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Mentoring Grows Up

Here’s why SMART mentoring is this century’s business must-do

by Jan Thomas

MentoringTen years ago, most HR experts called business mentoring a “give”—something potential employers could, at their discretion, add to quantifiable job offer elements such as base salary, bonus opportunity, health benefits and vacation days.

Today, with its impact on skill development, productivity and job satisfaction better understood, mentoring is an increasingly important part of a growing number of job packages. What’s more, the former employment “option” has come of age, and its evolution is particularly apparent in veterinary medicine.

These days, more and more practices are opting for SMART mentoring, that is they are establishing a clearly defined mentor-mentored relationship that is specific, measurable, actionable, realistic and time-bound.

“Mentoring is all about moving the associate forward both professionally and personally in the most effective way possible,” says Thomas Carpenter, DVM, owner of AAHA-accredited Newport Harbor Animal Hospital in Costa Mesa, Calif. and AAHA president, 2007-2008. “It is a very personal and trusting relationship that is developed through mutual effort and protected time. The mentor and mentored develop a vision plan together so both are clear on what [they] are trying to achieve.”

For SMART mentoring to work, Carpenter says the parties should break the large plan into smaller, actionable goals then develop specific steps to achieve each component.

Because SMART relationships and the designated outcomes are so clearly defined, recent graduates who want a veterinary professional’s support as they transition into the working world may find mentoring a practical alternative to internships.

Equally important, practice owners interested in gaining a competitive edge can use SMART mentoring to build and retain top performers, improve the quality of medical care provided and increase revenue. (Mentoring’s potential value to a practice is so significant that AAHA created mentoring guidelines and quick reference tools for mentors and mentoreds in 2008. To see the guidelines, visit Trends online at trends.aaha.org. For more on the tools, see Mentoring at a Glance on page 41.)

Like any goal-driven venture, SMART mentoring has rules for success, and one of the most important is to avoid confusing it with other improvement strategies.

"There is often a misconception that mentoring is the same as training, and it is not,” says John Tait, DVM, MBA, CFP, managing partner of the Ontario Veterinary Group and AAHA’s 2009-2010 president-elect. “Mentoring is not the teaching of clinical skills, and practice owners should be coached on the difference. I suggest practice owners speak with other mentors to learn what they have learned from trial and error, and also follow AAHA’s mentoring guidelines to get the most out of the relationship.”

How to be SMART

So how do you set up a SMART mentoring relationship if you’re a seasoned veterinary professional or ask for one if you are a new hire? Finding the right answer to these questions is essential because SMART mentoring will have a huge impact on the ability of veterinary practices to both survive economic turmoil and provide top-quality medical care.

Here are five steps to make SMART mentoring work for you:

1. Be specific

First, be clear on what mentoring relationships are.

NegotiationAAHA president Anna Worth, VMD and co-owner of AAHA-accredited West Mountain Animal Hospital in Bennington, Vt., advises using AAHA mentor and mentored checklists so both parties have a common understanding of SMART mentoring.

“Graduates should take the tools with them and say, ‘This is what mentoring is. This is what I’d like. Are you willing to do that?’” Worth says.

Once serious conversation about mentoring begins, participants should focus on creating an arrangement that allows each party to accomplish important goals.

For recent graduates that generally means becoming more comfortable and competent with medical procedures, building business acumen and client communication skills, learning to work in a team environment and increasing their ability to generate revenue. For practice owners, it means adding a veterinary professional to the team who will assimilate quickly, produce significantly and remain at the practice long enough to allow the business to recover the cost of bringing a new person on-board.

And because unspoken or forgotten expectations cause problems long term, Tom Kendall, DVM, CVMP, co-owner of AAHA-accredited Arden Animal Hospital in Sacramento, Calif., and a member of AAHA’s board of directors suggests putting mentoring agreements in writing so both parties know what’s expected.

Although some forward-thinking practices add mentoring language to their employment contracts or craft separate, written mentoring agreements, Kendall says that level of specificity is still “at the early stage.”

Today, “it may start out with just a list of the things you’d like to have and that’s what you talk over,” Kendall says.

2. Have measurable goals

At their highest level, mentoring goals should reflect a joint commitment to the professional relationship. Both participants “should define their expectations and goals, including the frequency of their meetings, type of mentorship, issues to be considered, and what to do if there are problems along the way,” Tait says.

Suzy Pence, DVM, a 2006 Washington State University graduate says she and her first employer, AAHA-accredited Mount McKinley Animal Hospital in Fairbanks, Alaska, “had long conversations about my being a newbie, about what I needed from them and what they expected of me.”

Following a move to the mainland, Pence’s new employer, Anna Worth’s West Mountain Animal Hospital, reaped the benefits of that mentoring experience.

“I think it’s partly her, but Suzy went gung-ho much faster than we’ve ever seen an associate perform,” Worth says.

And results like that, says Carpenter, are the sort of return-on-investment practice owners should work toward.

