A portfolio career built on skills and interests offers plenty of variety
I grew up on our family farm in Northern Ireland and was familiar with the vet attending. Ultimately, it was the TV series and books ‘All Creatures Great and Small’ and James Herriot that influenced me in the 1980s.
When I started vet school, I expected to go ‘home’ after qualifying and work as a mixed animal, mainly farm animal practitioner. As it turns out, I have spent virtually all of my career in the south east of England. So much for plans!
After qualifying in 1995, I initially worked in mixed practice. My direct mentor, Stuart King, was the biggest influence on my career postgraduation, along with Peter Orpin who was a copartner at the practice.
I left my first job to study full time for an MBA at Nottingham University Business School. This was my first exposure to the world of social science, which opened my eyes to a multitude of options I never even knew existed or thought I’d ever become involved in.
It has been the theory, skills and techniques that I learnt through the social sciences that have enabled me to make my veterinary career ‘less traditional’. I have fond memories of the case studies, presentations and debates we participated in on Friday evenings – followed by a mass-debrief in the bar. The sessions were like veterinary consulting, but with business problems instead of clinical ones.
It really hammered home the process of identifying problems and having ‘differentials’ to explain them, as well as interventions to resolve them.
My MBA has made me a better clinician because I was explicitly taught ‘strategy’ for the first time. In other words, clinical reasoning and resolution is ‘strategic’ in that we have to identify problems, and evaluate the risks, benefits and probabilities that the various options available to us will achieve predefined outcomes in a way that satisfies all the stakeholders involved.
I followed up my MBA with a master’s in applied psychology which proved invaluable in terms of understanding the literature relating to the psychology of purposeful pursuit. Learning, understanding and addressing the ‘differentials’ of psychological phenomena such as a lack of confidence, lack of motivation or compromised mental strength and wellbeing, are some of the most interesting things I have ever learnt.
'My MBA made me a better clinician because I was taught strategy for the first time'
I have a number of roles, which makes life interesting. I work as a clinician and practice leader three days a week (which keeps me relevant and credible). On the other days, I am involved with a range of non-clinical initiatives. These include coaching and consultancy with veterinary practices as well as delivering CPD in the UK and across Europe.
I like the variety and the travel, and it is wonderful to visit and speak in cities all around the world, even if the stays are often brief.
I enjoy speaking on stage at conferences and recording on-demand CPD. Speaking in front of hundreds of people used to terrify me, which is why I joined a formal public speaking club and competed in national competitions. I now find speaking gives me the same buzz as doing a caesarean section. Assuming either goes well!
I also like the people I meet and the craic that is often part of the hospitality associated with speaking engagements and conferences.
I am a codirector of the British Veterinary Receptionist Association and ColourfulCPD.com, where my main contributions are content creation. I also work as a marketing media contributor and consultant for Petplan insurance.
Typical working week
On Mondays and Tuesdays I work as a clinician at my practice, Aldeburgh Vets, in east Suffolk. On Tuesday night I normally travel to wherever I am working the next day, which while usually in the UK, can be anywhere in Europe. I travel home again on Thursday night, and am back in my practice on Friday morning (and possibly Saturday if it’s my turn on the rota).
Feeling pressed for time is a constant – I know I have a tendency to take on too much, but I enjoy everything I do. Sometimes, coming back late on a Thursday night, especially if my flight is delayed, doesn’t make for the most charming version of myself on Friday morning! I never blame anyone else when I feel overwhelmed, as everything I do is of my own volition.
While things can overwhelm me at times, I genuinely love it. You only live once!
If I wasn’t a vet, what would I be?
Twenty years ago I couldn’t have imagined doing, or wanting to do, anything other than being a veterinary clinician. As my horizons expand, I realise that we have an enormous range of transferable skills. I enjoy strategy, so I guess I’m going to say I understand the appeal of being a management consultant. There is a tiny part of me would like to be an MP, but I’m not sure I’ve got the psyche for it!
'A tiny part of me would like to be an MP, but I’m not sure I’ve got the psyche for it'
As I wasn’t even aware of most of the paths that I’ve gone down during my career, I assume that similar openings and opportunities will occur in the future – opportunities that I haven’t even thought about right now.
At ColourfulCPD.com we have developed some exciting relationships and alliances all across the world, especially in China, and I am keen to see where they go.
I don’t think of my time as ‘work’ and ‘life’. I try to make sure I rest, stay fit, healthy and sane – and remain married!
I have found a few things that have helped me over the years.
Despite being resistant to outsourcing my practice’s out of hours in the past, I am now a total convert. I would say this has had one of the most positive influences on my health and happiness.
I also have a personal trainer who beasts me a couple of times every week. I run 10k every Sunday afternoon and I sleep! I need my eight hours and I try to turn lights out by 10.22 pm (22:22) every night (I’m obsessed with the number 22).
I have set myself a goal of trying to raise £1 million for charity during my lifetime. I have participated in various cycling events and organised cycling trips for the fathers at my kids’ school. I ran the London Marathon three years in row and in 2017, the London Marathon was the 10th of 10 in 10 days that I ran all around the British Isles with Carolyne Crowe. In 2020, I ran 31 marathons in 31 days from John O’Groats to Lands End, finishing on my 50th birthday and raising approximately £15,000 for StreetVet. Meanwhile, ‘raconteur-for-charity’ events help to raise money for local initiatives.
Advice for my younger self
It took me a long time to realise how ‘feelings of uncertainty’ can erode the enjoyment of clinical work, as well as life.
Like many of the vets I now coach, I recognise my tendency to confuse doubt (‘I’m not sure...because I have limited information about this situation’) with self-doubt (‘I’m not sure...because I’m somehow inherently inadequate’). While I’m not saying that feelings of self-doubt aren’t relevant and appropriate at times, one of the most useful ways I have learnt to cope with situations when I’m feeling uncertain is to ask ‘What do I need to know in order to make progress?’
My daughter is about to sit her A levels with a view to beginning vet school, should she get the required grades.
A veterinary degree offers so many opportunities, both as a clinician as well as in non-clinical areas, as she hopefully will discover.
1993: Graduated BSc (vet path), Edinburgh university
1995: BVM&S, Edinburgh
1995–2000: Practitioner, mixed practice, Leicestershire
2000–2013: Locum work in over 250 practices
2000–2001: MBA University of Nottingham
2002: Set up first practice, Melton Veterinary Surgery, Suffolk
2005: Awarded GP certificate in business and professional studies
2008: Petplan Vet of the Year winner
2009: Master’s in applied positive psychology, University of East London
2009: Awarded GP certificate in small animal medicine
2011: Honorary lecturer in veterinary business, Nottingham vet school
2011: Elected to the council of the Society of Practising Veterinary Surgeons (SPVS)
2012: Founded Colour Consultancy
2013: Elected officer of SPVS overseeing CPD and congress
2014: UK and Ireland public speaking champion (humorous category)
2017: Founded British Veterinary Receptionist Association
2017: Elected president of SPVS
2018: Founded The Vet Whisperer – confidence and mental health support for vets
2020: Awarded RCVS fellowship
2020: Associate professor in veterinary business at Nottingham vet school
2020: Set up fifth practice, Aldeburgh Vets
2021: Cofounded Vetcentric, chain of start-up vet practices
2022: Cofounded Australian Veterinary Receptionist Association
2022: Cofounded Association of Veterinary Animal Care Assistants
2022: RCVS Inspiration Award