Can-Do Mindset. Being an entrepreneur is very different than working for someone. It requires the willingness to believe that you can overcome challenges and do what you love. I was often told early in my career that I would not be able to make a living in private practice… and yet I have made a 6-figure living for many years.
As a part of our interview series with prominent medical professionals called “5 Things You Need To Know To Create a Highly Successful Private Practice” I had the pleasure of interviewing Gilza Fort-Martinez.
Gilza Fort-Martinez is a licensed marriage and family therapist with over 30 years of experience in couples therapy, conflict resolution, and improving interpersonal relationships. She is the founder and CEO of Resolution Counseling Center, a private practice in South Florida where she has successfully helped hundreds of individuals create paths of resolution that have turned their lives around.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you ended up where you are?
As a child of political refugees from Cuba, education was very important in our household. My parents were university graduates; my father was an attorney, and my mother an artist. Though it was the late 50’s and early 60’s, my parents were progressives about education for all, so having a career was a given. My father wanted me to be a lawyer, and I tried! As a pre-law student, I had decided to major in Political Science and History. But in my junior year in college, I realized that my calling was in helping people navigate this journey called life and decided to change majors. Although my father was not happy with this decision, both of my parents were supportive.
I earned my undergraduate degree in Psychology and went on to get my master’s with a specialty in Marriage and Family Therapy. This specialty resonated with me the most as it focuses on the individual within their context, not “blaming” the client but rather understanding them within their social environment.
Initially, I worked in the traditional settings for rookie therapists: hospitals, community agencies, and health centers. All the while knowing that I wanted to create my own space and means of helping people find their way more peacefully and collaboratively.
Eventually, in 1999, I opened my private practice Resolution Counseling Center in Miami, FL, where I’ve specialized in interpersonal relationship counseling, conflict resolution, infidelity, and women’s life transitions.
I’m a huge fan of mentorship throughout one’s career. None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Who has been your biggest mentor? What was the most valuable lesson you learned from them?
I, too, am a big fan of mentorship! There is much to learn from others both in and out of your chosen field. Personally, my most influential mentors were my parents, especially my mother. They were people with a strong work ethic who overcame the many challenges of having to start over in a new country with a new language. My mother’s positive nature and unwavering faith have always been a secure port for me.
Professionally, my main mentors were Stephanie and Frank, two seasoned professionals in the social work and family therapy spaces, whom I met shortly after graduating, and Roy, a long-time friend and colleague.
They were instrumental in helping me find my voice, gain confidence in my abilities as a therapist and understand the ins and outs of managing a successful private practice.
Stephanie and Frank took me in when I was an unlicensed, inexperienced clinician and taught me how to improve my clinical skills as well as how to manage the business side of doing therapy. Frank, a licensed MFT, also provided the supervision that I needed to pursue licensing myself.
Roy showed me how to communicate effectively and assertively when talking about money with clients. The financial aspects of running a counseling practice are a big missing piece for therapists in graduate school. There is a mentality that helping others means you “should not” want to make money. Altruism is the implied idea. Roy helped me understand how to value my expertise and showed me how to discuss fees fairly and openly with clients. It was a huge lesson in entrepreneurship within the clinical lens!
What made you want to start your own practice? Can you tell us the story of how you started it?
I wanted to create my own space for helping others heal and to share this space with colleagues who had similar values. Additionally, I was also yearning for more flexibility and independence to spend more time with my family.
So, after I got licensed, I spent a few more years with my mentors Stephanie and Frank, and then went on my own. I aligned with several previous coworkers and opened Resolution Counseling Center.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
One of my biggest career and life lessons happened when I decided to leave my full-time job and a secure paycheck to transition to my private practice. I had a lot on my plate. My oldest daughter was a toddler at that point, and I was working 15-hour workdays between my full-time job at a hospital pain clinic and seeing private clients part-time in the evenings. But the fear and uncertainty of making such a drastic move kept me paralyzed.
