A guest blog by Vicki Black, Hospital Director at the Small Animal Referral Hospital Langford Vets, University of Bristol 

Vicki Black - reflections on leadership
Vicki Black

A new CEO appointment means that Langford Vets again has a female leader – the second woman in this post since the company was created 15 years ago. This, coupled with the fact the CEO, CFO and Small Animal Referral Hospital Director are all women this time around, has made me feel very proud of my workplace and everyone that made this possible, and was a catalyst for me to reflect on my own career and what I have learnt along the way. My thoughts distil down to seven key points:

1. The future is bright (but it is a work in progress)

Fifteen years ago, when I graduated, the landscape really did feel unbalanced in terms of gender equality. I recall all of my first job interviews included a question about my relationship status (and one asked “Are you suffering from any medical illnesses, including pregnancy?”!) and regardless of grades or interview performance, being male appeared to be the most appealing quality for prospective employers.

I sometimes wished that I’d had pithy responses to hand for the challenges I experienced earlier in my career, ranging from those that were fairly minor (like the time someone told me at a conference I had done a great talk but it would have been even better in a shorter skirt!), to those that left a deeper mark. Unconscious bias is something we all need to commit to continuously work on, but I wouldn’t have got where I am now without support from people of all backgrounds.

2. Listen to your inner voice (but don’t let it take over)

Imposter syndrome has gained rightful prominence in recent years. We all have our own critic and there is some value to that voice. Previously I swung from finding excuses (“That event didn’t go well, but that was because I was too busy/tired/the other person was at fault”), to taking things too much to heart (“That didn’t go well therefore I am a bad vet/ person and don’t deserve to work”).

Now I have learnt to acknowledge the discomfort of recognising that something wasn’t great, forgive myself for my part in it and focus on how I can do better next time. Brené Brown’s “Dare to Lead” helped me, like many women, get the tools to do this. I often find I need to process this out loud with those I trust – I have some amazing colleagues and friends who help me do this.

3. Leadership is mostly about understanding yourself and others

Since stepping into leadership some key tools have really helped me thrive. These have been engaging with some of the great available online resources about leadership (it was actually a Facebook post by Niall Connell about Radical Candor that got me started), one to one coaching, and personality profiling of myself and those around me.

These have helped me realise, among other things, that when it comes to handling difficult conversations, sometimes the least worst choice is to sit with an unresolved issue until I can navigate the conversation without emotion, compared to the hastily crafted email or rushed attempt at resolution.

4. With clinical work, the highs are higher and the lows are lower

Clinical work is still 50% of my working time. Working together in a referral setting to help a very sick dog or cat can feel like a team sport, having the same buzz when it goes well.

Seven Reflections on Leadership in a Veterinary Career
Vicki and the team at the Small Animal Referral Hospital

Ironically (as my mother was a teacher and having watched her, I swore I would never do this having – isn’t that the case with many veterinarians?), teaching or mentoring others is the thing I get the greatest happiness from. Last week one of our nurses found out that she had got her VTS (Veterinary Technician Specialist), I worked up a tricky case with an intern that included helping her get her first CSF tap and was able to support an amazing new leader navigate a difficult scenario. These were the greatest moments and things I now cherish.

I went to a Mind Matters course a few years ago and the statement that ‘being pessimistic about what could go wrong in no way protects you from dealing better with future issues’ really resonated with me. I now mindfully and enthusiastically enjoy the good – even if I do know a humbling event is almost certainly around the corner!

5. Specialist vets are no different to anyone else

My decision to seek the path of specialism was formulated early. I was inspired during my time at Cambridge Vet School, not only by the puzzle each case presented, but also by the curiosity (and rebelliousness) to challenge the veterinary dogma.

Completing my residency at Langford Vets was the best period of my career. Suddenly I was amongst a ready-made community of more than 20 likeminded residents, with many colleagues to discuss my cases and their clients with: students, vet nurses, animal care assistants, radiographers, receptionists, fellow residents, and specialists.

People say a residency is a huge sacrifice, but having seen friends do certificates I am not sure it was much different. I would love the future veterinary landscape to see an even kinder and closer collaboration between primary care and referral practice. I feel I am in the perfect workplace to do my bit to support this and hope to see it happen in the future.

6. Being open about illness or personal challenges doesn’t make you weak

Chronic migraines have been part of my life for over a decade now. I am fortunate to have been able to continue to work full time despite this, however it hasn’t always been easy. I have tried many treatments including tablets, nerve blocks and Botox, and am now on the new anti-CGRP monoclonal antibody. At the onset I was having more than 20 migraines per month, although it has now reduced to more like 8-10, and I really felt despair. My family, friends and some very kind colleagues were vital in those early days – and still are on bad days now. Chronic illness is a part of me and influences me but does not define me.

7. Perspective and down time are important

Keeping balance for me has been achieved by working a four-day week, playing regular tennis and plenty of dog walks with my partner.

Sometimes being immersed in the veterinary world can feel like being in an echo chamber. Going to my tennis club and telling some of my closest friends about my day or challenges is often levelled by their wisdom, or the perspective brought by hearing about some of their own challenges: to name a few, a human rights negotiator currently working in Ukraine; an obstetrics and gynaecology registrar and an owner of a business running trips to Africa and only now recovering work properly post-Covid.

Special thanks and love to all my family and friends, and in particular shout-outs to Chris Black, Nick Jeffery, Richard Whitelock, Sophie Adamantos, Caron Fraser-Wood, Lucie Goodwin, Tom Harcourt Brown, and Steve Crofts.

Vicki graduated from Cambridge in 2009, she spent a couple of years in primary care practice followed by a rotating internship. She has been working at Langford Vets, Bristol Vet School for 11 years where she is now Hospital Director of the Small Animal Referral Hospital.

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