In Consultation With Liz Barton: talking all things wellbeing, women in leadership and working outside of practice

S01E01: In Consultation With Liz Barton: talking all things wellbeing, women in leadership and working outside of practice


in consultation with liz barton veterinary woman

In Consultation With is a podcast where you can hear voices from inside and out of the veterinary profession, hosted by Alexia Yiannouli – a qualified vet, masters student in science communication, and editor of Vet Report, a news site for the veterinary profession. Going “In Consultation With” vets and other professionals to discuss their diverse and exciting lives and careers showcases just how diverse the veterinary profession really is.

This episode’s Guest

Liz Barton joins Vet Report in the first episode of the In Consultation With series. Liz is a keen diversifier, who has created a portfolio career spanning from working in practice to setting up organisations such as WellVet, Vetsnet, and Veterinary Woman. In this episode, we discuss the importance of wellbeing, following your passions, and how to encourage leadership among women in the veterinary profession.

Transcription

Alexia: Hello and welcome to the In Consultation With podcast, where I talk to different people inside and out of the veterinary profession to explore the variety of careers that are available and to get more of an insight into the exciting and diverse lives of vets and other professionals. I’m Alexia, a qualified vet. I’m currently doing a Masters in Science Communication, and I also work as editor of Vet Report, a new site for the veterinary profession. In these podcasts, I go In Consultation with  different people to discuss their careers and their interests and to show just how diverse our profession really is. 

Welcome to the first podcast in our In Consultation With series. For this podcast, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Liz Barton. Well known in the veterinary world, Liz Barton needs little in the way  of introduction. Her career has been really varied, from starting out and mixed practice, before settling into small little practice. She diversified through setting up the website Vetsnet  to try and improve wellbeing within the profession. Keen to increase the focus and wellbeing amongst members of the profession. Liz also co-founded Well Vet, an initiative to encourage social and mental wellbeing in the veterinary team. She now works as a senior account manager for Companion Consultancy, a PR and  marketing company for the veterinary profession. Part of her role involves running the website Veterinary Woman, which supports the development of leadership and women leaders.  Liz and I are both colleagues, so I thought who best to sit down with for the first podcast in the series. Welcome, Liz!  It’s really great to have you here. 

Liz: Thank you for having me. Nice to be here!

Alexia: Since graduating, you’ve embarked on  numerous projects both inside the profession and diversifying as well. Could you start by introducing yourself, and a little bit about your background and your story?

Liz: Yeah, so I felt I had a bit of a boring start to being a vet. I always wanted to be a vet since the age of four and completely had my heart set on that. I  just worked my way to that point, got into vet school, graduated and got my dream job, which was a mixed practice job in the Lake District. I really enjoyed it but found it absolutely exhausting. My bosses were great, really supportive. It was a lovely process, but they really pushed me.  I sort of constantly felt challenged, sometimes in a good way, but also sometimes uncomfortably as well. I really felt I used the whole breadth of my veterinary degree, which was something that’s quite rare. So I felt quite privileged with that really. And then, you know, it seemed that it would be my job for life. But what changed that for me was I just got really lonely. There weren’t  many other young professionals that I could gel with and really have much of a community with.  I really missed all of my university friends! I moved from my parental home which  was in Surrey, so I’d moved away from sort of friends and family. And much as I loved it, I was just getting increasingly lonely. I never had the heart to go looking for another job, but I actually got headhunted by a small animal internship at Dick White Referrals,where I had done some work just after graduating. It was a situation where I thought, I know I don’t want to sort of stay here forever getting lonelier, so if I go down to Cambridge for a year and then I can always come back again.  I kind of had the opportunity potentially to go back to that job, if that was what I wanted to do. Then I did a rotating small annual internship, which was good because I was one of those people that was sort of thinking: is specialism for me, is it not? And it proved it was not for me. I really like being a generalist, I think it’s very elegant, being able to do diagnostics and surgery and work up a whole case from beginning to end, you know, whilst having to balance finance and things. I think that’s a really huge challenge. I’ve got so much respect for GP vets.  So, yeah, I was then quite keen to go back into general practice, but ended up sort of hanging around the Cambridge area because of family illness. My parents were unwell, my sister in law was unwell. I didn’t  really want to go back up to Cumbria and leave them. And I had also met a guy who I started dating. So the kind of loneliness problem was solved and he is now my husband! I then took a week-on, week-off night job so I could help look after the family really, because I enjoyed doing ECC work. From there I went to starting a family and working part time through taking some out of hours shifts and some regular GP shifts. So yeah, that’s kind of my clinical veterinary  path, shall we say!