My husband encouraged me to take the leap of faith into private practice with his statement: “What’s the worst-case scenario…? You can always get a job now that you are licensed!” And he was right. It wouldn’t be my ideal job, but I would get one. I was also concerned that I would lose my clients since many of them were used to coming after work, during evenings, and on Saturday mornings.
I decided to trust and leap! To my surprise, I only lost one client who could not make it work with their job. All of my other clients, about 15 at that point, were able and willing to make arrangements to continue working with me! It was a major lesson in trusting myself and valuing my work!
Because it is a “helping profession”, some healthcare providers struggle with the idea of “monetization.” How do you address the business aspect of running a medical practice? Can you share a story or example?
Monetization has been an ongoing learning process for me. Unfortunately, we are not taught how to run a therapy practice in graduate school. We are given many tools to help people with their emotional pain, but none to help us establish and manage a sustainable business through which we can help others.
The symbolic meaning of money also tends to interrupt our ability to charge a fair fee and then take action to collect it. We are taught the altruistic nature of helping others, and money tends to be villainized. And so, I had this internal struggle when it came to money. How do I make a decent living and help others? Is that the right thing to do?
Over time, I’ve understood that being of service and making money are not at odds with each other. My practice has to be sustainable as a business first and foremost, or I will not be able to continue showing up and serving my clients. It’s crucial to find the right balance between being an effective therapist and the administrative parts of your private practice that keep the business engine running smoothly. If you’re struggling financially, you won’t be able to help those who desperately need you.
Managing being a provider and a business owner is a constant balancing act. How do you manage both roles?
My priority has always been the work with my clients. It’s what brings me the most joy and fulfillment as a therapist, so I’ve made sure to streamline processes and establish efficient systems in other areas of my business to ensure everything is being taken care of in a timely manner.
You want to be proactive, plan ahead, and look for opportunities and tools to automate and delegate tasks. Billing, for example, used to take me at least five hours every month, but switching to an electronic billing system has allowed me to get that time back. I’ve also incorporated a digital calendar for scheduling, automated email and text replies, and professional marketing assistance to promote my practice. I always thought that I was saving money by handling all of these tasks myself, but it was actually hindering the growth of my practice because my attention and focus were split between several different things at once.
Making the time to rest is also crucial. I have always believed that setting a balance between work and play is central to maintaining my mental health. So, for years, I have taken a day off every week, usually Wednesdays, to catch up on the rest of my life.
From completing your degree to opening a practice and becoming a business owner, your path was most likely challenging. Can you share a story about one of your greatest struggles? Can you share what you did to overcome it?
My separation from my mentor Stephanie was one of the greatest struggles I had to face early on in my career. She had created a small private practice wherein I started along with 2–3 other people. We had some differences in opinions on running and growing the practice, and I decided to leave. It was hard to disentangle from Stephanie, both personally and professionally, and it did not go well. And her other protégé and I got into a broader disagreement which, sadly, we did not recover from. It was a lesson in knowing how and when to let go. Precisely the lessons I encourage my clients to learn.
Frank, my other mentor, decided to continue with me, and together we established Resolution Counseling Center. It worked out very well until his sudden death, only three years later. That, too, was a struggle, not only administratively but personally. I trusted his clinical judgment and professional guidance. His passing left a void and raised many questions within me about my readiness and capability to lead the practice on my own.
Another personal struggle, especially early on, was imposter syndrome. I doubted my abilities and expertise and frequently caught myself thinking, what could I possibly know about life as a young, new therapist to be giving anyone advice?! It took some time and excellent supervision of my own to explore and work through this challenge.
Ok, thank you. Here is the main question of our interview. What are the 5 things you need to know to create a thriving practice, and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
5 Things to Know to Create a Thriving Practice:
- Can-Do Mindset. Being an entrepreneur is very different than working for someone. It requires the willingness to believe that you can overcome challenges and do what you love. I was often told early in my career that I would not be able to make a living in private practice… and yet I have made a 6-figure living for many years. To succeed, you have to be willing to persist through difficult times and see failures as opportunities to learn and grow.
