Productivity

Hiring An Assistant ft. Curt Widhalm

 July 6, 2022

By  Uriah Guilford, MFT

minute read

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Many therapists struggle with managing their client load, admin, billing and marketing tasks. Not to mention growing their practice at the same time!
Join me, Uriah Guilford, as I chat with Curt Widhalm, host of Modern Therapist’s Survival Guide podcast, about the secret sauce for hiring your best assistant.

In This Episode, You'll Learn:

  • How hiring the right assistant can help you
  • What you should look for in the ideal assistant

Resources Mentioned In This Episode:

Modern Therapist’s Survival Guide podcast
Therapy Reimagined
Hiring Your Assistant course
Therapy Intake Pro

⬇️ Click for full episode transcript ⬇️

Uriah
Hi, Curt. Welcome to the show!

Curt
Thanks. Thanks for having me.

Uriah
Yeah, it's awesome to be having you on the podcast. It was actually, believe it or not, four years ago that I did my first podcast interview on your show, the Modern Therapist Survivor Travel Guide. That was so long ago.

Curt
It does not seem like it has been that long.

Uriah
I know. I just remember that I remember being so nervous for that first interview, so much so that I completely botched my introduction and you had to restart the record. Fortunately, that was the only time that happened thereafter.

Curt
That's the beautiful world of podcasting. Nobody has to know until you admit it on air now.

Uriah
Editing is a wonderful thing. So there you go. So you and I recently met up at the Thrive Summit in Utah, and that was a really cool event, and we ended up having tons of conversations about all kinds of random things, from the best and worst concerts to men's retreats to counseling compact to all kinds of great jokes that you come ready to sling. It was a good time, wasn't it?

Curt
Oh, I had a great time there.

Uriah
In fact, Megan was messaging me this morning about coming to the Costa Rica costa Rica retreat, and I'm seriously tempted because she really does put on great events.

Curt
If you're listening to this, go and check out Megan's stuff. It was awesome.

Uriah
Megan Gunnell Smith. Good stuff. So I know this is not how you usually roll, but I do want to ask you the funniest joke that you've heard recently or told if you've got one on tap.

Curt
So I like to hit a lot of my clients with things that sound real and then just end up in humor. And one of the ones that I've been pulling out a lot recently is about the calming effects of having an aquarium in your house. Okay. A lot of people think that it's just about having animals or pets, but it's really about the indoor fins.

Uriah
Yes, that's a good one. I like it. What's the percentage of people that joke lands on and then they get it?

Curt
It's really about 40% who just breathe heavily through their nose and another 40% that give some sort of adequate laugh.

Uriah
I love that those 1st 40% never faze you. That's an amazing thing. So I've got a terrible joke for you. Okay, so here's the joke. Where's the joke? Let me find it. How much does it cost for a pirate to get his ears pierced?

Curt
I would have to guess that. That's a buck in here.

Uriah
I knew you would know that one. Indeed. It's a buccaneer. Yeah, that's not the best joke. I have, like, three jokes in my repertoire, and I'm not nearly as quick witted as you, so thanks for teaching me some of your ways. So one of the things that we talked about when we were in Utah just came up in conversation was about you hiring an assistant for your group practice. And that's kind of what I wanted to chat with you about today. And so I'm curious, like, the first question I have for you actually, let me step back a second. I would love for you to share with the audience folks who don't know about you a little bit about who you are and about your practice. I think that would be great.

Curt
My name is Curt Widhalm. I'm a licensed marriage and family therapist. I have a group practice with two locations in the greater Los Angeles area. We primarily work a lot with adolescents and almost all of our staff is trained or certified or working towards certification in EMDR. So we get a lot of trauma in our practice as well. A lot of family systems work. And as you mentioned at the top of the show, I also have a podcast called The Modern Therapist Survival Guides for Therapists about a wide variety of topics facing therapists in our profession today.

Uriah
Awesome. Yeah. And if people have not heard of that podcast, I would be shocked. But if you haven't, go check it out right now because it's one of the, I think probably one of the best, most listened to, top rated podcasts out there for therapists. So that's cool. So I'm curious what challenges you are facing that led you to the decision to hire an admin assistant.

