1. Most private practice owners feel it
In a typical month, we might experience cash flow issues caused by late payments and unexpected bills, fake and anonymous online reviews, unexplained spikes in ‘failures to attend’, data privacy challenges, client complaints, social media ‘run-ins’, the odd family law-related subpoena, glitches in clinic and business management systems; and of course staff issues, like motivation and performance challenges, staff turnover and handover problems, and puzzles like how to coordinate staff leave and client coverage. I felt my blood pressure rise just typing that list!
2. Staff feel it too
When I speak with grads and others who are in their first couple of years of practice, I hear lots of anxieties about speech pathology graduate numbers (particularly in cities), cost-cutting initiatives due to increased competition and privatisation (e.g. reduced hours, cuts in training budgets), limited supervision and mentoring, insufficient “admin time” to call back clients and write reports (and expectations on staff to regularly work outside contracted hours), and struggles to get reimbursed for resources, equipment, petrol, parking and other work-related costs. And I still hear too many stories about straight out ‘shonkiness’ like underpayment of award and other entitlements, sham contracting arrangements, unpaid “internship” offers, and overly restrictive employment contracts.
3. Clients pick up on our workplace stress
One thing I’ve observed in my practice is that clients are very good at picking up on when things aren’t going well behind the scenes. Regardless of how well we try to insulate clients and client care from “back of house issues”, even very young clients can pick on on workplace stress – even when everyone is smiling and pretending everything is fine. And no one wants a grumpy, distracted speech pathologist, even if they are doing a good technical job.
4. Is this just how it is?
Is the stress just reality? Should we all just get used to being stressed out? If so, I can understand why so many of us leave the profession so early.
So what can we do to right the ship? Even if we can’t remove the stressors, how can we make work-life better – for owners and our staff?
5. If you can’t take the heat…air-condition the kitchen?
I’ve been looking recently at what others do in other high stress, people-focused occupations. One of the most stressful industries out there is hospitality.
I’ve written before about the importance of learning from other industries, e.g. in how we handle negative online reviews. I think we can learn a lot from how leading restaurant owners – people with skin in the game – have tried to improve their workplace culture despite the headwinds of stress.
One of the most successful restaurant owners in the USA is Danny Meyer, owner of the Union Square Cafe and Shake Shack. And he has some provocative – and useful – tips on how to succeed. Below, I’ve tried to translate some of his key ideas for speech pathologists in private practice.
6. Change your focus, change your reward system, change your culture, change your outcomes
(a) The Big 5
All businesses, including private practices, have 5 key stakeholders:
communities in which we operate;
(b) Going beyond just providing a service
Obviously, speech pathologists provide a service. “Service”, here, is just the word for the technical delivery of what we do. Offering a good service means that you are offering something of value to people that works.
Providing a quality service is of course necessary if you want to stay in business for long. But many clients want more than just a contractual exchange of services for money.
Many clients want what Danny Meyers calls “hospitality”: speech pathologists not just providing services to clients, but going above and beyond the call of duty for their clients.
(c) Staff come first
Now here’s the counter-intuitive part of Meyer’s philosophy. He says that, if you want to offer true hospitality to clients, you need to start by treating your staff well and rewarding them, first, for helping each other:
I’m going to give you guys the best recipe you’ve ever had in your life. And it only has two ingredients. So it’s really simple. It’s 49 parts performance and 51 parts hospitality. And that’s what you are going to be judged on. That’s how you’re going to get paid. That’s how you’re going to get your bonus. And guess what guys? In this business, the customer is going to come second.
(d) But isn’t the client always right?
Radically, Meyer says no: “No one is right all the time”.
In Meyer’s businesses, staff come first. Each staff member is responsible for doing extraordinary, expected things for each other. For showing off to each other: to model what it’s like to be great at what you do. And to show what it’s like to make other staff feel good.
Meyers says this to his staff:
You’re responsible for doing extraordinary, unexpected things for each other and showing off for each other what it’s like to be great at what you do and even greater, 51%, at how you make people feel and I believe that if you do that for each other, our [clients] are going to be in for a treat when they come in and they’re second.
(e) Virtuous cycle
Focus on your team, your customers, on hospitality, on your culture.
By doing so, you create a long term “virtuous cycle”, a compounding loop that will ultimately lead to greater long-term success.
The key point, here, is as follows:
If you do not invest in your team – if the are not rewarded for going above and beyond the call of duty to make clients feel welcome, pleasantly surprised and delighted – then the virtuous cycle will break. As Meyer says:
I think it gets back to servant leadership, which is: how do you find opportunities on a daily basis to take care of the people who are ultimately going to take care of you? And I inculcate it by talking about it till people roll their eyes because they’re so sick of hearing me talk about it. And I just feel like culture is driven by language. I don’t know any culture in the world that is not glued together by language. Whether it’s your family, your religion, there’s language. And I think that the CEO of a company is the shaman of that culture. And they either have to be more fluent at that language than anybody else or the language is going to go sideways and lose its very special meaning.
And what better message could you give a speech pathologist! We need to communicate better with staff – and to speak to each other in the language of hospitality. If we want to work with people we respect, in workplaces we enjoy, and in businesses that we’re proud of, and in achieving long term success for our clients and practices, hospitality begins with learning to treat each other better – even if it costs practice owners more in the short-term.
Principal source: Reid Hoffman’s interview with Danny Meyer on Masters of Scale.