Match made in heaven


You're on the hunt for a new associate. Here's how to find the right doctor for you and your practice.

AS THE PERSON SITTING ACROSS FROM YOU TALKS, A million thoughts run through your head. "Do we have the same goals, philosophies, and work ethic? Would I enjoy spending the better part of my waking hours with this person? Is she interested in settling down, buying a house, and investing in the community?"

No, you're not on a blind date or a contestant on The Dating Game, but it sure feels like it. You're playing The Hiring Game and sometimes you're on the losing end. Where are all the eager associates who view the world your way? And how do you attract them to your practice?

In a perfect world

Remember, times have changed

While many associates are looking for a position that contributes to their quality of life, owners are often more interested in financial security. Those financial issues—and the tradition of the equine veterinary profession—can spur you to work long hours. "Long workdays are a significant concern for a lot of potential and established equine associates, but that's slowly changing," says Dr. Mark Baus, managing partner at Fairfield Equine Associates in Newtown, Conn.

Management changes such as increased fees, controlled expenses, and a finely tuned management staff are all leading to more reasonable working hours. Hiring additional doctors to cover emergency duty and to help your team maintain a high standard of care is contributing, too.

Of course, agreement on work hours is only a small part of the picture. You also need to think about your goals and whether they align with those of the candidates you meet. With a generation of owners nearing retirement, many practices feel some urgency to find an associate who's interested in buying into the practice. No surprise here; looking for an associate who's also a potential buyer will narrow the pool of candidates. But if that's your goal, keep it top of mind during your search.

"Think about it like this," says Tracey O'Driscoll-Packer, a California-based equine management consultant: In regard to the type of associate you're looking for, "Are you looking for a long-term girlfriend or someone to have your children?"

What everyone wants

Buy-ins aside, most owners want to find an associate with strong people skills and solid technical knowledge. But remember, those are traits that come with time and with experience in practice. Most individuals, even after an internship, aren't prepared for all the challenges that come with equine medicine, says Dr. Baus.

So it makes sense to hire candidates with the traits you most want, and then help them develop the additional skills they need. For example, a new grad will continue to learn about medicine on the job, so hire for a strong work ethic, a positive view of the world, and a personal dedication to providing high-quality medicine and client service. Those are things you can't get with just anybody.

To attract that great candidate, you need to offer the kind of practice environment he or she is looking for. Dr. Baus says that, generally, basics like a high standard of care are at the top of associates' wish lists. They also want to work with a dedicated, supportive team. And from there they consider the expected work schedule and whether there's the potential for flexible or part-time hours. "I think part-time practice is the way of the future for equine medicine," Dr Baus says. So figuring out how to accommodate that kind of schedule could be key.

Think about it. If you were an associate, where would you want to work? At a practice where the fees are current and accounts receivable are at a reasonable level? At a practice with effective processes and policies, a track record of success, and a vision for the future? Bingo.

Is this a good fit?

It might be a viable option for an associate to work a flex schedule at your practice, or maybe your larger practice is ideal for an associate who wants calls to be spread out among more doctors. What if you own a general community practice but the person you're interviewing has a specific focus in surgery or lameness? Will he or she enjoy a fulfilling career at your practice?

Also weigh your management style against the candidate's work style. Are you an independent owner without a practice manager to provide another layer of administrative support? If so, you need to find out whether the associate is willing to hit the ground running. Maybe you're a hands-on owner. If so, an independent associate may feel as if you're constantly hovering.

Let's say a great candidate comes through the door and the interview goes beautifully. But you think, "Uh, there are great things about this person, but they're going to want more time off than I'm used to." That's a red flag. Listen to it—and to any squirmy feelings in your gut. Those small signs of discomfort could mean this isn't the best match for you or the associate.

Of course, more conversation and time together allows you get to know each other on several levels. Here's where the similarities to dating play in. Go on calls together and find out not just what the other thinks, but how the other thinks. Take time to show the potential associate your community. Gauge his or her reaction to the real estate market and the community, which can lead to questions about home ownership and roots. Let the candidate get a taste of your client demographics, workflow, and workload, and allow yourself to get a taste of his or her expectations.

It's not you, it's me

So you've made a decision and hired an associate. But a month or two into the relationship you're not sure you made the best decision. The hiring and orientation process, fitting the associate into your team and practice, and introducing him or her to clients—all of those things take an enormous amount of time and come with risks.

"You can really damage your clients' perception of the practice if you hire an associate who doesn't stay," O'Driscoll-Packer says. So if you're dealing with associate turnover, maybe you didn't evaluate the critical things like the associate's priorities, expectations, and future goals.

The challenge, she says, is to sort out whether you're experiencing minor bumps in the road as the associate becomes familiar with you and your practice, or whether you're facing deeper issues. You need to distinguish between normal settling-in challenges and a significant mismatch. Once you identify a mismatch, act quickly so you can move on. If you don't, you risk damage to your staff, practice, client base, and reputation.

"This is where people put things off," O'Driscoll-Packer says. "It's hard to face a significant hiring mistake." But if you find yourself doing a lot of managing, you've got the wrong person and you're better off dealing with it promptly.

And what is it like when it's meant to be? Dr. Baus has experienced a match made in heaven firsthand. He hired an associate at a full-time schedule, but she soon negotiated her schedule down to three days a week. Dr. Baus was hesitant. "I worried that she wouldn't be able to fulfill our clients' needs," he says. "But I agreed to her proposal and she's our top-billing associate. It's working out great."

So just because both parties know what they want doesn't mean they can't be open to something new. And the final outcome may not match the pictures in your head. But the right hire should bring a fresh perspective that's invigorating and you should both feel like you're traveling a satisfying path.

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