29 Tips to Turn Pro and Improve Your Private Practice

To succeed in private practice, we know that we need to be professional. But what does this actually mean?

Ethical?  Of course.  But being ethical isn’t enough to keep you in business for long.

Steven Pressfield has published a small book that packs a big punch: “Turning Pro”. He says that turning pro is a decision: “We finally listen to that still, silly voice in our heads…We find the courage to identify the secret dream or love or bliss that we’ve know all along was our passion, our calling, our destiny”.

That all sounds good in theory – who doesn’t want to live their passion? But how do we do it in practice?

Here are the 29 professional habits I learned from reading Pressfield’s book, with examples of how I’ve implemented or applied them in my speech pathology clinic:

1. The professional shows up every day.

First thing every morning, with all my sessions planned and ready to go for the day, I spend 5 minutes per client filling in his or her home exercises sheet, reflecting on goals, and thinking about what I can do to improve each session.  It reminds me why I’m at work and that speech pathology is about helping people with specific needs, not “processing clients”.

2. The professional stays on the job all day.

I’ve always done the work. But sometimes it seems to take me forever. But I’ve also instituted a new practice. From 8am to 5pm, net surfing, new reading, social media scrolling, chit chat and – especially – complaining, are all banned. I’m amazed how much more focused I’ve been and and how much more I’ve achieved within standard business hours. This has allowed me to finish on time more often and spend more time with my family.

3. The professional is committed over the long haul.

When I started my clinic, I introduced myself to local teachers and doctors. But I didn’t waste time and energy on an expensive or pushy marketing campaign. Instead, I built my business up slowly through word of mouth, recognising that speech pathology was my career – not a short term gig or hobby – and that my reputation is bound up in my practice.

4.  For the professional, the stakes are high and real.

Early on, I was tempted to take on contracting and consulting jobs related to my former legal career to subsidise my clinic earnings. But I resisted. Having no safety net (especially with kids and a mortgage) is a terrific motivator to do great work for clients and establish your practice.

5. The professional is patient.

Patience is not my virtue! I’m a bit of a control freak and get frustrated when I have to rely on others or wait. I’m getting better (slowly). For example, my start up checklist helped me keep an eye on the big picture, and not sweat the small stuff, like waiting for registrations to come through.

6. The professional seeks order.

Sometimes it’s fun to ride by the seat of your pants. But it’s exhausting wasting energy putting out fires or reinventing wheels. We are all about systems, routines and processes to automate as much mindless stuff as possible so we can focus on front line care for our clients.

7. The professional demystifies.

I can’t stand it when professionals of any kind hide behind jargon or hoard their “secret information” behind pay-walls. I’m a big fan of transparency and Plain English. I publish free articles, usually once a week – rain, hail or shine – about speech, language, voice, fluency and other communication issues relevant to clients, prospective clients and the general public. Here’s an example the effectiveness of language therapy and another about child speech intelligibility norms.

8. The professional acts in the face of fear.

We all get scared. Professionals feel the fear and do it anyway. One of my mantras is to welcome new opportunities – especially the scary ones. When I opened my doors, saw my first client, gave my first community talk, lectured at a local University, and expanded my scope of practice, I was worried: my reputation was on the line. But I wouldn’t be where I was today without having done them.

9. The professional accepts no excuses.

Sometimes, we all have off sessions, forget to return messages or miss deadlines. When I make mistakes, I own up to them and apologise in person. Quality client care means being accountable and asking for continuous client feedback. My Complaints Policy encourages honest feedback and has helped a lot, generating loads of useful suggestions I’ve been able to incorporate into my practice to reduce errors.

10. The professional plays it as it lays.

I get sick. Equipment fails. Without warning, clients sometimes don’t show up. Over the years, I’ve learned to be more accepting of bumps in the road. I’ve recognised that private practice has its peaks and troughs; swings and roundabouts. Getting angry or frustrated with things beyond your control doesn’t change reality – but a good attitude can. Recently, I’ve been reading the Stoics, which has really helped. (More on that to come.)

