Christine Shield is a non-executive clinical director for Companion Care, a part-time role which she performs alongside other freelance and locum work within the profession. After graduating from the Edinburgh vet school in 1983, she opened her own single-handed small animal practice in 1987, selling it as a going concern in 2004. She is a past-president of the Society of Practising Veterinary Surgeons (SPVS) and sits on the councils of the BVA and the RCVS.
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What made you decide to join Companion Care?
I knew very little about the company or about what the job would entail, but thought it might be interesting to find out more. I was initially rather suspicious of ‘corporates’, but this was an opinion formed in ignorance, and I soon learned that this is an ethical company, which strives for high standards. After several months of interviews and fact-finding, much to my surprise, I was offered the job. That was two years ago.⇓
How did you get to where you are today?
Entirely by accident! My ambition was always to be a small animal practitioner, but after 17 years in single-handed practice, I was disillusioned by the multiplying burden of legislation, and working all hours for a poor return. My involvement in veterinary politics had got me used to wider horizons, but was a hobby that was increasingly difficult to fund.
Companion Care is only a small part of my overall workload, although it is probably the most rewarding part. I also run the office for the British Veterinary Hospitals Association, I write for the veterinary press and do locum work. None of these was planned; I simply adopted a policy of never turning down a job until I had tried it, and have found enjoyment in many things that I might otherwise have refused. It sometimes feels as if everything that I have been doing for the past 20 years has been training for what I am doing now!
How do you spend a typical day?
I don't have a typical day, which is one of the things that I like about this lifestyle. One day I might have a long operating list as a locum in a neutering clinic, the next I might be at a Companion Care board meeting with a bunch of high-powered financiers. After that I might be organising a conference or sitting on an RCVS disciplinary hearing. On the rare days when I don't have anything specific, you'll find me in my home office catching up on paperwork, but now and again I sneak off for a day's birdwatching.
What do you like about your job?
It's the variety that I enjoy. I have the freedom to schedule days off and enjoy a little more leisure but, while that works fine in theory, my work ethic makes it hard for me to turn down a day's work. I compensate by taking more holidays than I could when I was in practice (mostly birdwatching in exotic locations), though I tend to keep them short as I don't want any of my employers to discover that I'm not indispensable! As far as Companion Care is concerned, I enjoy working in a company where everything is done professionally and with a great team of enthusiastic and talented people. I feel that my input is valued and that I make a difference.
What do you not like?
Probably the lack of financial security. Working freelance, I am no-one's employee and can easily be dispensed with at short notice. While I stick firmly to a policy of not becoming reliant on one employer, if I lost two regular employers at one time I could end up in difficulty. On the other hand, with no mortgage and no dependants I need very little income to live comfortably. Regarding Companion Care, the travelling can be a bit of a chore as I live in Northumberland and much of the work is in the south-east, but I enjoy driving and with Radio 4 for company the journeys pass easily enough.
Why is your job important?
In my opinion, and I must admit to being biased, it is extremely important for a company like Companion Care to have a veterinary surgeon on the board. The RCVS asks that veterinary businesses predominantly managed by non-veterinary surgeons should appoint a chief veterinary surgeon to take overall responsibility for professional matters within the business. It is not realistic, in a business of this size, for that role to be fulfilled by a veterinary surgeon who is operating their own practice within the group, one among many. My contacts within the profession, together with first-hand knowledge of managing my own practice and working in others, allows me to keep abreast of what is going on within the profession, and to make sure that the company keeps up to speed. Being aware of what's going on in the company, I can challenge anything that might clash with ethical or legal guidance.
What advice would you give to someone considering a similar career?
No job done is ever wasted, whether paid or voluntary. It all adds to your experience and to your contacts.
What's the best piece of advice you were ever given?
Never turn down a job without having tried it, and keep a broad portfolio of work to maintain interest and avoid reliance on one source of income.
What was your proudest moment?
I think that has to be my presidency of SPVS, and the successful conference that came at the end of that year. I worked insanely hard, stretched myself way beyond my comfort zone and would not have missed it for the world. It was a tremendous privilege to lead such a vibrant and forward-thinking organisation, and to work with lovely, talented people.
What was your most embarrassing moment?
I have an appalling memory for faces, and have conversations with people who turn out to be somebody completely different from who I thought they were. I love name badges – if only people would think to wear them on their right lapel, rather than at waist height, to help numpties like me. Tattooed on their foreheads would be even better!
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