Leading lady

In her own words, Janet Donlin, the AVMA’s new CEO, talks about the power of working collaboratively
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Dr. Janet Donlin is no stranger at AVMA headquarters, as she previously served as an interim division director, associate executive vice president, and assistant executive vice president in the late ’90s and early 2000s (see JAVMA, Sept. 15, 2016). In fact, she was instrumental in shaping important efforts that persist today in the areas of one health, economics, and wellness. Now, as AVMA executive vice president and CEO, she looks forward to continuing to carry the torch for the Association. In a sit-down interview with JAVMA News, Dr. Donlin discusses how her nontraditional career path has prepared her to hold this position, her stance on the gender pay gap in the profession, and the AVMA’s strengths and weaknesses.

(L-R) Dr. Granstrom, Dr. Donlin, and Adrian Hochstadt
AVMA CEO Janet Donlin will work with Dr. David Granstrom (left), assistant executive vice president, and Adrian Hochstadt, deputy CEO, to lead the Association in protecting, promoting, and advancing the veterinary profession. (Photo by R. Scott Nolen)

What does it mean to you to be the first woman to hold this position?

I am honored and humbled by this amazing opportunity. I’ve always thought of myself as a veterinarian first and foremost. It’s my hope that I can be a role model for all of the young professionals. I’m cognizant of the fact that veterinary medicine is changing. There are all of these very talented women coming into the profession, including my daughter, Nicole, who’s a fourth-year veterinary student at Missouri. I want all veterinary students—both men and women—to know that there are no limitations. They can be what they want to be. Because of my daughter, I have a deep understanding of the challenges and opportunities millennials face. I am committed to doing my part to ensure that the AVMA remains relevant and its role vital to these folks.

What are the AVMA’s greatest strengths?

This is a great profession. To a large extent, I think it’s because we have such a great association. We have members who care deeply, who have done so much through this Association to advance the profession. We talk about how the AVMA protects, promotes and advances the profession—that’s because members have been doing this since day one.

I remember the first day I came to work at the AVMA in 1991, as an assistant director in what was then the AVMA Scientific Activities Division. Dr. Murray Fowler, a legend in zoo medicine, was here for a meeting of the American Board of Veterinary Specialties. That’s the caliber of people who walk through the doors of this Association, serving on our committees and providing valuable input—great leaders who care passionately about this profession. And they’re backed by a very talented staff doing a wide variety of things, from publications to accounting. To a person, they care about the profession and want to do what they can to keep it strong.

What are the AVMA’s weaknesses?

One area I think we could be better at is communicating with those we serve. This has been true everywhere I’ve been. People get busy, and sometimes communication can suffer. You can be doing these great things, but if you’re not talking as effectively about what you’re doing or why you’re doing it, members won’t know. And now, with social media, there’s an even greater opportunity to communicate—and a greater opportunity for messages to get lost.

Also, anywhere I’ve been, I’ve seen we can try to do too much. It’s always better to be strategic. That’s why the strategy management process is so vital. You want to use your resources—your people and finances—as impactfully as possible. You do that by limiting yourself to key things that make a difference. The AVMA understands this. We take the time to listen to members, to understand what they need and what is most valuable to them.

What are threats to the AVMA’s future success?

Anything that threatens our members is a threat to us. We strive to help our members effectively address any potential threats because we care so much about the profession. An example of that would be if telemedicine were done in some way that did not efficiently and effectively protect the veterinarian-client-patient relationship and did not advance the care of patients. That’s why our telemedicine working group is taking a look at this topic, so it’s done the right way, so that we make certain patients and clients are well-served.

Dr. Donlin
Dr. Janet Donlin says she enjoys talking to veterinary students about how to develop business skills, as she is doing here at Auburn University's College of Veterinary Medicine. (Photos courtesy of Dr. Janet Donlin)

From 2000-2001, you helped get the National Commission on Veterinary Economic Issues off the ground and were its interim director. What are your thoughts on how the profession’s understanding of economics has changed and on the AVMA Veterinary Economics Division continuing the commission’s work?

It was hard in the beginning. We used to hold as a badge of honor that veterinarians didn’t make money and that we did it for other things. We love what we do—that’s why it’s our passion and our profession—but it’s important that we are paid enough and paid well, so that we can continue to do what we’re doing, so that we can have the tools and staff we need in order to deliver quality care.

That means veterinarians have to be profitable. The NCVEI was built on the premise that quality patient care requires a sound economic foundation. Our present-day economics division, with the guidance of the Veterinary Economics Strategy Committee, is producing economic reports, summits, educational seminars, and financial planning tools that offer insight into markets for veterinary medicine. The more information we make available to veterinarians, the better off we’ll all be.

There was lots of talk about the gender wage gap with the NCVEI in its early days, and the problem persists. What can be done about it?

I don’t have all the answers on the gender pay gap, but closing it is essential. I see opportunity with the Veterinary Business Management Association and with the Women’s Veterinary Leadership Development Initiative. They are doing a great job talking about business and business skills with veterinary students. When you are going to negotiate, you need to know what the employer needs from you, what skills are good to have, how to negotiate what you bring to the table, and what you’re worth.

