AAHA’s new president talks about leadership, transition, and the importance of community

(AAHA President Adam Hechko, DVM, and family building community. Photo courtesy of Adam Hechko)

Adam Hechko, DVM, AAHA’s new president, took the reins as the veterinary industry began navigating its second pandemic year.  

It’s a leadership journey that began when he bought the non-AAHA-accredited North Royalton Veterinary Hospital in North Royalton, Ohio, shortly after graduating from veterinary school in 2006.  

Nevertheless, Hechko says, “[AAHA] was my roadmap from the very beginning. That was the standard I wanted to set.”   

He says that as a young, untested practice owner,  AAHA gave him the courage to “stick with it. I relied a lot on AAHA standards and position statements and guidelines to give me the confidence that what I was doing was right. AAHA  gave me the confidence I needed to provide the best care for my patients and for the families in the community that we serve.” 

It also taught him where he needed to focus his attention. “We go to vet school because we want to be veterinarians and practice medicine and take care of our patients,” he says. “But very quickly, I learned I needed to not only do that, but I needed to be a leader.” 

It took some time to determine what kind of leader he wanted to be. Mostly, Hechko says, he was learning as he went. But gradually, he found himself gravitating to what he calls “servant leadership.”   

“Servant leadership is where you put the needs of your team first, and the belief that supporting your team and providing the resources they need also helps your business,” he says. “It helps your patients and helps everybody that you‘re trying to take care of. I really like celebrating my team. And providing them with the support they need to grow as professionals and as people.”  

As the practice grew, Hechko built out. He gained clients. He added staff. Eventually, North Royalton relocated to a 17,000-square-foot facility. In 2009, North Royalton received its AAHA accreditation, and in 2015, the hospital was voted AAHA-Accredited Practice of the Year. That same year, Hechko joined the AAHA Board of Directors. This year, he became AAHA president.  

According to Hechko, the job of AAHA president has a dual focus, just like running a practice—especially during a pandemic. ”Sometimes it‘s more about being a visionary,” he says. “Looking to the future and figuring out and solving the problems and being innovative to provide care for our patients. But sometimes it’s about focusing on the here and now, to care for our team and to make sure our team is safe and secure and happy and healthy so they can provide for those patients.” 

In the early days of the pandemic, Hechko says, we were all trying to figure things out and find our way. “Everybody was uncertain about what the future was going to hold.” 

Then, says Hechko, it made sense to focus on the present. “On bringing our team together and celebrating what we were and what we do on a daily basis.” 

“I told my team in the very beginning, when the pandemic hit, they should consider every pet an emotional support animal, and we‘re here to help those pets. Because, if we can help those pets stay healthy, we‘re helping the families and the community that we live in—and that‘s one less thing that we all have to stress about.” 

This philosophy became a kind of mantra during the pandemic for Hechko: “We‘re not just here to help animals be healthy. We’re also trying to help the community, and part of our job with the community is taking that stress of pet health off of the family.” 

Hechko’ s dual emphasis on present and future continues as he helms AAHA: “As we continue to navigate through the pandemic, I want to make sure that we continue to focus on what has made AAHA so special: our standards, who we are and how we identify, and celebrating what veterinary medicine is about.” 

Hechko is keenly aware that he’s leading AAHA in a time of real crisis and real change, both in the world and in the veterinary profession. And he admits it’s a little daunting. “It is, absolutely.” 

His solution: “I think we need to . . . take a moment to look and say, ‘What are our lessons from this pandemic?’ And there are going to be a lot of them. What can we take from this and use to improve our practice of veterinary medicine? 

For Hechko, the biggest struggles—and opportunities—during times of social distancing and curbside care can be found in trying to maintain what he values most: community. And, more specifically, relationships. “Finding ways to maintain relationships with our clients when we couldn‘t always be with them face-to-face,” he says. “We were so used to a very specific style of connection with clients that we couldn‘t have during the pandemic because it wasn’t practical or possible.”  

The bright side? “Innovation in the industry has exploded because we were forced to make changes and find ways to continue to create those moments and those connections with our clients.” 

For Hechko—and for AAHA—the future of veterinary medicine lies in connection. And in community.