11. The professional is prepared.

I have a simple rule of practice: I don’t go home unless my sessions for the next day are all planned, with materials ready to go. This rule served me well when my clinic had a 5 hour blackout on a busy day. It sometimes means late nights. But it’s a big motivator to ensure I don’t let myself get overbooked or behind in session-planning. I love going home to my family after a solid day’s work.

12. The professional does not show off.

Remember that kid at school who did well in exams but always claimed she didn’t study? No-one likes (or believes) that kid!

Despite what Facebook or Instagram suggests, being a professional isn’t about telling the world how wonderful you are and broadcasting every success with an inspirational quote. It’s about being honest. Doing what you say you will do. Admitting what you don’t know. And owning up to the fact that keeping your head above water takes lots of hard work, often attending to thankless compliance tasks, over a long period of time.

Opening my clinic wasn’t the effortless, well-orchestrated product of a genius mind in a state of mindful bliss. It was the sometimes chaotic product of a caffeine-stimulated mania bordering at times on obsession, with lots of late nights and weekends beavering away on a project many thought was doomed to failure. If I hadn’t “studied” – my target clients, my business model, my own strengths and limitations – there is no way I could have opened my doors, much less kept them open. It would be misleading to others looking to open a private practice to pretend otherwise. Sharing failures and lessons learned is at least as important as celebrating success. And more human too.

13. The professional dedicates herself to mastering technique.

I invest thousands of dollars a year in training. And I spend countless hours a year reflecting on clinical limitations and planning how best to combat and overcome them.

The moment you think you know everything is the moment you are most likely to make a catastrophic error in treatment or business (or both). Treat your profession as a master-craft rooted in science. Invest in continuous quality improvement. Never get complacent.

14. The professional does not hesitate to ask for help.

Some people collect cars. Others, novelty plush toys. I collect mentors.

I’m a bit like that insufferable baby bird in the children’s classic “Are You My Mother?

“Will You Be My Mentor?”

We all stand on the shoulders of giants. I have a mentor for paediatric issues, a mentor for adults and a mentor for business issues. I have a mentor with 35 years experience, and another who started out with me. I have a mentor in private practice, and another in community health. Being professional is knowing your scope of competent practice, when to refer on, when you need a reality check, and when you need urgent back up. Asking for help to meet your client’s health needs is a sign of strength, not weakness.

15. The professional does not take success or failure personally.

Despite all the practice I’ve had over the years, I’m still not good at losing with grace or dignity.

We all celebrate our triumphs and curse our set backs – that’s human nature. But we we can’t always control what happens. All we can control is our approach and our actions – not the consequences of our actions (good or bad). Our attitude to being professional, and the actions we take each day to pursue our goals and help our clients, is the true measure of our success. The countless tragedies – large and small – endured by millions around the world every day shows that our ultimate success or failure in business and life is not fully ours to decide (despite what some self-help books proclaim).

16. The professional does not identify with his or her instrument.

We are not merely the sum total of our gifts and weaknesses. We need to know our strengths and limitations before we set out to pursue our life’s work. But we shouldn’t confuse a talent we were born with, with what matters – being a good person and using our skills to do our work professionally.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been good with words. But, for almost two decades, I did little with this talent but draft legal documents and give advice to big companies. I was good at it, and comfortable. But it wasn’t enough. So I pushed myself out of my comfort zone. Retrained. Wrote a novel for young adults in my spare time. Penned speeches for a social justice charity. Wrote something meaningful and of service every day. Eventually, I launched my clinic’s weekly blog to inform families about important communication issues and research. But, regrets? I have more than a few! I could have done so much more if I’d started 15 or even 5 years earlier. It’s a mistake I won’t make again.

17. The professional endures adversity.

Computers crash. People you trust let you down. Competitors move in to your “territory”. Backs give in. Regulations change. You can’t insure against every risk and potentially bad event.

There were a number of times early on when I was tempted to throw in the towel and go back to a safe, well-paying job. But I knew, deep down, I would come to hate the job. Even worse, I knew I would come to hate myself for taking it.