Curt
I am an overworker. I readily admit that I take on too much and pull myself in too many directions. And for years, both my in real life wife as well as my work wife, my podcast co host Katie, have both been telling me you should offload some of your work to other people. And it has just taken me a very long time to get to the point of, number one, being overwhelmed enough to actually do it, and number two, having enough of a break in my schedule to actually seek out and find somebody to go on the journey and offload some of the stuff that I have just taken on myself because it was just easier for me to keep doing something rather than slow down and train somebody else to do it.

Uriah
That makes so much sense. And you're definitely not the only one being coerced by people who care to do less and share the load. So are you saying that the podcast that we recorded in 2018 didn't really move the needle with that?

Curt
I listened to you and I took those words to heart and then I put them behind several hundred other things that I do in my day to day job and it was always kind of there. I had initially taken an approach in my practice when I started just having associates in my practice that I didn't start out hiring other licensed people. And it takes a while for a lot of associates to build up a caseload. So one of the ways that I would help them be able to live and be able to focus on building a practice is I would offload some of my day to day tasks, teach them things about running a practice and editing a podcast or any kinds of skills that I would just pay them to do some things around the office that would help offload some of this stuff. The problem became that a lot of them got licensed. They were good therapists and wanted to go and do therapy. And so every couple of years, I was having to train somebody new to do some of the same things. And I just got to a point where I was like, you know, I want my therapists doing therapy. They went to therapy school to become therapists. This is their skills. Maybe I should just stop reinventing the wheel every couple of years and hire somebody dedicated just to doing some of these tasks, being able to look at my overall processes and say, Curt, you're trained as a therapist, you work as a group practice owner, you're seeing clients, you're doing a podcast. Maybe I can do some of this stuff more efficiently. So that was really kind of I wanted to invest in somebody to be able to really take on some of those bigger roles for me and make my life easier.

Uriah
Yeah. And somebody whose expertise and area of specialty is the things that you don't want to do and that you would like to get help with. Yeah, I like that a lot. And so you're saying you were delegating to your pre licensed therapist in your practice, but they would come in and then not stick around for a long time and it was not maybe the best use of their time, is that right?

Curt
Very much so, yes.

Uriah
That makes a lot of sense. And so even though your work wife and your real life wife were telling you that you needed to work less and get some help, when was the inflection point where you finally figured, like, oh, yeah, this needs to happen now? What pain did you feel? I guess is what I'm asking.

Curt
I had a couple of weeks here at the beginning of 2022, end stages, hopefully, of the pandemic, where I had like five cancellations on my caseload in the week. And my wife goes, well, how many clients does that mean that you have this week? And I counted it up and I still had 33 sessions scheduled that week. And I was just like, I don't want to do this forever. I don't want to be tied into doing this. There are so many things that so many people are asking me to get done that just stay on this never ending to do list. I need to use this now, free 5 hours in my week that should be going to taking care of myself to actually maybe making a long term investment in not running into this kind of stress over and over again.

Uriah
So if my math is correct, that's 38 scheduled clients?

Curt
I had 38 that week. Yeah.

Uriah
Oh, my goodness. And you are not a psychiatrist?

Curt
Right.

Uriah
You're not doing 15 minutes in-and-outs.

Curt
It was a very strange combination of a couple of clients in crisis, a couple of clients who were back from out of state for spring break and wanted to get a session in before they had to go back to their out of state colleges. And it was just something where I don't usually keep a case load that high, but I had a very hard time saying no to a number of people all at once, along with some increasing, just severity of some of the people that I was treating at the time.

Uriah
Sure, okay, I got you. And that you realize that's not sustainable. And also some of the other things that you're working on ended up on this never ending to do list that probably came with its own sense of overwhelming, I would imagine.

Curt
Yeah. And that was just the client facing side of me. I also had supervision. I had to look at any of our social media stuff going out. Our newsletters are just kind of plans for the next six to nine months and was having to reschedule meetings with my staff and it was just something where I was like, I don't even have time to return calls to some of my clients who are calling me in between sessions. I should have somebody here that really just takes care of this stuff, somebody that I can trust to be able to at least get my schedule straightened out and allow for me to be able to send them a message and be like, hey, here's things that need to get done tomorrow. So that way my ten hour day isn't 12 hours.

