You’re confident in your ability to talk to the animals—a turn of phrase immortalized by the classic film Dr. Dolittle. Yet, speaking “elephant and eagle, buffalo and beagle, alligator, guinea pig, and flea” will only get you so far in your veterinary practice. To succeed, you’ll also need to be fluent in chatty client, crabby client, irresponsible client, and inconsolable client. Not to mention all stripes of associates and colleagues.
If, like 70% to 80% percent of veterinarians, you’re an introvert—or you’re fueled by your quiet activities more than your social activities—is it possible to propel your practice using your quiet strengths? Of course! Let’s look at how.
Four veterinarians from around the U.S. share their secrets to success as practice owners who are introverts (or introvets, to coin a new term).
“What you learn in vet school prepares you minimally for the real world,” says Lindsay Crippen, DVM, MBA, a practice owner in the Animal Care Center of Castle Pines & Castle Rock in Colorado. “Most veterinarians tend to be the people who sat in the back of the class and threw off the curve,” adds Brian Luria, DVM, an internist and practice partner at Florida Veterinary Specialists.
Being an introvert is regarded as neither a plum nor a bum deal in the world of the popular Myers-Briggs Type Indicator personality assessment. Yet, in our society and specifically in the business world, the stigma around being among the quieter half of the population—50.7% are introverts—is staggering.
I have a Google alert out on the word introvert, and all too often the news items that pop up are about social outcasts, misanthropists, and losers. Missing is a celebration of our contributions to society. With the likes of Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, Avon CEO Andrea Jung, Yahoo CEO Carol Bartz, and Sara Lee CEO Brenda Barnes among our ranks, why not instead focus on our advantages in the business world?
What are those advantages? “Because social stimulation isn’t something we need, we recharge our batteries easier and we aren’t going a mile a minute all the time,” says Debra Tibbitts, DVM, CVCP, EDO, EVA, who runs Healing Hands Equine Mobile Veterinary Service in St. David, Arizona. She adds, “Because I’m more comfortable with and better at one-on-one relationships, in my practice I spend more personal time with the client.” Dr. Tibbitts adds that she is good with animals who are scared as well. She continues, “I have tremendous patience with that. I’ll spend the extra time it takes, whether it’s a dog or a cat or a horse, so that the next visit is less scary for them.”
We’re calmer and we excel at concentrating deeply—whether on complex medical problems, mathematical equations, research, writing, and even listening. “I can sit at my desk and work through all my stuff with complete focus,” says Dr. Crippen. Extraverts, who often need frequent social fixes like phone calls and visitors dropping by to energize them, have a harder time focusing on one task at a time.
Dr. Luria shares how his even-keeled demeanor is a plus on the job. At staff meetings, he says, “I don’t immediately jump in and start giving opinions about things. I’ll sit back and take it all in and lend my opinion as I see fit.”
Characteristics of People Who Prefer Introversion
- Listen more than talk
- Focus in-depth on their interests
- Prefer to focus on one thing at a time
- Think/reflect first, then act
- Prefer to work “behind-the-scenes”
- Prefer to communicate in writing
- Feel their best work is done alone
- Regularly require an amount of “private time” to recharge their batteries
- Need to understand the world before they experience it
- Try things out reflectively first
- Look inside themselves for ideas and stimulation
- Prefer a physical work space that allows for privacy and concentration
- Don’t assume that others want their opinion unless they explicitly ask for it
- Withdraw from others to consider conflict
Dr. Luria shares an important key to his success in one word: trust. “I recognize the importance of a relationship and trust with those folks who are bringing in their animals to see me,” he says. “A new grad sitting in an exam room is focused on trying to explain the disease process that’s going on with a pet,” he says. However, with experience, that’s changed for him.
“Now I actually speak much less about the science of what’s going on even though as an introvert, that’s my interest,” he says. “These are my clients’ pets and there’s a lot of emotion and a lot of finances involved.” He continues, “If those owners trust me, I have to explain a lot less. The trust forms quickly if I’m not overwhelming them with a lot of science. So I still explain things thoroughly, but in a simple way so they can understand the decisions we’ll need to make together.” He adds, “It’s always a ‘we.’”