Sometimes being professional means just hanging in there – getting through one more week or even day before admitting defeat and pivoting your business strategy. Other times, it means accepting you’ve made a mistake, swallowing your pride and ceasing to dig that hole you’ve made for yourself. Only the (smug) god of hindsight can tell you whether you’ve made the right decision in a particular case. But you shouldn’t give up on your dream, even if it gets a little soiled by the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

Too many people give up right on the brink of success. Hang tough!

18. The professional self-validates.

It’s hard to ignore the opinion of others; and you should always seek feedback from clients. But what you think of your practice is just as important. Even if the client is happy, have you done a great job to the best of your abilities? The professional answers this question objectively. If the answer is “no”, the professional redoubles his or her efforts and comes back the next day and does better.

Sometimes, we all need a demanding client to bring our A-game. Sometimes, that demanding client needs to be us.

19. The professional reinvents herself.

Don’t be a one-trick pony. Don’t lock yourself in a “specialist” box, seeing only one sub-type of client day in, day out. Although you will think you are developing depth of expertise “one inch wide, and one mile deep”, you will be blind to developments in other areas of practice that may revolutionise your “core practice”. Don’t forget: many children with communication difficulties grow up into adults with communication difficulties; adults with communication problems were all once children; and most of our clients have more than one communication need.

One of the main reasons I chose to work with both children and adults is the amount I learn working with one group that can be transferred or applied to the other. This has allowed me to develop skills in all sorts of areas in which I never intended to practice.

20. The professional is recognised by other professionals.

This isn’t about anything as superficial as following, friending and linking in speech pathologists and other professionals on social media. Nor is it about handing out cards at conferences and networking events. Instead, it’s about doing good work and being recognised for being a true professional by people who have first-hand knowledge of your practice, work product and treatment outcomes.

One of the key ways I do this in practice is to produce quality assessment reports. Although they take much longer to write than “cookie-cutter” or fill-in-the-box reports, the decision to do them has been vindicated by positive client feedback and by the number of new clients referred to me by existing clients and health and education professionals on the basis of my assessment process and reports.

21. The professional is courageous.

One of our most important roles as speech pathologists is to advocate for the needs of our clients. Sometimes, this means we need to ruffle feathers. To fight bureaucratic madness. To squeeze blood from stones. To say things that are unpopular. To challenge that status quo – even within the profession.

As humans, we’re programmed to care about others’ opinions. But if you worry too much about what others think, you’ll never be a professional. Some of my legal colleagues thought I was having a mid-life crisis when I retrained as a speech pathologist and opened my clinic. Perhaps they were right. But thank goodness I found the wherewithal to just do it. Who wants to die wondering?

22. The professional will not be distracted.

It’s easy to lose sight of your purpose and get buried in trivia, red tape and nonsense. One of my favourite words is focus. John Lee Dumas taught me a terrific acronym for FOCUS: Follow One Course Until Success.

In addition to my no news, no social media policy, I use Asana and Cliniko to keep me focused on the two to three key things I want to achieve each day for my clinic. Anything not on that list or related to my daily therapy deliverables waits until the main tasks are done.

23. The professional is ruthless with herself.

Tasks tend to take up as much time as you give them. Once your basic systems are up and running and you’ve been at it for a while, complacency can set in and you can find yourself drifting toward disaster.

At the start of each quarter, I sit down with my team and set 2 to 3 “stretch goals” I’d like to achieve if “time permits” – goals and projects I really care about that I won’t let myself chase unless I’ve done everything else I need to do first. This pushes me to use my time more efficiently.

I have a short list of online training courses to do whenever I have an unexpected break. So, if I have an FTA, I don’t give myself an hour off for coffee and chit chat. Instead, I attack a project I’m passionate about or learn something to help my clients.

24. The professional has compassion for herself.

Working closely with people – particularly kids, in Winter (and during a pandemic) – means we get exposed to all kinds of bugs.  Sometimes, even with a rigorous Infection Control Policy, a balanced diet, regular exercise and enough sleep, we fall ill.