“From an owner’s perspective, the primary benefit of mentoring is that you allow the associate to reach a higher level of professional performance much more quickly. This is very measurable,” Carpenter says. “Many of the goals you mutually agree upon will be measured in productivity metrics. Having an associate who moves forward professionally while minimizing and dealing with the many fears they are exposed to results in a much happier, financially rewarding environment. All of this will improve the bottom line.”

3. Have goals that require action

Carpenter’s practice uses a comprehensive approach to mentoring that begins with both parties taking enough time to get to know each other then moves into creating a vision statement and working together to establish actionable goals.

“I always start the process by getting to know each other. This relationship requires trust on both sides and the better we know one another, the easier it is to proceed comfortably,” Carpenter says. “It is important to take whatever time and effort is needed as this gives us a basis from which we work. We regularly evaluate where we are and modify the mentoring as needed.”

So what do actionable mentoring goals look like? An example would be productivity metrics around appointment start and completion times. A practice owner might initially give a new hire more time — say 20 minutes rather than 10 — to complete an office exam, write results and bond briefly with the client, and mentoring could involve regularly scheduled meetings to review case notes and discuss effective client communication strategies. Over time, the associate would be able to employ her or his new skills to reduce the period between appointments and increase productivity.

Kendall adopted a similar approach with a new associate who worried about being able to complete surgeries before afternoon appointments began.

“We normally schedule surgeries from noon to two. She always wanted her appointments to start no earlier than 2:30 because she was afraid she would run late,” Kendall says. “She was hired last July, and by this January or February, she’d turned that corner. She felt confident that she would finish her surgeries on time and not be rushed into appointment mode. It took six months, but she moved into that — and she’s a good surgeon too.”

Kendall says that associate’s annual billing is now more than $400,000 and she has an average client charge of $202.

4. Be realistic

“Mentoring is how you learn to deal with the everyday stresses and strains of practice, be they HR issues, business issues or bonding with clients,” says Mark Russak, DVM, assistant clinical professor at Mississippi State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine. “Students get a whole lot of science in school but they don’t get a lot of the softer skills. To make the transition into practice, they need someone with strong expertise who will take time to work with them.”

Like Kendall’s associate, new hires won’t become top producers overnight, but mentoring will generate valuable results.

“I’m a firm believer that all of our practices could be better if we take the time to pull people into the business. We’d boost their self-confidence, get them producing quicker and promote the level of health care overall,” says Worth.

Her approach to mentoring is to engage every employee, new associates and seasoned staff alike.

“We take our clinic goals and our clinic vision and break that out for each person who works here. Each person has an individual development plan and that’s a basis to start talking,” Worth says. “We have certain goals for this: our client education program, promoting excellent customer service, promoting quality medicine, working on our website, promoting compliance, promoting our clinic or marketing, reducing inventory and increasing cross-training.

“We talk about the fears and issues for each person so those can be worked on, too,” she adds. “The staff have a voice in what their individual goals are. When other people know what you’re interested in, they can help you.”

5. Set an end date

Eventually, mentoreds will grow beyond the parameters of the initial professional relationship. At that time, both parties can decide if mentoring should be redefined, restructured or discontinued.

“Mentor-mentored relationships are not continuous,” says Tait. “The relationship is based on the needs of the mentored at the time it is created. Eventually those needs should be met, and both mentor and mentored will evolve into a different stage of their careers where new relationships will emerge.”

“It is important to remember that this is to move the individual forward,” agrees Carpenter. “The process develops differently in each relationship because the end point and needs of each mentored may be dramatically different. [At Newport,] we regularly evaluate where we are and modify the mentoring as needed.”

Don’t force a fit

Although SMART mentoring will benefit almost every practice, not everyone is cut out to be a mentor, and experts warn against trying to force-fit a role that doesn’t suit your personality.

“Mentoring is life-teaching,” Kendall says. “There are some very good veterinarians who wouldn’t be good teachers or mentors, and that’s fine. They just shouldn’t hire new graduates because if they do, their expectations will not be met.”

Worth agrees with that assessment, but she cautions practice owners against avoiding mentoring just because they lack the appropriate skills.

“As an owner, if you don’t feel comfortable mentoring, find somebody in your clinic who’s good at it,” Worth says. “Just make sure that person is compensated for her or his time because, bottom line, mentoring is going to help your clinic by getting everybody going in the same direction.”

Both Worth and Kendall also put half of the responsibility of cultivating a compatible mentoring relationship on graduating students, and recent graduate Pence thinks they’re right.

Graduating students need “to spend a few days in the clinic before signing a contract,” Pence says. “When you talk with someone about mentoring, what you’re looking for is not just the blanket, ‘Yeah, I’ll do it.’ You want someone who will look you in the eye and say, ‘You can call me at three in the morning on your on-call if you have a question and that’s fine. End of story.’ That made the difference for me.”

This article appeared in the February 2009 issue of Trends magazine. Copyright 2009 © American Animal Hospital Association. trends.aaha.org. All Rights Reserved.

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