Alexia: I feel that even with the clinical side, you’ve done such a diverse range of things. It’s a really impressive path that you’ve taken.  You’ve obviously already mentioned diversifying, so if you could just talk a little bit about what led you towards diversifying,  how you ended up going down that path, and then what sort of things that you were up to when you went down that path?

Liz: Yeah, I think there were certainly some challenging points in my own career. Certainly doing the week-on, week-off nights work, which was tough with the  seven nights in a row, 13 hour shifts, plus horrible commuting. By the end of the week, I was on my knees.  I really was experiencing some of the negative sides of the full on veterinary work. But then after having a family and kind of managing my time alongside them,  I was actually in a  really kind of a happy place where  I was doing every Friday evening as a late shift. Every Friday I went in and people were just on their knees. Lots of people were  sad and struggling. And I just thought that it was becoming increasingly the conversation that I was having with my peers, and with all of my friends and colleagues. And, you know, I’m a doer. I thought, I’ve got to do something about this, but I don’t really have any of the expertise myself. I don’t know where to point people -I’m no counsellor, you know, how do I help? And it became a bit of a passion project on the side, looking at and collating various wellbeing resources initiatives.  I thought that there was so much good stuff going on. It was around the time that  Vet Life was  redesigned and reinvigorated what they were doing. It was when Vet Mind Matters had just started up and was partnering with other organisations to deliver projects. And also a lot of the veterinary coaching started up around that time.  I started trying to bring all of these things together in a website, a kind of resource hub. And then it was posted on Vets: Stay, Go, Diversify,  which at the time was a sort of fledgling group started by Ebony, escalating from initially only having eight hundred people on it. From there I made connections with her and ended up being on her working group for her first event. I then connected with Ru Tipney from VetLed, and together we founded WellVet, which involved bringing wellbeing events to life –  mind, body and soul – and bringing the people that have the expertise and can help to the fore, and encouraging people to really be proactive about their own wellbeing. And then with one of my fellow colleagues at my practice, we sort of reinvigorated a Vet Mums Facebook group to have conversations, because it is really tricky juggling the demands of family and being a veterinary professional as well. And so that’s kind of the other side of things. All of those things together led me to meeting Susan at Companion Consultancy and diversifying a bit more into PR and marketing for animal health, and then taking on the role as editor of Veterinary Women. So definitely a squiggly career path, and mainly just through thinking, what can I do to help? And then networking and meeting other people that  think the same and building things together.

Alexia:  I was actually going to ask you about wellbeing, but I feel like if you took that and you went with it – you answered pretty much my next question, which was really useful because I was going to ask you this: you have got a very strong focus on wellbeing, and you’ve set all of these different things. But I feel like you talked about all of that really well. You’ve  really set yourself up  your own portfolio career – do you have any advice you could give to other people who are thinking about starting a portfolio career within the profession?

Liz: I think the most important question at the outset is: what is your why? I think you have to be passionate about working towards something and also just desperate to get away from something. So are you wanting to have a portfolio career or diversify because you’re not happy in your current job, which is fine, but then you need to really sit down and think why that is just to make sure you’re not kind of jumping from the frying pan into the fire because it’s just as much hard work. Financially for me personally, it’s been a pay cut rather than a pay rise. A lot of this has been passion projects in my own time when I could have been earning. And to really think about where your skillset is and where your passions are and how you can play to those strengths and make sure that you’re doing something that’s enjoyable. Because with all of this, with all of our kind of careers, it’s not about achieving some end goal. It’s about day to day. Well, whether you call it wellbeing or day to day  enjoying what you’re doing and feeling that sense of purpose and, you know, overcoming challenges along the way. You really need to enjoy the day to day journey rather than thinking well,  in five years time I’m going to be chief exec of some big company, living the life, and running an awesome team, and it’s going to be amazing. If that’s where you want to be then that’s great, but you’ve got to enjoy the first step, and every subsequent step thereafter. 