- Willing to Be a Continual Student. Many aspects of running a private practice have drastically changed over the years. From insurance regulations to managed care impacting clinical decisions to electronic billing and scheduling, my practice looks very different from how it did when I first started. Adaptability is key. You must be open to learning new things and change course when necessary to keep up with the constant changes and fast-paced nature of doing business nowadays.
- Niche Strategic Marketing. I started off being a generalist. I would work with any client referred to me, including involuntary clients referred by the court. It took me some time to realize that this was draining my energy and not necessarily benefitting my bottom line. Defining my specialty areas, selecting a niche that feels genuine and feeds my soul, and determining who my ideal client is have made my marketing infinitely easier since I know exactly who it is that I need to speak to. A laser-focused marketing strategy that communicates directly to your client’s pain points and heart is a must-have for a thriving practice.
- Diversify your Income Sources. Create and leverage multiple streams of income that help you meet your financial goals while they challenge and stimulate you. I have done a variety of clinical and non-clinical things to generate income, from teaching, consulting, and supervision to office rental and community psychoeducational workshops. Lately, I’ve prioritized creating more passive and digital sources of income, and I am looking forward to developing digital products and courses to complement what I do in my practice, in person.
- Delegate. To have a successful private practice, you need to learn how to manage your time effectively. Don’t let yourself get sucked down into tasks that you can delegate or automate. This one has taken me many years to perform and perfect. As a solo practitioner in a small practice, I have done it all: from cleaning to accounting to seeing the client! In the last few years, a big lesson has been to set systems in place to streamline and outsource tasks: electronic calendar for scheduling, automatic email and text replies, and professional marketing assistance. I always thought that I was saving money by doing it all solo. In reality, I was holding myself back.
As a business owner you spend most of your time working IN your practice, seeing patients. When and how do you shift to working ON your practice? (Marketing, upgrading systems, growing your practice, etc.) How much time do you spend on the business elements?
In the early years, I dedicated at least 6–8 hours a week for marketing, administrative, and management tasks: making calls, writing letters, nurturing referral sources, teaching classes at a local college (got supervisees that way), billing, and supervising interns.
In recent years, I have streamlined the way I do business by upgrading systems, shifting from a group to a solo practice, and outsourcing things like social media and digital marketing.
Hiring an external team with the expertise to help me grow and market my practice means I can dedicate more time to my clients and to the strategic business planning needed to move my practice forward without getting overwhelmed or exhausted from trying to implement everything by myself.
I understand that the healthcare industry has unique stresses and hazards that other industries don’t have. What specific practices would you recommend to other healthcare leaders to improve their physical or mental wellness? Can you share a story or example?
Self-care is critical to avoid burnout. I’ve always encouraged associates, office mates, and especially supervisees to prioritize their physical and mental wellness so that they not only survive but thrive in this industry.
Listening to others’ pain on a daily basis can be draining if you do not create intentional ways to rest and recover. My four-day workweek has served me well. I have created a strong network of personal and professional female friends who support me. I have two daughters who are now adults, and together with my husband, we incorporate fun elements and activities in our weekly schedules.
I encourage others in our field to play, laugh, focus on the things you do have, and cherish the people and support systems around you! This mindset has served me well during my 30 years in practice.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share a story about how that was relevant in your own life?
“Life is inherently risky. There is only one big risk you should avoid at all costs, and that is the risk of doing nothing.” ―Denis Waitley.
Although many people, including classmates and coworkers, told me that I would not make a living in private practice, I still went ahead and set out to accomplish and fulfill this professional dream of mine. Believing in myself has been my greatest asset.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Thank you for these great insights! We wish you continued success and good health!