A conversation about...

Peer learning across practice and Hakim HQ

Neil Hilton, chair of Hakim Group’s SharkLink panel of independent practice owners, and Nichola Mason, SharkLink’s treasurer, explain how strong communication with Hakim Group HQ is facilitated

A colourful cartoon shows the outline of a stick woman communicating with an AI robot

Can you briefly describe SharkLink and its purpose?

Nichola Mason (NM): We are a group of seven partners with a variety of practice types, skill sets and time working within the group, representing Hakim Group partners, who are known as ‘Sharks.’ Our role is to make sure Hakim Group HQ remains aligned with the group’s practices, maintaining the culture as we grow.


Nichola Mason

Occupation:SharkLink treasurer and partner at four Hakim Group independent practices



Neil Hilton

Occupation:SharkLink chair and partner at six Hakim Group independent practices


Neil Hilton (NH): The main thing is to ensure there is no disconnect between HQ and practices. We’re not about “us and them.” We’re one big team, and our primary objective is to maintain that culture and family feel, whether we are 600 practices or six practices. That was always the main focus of SharkLink, from when we first began. 

How has Sharklink helped with any issues that have arisen between HQ and practices?

NM: One of the things that we did as SharkLink was listen to partner feedback around communications. We have lots of different platforms, and lots of different messages come through. We’d often hear from partners that they had had a WhatsApp, or a message on Telegram, or an email, and they couldn’t keep up.

SharkLink fed this back to HQ and suggested it would be great if we could have the communications combined, once a week. HQ were fantastic and listened to their partners, and now we have a digest of all communications relevant to partners, every Monday. That was something that SharkLink discussed and came up with a solution for, working alongside HQ. It was very much a combined effort.

NH: SharkLink is there to facilitate people getting in touch with the right people. When Nichola and I started, there were very few people at HQ, and now we’ve got almost 200. We’re very privileged to work closely with HQ teams, so we know whose skillset suits which problem the best, and we can direct people properly.

If anybody has a problem, they just post it on any of the chat forums and instantly have access to other Sharks, who have a massive amount of experience. Within minutes, you’ll get a variety of opinions back. It’s all the way from ‘where’s the cheapest place to bulk buy coffee?’ through to, ‘I’ve got a disciplinary issue. Anybody got any thoughts?’ The chats are diverse, but you get support whatever your question.

Have you ever brought a failure or mistake forward to discuss with the group?

NM: It wasn’t really a mistake, but HQ were looking at banking across the group, and opportunities to provide better terms with alternative banks. Everything we do is trialled with a smaller number of practices before it is rolled out to the group, and in this instance, the trial showed a few bumps. Being able to feed that back through SharkLink meant most of those bumps were ironed out before it was implemented across more practices. The trial process is there to mitigate any challenges.

NH: We started from a really small number of practices, with a limited budget, and we’ve scaled quickly. What was suitable five or six years ago could probably now be better. The culture is always to innovate and reflect and try and better ourselves.

SharkLink is just there to support and sense check HQ. We’re very privileged that we can get involved in these conversations. Recently, we’ve taken the auditing and governance platform back and made a few tweaks. It’s not so much of a failure, it’s more of a question of, ‘how can we improve this and make it better for a group of 400+ practices as we grow rather than a group of 100?’ You learn from your setbacks. It’s a learning experience really, which is cool.

NM: It works both ways. If there’s something in practice that HQ think we could do better, we’re always willing to listen, and they are equally willing to listen if they're doing something we think isn’t quite right for practice. They’re very quick to adapt and change if needed.

NH: One of the things we’ve been chatting about recently is ways of working. I had a discussion with the marketing team a few months ago. We were talking about how, as we scale, the processes have improved and changed to help facilitate the growth of the group: we’ve become much more efficient and need to work smarter.

As we grow, we’ve got a lot of new sharks, but a cohort of older sharks. One of the challenges is to bring everybody along that journey, in terms of developing processes.

The culture is always to innovate and reflect and try and better ourselves

Neil Hilton

Have any unexpected learnings or changes have come about because of your SharkLink discussions?

