Women: You're in business

Women: You're in business

The bottom line: Sound business principles stand the test of time. That’s why Dr. Downing says some of her advice makes her sound like her grandma. Here’s what she has to say.
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Jun 09, 2008

Both male and female veterinarians have made an impact on the veterinary profession. There's no magic to being male or female, but I do think women are still socialized to believe that we need to behave in certain ways to be successful. Such as, it's better to be nice than right. This is the thinking women need to discard.

What's fascinating is that we were having this discussion about women versus men when I was 20 and in college and now I'm 50 and we're still discussing it. It's funny how what I say out loud these days sometimes sounds conservative to my own ears. But it's because the advice now is the same as it was then: Be assertive without being aggressive. Thankfully, women now have more resources to help them learn how to do this. As I see it, there are four main things women must do to become successful veterinarians.

1. Read all about it
2. Never say "no"
3. Look the part
4. Don't try to do it all
5. Bonus: Special advice for associates

1. Read all about it
Go to a bookstore or library and head to the section marked "business." You can read any number of authors' ideas on what it means to be a successful businessperson. Sound business principles transcend professions—and gender. Male and female veterinarians must abide by sound business principles in order to be successful. This is the lowest common denominator no matter where you are on the food chain, whether you're an owner, associate, relief veterinarian, part-time veterinarian, and so on. As long as you're willing to take personal responsibility to treat what you do as a business, you're going to be successful.

Personally, what worked for me is the idea that "I am the CEO of me." Essentially, this means that if I'm going to maximize my success, I must look at myself as a business commodity and recognize that clients are contracting with me for my services. As the CEO of me, I'm always striving to maximize my personal success.

2. Never say "no"
As a student, I spent a lot of time learning what I needed to do to be a veterinarian. In the process, I learned a lot about what not to do, which is almost as important. Women veterinarians must be sensitive to the messages clients and team members are sending. Watch how people interact, and identify what isn't going well. One of the most important lessons I learned is that no one on my team should ever say "no" to a client.

For example, a client calls your practice to ask whether you offer grooming services. You don't. Naturally, the first words out of your receptionist's mouth would be, "No, we don't." The client's natural response: "Thanks, and good bye." Even if "no" is correct, it's rarely the right answer because when clients hear that word they usually stop listening. By giving a "no" response, you lose the chance to solve the client's problem and build a loyal—profit-making—client base.

Here's how to positively answer a client in the negative: "We refer clients to several groomers in our area because we don't offer grooming services on site. What in particular are you looking for?" Then work with the client to make a plan for getting their pet the care it needs.

3. Look the part
Women must strive to look like successful veterinarians. Before I go on, let me say that I don't feel different (aside from my knees) than when I started my first practice 22 years ago. My perspective on what it means to be a professional woman hasn't changed much. I've been growing my long braid since 1980, my earlobes are pierced multiple times, and I have a tattoo that I got when I was 20—although I don't show it. Still, I think women need to get over the idea that they can look any way they want and be successful.

Women veterinarians—actually, all veterinarians—must wear a white coat that doesn't look like you slept in it. You must wear a prominently displayed name tag, a stethoscope around your neck (if that feels comfortable to you), and sensible shoes—that's not to say you can't wear sexy shoes, just not five-inch spike heels. Women veterinarians, in particular, are forced to live with the fact that we need to do things twice as well as our male counterparts to be viewed as being half as good. Meaning, our culture is still hung up on the idea that women aren't as credible as men (our first credible woman presidential candidate aside). So with professional packaging—coupled with sound medical and business knowledge—we can quickly rise to the same credibility level as men.

4. Don't try to do it all
Surround yourself with a team of knowledgeable advisors. You need an accountant and an attorney who possess at least tangential understanding of veterinary practice. Talk to veterinarians you trust and ask who they work with. Finding the right people boosts your knowledge base, in a round-about way, and frees you up to practice medicine.

Don't worry about being viewed as weak because you got help. In fact, failing to get help is a trap women veterinarians often fall into. We're used to being superwomen who need to have the family, career, home, and practice. The simple fact is that you can't do everything yourself and be successful at all of it. You might try, but you'll exhaust yourself and some area of your life will suffer.

5. Bonus: Special advice for associates
It might be tough for female associates to think of controlling their own success. After all, it's the practice owners who set the rules. But there's no reason associates can't be successful and lead by example. After all, if you're not the leader of the pack, you're just going to look at a bunch of butts all day. Do the doctors and team members at your practice look sloppy? Then start showing up dressed better than anyone else in your practice. No other doctors in your practice wear white coats? So what. If you wear one, your credibility goes up. Does your practice look messy? Clean it up. If a piece of paper hanging on the wall isn't in a frame, take it down. Or go buy a $2 frame and hang it back up. There are always little ways to lead a team, and it's easier if you remember one little phrase: I am the CEO of me.

Dr. Robin Downing, DAAPM, owns Windsor Veterinary Clinic PC in Windsor, Colo.

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