Managing Your Introvert’s Energy
Being a veterinary professional entails long hours and lots of contact not only with animals, but also with people. That can be particularly draining for an introvert. What can you do? Dr. Jones says that he has to be thoughtful about how he spends his energy. “Us introverts, we get tired. That’s the biggest challenge,” he says. He adds that he’s talked to a lot of veterinarians whose biggest regret is that they have sacrificed time with their families to run their businesses. “If someone asks me that when I’m old, I don’t want to say that,” he says.
As a result, Peachtree Hills is open Monday through Friday. “Not working on the weekends has been great,” says Dr. Jones, who still puts in a 40- to 50- hour week. “I’ve got two small children—soon to be three small children—and it’s made a big difference for me to be home and being really connected with them, going to soccer games, and being a part of their lives,” he says. How does his work-life balance impact his bottom line? “Even though we may not make as much money as some other places, I get to keep my enjoyment of the veterinary field and life in general. For me it’s made a big difference having the weekend off.”
All the talking required to communicate with clients and colleagues every day can leave an introvert tapped out. How do you catch your breath? “Sometimes I don’t,” says Dr. Luria. But it’s not all grim. “Sometimes I do so while I’m driving home. I’m married to an extravert, so sometimes I just make sure to set time aside.” He continues, “I’ve had periods when I’ll do a 15-minute meditation alone. I’ll go find a place. We’re in an office park, so sometimes I’ll go for a walk.”
Adds Dr. Tibbitts, “Sometimes I’m just done. At the end of the day, my social fuel is drained and I’m not up for calling people back.” What’s her workaround? “People know I’m much better at email,” she says. “I can’t tell you how many clients email me questions. Some email me pictures. They can email me at two in the morning if they think of something they need to ask, but they’re not going to call me. Clients are extremely grateful that I answer all their questions.”
In summing up, you have many gifts as an introvert that can help you build your practice. Choose a handful of activities that work best for you—whether it’s hosting an open house, bringing fun, educational animal safety programs to schools, or offering clients incentives for referrals. You’ve invested heavily in getting to where you are today. Take stock of all your gifts as an introvert (and as a human!), pace yourself to keep your energy levels strong, and let your quiet star twinkle! Are you ready to talk to the animals and your clients in a way that really speaks to you as an introvert? Whynotamous?
Team Meeting Exercise: Intraversion Versus Extraversion
Give each team member 3 to 4 counters (eg, cotton swabs, pencils) and begin a discussion on a topic or case of your choice. Each time a participant contributes to the discussion, he or she will put 1 counter out on the table. When the counters for an individual are gone, that person is not allowed to talk until all other counters from all other participants are gone as well. When all counters are in the middle, discuss the following.
- Who ran out first? Who ran out last?
- How did it feel when you/they ran out of counters?
- Who talked the longest? Do they identify with being extraverted?
- Do team members recognize any patterns to their “normal” team meetings that were uncovered by this exercise?
- How can the team ensure that they create a team meeting in which all members are able to be heard and express their ideas and opinions?
Food for Thought
This exercise illustrates how differently introverted people interact in a team meeting than do their extraverted colleagues. By using counters to equalize the number of opportunities each team member can interject, coworkers can better understand how temperament type impacts team meetings.
Extraverts tend to “think out loud” and share what’s going on in their heads, while introverts tend to reflect on ideas, and put them in order, before speaking them out loud. When a team is not mindful of this vast difference in communication style, the office extraverts can inadvertently run the show, while the introverts may feel shut down and closed out.
Effective staff meetings take this dynamic in stride and allow for both introverts and extraverts to have a say. This can be done with something as simple as the counters introduced in this exercise, or some other way to limit the number of times each person speaks. This discourages the extraverts from dominating the meeting, and leaves “space” for the introverts to share their thoughts after reflection.