Uriah
You need like, triage with your calendar and your voicemail, I'm sure needed, yeah. So when you started the process of recruiting and hiring an assistant, what did you find? That was the toughest part.

Curt
So I put an ad onto Indeed and put it as a remote position. I don't need somebody in my office, especially as a lot of what we're doing is telehealth. And within the first 12 hours, I got approximately 800 applications right. And I'd never used Indeed before, so it was just kind of like getting notifications. I don't remember if I was getting a ton of emails or whatever, but it was just like, oh, I am not going to do any justice to the people who have already applied. I'm just going to close this ad down and I'm going to pick like five or so people that seem good enough, and those are going to be the people that I hopefully will land on, somebody who ends up wanting to work with me.

Uriah
So the volume was overwhelming right?

Curt
Yeah. And I realized in the job market that a lot of people are going to apply for any number of jobs. There was a lot of resumes that I looked at that was like, I don't think you really want to be an office assistant in a group psychotherapy practice. And so some of them were pretty easy to filter out. I also know that was indeed or. I learned in the process that when you put that a job is remote, that it puts it out to the entirety of the country. This is true paying Los Angeles wages, which invited a number of people to apply from lower cost of living areas across the country. And for one reason or another, the five or so people that I reached out to, I was fortunate enough to actually find a couple of people who lived in the Los Angeles area that I really wanted to make an effort to try and interview. Because what I really started to think about, and some of the tasks that I would be offloading, is if this is eventually going to be somebody who's answering the phones for me, there is a great ability for people who know the geography of like, oh, you got to go past the 405 and you got to get off at this exit. And just knowing what landmarks are around and knowing the feel of what Los Angeles traffic is like, that really adds a little bit more of a personal touch. Even though this is somebody who I think has been to my physical office once now in the four months that they've been working for me, yeah, it.

Uriah
Does make a difference. I think those things can be taught to somebody who lives somewhere else. But in my experience, when I'm talking to somebody who's clearly in another state or another country and it's about a local business, once upon a time I called a local HVAC company and I realized pretty quickly this person is not in my area. And then it's kind of a different field to have somebody that knows, like you said, the geography and the landmarks, especially in a big city like Los Angeles, I would think. And it's cool. One of the things you did that I love doing, actually, is hiring local remote people so they're close enough to your office space that they can come in, even if it's not super convenient. They can come in every once in a while and pick up papers or, I don't know, do any number of things in the office, but they can work for the most part from home. I think that's a great way to go. My practice manager is actually about 45 minutes away from here, so once a month or so she comes in and that's super nice. It's funny, you were talking about getting applications from all over the country. We get that too. And even though at the top of our job posting. It says, if you're not in these states, you will be disregarded. Still, tons and tons of people from all over the country apply. So we just delete those.

Curt
And I have in the past in hiring not necessarily for this position, and a lot of my posts will put something kind of ridiculous in the application just to more easily weed out people. Like, there was one time where I was hiring clinicians specifically to work with teenagers, and part of the application process was to also submit your favorite therapy memes. And it was very easy from the very beginning to be like, oh, these people can't follow directions. And probably the first time that many professionals had to do something kind of off the wall for one of their applications, but it actually cost them an opportunity to interview with me.

Uriah
So was that in the actual application process? Was it in the job posting?

Curt
It's in the job posting. And the application as part of your application.

Uriah
How is it stated? Your favorite or some interesting or any.

Curt
Your favorite therapy meme?

Uriah
That's so fantastic. I love that. It's always nice to put those little tests in there to make sure that people are paying attention, because if you're hiring an admin assistant, you want them to be really somebody that's detail oriented and somebody that follows directions. And so those can be sort of filters to keep people out that don't meet those criteria.  So I'm curious. What do you wish you knew before starting this process of hiring an assistant?

Curt
I wish that I had set aside more time initially upfront just for training. That came as I mentioned, a lot of my schedule was very busy at the time. So knowing that, all right, to teach somebody kind of the culture of our workplace, to introduce them to the systems, that to even just be able to have them get to know me and my staff better, of being able to really set aside the time of all right, here's where you're jumping in, creating a very opening environment, but really, just the amount of time that's necessary to get somebody caught up is no joke.