Alexia: Definitely, I think the whole thinking about what is your why is a really important thing, that many people might not necessarily think that. I think a lot of people have a very kind of, I’m a vet so I’m going to do this one thing and then follow down that trajectory, but a lot of the time they don’t stop along that way to think do I actually want this, do I want something else. It’s a really important message. You also mentioned that you’re the editor of Veterinary Woman. What inspired you to create that platform, and could you talk a little bit about what it is, and how people can actually become part of it?

Liz: So Veterinary Woman was something that Susan McKay started 2014-2015, seeing the need to support women in the profession to develop into leadership roles and provide a platform to help and support women. It’s been proven, even though it was suspected before, that bias does exist. Women aren’t viewed with the same respect as men. There’s a lot of stuff in the literature both within and outside of the veterinary profession to show that there are more barriers to leadership positions, and even when we’re in them, there are negative thoughts around women and men. It’s just a platform to address that really, and Susan has given me free reign to open up that conversation. We’re really trying to help women to inspire them, so they can aspire to grow into their full potential, whether that is career potential, or caring potential, or even diversifying potential. Whatever it may be, we don’t tend to advocate well for ourselves. It’s also sadly true that women don’t tend to self advocate for another sometimes. It’s really a platform to encourage that self advocacy, group advocacy, and open up discussions about challenging topics that we haven’t historically talked about. Be it health issues such as menopause and infertility, through to challenging bias and how do we build confidence. It’s a platform to host those discussions and create that community.

Alexia: It’s a great platform to have, especially as much as things are progressing, and having that awareness of the fact that the issues are still around, and having that conversation about it. You recently ran a Veterinary Women in Leadership event with XLVets through Veterinary Woman. That featured women both inside and out of the profession sharing their career stories and their positions in leadership. So what advice would you give to women considering leadership positions within the profession?

Liz: Yeah, I think we’re playing catch up with what’s happening in the world and what we think of with leadership. A lot of the traits we used to think of as leaders, such as confidence and assertiveness and charisma, almost follow that powerful persona. Those are not what modern day leadership is really about. A lot of the traits that are becoming increasingly valued in leaders are actually quite feminine traits. Things like empathy, openness, the ability to actively listen and bring out the best in others. Those are the qualities that are very common in veterinary professionals. They are also quite common in women. There are a lot of women out there who are already leaders and who show great leadership traits, but are completely unaware of it. So when leadership positions and roles come up, they think they’re not suited to them because they’re not the traditional vision of a leader. We need to redefine what leadership is. This is a conversation happening at the highest level. There are some great TED talks about what modern day leadership looks like. If we embrace and roll with it as a profession, we can really be encouraging a lot of women that they are the ideal candidates for these positions, and that they’re exactly what we need. A lot of veterinary mechanisms and ways of working are completely outdated, back from the James Herriot days, when the wife was at home answering the phone while the husband went out on calls. Modern life just isn’t suited to that. We really need to innovate the profession to make sure we don’t lose the hugely talented pool of mid-career women. Encouraging modern leadership is one way of doing that. The other thing is reinventing things like partnership agreements, which really penalise people on parental leave, for both mums and dads. It’s just not conducive to encouraging strong independent practices in the modern age. There’s lots of things that we need to address, just to encourage people to really progress to having those people in leadership roles.

Alexia: Definitely. What would you say are the main barriers that might be stopping women from entering positions of leadership, or might deter them from wanting them to progress to those positions?

Liz: Kerrie Hedley from XLVets, who we ran the event with, ran projects on the barriers and enablers to women in leadership, and confidence is one of the big things, as well as understanding what leadership is. The personal barriers, those intrinsic ones of what we think of ourselves, and nor self advocating. And then there are also extrinsic factors – the way practices are set up, the way leadership is perceived, biases – the bias that still exists, and all of those sorts of things. There’s a whole range, but I’d have to defer to Kerrie on that one to give a more full answer. It’s important to address both the barriers we put up for ourselves, and the barriers that are there more systemically.

Alexia: I think that was quite a difficult question, sorry for springing that on you! I feel that could have been quite a difficult question to answer.