I love seeing those things being taught at all of the veterinary colleges. And I really enjoy talking about those topics when I lecture to students. Because knowing your self-worth and value puts you in a good spot and helps you get the best salary. And, as your career develops, continuing to know what skills to build up will add more value to you and, by extension, your employer. This helps you continue to grow your worth and your compensation. I’m thrilled that this topic is becoming an area of emphasis—it certainly is with the AVMA. I’m a big believer that pay equity is key for motivating employees and making certain they are happy.

Understanding diverse perspectives and building on those is a good thing. We’re a small but important profession. It’s crucial for us to speak with a clear, strong voice when advocating—whether at the national or state level. Being the umbrella organization helps us ensure we can do that.


What are your thoughts on the topic of wellness?

I was involved way back with the AVMA Committee on Wellness, which, at that time, had a focus on impairment. The AVMA and state VMAs worked together to put in place some good treatment programs that remain important. Resources can be a challenge for states, so the programs can vary in what’s available. That’s an important issue because we want to make sure people have resources, wherever they live. We also want to make certain that there isn’t a barrier for veterinarians or technicians who are impaired to seek the treatment they need for fear of losing their license. So going forward, the question is, how can we work with states to put in place good legislation that encourages those who are impaired to seek treatment they need?

Wellness and well-being, in general, are important for everyone. The AVMA is putting together a great coalition and building from the veterinary school level on, to address different challenges at different life stages.

One thing the wellness coalition is building on is the AVMA wellness webpage. We’re trying to do tangible things like add links to a hotline for suicide prevention in the coming year.

You’ve had a nontraditional career. What drew you to other areas of veterinary medicine, and what did you learn from those experiences?

When I graduated, I thought I’d be in practice my entire career. But I had the opportunity to become an educator of veterinary technicians and got to know the AVMA that way and came to work for the Association. I learned a lot from volunteers and staff. I learned that the profession faces challenges, but working together through associations, you can make certain those challenges are effectively addressed. That’s what associations are all about.

I really enjoyed working in industry, at Hill’s Pet Nutrition. From that, I learned how to be even more businesslike. Our members need us to make certain that for every dollar they give us in dues, we use that money effectively, delivering value and more back to them. In industry, you are very focused on optimizing use of resources to maximize return on investment.

With AVMA PLIT, I once again learned the importance of member value and the importance of our leaders who volunteer their time by serving on the board and keep us so member focused.

Throughout my career, I’ve been so fortunate in everything I’ve been able to do. I want to encourage young people to know there’s nothing but opportunity in this great profession, no matter where their journeys take them.

How important has mentorship been to you in your career?

Having good people around you to mentor you makes all the difference. People who encourage you, who let you see opportunities you wouldn’t have seen yourself—and even help open doors for you—can have a huge impact on your life. I have been lucky with that; folks encouraged me to think differently. But I also had to step through the door.

I have been so fortunate in the mentors I have had, who have given their time because of their passion, to encourage me in so many different ways. One of the things I have enjoyed the most was giving my dearest mentor, Dr. Jim Nave—an AVMA past president and legend in veterinary medicine—an award from the (KC) Animal Health Corridor, when he was recognized as Veterinarian of the Year. He’s been an inspiration to me, making me want to mentor others, too.

When I’m talking with students, I always encourage them to not only think about what they want to achieve in their career and personally but also how they impact others because that is where they will really make a difference. Dr. Meghan Stalker, who started the VBMA, has impacted so many folks because of that. If everyone thinks of what their impact can be beyond themselves, this profession can be bigger and greater than anyone can imagine.

(L-R) Paul, Jessica, and Nicole
When asked about work-life balance, Dr. Janet Donlin says surrounding herself with a strong network of friends, family, and co-workers helps her get through a lot of things. She also says her children—Jessica (middle), Paul, and Nicole, pictured here at Jessica’s graduation from the University of Kansas—have added a great deal to her life.

One health was emerging as a major topic right before you left the AVMA, with Dr. Mahr telling the House of Delegates in 2006 that he’d form the One Health Commission. How has that topic shaped the profession?

I remember Dr. Mahr, when he started way back when. I helped him as he wrote his recommendations regarding the promotion of one health, and I shepherded them through to Board approval. Since then, the One Health Commission has been doing exciting work; on Nov. 3, we’ll celebrate the first One Health Day. The AVMA and American Academy of Pediatrics have issued a joint press release in recognition of the day. When traveling internationally, it was exciting to see how the topic of one health resonated wherever I was—with veterinarians, medical professionals … everyone. That shows you that this is the right thing, when everyone talks about it. One health is key for improving animal and human health. It all ties together: food safety, the human-animal bond, translational research, well-being, and more.

How can the AVMA continue to be all things to all veterinarians?

It’s an umbrella organization, which, to me, is a tremendous strength. There are so many opportunities to be relevant in so many ways in a constantly changing world. It is a challenge to make certain that everyone who is busy working very hard in their specific areas understands what their colleagues are doing in different areas—whether that’s animal welfare or food animal practice—and understands others’ perspectives. Addressing those effectively makes us stronger. Understanding diverse perspectives and building on those is a good thing. We’re a small but important profession. It’s crucial for us to speak with a clear, strong voice when advocating—whether at the national or state level. Being the umbrella organization helps us ensure we can do that.

Related JAVMA content:

Donlin and Simmons depart AVMA (Aug. 15, 2007)