Creating Your Career Blueprint: The Early Years of Practice Ownership

April 22, 2017
Veterinary Business Advisors, Inc.

Veterinarians Money Digest, April 2017, Volume 1, Issue 1

Outlining a strategic plan early in practice ownership provides an overall sense of direction toward future prosperity.

The best way to create the future you want is to set goals and then plan appropriately for them. Road maps are essential to your career plan. Here are some key issues to consider during the early years of owning your veterinary practice.

Strategic Planning

Although your days are likely to be hectic as you care for clients and manage your team, it’s important to step away from daily fire drills periodically to focus on long-term strategic planning. A strategic plan provides an overall sense of direction toward future prosperity. To be effective, your plan should be put into practice deliberately, modified when needed and reviewed regularly (often annually). The following components are typically included in a strategic plan:

  • Mission statement/purpose
  • Core values
  • Long-term vision (three, or five, or 10 years)
  • Strategic agenda (projects you undertake to move toward your vision)
  • Project plans (for each item on the strategic agenda)
  • Project milestones (and the metrics used to measure them)
  • Accountability plan (who will be responsible for what)
  • Budget

Plenty of free resources are available to help you create a viable strategic plan. The strategic planning section of the Small Business Administration website, for example, offers a 30-minute online training module and other resources for strategic planning.

Although “budget” appears as the last of the strategic planning components, it’s very important because the funds generated by your practice will serve as the fuel for your success. There are far too many financial planning issues to include in a single article, but here are several high-level recommendations:

  • Early on, get a handle on your cash flow. Are there times of the year when cash flow increases? Decreases? How predictable are those times? Are you paying your bills on a schedule that avoids late fees and takes advantage of any early-pay discounts?
  • Monitor your own time. Working extra-long hours every week to be profitable isn’t a sustainable strategy. What changes can you make to create a more realistic workload?
  • Make sure 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 assets and economic strategies, you need to understand thoroughly where your business stands.
  • Look to the future: Determine the best retirement plan options for you and your practice team. If you have fewer than 100 employees and no other qualified plan, consider a Savings Incentive Match Plan for Employees. Know that it’s never too early to create a succession plan (in terms of both ownership and management) in case you become incapable of working or die; this helps to ensure a smooth transition. 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 make another large purchase — and you don’t have to panic or go deeply into debt if an emergency does arise.

The people in your practice can make or break its success, so creating a success-friendly environment and company culture is crucial. Core elements of this environment include mentorship, engagement and accountability.

A mentor is simply a more experienced person offering guidance to a less experienced person. A workplace mentor serves as a role model, sharing knowledge that will help someone else chart his or her own career path. Mentorships can be formal or informal, and the roles can be quite fluid. For example, a more experienced technician 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 technician has significant experience in that area from another job or different context. A healthy workplace has an engaged workforce, and engaged employees are motivated and eager to participate in workplace activities and meet the challenges of the day. There are two types of motivation: external and internal.

External motivators — wages and benefits — are needed to get people to work. 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.

Internal motivators go beyond wages, and they can exhibit a much stronger pull. Internal motivators include:

  • Autonomy (control and decision making)
  • Mastery (learning)
  • Purpose (achieving personal goals)

To motivate internally, provide autonomy, perhaps through flexible scheduling, incentivized earning programs and results-oriented managing (in other words, don’t micromanage). Create a culture wherein practice team members can master their favorite specialties through continuing education and by teaching clients. Highlight purpose by noting the positive impacts staff members are having on people’s lives, participating in charity events, and building a culture in which praise and encouragement are given often.

Finally, create a culture of transparent workplace accountability by clearly defining roles and focusing on teamwork (see Using Organizational Charts Effectively). Clarify the importance of each person’s role in accomplishing team goals, share and celebrate successes, and brainstorm how to overcome challenges together. Honestly evaluate processes, and encourage staff to make suggestions. Reward integrity.

Mastering Negotiations

As you hire staff, give raises, and otherwise manage your practice, having quality negotiation skills is 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. Keeping in mind that the goal is a successful long-term relationship, not a quick short-term win, here are some helpful negotiating tools:

  • Understand the other person’s interests.
  • Be well prepared with factual information.
  • Determine how you can compromise.
  • Treat the other person the way you’d want to be treated.

Final Thoughts

We offer two final pieces of advice. First, remember to take care of yourself. Creating a healthy balance between work and the rest of your life is crucial not only for your health and well-being but also for the rest of the practice and your clients (see Making Time for You: Tips for Balanced Living). Second, during the early years of your practice (and later on, for that matter), when you face challenges, reach out for help. Rest assured that other practice owners have been through similar scenarios and can provide guidance. You don’t have to go it alone.

VBA provides a full range of legal, practice management and human resource services tailored for veterinarians and veterinary practices of all types. For more information, visit

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