Profiles in Leadership is an NAVC feature that provides insight into the bright minds of leaders in the global veterinary healthcare community.
Dr. Russak is past president of AAHA. He earned both his bachelor’s degree and DVM from Colorado State University, and his certificate in veterinary practice administration from the Krannert Graduate School of Management at Purdue University. Dr. Russak retired from Mississippi State University College of Veterinary Medicine after teaching there for seven years. While there, he served as an assistant clinical professor in the primary care service and, most recently, director of student affairs. His teaching emphases were in the areas of the art and business of veterinary practice, leadership, and communication. Before the move to academia, he owned a multi-doctor AAHA practice in Kensington, Conn. for nearly 25 years.
He is a current Member of the International Council for Veterinary Assessment (formerly NBVME). He is heavily involved in his community and other professional industry organizations, including the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), Veterinary Business Management Association (VBMA) Student Chapter of the American Veterinary Medical Association (SAVMA) and local Veterinary Medical Association chapters and organizations.
He is credentialed as a Certified Veterinary Journalist and has hosted several radio pet care shows as well as a TV show. Dr. Russak has authored numerous lay and professional publications and has presented over 125 personal and professional success seminars at veterinary schools and professional meetings throughout North America, the Caribbean and Europe. His passion is career development and developing success skills of veterinary students, recent graduates and seasoned practitioners.
NAVC: Congratulations on being appointed to NAVC’s Board of Directors! What are your thoughts about being an integral part of NAVC’s leadership?
Russak: I am very excited and find it to be a privilege to be on the NAVC board. This organization has grown by leaps and bounds in the past few years. The philosophy of strategic growth based on the needs of the profession is what “floats my boat”. I became interested in serving on the board when I worked with NAVC leadership on the collaboration with AAHA on Vetfolio. I was impressed with the professionalism and knowledge of all those involved. I believe that if an organization is not moving forward they are actually going backwards. Status Quo can be a dangerous philosophy. Quoting Jim Collins, “Good is the enemy of great”. I look forward to the challenges ahead.
NAVC: You are a Certified Veterinary Journalist. We know you believe in the power of the media to promote veterinary medicine and to teach animal health and good pet practices. Give us some examples of how you have walked the walk and talked the talk through your experience doing this via radio, print and television. What advice do you have for veterinarians who might want to do more of this?
Russak: One of the major areas we need to improve on in Veterinary medicine is education of the public. Sadly, most people do not understand the length and breadth of Veterinary education and expertise. Our abilities are nipping on the heels of human medicine. My goal with all my media experience has been to bring greater understanding of veterinary medicine to everyone. Much of my work has been educating in the area of wellness and preventive medicine.
It is hard for a client to appreciate preventive medicine when their pets seem so healthy. Like all professions, we are getting more and more expensive. My goal is to show the public what a great value veterinary medicine actually is. Who doesn’t want their pets to live forever? I do.
NAVC: You’ve been quoted as saying that your passion is the career development of veterinary students and recent graduates, helping to create the next generation of successful “gentle doctors”. Please tell us more about why you think this is so important.
Russak: The cost of Veterinary education has skyrocketed. Student debt is out of control. The average debt load for a new veterinary graduate hovers around $160,000. Starting salaries are in the 65,000 to 70,000 range. Any financial planner will tell you that is a recipe for financial disaster. Many of the factors that have led to this are out of our control (interest rates, class sizes, tuition, number of veterinary schools etc). One area we can control is preparing our young doctors to be more productive in practice, thus increasing their income potential to help retire the debt. The work that I do with students and associates helps give them a path to greater productivity in practice.
NAVC: Before veterinary school, you served in the U.S. Air Force as a Veterinary Technician. What was that experience like? How did it help you as you progressed in your career?
Russak: As a veterinary technician in the U.S. Air Force I learned the profession from the ground up. Successful practice requires patience, understanding, empathy, communication and most importantly teamwork. I learned this is never about “me” – you are as good as the people around you.
