Didnt learn it in vet school? You need a mentor


Actually, you need a mentor no matter what. If you already know it all, guess whatits your turn to mentor someone else (and youll probably benefit from coaching).

By Kristi Reimer Fender

Those of us dvm360 types who've been hanging around veterinarians for a decade or two have noticed a refrain emerging in the past few years from older and midcareer practitioners: “Young veterinarians just aren't coming out of school prepared to practice.” These are often practice owners who follow up with something like, “My associate wants to refer a toe amputation. It's a toe amputation-come on.” Or, “My associate wants to jump straight to an MRI and ignore the physical exam. Incidentally, he also can't find his way across the street without GPS. I think there's a connection.”

Is this refrain simply a vet-specific variation on the song of the ages as older generations observe younger generations fumble their way to competence? Maybe the problem is societal: Are young people in general experiencing a crisis of confidence brought on by a soft upbringing in which they never had to solve their own problems? Or is something truly broken in the veterinary education system, causing it to fail graduates, the practices that hire them, and the patients and clients who ultimately depend on them?

While we don't pretend to get to the bottom of all of these questions, we did take an in-depth look at them, pulling the results together in this dvm360 Leadership Challenge on what you didn't learn in vet school. Specifically, in the 2018 dvm360 Vet School Survey, we asked our readers what they felt school had adequately prepared them for and where they felt adrift. Here's what the 325 veterinarians who responded to our survey felt the least prepared for clinically:

  • 52 percent felt unprepared to handle dentistry.

  • 49 percent felt unprepared to handle behavior.

  • 41 percent felt unprepared to handle orthopedic surgery.

  • 33 percent felt unprepared to handle nutrition.

When it came to nonclinical skills, participants were even less confident:

  • 78 percent felt unprepared to handle practice finances.

  • 73 percent felt unprepared for workplace conflict.

  • 73 percent felt unprepared to deal with compassion fatigue.

  • 72 percent felt unprepared to take care of their personal wellness.

  • 62 percent felt unprepared to deal with difficult clients.

  • 51 percent felt unprepared for leadership.

  • 31 percent felt unprepared to handle client communication.

The good news is that graduation doesn't mark the end of the learning experience for veterinarians but the beginning of a new phase of lifelong professional development. And the best way to learn on the job is through mentorship (which we also asked our readers about-see dvm360.com/wherementors).

One of dvm360's top experts on the subject of mentorship is Dave Nicol, BVMS, Cert. Mgmt MRCVS, a regular Fetch dvm360 educator, author of the book So You're a Vet … Now What? and founder of VetX Graduate, an online community for young veterinarians in which they receive mentoring services and career acceleration advice from “Dr. Dave” himself.

This article is adapted from So You're a Vet and several episodes of Dr. Nicol's “Freewheeling” podcast (information on VetX Graduate, the book and the podcast are all available at drdavenicol.com). Without further ado, here's Dr. Dave.


Shutterstock.comBy Dave Nicol, BVMS, Cert. Mgmt MRCVS

When I graduated from vet school, what you learned was what you picked up from your boss and other senior role models. Not surprisingly, these habits weren't necessarily the ones that would lead to a happy and long-lasting career. In my case, some of these habits and behaviors damaged and limited my career, and it took me a long time to work out a better way forward.

Dr. Dave Nicol, the authorIn veterinary medicine, a happy workplace and healthy relationships are just as important as solid clinical skills. To that end, lean in and listen up, because this matters a great deal: It is essential that you have a mentor.

There is no expiration date on this. I have owned and managed veterinary hospitals on two continents. I have managed teams of 50 vets. Do you think for one second that I am the finished article? No way. I didn't fully understand the benefit of a mentor until far later in life, so if you're a recently minted veterinarian, I hand this gem to you and hope you'll take advantage of some advanced warning via my “retrospectoscope.”

