The best way to create the future you want is to set goals and then plan appropriately for them. Roadmaps are essential to your career plan! Here are key issues to consider and address during the early years of your practice.
Your days are likely to be busy as you care for clients and manage your team. It’s important, though, to sometimes step away from daily fire drills to focus on long-term strategic planning. A strategic plan provides an overall sense of direction directed towards future prosperity. To be effective, it should deliberately be put into practice, modified when needed, and reviewed regularly (often annually). Components of a strategic plan typically include:
- Mission statement/purpose
- Core values
- Long-term vision (perhaps 3 years, or 5, or 10)
- Strategic agenda (projects undertaken to move towards your vision)
- Project plans (for each item on the strategic agenda)
- Project milestones, and the metrics and measurements used
- Accountability plan (who will be responsible for what)
Fortunately, plenty of free resources exist to help you to create a viable strategic plan, including a 30-minute online training by the Small Business Administration (SBA) found here: https://www.sba.gov/tools/sba-learning-center/training/strategic-planning. This section of the SBA site also offers significant amounts of supplementary resources for strategic planning.
Appropriate Financial Planning
Although “budget” appears as the last bullet point of the strategic planning process, it’s very important, as the funds generated by your practice will serve as the fuel of your success. There are numerous financial planning issues to consider, far too many for an article, but here are several high-level recommendations:
- Get a handle, early on, on your cash flow. Are there times of the year when cash flow increases? Decreases? How predictable are they? Are you paying your bills on a schedule that avoids late fees and takes advantage of any early pay discounts?
- Monitor your own time. If you’re having to work extra-long hours every week to be profitable, this isn’t a sustainable strategy. What changes need to be made to create a more realistic workload, long term?
- Ensure that you truly understand your profit and loss statements, and other financial documents. If you don’t, ask for help! Although there is nothing wrong (and plenty right) with having financial professionals assist with managing your financials, you need to thoroughly understand where your business stands.
- Look to the future:
- Determine the best retirement plan options for you and for your practice team. If you have no more than 100 employees and no other qualified plan, consider a Savings Incentive Match Plan for Employees (SIMPLE).
- Know that it’s never too early to create a succession plan (ownership-wise and management-wise) in case you become incapable of working or die; this helps to ensure a smooth transition at the lowest cost.
- Finally, save for a rainy day! If you never need to use these funds, then you’ve got a nice financial cushion that can come in handy if you decide to expand your practice or otherwise make large expenditures – and you don’t have to panic or go deeply into debt if an emergency does arise.
Creating Your Employment Environment
The people in a practice can make or break its success, so creating a success-friendly environment and company culture is crucial. Core elements of this environment include:
A mentor is simply a more experienced person offering guidance to a lesser experienced person. A workplace mentor serves as a role model, sharing knowledge that will help someone else chart his or her own successful career path. Mentorships can be formal or informal, and the roles can be quite fluid. For example, a more experienced veterinary tech can mentor a newly graduated one in job-specific duties, but the roles could shift if, say, conflict resolution skills are needed and the new tech has significant experience in that from another job or different context.
A healthy workplace has an engaged workforce – and engaged employees are those who are eager to participate in workplace activities and meet the challenges of the day. Engaged employees are motivated employees, and there are two types of motivation: external and internal.
External motivators include wages and benefits, and are needed to get people to work. Internal motivators go beyond that, and exhibit a much stronger pull. They include:
- Autonomy (control and decision making)
- Mastery (learning)
- Purpose (achieving personal goals)
To motivate teams externally, analyze what similar clinics are paying in wages and benefits, and pay the fairest amount you can. You don’t want to invest time and energy into an employee only to have him or her enticed away by a competitor who offered better compensation.
To internally motivate, provide autonomy, perhaps through flexible scheduling, incentivized earning programs and results-oriented managing (in other words, don’t micromanage!). Create a culture wherein practice members can master their favorite specialties through continuing education and teaching clients. Highlight purpose by noting what a difference a staff member is making in people’s lives, participating in charity events and building a culture in which praise and encouragement is given.
Finally, create a culture of transparent workplace accountability by clearly defining roles, and by focusing on teamwork. Clarify the importance of each person’s role in accomplishing team goals, and share and celebrate successes, while brainstorming how to overcome challenges together. Honestly evaluate processes and encourage practice staff to make suggestions. Reward integrity.
From a practical standpoint, organizational charts can help. Having a formal written organizational chart can help the growth of your practice in many ways, including serving as a:
- Roadmap for developing a management team
- Blueprint for hiring employees and developing their skills
- Method to improve flow of information throughout the practice
- Framework to boost efficiency
As you need to hire staff, give raises and otherwise manage a practice, having quality negotiation skills are important. Whenever two people have differing needs and interests – and each has what the other wants and needs – then a series of negotiations are likely to take place. For example, you want to improve the bottom line and so are watching expenses, but need the services and engagement of your veterinary technician, while the veterinary tech needs to earn more money for her family. So you need to discuss (negotiate!) a solution that will work for both of you.
To successfully negotiate:
- Understand the other person’s interests
- Be well prepared with factual information
- Determine where and how you can compromise
- Treat the other person the way you’d want to be treated; the goal is a successful long-term relationship, not a quick short-term win
A unique type of negotiation occurs with practice residents. Finding the right resident for your practice takes time, and you need to protect the investment you’ll make in your resident by including proper retention provisions in your residency agreements. At the core of a residency agreement: you are agreeing to pay for your resident’s training and living expenses in exchange for a certain amount of work after he or she is board certified.
Consider a carrot and stick approach to your agreement. At a minimum, require your resident to pay back the expenses you fronted if the residency is not passed in a timely manner or if your resident leaves your practice before the retention period expires. The carrot is optional, but serves as external motivation: if your resident successfully works through the retention period, he or she receives a bonus that is well-defined. And, it also makes sense to cultivate internal motivators with your resident. What autonomy can you provide? What mastery can you help to create, and what sense of purpose can you encourage?
Remember to take care of yourself! It’s crucial to create a healthy balance between work and the rest of your life – crucial for your health and well-being, as well as for the rest of the practice and your clients. Tips to help make this happen include:
- Mark important milestones on your calendar, perhaps your anniversary or child’s birthday, and arrange ahead of time to have time off to celebrate.
- Learn to prioritize and say no when you simply don’t have time to take on an additional task – or even something extra that would be enjoyable.
- When you get home, leave the workplace behind as much as possible. Try not to dwell on problems that happened or answer your email. Make your personal time truly yours.
- Track your time at work for a week. What tasks could you delegate to free up time? Or what isn’t necessarily a priority and can be put on a back burner?
- Consider starting a workplace wellness program. Participate!
- Lower your expectations at home. Incorporate more rest and enjoyable activities in your day whenever possible.
As a final piece of advice, during the early years of your practice (and, later on, for that matter), when you face challenges, reach out for help. Other professionals have been through similar scenarios and can provide guidance. You don’t have to go it alone.