When I’m sick, I give into it quickly, reschedule appointments, go home, go to bed and focus on getting better. A lingering sniffle, hoarse voice and hyponasal resonance is not a good look for a speech pathologist. I can operate competently with 50% power. But my clients deserve better than that.

25. The professional lives in the present.

Regrets about the past and anxiety about the future can seriously undermine your confidence and professionalism. Without wanting to sound too New Agey about it, having a clear idea of what you are seeking to achieve and then doing the work immediately in front of you to the best of your abilities is a great way to combat regret and anxiety. I find taking 20 minutes a day, twice a day to meditate helps me to focus on the present, too.

26. The professional defers gratification.

Yes, I need to eat and have somewhere to live. But I don’t need the biggest house, the newest car, the latest fashions (ha, far from it!) or the latest gizmos.

In my previous life, I always “had to have” the latest phone, the best stereo, meals at Michelin-rated restaurants, and the fancy holiday to the Maldives. In my new life, I leave as much money as I can in the business so I can grow it, take regular short road trips with the family in our station wagon, and dine out at sports clubs. While we’re not keeping up with all the Joneses (or Smiths or Lams for that matter), we still have a great quality of life.

27. The professional does not wait for inspiration.

This is a big one for me. Sometimes – usually it’s a Tuesday – I walk into the clinic feeling as flat as a stomped-upon tack. I look at the mountain of reports I have to write, all the sessions I have to plan and deliver that week, the blog articles I’ve committed to research and to write, and nearly despair. Then I have a coffee, review my key tasks for the day, look at my stretch goals (the cool stuff I get to do if I finish my daily tasks on time), do a couple of star jumps, turn on my task timer, and jump into it.

Don’t wait for inspiration to strike. Often, I have my best business and clinical ideas while I’m working on something hard or boring (or both).

28. The professional does not give away her powers to others.

For me, this is about not judging myself against the success and achievements of others. I don’t have the largest clinic in my area, or see the most clients a day. I work hard and am certainly not making millions!

But, I:

  • run my own show;
  • see my kids every day;
  • spend my working hours helping people to improve their communication skills to participate more fully in life;
  • choose my own hours;
  • get to educate and advocate for others, e.g. by speaking at schools and community events;
  • receive regular thanks from people all over the world about the quality of the free information on my website;
  • am having my free Lidcombe Program activity book translated into other languages to help children who stutter around the world;
  • get to contribute to local community events and causes I’m passionate about;
  • learn new things – about client needs, clinical practice and myself – every day; and
  • get to help other speech pathologists in private practice benefit from my business and legal experience with low-cost business templates and resources our website.

What a privileged and lucky life I lead!

29. The professional helps others.

This, to me, is why most speech pathologists in private practice are naturally professional. Speech pathology is all about serving others: helping other people to achieve their goals. We work face-to-face with people in need every day. And, at least in my experience, speech pathologists are incredibly generous with their time and expertise in mentoring and supporting other speech pathologists.

The support and training I have received from other speech pathologists – often free of charge – is what inspired me to want to give back to the profession through our free resources and articles.

Final thoughts on Turning Pro

This series of posts has been fun to write, but challenging to execute in practice. We hope you’ve found them useful or inspiring (hopefully both)!

Ultimately, we are responsible for our own professional conduct and reputations. To be professional, we need a firm commitment to evidence-based service and ethical conduct. But we also need to treat ourselves more like we treat our clients. We need to feel more compassion for ourselves. We need to stop asking others for permission to launch and build the private practices of our dreams and to create and deliver the services our clients need.

Main source: Steven Pressfield (2012). Turning Pro: Tap into your Inner Power and Create Your Life’s Work. Black Irish Books, NY, NY. Well worth a read. You can get it here. And feel free to leave comments below!

Image: https://bit.ly/1HGvKNr


Hi there, I’m David Kinnane.

Principal Speech Pathologist, Banter Speech & Language

Our talented team of certified practising speech pathologists provide unhurried, personalised and evidence-based speech pathology care to children and adults in the Inner West of Sydney and beyond, both in our clinic and via telehealth.

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