Mentors are people who help you navigate your way in life. Some are assigned, some come free and others you must seek out and pay. A good mentor will be an asset to you like no other. Mentors are wonderful people who perform multiple roles. Here are a few qualities you should expect. A good mentor:

  • Knows more than you and can teach you things.

  • Is outstanding at what they do.

  • Gives honest advice and feedback.

  • Sees your potential but isn't afraid of calling out your BS.

  • Has your back but will also push you forward.

  • Asks you hard questions that will help you unlock the breakthroughs in your life.

  • Will pick you up, dust you off and help you stand again when life knocks you over. (And trust me: If it hasn't happened yet, it will.)

Take my advice: If you're not currently in a mentoring relationship, seek one out. Identify a good candidate (more on this below) and sit down with them ASAP to work out a regular meeting schedule where you'll get exclusive access to each other's brain for at least an hour every two to four weeks (I like two-week intervals best).

And here's a note to you seasoned docs with lots of wisdom to share: Anyone who's had the privilege of working with a great mentor would be mad not to offer the same support to each and every employee.

So how do you find a mentor?

If you want to develop and grow your veterinary skills, how do you choose a good mentor? Here are the qualities you should look for:

They have to care. A good mentor has to be concerned about you and your welfare! Lots of people out there are knowledgeable enough to teach you, but they must care enough to spend time with you.

They have to have time. You can work with the most adept clinician in the world, but if she's moving a million miles an hour and doesn't have any spare time, there's no point hassling her to be your mentor. It's never going to happen.

They have to display the qualities you want to display yourself. A truism of life is that you become the sum of the people you spend time with. This is especially the case with your mentor! I encourage you to choose someone who's emotionally intelligent. How do you know who that is? It's the doctor who has a busy day and doesn't freak out. It's the manager who actually enjoys working with the team-and vice versa. Emotionally intelligent people make relationships look easy.

They have to see the upside for them. A good mentor looks for a good mentee: someone who's interested in the subject matter, who shows up and is present in the conversation, and who asks good questions. There's nothing better as a mentor than working with someone who's eager to learn. So, be a nice person to mentor in the first place, and you'll have a much higher chance of pairing with someone great.

Having the conversation

Once you've identified someone with the skills you desire, who treats others kindly and who has adequate time, show interest in that person. It never hurts to give them a compliment.


Let's say I want to be mentored by my friend Emma, who does video work. I could say, “Emma, I've seen your videos on YouTube, and they're awesome. I enjoy watching them and I've learned a lot. I know you're super busy-and please say no if it doesn't work; I won't be offended-but I wondered if you had a few minutes every so often when I could take you out for a coffee and you could tell me what I need to do to produce amazing videos like you do.”

That's how I would approach someone I wanted to mentor me. Don't spout bullshit, but offer sincere observations of what you admire. They're going to be flattered by that, and you'll have a foundation for a relationship moving forward. If they say no, don't take it personally. Find someone else and try again.

Stages of learning and development

Wondering where mentoring fits into a lifetime of career learning? Here's a closer look at where we start with our professional skills and where we hope to end up eventually.

1. Unconscious incompetence. This phase is when we're unaware of how much we don't know. Really, we're dumb as rocks. If someone is at this stage of their veterinary career, they're being trained, not mentored. The trainer tells the trainee exactly what to do and maintains full control and final responsibility for the outcome.

2. Conscious incompetence. This is when we're more aware of what we don't know and we're open to learning. Somewhere between this phase and the next-when we're consciously incompetent or consciously competent-mentoring comes into play. It's a good time for a mentor to practice the progression of “see one, do one, teach one.”

3. Conscious competence. In this phase, we're able to perform our professional skills but we still have to think through each step-they're not yet second nature.

4. Unconscious competence-or, as I like to say, awesomeness! At this stage our skills are so ingrained that we can do them without even thinking about it.

When someone is at a higher level of skill, whether it's conscious or unconscious, they benefit more from coaching than mentoring. They're innovating and growing, and the coach is just helping them get out of their own way. The person being coached has total responsibility for the outcome.