Uriah
How long do you think that is? Like, if you were going to hire another system today, how much time, roughly speaking, would you allow yourself for the onboarding and training.

Curt
Well, hopefully in the next iteration of this, my current assistant is the one training. But yes, I wish that I had set aside 10 to 15 hours a week for at least two to three weeks just to catch them up. I think it would have saved a lot of just back and forth and very easily avoidable mistakes that require some double checking. And I think that a lot of the things that my assistant is doing now is helping to just compile a lot of these processes and get them going. So that way it's not starting from basically ground zero at the very beginning of each new employee.

Uriah
I'm really glad you brought that up because I think that's something that most therapists and group practice owners don't account for is the amount of intentional time training, coaching that goes into really getting an assistant on board and creating a good experience for them. Honestly, that's not stressful and overwhelming. There's this concept that I heard years ago about delegating and outsourcing, and they call it the Trough of Sorrow, which is basically the point at which your personal productive therapist a major dip, and you feel like, I could just do this myself and it would be faster. Maybe I shouldn't move forward with delegating and outsourcing. But you go through that low point and then you come out the other side once you've done a good job. And then the person really, then you start to feel the benefits of having them take on those tasks and those projects for you. But it's a rough spot, isn't it?

Curt
And knowing just how my schedule typically goes throughout the year, I wish that I would have done this in the summer rather than at the busiest point in my schedule, just because it more naturally would have fit for having somebody be able to go through this party in a trough of my own. Productive Therapist a lot of my clients are on vacations and stuff like that.

Uriah
So timing is important. You can't always decide that because sometimes if you have a need, you need to hire. But if that's good advice, if you can do it during a time that's slow for your business, whether it's summer or spring break or whatever it might be, that's a good idea for sure. So just for the folks listening, I just want them to know that we have two things that can really help. One is, of course, called hiring your assistant, which is basically all of the tips and experience that we've had over the last five years of hiring assistance put into one course. It's totally free. Productive Therapist.com PTM. And then we also have something called Therapy Intake Pro, where we will train and support your intake coordinator or care coordinator once you hire them. So those are two resources that people can take advantage of. One's free and then one's a membership. So just wanted to mention that. And would you have any final advice for somebody listening to this and thinking about hiring an assistant soon, maybe even this summer? Anything else that we didn't talk about?

Curt
One of my approaches to hiring is I don't let perfect get in the way of good enough for a lot of my employees, that it can be very easy to go through 800 applications and look for the absolutely perfect person. But really, with a lot of positions at all levels of practice, you're going to spend a lot of time. And typically I've had the experience of usually the first person that seems like, oh, well, they're good enough has worked out wonderfully well at my practice. So I know that this is maybe a time where you're offloading a lot of your babies in your practice, things that you've done forever that have only been your touch. It takes a little bit of humility to be able to say, actually, a lot of people can do this, and they don't have to be perfect. It doesn't have to be me.

Uriah
Done at 80% or more is good enough for most things.

Curt
Yeah.

Uriah
I think trusting your intuition and your gut is not always the best advice, but I think it's important for this role, whether it's a general admin assistant or a care coordinator, I think your person is like, working up to being sort of whatever you call that. Yeah. I think it's important to hire somebody that you connect with and that you feel comfortable with because the more you just, for lack of a better word, kind of vibe with them and enjoy being with them, the more you're going to want to spend time with them in training and down the road, too. I think that matters a lot. And I'm guessing you hired a fun person too, right?

Curt
My number one requirement for everybody working for me is they have to be able to put up with me.

Uriah
Right?! Otherwise you're not going to make it. That's fantastic. I love it. Well, thanks so much for being on the podcast. I would love for you to just share a little bit more about where people can find out about you and your awesome podcast.

Curt
My podcast is The Modern Therapist's Survival Guide. We're on pretty much all of the podcast platforms, and that's a weekly podcast for therapists.

Uriah
Awesome. Thanks so much, Curt. Have a good day!

Curt
Thank you. Bye!


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Uriah Guilford, MFT


Uriah is a group practice owner and the creator of Productive Therapist. He is a technology nerd, a minimalist travel packer, a rock drummer and business development enthusiast.

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