee, and how it can help you grow into a successful veterinary professional.

A personal story

It was my first day at my first job after qualifying as a vet. I was an hour early, sitting in my car in the practice parking lot, and I was already thinking about retiring. Like most of my colleagues, I naively thought six years of study had adequately prepared me for this day. But it hadn’t. I felt I knew nothing, a feeling exacerbated by my first client’s comment: “Aren’t you too young to be a vet?”

I spent a long time hanging around the dispensary that first day, hoping to bump into one of the other vets as they emerged from their rooms to collect prescriptions. I needed reassurance that I was on the right path. I was fortunate that the vets in this mixed animal practice in Ryde on the Isle of Wight had ridden this rodeo before! I latched onto one of the female vets, Jill, and she became my first mentor.

Little by little, Jill’s words of encouragement and reassurance transformed my personal doubt into courage and self-belief, and I became motivated to push myself to achieve more and more. The more I achieved, the more I believed in myself, and of course my mentor’s belief in me fuelled me still further.

Over the years, I met many veterinarians and veterinary nurses who would shape me into the vet I am today. Finding clinical mentors always seemed to happen quite organically. I don’t remember ever actively seeking a mentor until I opened my own practice. That’s when I realized I needed a quite different sort of mentor – a business mentor. I needed to learn some very specific skills, fast, and was fortunate enough to find someone willing to coach and guide me through this second phase of intense learning.

From mentee to mentor

Fast forward to today, and I find myself mentoring young veterinary rehabilitation therapists in business skills – a much-neglected area for most vets and veterinary rehab therapists, and one which gives me immense satisfaction.

In the 20 years since I was first mentored, I have made many mistakes and endured failures of all kinds, but have always regarded them as opportunities to learn and improve my skills. Both failure and success have created a bank of experience that I can now tap into any time I need to make a decision. This bank of experience is what I use as a guide for those whom I mentor.

I see my younger self in each and every one of my mentees in some way. My hope for them is that they learn through my mistakes; if I can save them a few years of struggle or prevent them from losing money, then I am doing my job.

Imposter syndrome

Many professionals suffer from imposter syndrome in the years after they first graduate – the feeling that they don’t really belong where they are; that they haven’t got the skills people think they have; and that they’re only hanging on by the skin of their teeth! It’s just not true, but it’s what we believe.

Having someone to back us up, to reassure us that our training and knowledge are sufficient for the task at hand, and to guide us when we’re really unsure, gives us an incredible sense of security in those early years. It can make the difference between floundering or giving up completely — or persevering, while also gaining skills and developing confidence.

Mentoring for business

As we grow and branch out into running our own practices, our needs change, and we begin to need mentors of a different kind – business mentors. As veterinary professionals, we are disadvantaged from the start when it comes to business. First, we are generally not taught any business skills in veterinary school; and second, for most of us, the business side of things is just not a priority. We want to do what we were trained to do – treat animals. So although we know we should be improving our business skills and marketing our practices, this side of things gets pushed down the list because teaching that paralyzed dog to walk or giving that dehydrated cat intravenous fluids is just more important.

My husband Graeme was my own business mentor. He was a successful entrepreneur who was running two businesses at the time we met, and I naturally sought his advice when it came to the business side of my practice. It was great to have someone supporting and encouraging me, sharing my highs, and holding me up during my lows. I am not sure if this is only a “woman thing”, but some of us tend to make decisions with our hearts. I did, and it was not good for business! Graeme set me straight during these times and helped me remove emotion from my decisions. He showed me how to think and act tactically.

Would I have eventually arrived at the same place on my own? Probably. But it would have taken years to become successful if I’d had to learn through experience alone.

What I love about mentoring is that, although I am the one who initially offers the guidance, as my vet rehab mentees gain confidence, they grow so rapidly that I end up learning from them. Without exception, they have all made huge strides in their businesses and are reaping rewards as they go. I believe that sound mentoring makes the difference.

How do you find a mentor?

  • Professional business coaches charge for their services, but have experience with lots of small businesses along with a wealth of knowledge and insight. The challenge is they don’t usually understand the veterinary field – but then it’s your job to educate them.
  • Most cities also have business centers that offer support to small businesses. Do a Google search for your own area.
  • You might also identify a successful veterinarian in your area whom you think you could learn from, and reach out to them. You could ask them straight away to be your mentor, or you might prefer to build a relationship with them which grows over time into a mentoring one. These kinds of relationships are usually built on friendship foundations, so don’t see them as a business transaction only. Think of ways you can give back for your mentor’s time. You might volunteer to assist them on cases or projects, share their Facebook posts, or just be there for them when they need it.
  • Conferences are great places to meet mentors. Get out there, meet people and talk to them. Be clear about what type of mentor you’re looking for. A clinical mentor, for instance, might not be the best person to help you with your business. You might find two mentors – one for your business and one for your cases.

The point is, we all need someone. Mentoring is a very special kind of relationship where both parties have your personal and business growth at heart – and where sound, practical advice backs up that care and commitment. We really cannot do without it. You may feel that the advice of friends and family is enough, but my advice is to find a mentor who is not quite so personally connected. A good mentor will understand your challenges and enable you to see things you cannot currently see. Good mentoring  really does make\ a difference!

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