There are no “right” or “wrong” preference types; they just “are,” like your eye color or height. Once a team understands and accepts these differences, they can begin to utilize them in planning and team decision-making.
Client Library: Duffy Jones, DVM, owner of Peachtree Hills Animal Hospital in Atlanta, positions his practice as a source of valuable information by offering a pet medical library on his Web site. “We don’t want anyone up at 2 o’clock in the morning worrying because they read something on the Internet,” he says. “The reality of veterinary medicine is that it’s ever-changing,” he continues. “Keeping up with that and providing the latest information to our clients is something we try to do.”
Host an Open House: “When I had a land-based practice, we held an open house once a year,” says Dr. Tibbitts. She adds, “It was a lot of fun. I just got to hang out and people would come up to me. I didn’t have to be the social person doing everything.” Indeed, introverts tend to make better hosts than hawkers! Dr. Tibbitts’s open house included tours of the clinic, a canine good citizenship class, games, and food for both people and pets. “Even regular vaccinations can be stressful,” she says. “People don’t like shots or just don’t like walking into the veterinarian’s office...period,” she says. “The open house was a completely different atmosphere.” Dr. Tibbetts notes that the event generated great buzz for her practice in the community.
Entertaining and Educating Children: Dr. Jones engages in another buzz-worthy activity in his community. Three or four times a year, he creates fun, educational programs for schoolchildren. The kids bring in their “sick” stuffed animals and Dr. Jones bandages them up. “There are a surprising number of injuries on these stuffed animals and you can barely see the animal by the time we put bandages all over it,” he says. “The kids love it,” he adds. As part of the program, he shares safety tips about interacting with animals. Dr. Jones says that the school does a good job publicizing his events.
Offering Referral Incentives: Dr. Jones offers an incentive for his clients to refer more business to Peachtree Hills. Here’s what’s posted on the practice’s website: “As an expression of our appreciation for your referrals, we are pleased to offer a client referral program. For every family member or friend offer that comes to our practice as a result of your referral, you will receive a $20 credit. We are grateful for your confidence in our practice.” Meow!
Placing Business Cards Around Town: In Dr. Tibbitts’s mobile practice, her main source of business is word of mouth. Whenever she visits a client, she hands her or him a few business cards. She also puts her cards at every feed store in her area because anyone with a horse goes to a feed store at some point. “A thousand double-sided coated cards run $70 or $80,” she says. “They have paid for themselves many times over.”
Sending Sympathy Cards: Dr. Tibbitts swears by sending sympathy cards to people whose animals have died. “You don’t think of that as a promotional activity,” she says, “but so many people say that I appreciate that you sent me that card.” Dr. Tibbitts handwrites each one.
Cold-Calling: “About a year and a half ago I started a practice from scratch in a different part of Florida,” Dr. Luria says. “That involved driving around and cold-calling [primary care] veterinarians, which was terrifying in the beginning. But once I had done a few of them, it got easier and it allowed me to get a skill that I didn’t have before.” So while you wouldn’t normally think of cold-calling as a natural fit for an introvert, the fact is that it’s just a skill and anyone can learn it.
Technology to Get Noticed
Answering Questions Via iPhone App
Dr. Tibbitts mentioned a new multimedia iPhone application, vetdvm.com, that allows clients to ask questions (and include photos and video) that a veterinarian will answer within 24 hours. This new service could help you raise your visibility while helping clients.
I found three out of the four veterinarians I quoted in this article through a free online service called HARO, or Help a Reporter Out. These press-savvy professionals (or their publicists) were reading daily press queries that come to their email inboxes several times a day, they quickly responded to mine, and voilà—I interviewed them. Reporters from major press outlets—ABC, CBS, CNN, Dow Jones, Reuters, you name it—put out queries looking for sources to interview on HARO as well as Bill & Steve Harrison’s Reporter Connection.
Nancy Ancowitz is a business communication coach and author of Self-Promotion for Introverts®: The Quiet Guide to Getting Ahead (McGraw Hill, 2009). To find out more, visit selfpromotionforintroverts.com.