Use these thought-starters to take a close look at your progress and plot a successful future.
I know that an associate veterinarian who's juggling a hectic schedule, a crazy personal life, and pressure-packed workdays can easily get lost in the minutia of the moment. Before you realize it, weeks, months, and even years can float by. At the same time, critical decisionsabout your career, your cash flow, and your potentialcan get pushed to the back burner, or worse, never even considered.
Don't leave your future to chance! Instead, take a step back from your busy life at least once a year and ask yourself the following questions. Ideally, you'll mull over these issues while you're away from the jobpreferably on a sandy beach or a frigid ski slope. The farther you are from the worries of work and home, the easier I think you'll find it to give your goal-setting the attention it deserves.
The answers to these questions may come easily, or agonizingly slowly. Either way, it's the process of considering, analyzing, and making the decisions that's important.
Should I stay or should I go?
As an associate veterinarian, generally speaking, you're a free agent. Because you're not tied to a practice by ownership, you have the flexibility to pick up and walk away whenever you choose. So here's one of the most crucial decisions you make each year: Do I want to keep working here?
I recommend that you approach this question by first analyzing your skills. For example, ask yourself:
• Am I improving here as a doctor?
• Am I still learning?
• How much am I being pushed?
• Am I growing as a professional?
Next, look at your environment:
• Do I like the practice culture?
• Am I proud to say I work here?
• Do I like the people I spend my day with? I once spoke with an associate who was happy with his place of employment. His only complaint: A few bad clients sapped the practice's positive energy. Feeling this was an area that he could change, the associate got permission to “fire” unreasonable or problem clients. With these bad clients gone, the associate was happier and stayed with the practice.
• Am I proud of my contribution to the practice and of the medicine I practice?
The next step is to review your compensation:
• Am I paid well for what I do?
• How are the benefits?
• Is there the potential to make more? How much more?
• Is ownership a possibility?
Finally, think about the future:
• Can I see myself at this practice in three years? In five years?
• Is there a better situation for me out there?
The decision to stay or leave your practice may be clear-cut or extremely hazy. And practical factors may interfere. For example, you may want to leave but have no place to go. The important thing is to analyze the facts, look at your choices, and make a decision. Figuring out how to put the decision into action will come later.
How could I increase my value?
Whether you remain at your current practice or begin to look around, you need to continually ask yourself how you could increase your value and make yourself a more desirable associate or partner. It stands to reason that the more you offer, the more someone will be willing to pay. And generally speaking, your marketability depends on your ability to generate revenue or to offer specialized expertise.
The following questions get at the heart of your ability to produce. Answer the questions thoughtfully to get a clear picture of where you stand now, then think about what steps you could take to improve in each area.
• How efficiently do I handle patients?
• How many cases can I see in a day?
• Do I occasionally hesitate to recommend a service or procedure because I'm sensitive to the client's possible negative reaction to the price?
• Do I charge for everything I do?
• Are the practice's prices too low? Are they competitive?
• How aggressively do I schedule appointments? If you're taking more than 20 to 30 minutes for a standard exam or if clients are stacking up in the waiting area, it's probably time for you to be more aggressive with your schedule.
• How well does the practice team track and record individual doctor production? I knew an associate who was paid on production and was having trouble reaching her goals. A little research confirmed her suspicions: Close to 15 percent of her production was not finding its way into her column. This was quickly rectified, and since then, she's been easily hitting her goals every month.
Developing a niche or expertise is another way to increase your marketability. These factors will influence your decision whether to pursue this path:
• Is there a service void in the practice or the geographical area that interests me?
• Would the expertise generate additional revenue for the practice?
• Would it be cost-effective to get into?
• How much training or continuing education would I need?
• What new equipment and supplies would the practice need to buy?
• How much time would I need to fully develop this expertise?
• Is the expertise something that could be sold to the practice's clientele?
• Can I convince the practice owner?
Improving your professional abilities is never a bad thing. And no matter what skills you're considering, you'll need to address these core issues:
• What would you like to tackle?
• Does your plan dovetail with the practice owner's goals and objectives?
• Is the end result worth the time, energy, and money you'll need to invest?
How would I like to be paid?
The age-old question for associates: flat salary or production-based salary? One is steady and conservative; the other can be more erratic but potentially more rewarding.
Your preferred compensation method is likely determined by your risk tolerance. If you don't need the guaranteed, base salary, you'd probably prefer a production-based salary for its potential upside. If you need the steady paycheck, you'll choose the flat salary.
Some things to consider:
• What's my cash flow situation?
• How well can I weather the potential ups and downs of production-based pay?
• What would I have earned in the past year if I had been compensated a percent of production/flat salary?
• How likely is it that my revenue production will increase significantly this year? (Hint: If you've answered the questions in the “How Could I Increase My Value?” section well, your answer here should be “very likely.”)
At your current practice, production-based pay may not be an option, or it may be your only option. Even so, knowing whether you prefer a flat salary or a production-based salary, and communicating that to the practice decision-makers, is an important step for your career. If you don't like your current compensation structure, ask your boss for a change. If he or she refuses, and you've decided this change is important to your future, then that may be a reason to move on and find a practice that's more flexible in this area.
Do I want to own?
This is a critical decision that every associate should address periodically. Do you want to be an associate and let someone else handle the headaches of business ownership? Or do you have the burning desire to be the lead dog on the sled?
If you decide you do want to own, think about these questions:
• What type of practice would I like to buy? What size? Where?
• Would I like to buy or buy into the practice I'm currently working for? Why? Why not? Is that an option?
• When do I want to buy?
• Do I have the financial resources needed to buy a practice?
• Am I mentally and emotionally prepared for the challenges of owning my own practice?
As a practice owner, the day-to-day headaches, stresses, cash flow problems, staffing concerns, and late-night emergencies will all fall in your lap. Of course, you also gain financial rewards, pride of ownership, and the satisfaction of working in a practice that is your practice.
Some veterinarians have to have their own practices, others wouldn't dream of it. And many are on the fence, moving closer or farther away with each passing year. So addressing this question periodically is crucial.
For a successful career, and life, nothing is more critical then stepping back and looking at your trajectory. Asking yourself these 50 questions and making these critical decisions will ensure that you stay on the right track and that, some day, you reach your personal and financial goals.
Tom A. McFerson, CPA, is accredited in business valuation. He's a member of the Association of Veterinary Practice Management Consultants and Advisors and is a partner with Gatto McFerson, an accounting and consulting firm in Santa Monica, Calif. Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.