Liz: I’d have to do my homework a bit more on that one!

Alexia: Sorry for just putting you on the spot! Moving back to you now, you’ve got quite a lot to juggle in terms of work and home life – with all of the things you do, how do you fit it all in and balance it? I don’t want to say work life balance, because that implies that work’s bad, life’s good, but how do you fit everything you do in?

Liz: Sometimes not very well! Sometimes I’m better than others. I call it working life blocks – there are times when you need to prioritise life, and therefore you have to prioritise work less, and vice versa. That can look like a whole range of things. From flexible working, so for example after having a family, renegotiating a contract. At the moment the hours I work expand and contract as I need to, to be able to fit in other projects or family needs. I think it’s important to regularly reassess how much demand work vs life vs other passion projects take up in your life, and also realising if those projects are energising you or draining you. I completely agree, it’s not that work is bad and life is good – there are bits of my work that completely energise me and I come out of them buzzing, and there are parts of my home life that utterly drain me, and I just want to crawl into bed at the end. The first year after having a child, just constantly changing nappies and getting nothing achieved at the end of the day is not glamorous! I wouldn’t necessarily choose that over an exciting work project. It’s about whether you feel comfortably challenged, or really stressed. You’ve got to be really honest with yourself, and if it’s tipping into stress, that it has to be managed in the medium to longer term, otherwise it does risk leading to burnout – which doesn’t help anyone. Not your work colleagues, not your friends and family, and certainly not yourself. I haven’t always got it right. After every Well Vet weekend I’m floored for about a week, completely exhausted! But I do constantly reassess, and if it’s not working for me I ask what my priorities are, what’s important, what’s a burden, and what I can shelve or say no to. You’ve got to have those boundaries.

Alexia: Yeah, I think definitely having those boundaries is really important. A lot of the time people just think that they have to do everything and be everywhere all at once, and it’s not sustainable at all!

Liz: Yeah, absolutely.

Alexia: You’ve got a really good perspective on that. So, to wrap things up, have you got any plans or future projects lined up that you can talk about?

Liz: We’re rolling with the Veterinary Woman role models. We want to create a bank of those that people can share online to inspire each other. We’d like to have some Veterinary Woman awards as well, just to really showcase some of the great things that women are doing in the profession. We’re planning another Veterinary Women in Leadership CPD event, around explaining more what a modern leader looks like, and helping people to recognise that in themselves and encourage that in others. Those are some things in the pipeline. On the Well Vet side of things, we’ve got a website launching some  time in the springtime, where we’ll have a lot more resources that people can access. We’ll be building more virtual and hopefully face to face events before too long. Just really getting that proactive approach and taking control of wellbeing, giving people the tools to do that, and really getting that message out there. It’s something we all need to take personal responsibility for, as well as encouraging practices to put supportive measures in place. Lots of exciting stuff!

Alexia: You’ve got a lot in the line up! 

Liz: That’s what I do! I don’t have space in my life! If I have a tiny bit of space in my life I’m like, ‘quick, fill it with something!’ I find that I’m limited by the fact that there’s only one of me. There are so many other projects that I haven’t had the time to start or run with, but would love to. There just isn’t enough time in my day! I need someone else to do all the other things I don’t have time to do.

Alexia: You almost need a little team behind you! Or a PA who can help delegate maybe!

Liz: Or just a 36 hour day!

Alexia: I think we all sometimes wish we had more hours in the day! Thanks so much to everyone listening, I hope you enjoyed my conversation with Liz today. Liz, thank you so much for being here., I really appreciate you taking the time to chat.

Liz: Thank you!

Alexia: You’ve been listening to me go In Consultation with Liz Barton. Thank you so much for listening to the podcast, I hope you enjoyed the conversation! If you did enjoy it, please keep an eye, and an ear out, for more In Consultation With podcasts, where I’ll be speaking to a range of people both inside and out of the veterinary profession. They should be available wherever you listen to your podcasts. If you would like to find out more about Liz’s work, you can find out more information at veterinarywoman.co.uk, and if you’d like to see more from Vet Report, you can visit vetreport.net. Once again, thanks so much for listening!

You can read more interviews from the In Consultation With series here.