Benefits of being a mentor

Sometimes I'm asked if mentoring benefits the mentor as well as the mentee. The answer is an unequivocal yes. For one, it keeps you honest that your material is good. When you're mentoring, you have to make sure that what you're passing on is current, well-researched and borne out by your own experience-in other words, you can say, “This works because I've done it.” This requirement keeps you as the mentor developing and growing as well.

Also, the foundation of any relationship is trust. When you've got trust, you've got a great relationship, and a great relationship means management is easy. When you mentor someone, you're ticking one of their big “I need this!” boxes. All the data say veterinary graduates want clinical and emotional support. Mentoring means you care, and it will result in above-and-beyond levels of commitment and service in your mentee.

If you want an antidote to toxic culture and poor practice performance, mentorship is it. You have to give to get, and what you give is your time, expertise and knowledge.

How do I make time to mentor?

What do you do if you're a practice owner or leader and you have the best of intentions to mentor younger veterinarians-but you just can't find the time? Did you promise your recruits in the interview room that you'd mentor them once they hired on, and now you're struggling to deliver? You're not alone.

Let's face it: If we let it, clinical stuff will always get in the way of administrative and business stuff in veterinary medicine. When the emergency comes through the door or the appointments are stacked and waiting, strategic and growth-related activities get pushed aside. We focus on the urgent and ignore the important.

We have to get it in our minds that training and development are just as important as actually doing the work in veterinary practice-if not more important. And the best strategy for prioritizing mentorship is to put your meetings in the daily appointment schedule. Then protect time for that mentorship meeting like you protect time for the operating room.

I know this will cost you money because you won't be seeing patients. And your workload will go up, because you'll be doing your job plus some of your mentee's job. But if you ever want to stop the revolving door of veterinary graduates leaving after 12 months, this is what you have to do. When you spend time mentoring people, you help them feel motivated and loved, and you show them they have a place in the practice. They feel significant.

Then the magic time machine of mentorship starts to kick in. As your mentee takes on more skills, they can begin to do their job fully. Soon they can even take some of your job. As your workload starts to decrease, your time commitment to the mentoring process also starts decreasing. Now you can jump off the hamster wheel-and start looking for other people to mentor!

If you have zero interest in mentoring, don't force it. If you're the surgeon and you just want to cut all day long, fine. But consider this: Most of us in veterinary medicine don't just like teaching-we love teaching. We've been in education for so much of our adult lives that it comes naturally. So there's probably someone in your practice who would love the opportunity to mentor someone.

Mentoring topics

Not sure what to talk about in your mentoring appointments? Here are some topics to consider-these are all areas where recent grads need mentoring:

How to communicate with clients in the exam room

How to talk to clients about money

How to persuade clients to follow your recommendations

How to deal with impostor syndrome

How to do end-of-life-care visits effectively

How to talk about dentistry

If you do enter into a mentorship relationship and make a commitment to give someone a piece of your brain, you have to stick to that commitment or you break a psychological contract. It's not on a piece of paper that you've signed, but it's even more important than a legal document because it's about trust. Once you break that commitment, trust breaks down, and people don't feel growth or support. That means they're going to look for someplace else to work.

In summary, mentorship is all about support, growth and connection. They want it, you can offer it, and it's beneficial to the mentor, the mentee and the practice as a whole. When you watch your little saplings grow into bigger plants, when you put them in bigger pots as they grow stronger in their skills, you unleash unbelievable amounts of vitality into your practice. Mentorship is not an easy road, but it's essential to the health of your practice-and the profession as a whole.

Dave Nicol is a graduate of Glasgow University Veterinary School in Scotland. He is the founder of the VetX Graduate mentoring community and a regular speaker at the Fetch dvm360 conferences. It is his personal mission to help pets and their people live happy, healthy lives by exploring the daily challenges we face, creating solutions and helping others grow.

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