The future is now for these four vet med leaders

Four of the most inspiring voices in vet med talk to Central Line: The AAHA Podcast about what it really means to “be positive” and take a team approach to wellbeing.

These four guests, who sat down with us at Connexity 2022 and are featured on the September 27, 2022, episode of Central Line: The AAHA Podcast, are humble, kind, and optimistic— but most of all, they’re real. They’re making waves in veterinary medicine by bringing principles of positive psychology, servant leadership, and radical candor to their own practices and those they work with. Getting them together for a conversation made our week, so we had to share an excerpt with you—but it’s worth checking out the whole episode. Find it at aaha.org/podcast, YouTube, or wherever you get your podcasts.  

Guests: 

  • Michael Shirley – Family Pet Health in Murfreesboro, TN, moderator/creator of the Veterinary Leadership Book Club on Facebook 
  • Josh Vaisman, MAPPCP (PgD) – Flourish Veterinary Consulting  
  • Alyssa Mages, CVT – co-founder of Empowering Veterinary Teams 
  • Phil Richmond, DVM, CAPP, CPPC, CPHSA, CCFP – Chief Medical and Wellbeing Officer for Veterinary United, founder and CEO of Flourishing Phoenix Veterinary Consultants, chief chair of the FVMA wellbeing committee 

Hosted by Katie Berlin, DVM 

Katie Berlin: There’s a certain energy that you feel from somebody, where, you know when you’re talking to them and you’re in a conversation and they make you feel like you are the only person in the world that matters to them at that moment. And that is common to all of you.  

I really want to hear what you guys think about this, because the theme of this conference is “Create a Better World,” and I can’t think of better people to talk about what that better world might look like. 

Michael Shirley: So my wife and I own a small-animal hospital in Tennessee. And we require everyone that, before they can interview at our hospital, they have to read a book called The Energy Bus by John Gordon. And it’s 10 rules for infusing positivity into your life and the way that you frame it. And if people don’t read the book, they don’t get to come in for an interview. But rule number 1 is that you are the driver of your own bus.  

I’m excited to be beside these folks because they’re my favorite speakers in vet med, and I’m naturally drawn to the message that they have about positivity and workplace culture and how you take care of people. And then those people can take care of your clients and your patients. That’s worked really well for us—we’re almost five years in, and that has not failed. So I would encourage everybody to read that book, because when you wake up every morning, you have to realize, “I’m in charge of where I’m going today.” I can’t be in charge of what happens to me, but I can be in charge of my response to those things. 

Alyssa Mages: And I love that; that’s a really important differential, how you respond versus how you react.  

Katie Berlin: So what about the idea that there are a lot of problems in vet med at the organizational level, the institutional level, systemically, that we need to be addressing too? In some cases, it seems like it’s very difficult to put yourself in the place where you can respond and not react. And it’s easy to get resentful about that stuff. What I love about listening to all of you is that you never seem to be nurturing that resentment.  

Michael Shirley: Our vision is written out, and we talk about it every morning when our team gets together. And then whatever happens to you … if you can check yourself to say, “How would someone that’s productively heading towards that goal, how would they respond?” There are things that make me really angry at our office, but I know that it’s going to damage all the hard work that we’ve done for psychological safety in our office if I throw the door open and start yelling and screaming at people, because that is opposite of what our vision is.  

Josh Vaisman: For me, a better world is a world of humanity, where we sort of just embrace and recognize that we are fully human beings, and all of us are doing the best we can each and every day with what we have to try and move forward and be productive.  

And so, when I hear things like what Michael is talking about, I hear there are challenges, there are moments where we’re not at our best, and there are the experiences that are negative. That vision for me manifests as possibility: Maybe I’m not going to be at my best right now, maybe you’re not going to be at your best right now, maybe together, our profession is not at its best, but we can get there because there are so many vibrant beautiful strengths and possibilities that exist within all of the people of this beautiful profession and within the profession itself. And if we can start to lean into those strengths, we’ll get through the stumbles and challenges just fine, and we’ll build that brighter future. 

Katie Berlin: It’s the helplessness and the hopelessness that’s the real enemy there, right?  

Phil Richmond: It was very easy for me to be the blame thrower. Everyone else is at fault, I would be doing so great in this world amongst everyone, if the eight million people would just do what I want. Well, I can’t absolutely control any of those people. And so it took a big reset, a big change of my life to get to a point where I realized that I was the only one that I could control. And then once I did the work with me, then I was able to help try to give that away because I can’t give something away that I don’t have.  

And I also have to have that self-compassion that if I’m off, it’s okay. I can’t build the great things every moment. If we can do that on an individual level, then we work on a team level and then help the people around us, and then the organization level. And it works when all comes together in that regard, but it had to start with me. I love the phrase, “What part did I play?” 

Alyssa Mages: I got into the profession to be the voice for the voiceless, and that shifted from the patients to the team. And I kept hearing, “I’m just an assistant. I’m just a vet tech.” … Like, “You’re not just anything.”  

When I had a leadership role years ago, I was not the right person for it. People thought I was, but I wasn’t ready. And to your point of having to start with me, it took having a big personal moment where I used to have a lot of hair and my mom went through cancer and I shaved it off, and I was like, “Oh, that’s who I am. Cool.” Go back to dentistry. If you look at the tooth roots from one angle, you only see two—but if you turn it, you see the three. It’s changing their perspective, flipping that definition and really redefining who we are as individuals and then what we can become as a profession. 

Josh Vaisman: What I see are people who are starting to take the perspective that we can create spaces that allow people to lean into what they can be, and that opens up so much possibility. That’s where the energy comes from. Instead of, “Katie, you’re letting me down because you keep taking three hours to extract this molar and I really need it to take two.” It’s, “Katie, what’s preventing you from getting to what you are capable of doing?” That’s the same tooth turned in a different perspective. 

Phil Richmond: And it all wraps up into one of our favorite quotes. “Be curious, not judgmental.” 

Josh Vaisman: For me, this brings up a point that goes back to, you used a word earlier, Katie, you said the word hopeless. For me, there’s something that actually comes even prior to accountability, which is just the experience that I actually matter. It’s almost impossible to have these kinds of productive conversations to hold somebody accountable, to empower somebody with something if they don’t actually feel like they make a difference in any reasonable way. 

And we know, we know, that’s an essential element to thriving. Human beings who don’t feel like they matter, end up hopeless. Hopelessness is not a place of which you can be resilient, We have to start with just connecting as human beings and recognizing that this person has value. They have a strength, they’re needed for some purpose.  

Alyssa Mages: Be someone’s mirror. 

Phil Richmond: I got to experience that at the practice that I was at, but we were very, very intentional about crafting that. And it took a lot of work. 

We changed the thought processes that we were going to empower staff. We wanted to work on education. We wanted to work on communication. We just felt like that was important. In 2019, before COVID, our medical team, we would say that we would come to work to get away from the world.  

Michael Shirley: And if practice owners are listening to this and they’re thinking, “This is the way I can retain my team is to create this culture,” they need to verbalize it with their team and maybe even involve them in the creation of the vision.  

Alyssa Mages: Absolutely. And taking that shift from a hierarchical approach to a team-based approach. Instead of top down or bottom up, it’s inside out. 

 

Listen to the full episode, “All Aboard the Veterinary Energy Bus,” on Central Line: The AAHA Podcast, anywhere you get your podcasts or at aaha.org/podcast. 

 

Wish you could watch these conversations? Catch Central Line on YouTube.   

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