NAVC: When you were teaching at MSU’s College of Veterinary Medicine, you emphasized the importance of client bonding, the business side of veterinary medicine, communication and life skills. What do you recommend to new and to seasoned veterinary professionals who want to improve those skills?
Russak: Lifelong learning. You can learn to master all of those skills. “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” “Practice, practice, practice”. There is fantastic continuing education available.
NAVC: Is there a common denominator to successful veterinary practices? What role does leadership play? What’s the first next step to recovering that struggling practices can do?
Russak: Leadership is critical. The practices’ values, core beliefs are reflected in their leadership. I am a practitioner of servant leadership. All team members are leaders, not just the “bosses’. Your strength comes from elevating those around you.
What struggling practice’s need to do is pretty simple. Einstein said “We cannot solve our problems by using the same thinking we used when we created them”. Practitioners need to step out of their comfort zone and move forward.
NAVC: If you could serve as a virtual mentor to all veterinary students, what are some important things you’d want to be sure they learn early on? Maybe your top three?
Russak: Communication, self-esteem/ confidence, financial acumen (both professional and personal).
NAVC: How can veterinarians become even more effective at mentoring new professionals in the practice? How is coaching different from mentoring?
Russak: Coaching is skill related, improving surgical and medical skills, etc. Mentoring is a holistic approach. Mentors must connect on all levels with their mentees, working on personal and practice success and wellbeing. It requires a bond and complete two-way trust. Skill sets are only a part of it.
NAVC: A huge issue is the burden of student debt versus low starting salaries for newly graduated veterinarians. What’s got to change before this can be managed better? Who’s got to do the changing?
Russak: The entire profession needs a new mind set. How we got here is no longer the issue; it is “How do we fix it?” I believe education must change and be more proactive in the changing world environment. It’s not your grandfathers vet school anymore. We need to prepare our students for success. We need to bring costs down for both pre-and professional degrees. Practitioners need to improve their practices in order for associates be the most productive. Associations must keep on top of the evolving profession and help us all adapt to it. We are aware as a profession and are working towards a resolution. I believe it is crisis and we need to move forward with greater urgency (remember the Einstein quote).
NAVC: What are some of the stories about your boyhood that your parents tell about recognizing early that you were destined to be a veterinarian? We bet they are really proud of you.
Russak: Corny as it sounds I really always did want to be a veterinarian. I brought home many, many strays and injured squirrels, birds, etc. Our local vet was amazing. He helped me rehabilitate them and never charged me a penny, Because of his mentoring and compassion, I never wavered in my path. He employed me when I was old enough. If cleaning hundreds of kennels doesn’t scare you off, nothing will. My parents were very proud. In my later years in practice my mom would come and sit in reception area and not tell anyone who she was. When the conversations turned to” how wonderful Dr. Russak was”, she would proudly announce, “That’s my son!”
NAVC: Tell us about your pets. We never get tired of listening to people talk about their pets.
Russak: My pets are all rescues. My Miniature Pinscher “Mia” just came into my life recently. Great dog but, due to unfortunate circumstances, her owners could not keep her. My daughter found out about her circumstances and, before I knew it, she was mine. Sherlock Holmes and Watson (brothers) are my two cats. I volunteer at several shelters and they came in after being abandoned in the woods as tiny kittens. As they say, I am not sure who rescues who. They bring great joy to my life every day.
NAVC: What do you do for fun? How do you set boundaries to assure time for work and play?
Russak: When I am not traveling to meetings or doing seminars my family is my biggest passion. My wife of 44 years passed away four years ago so I am now both grandma and grandpa to my three grandkids. I live 10 minutes away from them. I bowl (well) and play golf (badly). I hike with my family and the dogs a lot. We vacation together several times a year. I ride horses whenever I can. I also spend a lot of time in the gym. I love to read legal thrillers and forensics novels.