Helping each other to help ourselves - Veterinary Practice
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InFocus

Helping each other to help ourselves

“While the mentorship-style teaching structure has been heavily criticised in recent years […], there may be unrealised benefits associated with how this system works for our profession”

During a recent online training session for BEVA’s Leg Up coaching initiative, it occurred to me that a generous bunch of people were displayed on the screen in front of me. These busy, self-effacing equine vets and nurses had taken numerous hours out of their own “down-time” to learn how to be coaches so they could help the generations of vets and nurses following them in the profession. What was in it for them? Some were practice owners, bosses or mentors to newly qualified staff in their own practices, but not all of them.

The newly trained coaches had a “mixer session” with existing coaches who have been part of the Leg Up scheme since 2019 as the first cohort of coaches. This session was invaluable because it saw the fledgling coaches absorb experience and advice from those with more established flight feathers. There was undeniably some apprehension for those waiting to catch the breeze as they recognised the responsibility that lay ahead in their role as a coach. But seeing the humility of the seasoned coaches and the pride emanating from them as they talked about their mentees and shared how they, too, had benefited from the process themselves was nothing short of cockle-warming.

In general, vets and nurses are a “giving” subset of the population: we enjoy working with care and compassion and collaborating with others; we gain satisfaction from helping clients, educating owners and nurturing the newer members of our profession. Mentorship can be tremendously rewarding for all parties involved and fosters a familial feeling in the profession: from the provision of extra-mural studies (EMS), which is hugely dependent on the time, commitment and enthusiasm of our practising workforce, to the pathway from graduation, which relies on practices providing a suitable environment and adequate support for new graduates to develop their clinical skills.

While the mentorship-style teaching structure has been heavily criticised in recent years for being too informal and inconsistent, there may be unrealised benefits associated with how this system works for our profession

While the mentorship-style teaching structure has been heavily criticised in recent years for being too informal and inconsistent, there may be unrealised benefits associated with how this system works for our profession. Comparisons with the human medical field are often futile, as the UK’s National Health Service means we are comparing apples to pears. Similar professions such as dentistry and law are probably too far removed from the way the veterinary profession works to compare. This is particularly apparent when you consider how vastly our profession varies, from small, rural, ambulatory large animal practices to large, urban, small animal clinics. It is much harder to find one size that fits all.

Nowadays, there is undoubtedly more career transition than in bygone years. But this does mean that even as practices invest in training new members, there is a greater, if not almost certain, chance that they will move on at some stage and that investment will be lost. But, in theory, this should balance out as people migrate, taking their experiences with them. Unless, of course, those experienced people migrate out of the profession, which we know happens for reasons we don’t need to delve into here. However, retaining experienced staff is as important as training new staff, particularly when that training is so dependent on the coexistence of good teachers and mentors to provide it. So, where vets and nurses demonstrate the ability and enthusiasm to coach others and pass on their skills and knowledge, we should celebrate it with gusto and be proud of this mechanism by which our profession propagates itself.

Retaining experienced staff is as important as training new staff, particularly when that training is so dependent on the coexistence of good teachers and mentors to provide it

It is not a prerequisite for vets to be good teachers. In fact, some are and will be terrible teachers! And that’s OK. While nurses anecdotally seem to be better at teaching, we should understand and expect that, in terms of disposition or skill, not everyone is built for mentoring. As such, those who do not enjoy training new staff or mentoring less experienced colleagues and those who are simply not good at it should be willing and able to admit to it or be told so. Those individuals remain valuable for their clinical skills and client relations. However, it is possible that with appropriate training some of these individuals would be better at it and enjoy it more. But it should never be mandatory or expected that everyone performs these duties.

BEVA’s coaching initiatives

I recently completed my own coaching training as a member of BEVA’s new Back in the Saddle group coaching team. Following on from the success of the Leg Up scheme, which provides one-to-one coaching for graduate vets (up to five years post-graduation) and now nurses as well, there was an evident demand and need to grow this offering to other members. The feedback from Leg Up mentees was nothing but positive, and the coaches echoed the same.

Hearing the stories and experiences that had cultured a growth mindset in both parties was nothing short of inspiring and is possibly something we often overlook when we are given the chance to interact with people at different stages of their careers from ourselves.

The Back in the Saddle programme has evolved organically from the Leg Up coaching but aims, more specifically, to help those returning from career breaks for whatever reason. It will give those who graduated more than five years ago the opportunity to take part in group coaching that focuses on career progression. Many of BEVA’s coaches have themselves experienced a career hiatus or an altering of their career course, whether due to parental leave, illness, injury or other causes.

We all grew a few inches as people for what felt like a very modest investment of our time and energy

What I found most fascinating in my coach training journey was that this is all ultimately irrelevant – your own experiences are inconsequential to your ability to provide career coaching. While this is not true of teaching clinical skills per se, most people can be good at mentoring others if they are able to learn the required fundamentals of active listening, nudging and questioning. If guided through the correct channels of thought, most people can help themselves and overcome potentially career-ending challenges. All this proves, in itself, how important these skills are in all parts of life. 

It is no coincidence that the most powerful realisation of the attending coaches, once they’d finished their training, was the value of the skills that they had learned, not just for their professional selves but also for their roles outside the profession as husbands, wives, parents, daughters, sons, siblings and friends. We all grew a few inches as people for what felt like a very modest investment of our time and energy.

Thanks to Rachel Davis for her time spent coaching attendees and to all the volunteers who have committed to the Leg Up and the soon-to-be-launched Back in the Saddle schemes. Find out more about these mentorship programmes on the BEVA website.

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