NM: I work with lots of the new Sharks. During some of those sessions, we cover lots of things that the new sharks have never experienced. They have probably been working as a dispensing optician, optometrist or practice manager, and suddenly they’re a business owner. They’re fantastic at optometry or dispensing, but they don’t always have the business knowledge because they’ve never had the opportunity to learn that.

During Shark onboarding, we included a finance session and talked about some of the fundamentals. These sessions were really well received, and made us question if other longer standing partners within the group may also have finance areas they would benefit from revisiting: VAT or corporation tax, for example, which might sound quite basic, but we found that, when you have spent most of your career patient facing, its clearly an area that gets overlooked. From these conversations we saw an opportunity for SharkLink to try and help.

At the roadshow this year, we did a session with Richard Woolley, Financial Controller at HQ, and Gavin Rebello, another member of SharkLink and partner of several independent practices at Hakim Group. The feedback from Sharks was brilliant. One shark said, ‘I have been too afraid to ask that question about tax; I thought I should have known the answer.’

I’ve been a business owner with HG for nine years now, so I’ve learned along the way. But some of the new owners don’t want to ask questions on subject areas that they might be unsure of. That was unexpected, but through listening we could understand and then put a solution in place.

How does SharkLink interact with practices that are not represented on the group?

NH: We’ve got quite a few different discussion platforms, for different things. Because of COVID-19, a lot of the FishTanks and SharkTanks took a bit of a backseat and were facilitated on webinars. But fortunately, they’re coming back this year, hopefully with a strong agenda for 2024.

As SharkLink, we’re trying to be present at every event that we do, to give people the confidence to chat to us if there are any issues. That will be a common theme going into the relaunch of the FishTank and the SharkTank next year. We’re becoming more outward facing. That’s the next evolution of SharkLink.

NM: In 2024 we want to be able to connect more frequently and more easily with other Hakim Group independent practice partners. They can email or phone us at any time, but we would like to set more local connections up if possible. That’s something that is in the planning phase for next year. We want to offer more opportunities to connect, discuss, and share with us and fellow Sharks.

NH: We are planning for 2024 and looking at reaching out to the brilliant partners across the UK. We have more practices in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, and they face different challenges to England. It’s always evolving, and we must too. Every time we get together, we’re seeing how we can connect with people better. It’s definitely top of our agenda.

In 2024 we want to be able to connect more frequently and more easily with other Hakim Group independent practice partners

Nichola Mason

Why is it important to have that link between practices and Hakim HQ?

NM: We’re a difficult bunch, because each practice is individual. I think it's really important that we do have that link, so HQ continues to understand individual practices and that one size doesn’t fit all. If HQ treated us as the same kind of practice there is no doubt we would not be in the successful position we are today. Having that strong connection to practice and practice individuality is really important, especially when introducing new ideas.

One of the main reasons SharkLink came up with the idea of the roadshows was to give partners the chance to have those face-to-face connections with HQ, and make sure that those links were either built, or sustained, or grew stronger.

How do Hakim roadshows support peer learning?

NH: We gauge what the sharks want to learn about before we set the agenda, and every year we have a feedback loop. We have really good discussions. As soon as the groups get a bit bigger, you kind of lose that. In smaller groups, people are more comfortable and confident talking amongst themselves. The topics are hand-selected and there’s a discussion for each one. They’re all relevant in terms of the commercial side of things.

NM: For three of the four presentations at this year’s roadshows, it was one of SharkLink working with a department from HQ, putting together the brain of somebody at HQ , with the brain of somebody in practice doing it. Each has a different way of looking at the topic but with the same end goal. I think that was important for peer learning, so that our peers could see, ‘okay, these guys are in practice doing it the same as me, and these guys are observing from a different perspective.’

We’re always happy to learn and share with each other, and I think that comes across at the roadshows. You hear conversations where somebody will happily share a brilliant idea, and you see other partners thinking ‘that could really work in my practice.’ The presentations were a combination of workshops, to encourage discussion and networking, and also presentations, but there was a lot of chat. For me that was hugely important and was the most valuable thing to me when I started out with Hakim Group.

It’s important to SharkLink that we learn as much from other partners as we try to share. We’ve got a huge wealth of experience between us across different practices, but we readily learn from others, trying to always take in as much as we give out.