As I travel around working, speaking and interacting with teams and businesses, one glaring fact consistently stands out: there are many individuals inhabiting an ownership or management position within dentistry who simply don’t understand the impact that learning meaningful leadership skills will have on their practices. Certainly some manage to “skate” through their tenure as a boss, but at what cost?
While actually practicing dentistry, one must also manage employees (and the stress that often ensues). People enter employment with diverse backgrounds, distinct work ethics, the baggage they’re bringing from past jobs, as well as unique personality and communication styles. Even the “A” team player you hire will quickly lose their shine. Multiply that by 5, 6 or 20 employees and it’s easy to see where learning to effectively lead and manage becomes an important skill.
From my perspective, there’s a very distinct difference between leading and managing: managing is overseeing processes and systems while leading means guiding and developing the people who are utilizing the systems and processes. Both are important, but they each require a unique approach to be successful.
Data shows you can spend up to 100 hours a year on problem employees… but the headaches and stress can be all but eliminated with just 10 hours of development time.
In the “business of dentistry” an overload of information is available on reducing overhead, marketing, employment law, streamlining procedures and more. Yet very little takes a deep dive into true leadership, and mostly it’s simply paying lip-service to the concept. In fact, while a dentist is trying to run a practice like any other small business (law firm, tech firm, marketing agency), developing employees and culture are pushed aside or dismissed altogether as unnecessary. Why is that? Many of the common reasons I hear are:
“We are a dental office, there’s no reason to develop people for any other job here.”
“I’m too busy seeing patients and dealing with the business to do this – I don’t have time.”
“Team members just need to do their job and everything will run fine.”
You have the technical skills, the drive to succeed and a vision of what you want to create, but you need a team of people to help you reach your goal. What does that look like? Are you truly prepared to do it? Are you as invested in your employees as you are your business?
For the most part, dentistry still uses the top-down management style that came into vogue 100 years ago. In almost every other industry that ship sailed a long, long time ago. The business model of leadership which embraces employee development while holding them accountable for their work habits has shown to be much more profitable and rewarding. And this generation of workers now expect it. So what does leading today actually look like and how can it be implemented in a busy, patient-centric, task-oriented dental practice? Here are a few suggestions to get you started:
● First, it’s about you. If you’re serious about learning to be an effective, innovative leader then you need to invest in yourself. There are stacks of leadership resources available online and at the bookstore, as well as coaches who can guide you.
● Secondly, it’s really not about you at all! At its core, leadership and developing an employee is about them.
Telling someone what to do doesn’t leave room for them to learn why. This is their journey, you’re simply the navigation system.
● Establish trust. Let your team know that you’ve decided to invest in them and that you’re not trying to find a backdoor way into exposing their faults or a tattling session on other employees. At the outset, if this is a new methodology for you, be prepared for some skepticism.
In short order, however, employees will come to value the attention and investment you’re making in them.
● Keep your expectations high and known. Your behavior – whether overt or subliminal – is what your team will model.
● Be transparent. If there is a problem in the business, name your concern to the team. The likelihood is everyone either already knows or is wondering about it. Voicing it openly will allow them to not only breathe a collective sigh of relief, but work collaboratively to try and rectify the situation.
● Schedule 5-10 minutes weekly with every employee to discuss their progress: Come prepared and honor that time commitment to them (resist the urge to pop in a last minute patient – that devalues your commitment). Consider this an opportunity to connect and develop areas that need attention, but don’t point fingers.
These meetings are not the time to discuss interpersonal conflict: “problem” conversations are absolutely separate.
Instead, these are meaningful, development sessions utilizing open-ended questions which provides an opportunity for them to ponder how their actions – good or bad – affect the business, the team and themselves. As an ongoing process, your investment in their personal growth keeps them engaged, connected and accountable.
● Don’t fall into the pressure cooker trap. Allowing smallish concerns to build up without making mention of them serves no one. After a while, as they compound, you may find yourself frustrated, disengaged and ready to either terminate or fall into complacency with an employee who otherwise might have made the necessary changes had you simply raised the issue in real-time. Those weekly meetings you’re having are the time to delve into them. This “mention” can happen as a 1-minute, one-way conversation in a hallway: “Mary, I’ve noticed twice this week you’ve forgotten to have a case ready.” No need to discuss it further. When your scheduled meeting occurs, you can then say, “Remember when I spoke to you about that lab case situation? I’m not sure what caused the mistakes but how do you think it affects patient care or the rest of the team?”
There’s most definitely a method to the conversations you’re going to have with your team and while this is nowhere near a comprehensive list of things needed to effectively guide and lead, let’s talk about the benefits of embracing a leadership-driven dental practice.
1. Your team will know that you value them. If you are consistent in your endeavors, they will respond by working on themselves which translates into a higher level of performance.
2. Your patients will reap the benefits. Not only will mistakes decrease, but the level of care they receive will increase.
Consider this: a disgruntled employee who feels undervalued is more likely to be brusque and inattentive. Palpable tension isn’t felt only by teammates, your client feels it as well.
3. Staff change occurs less frequently. Usually turnover in a well-lead business happens due to a change in circumstance (like relocation) or sometimes an employee self-limits simply because they refuse to adapt and grow.
4. You will find a sense of relief knowing you’ve got your finger situated firmly on the pulse of your most valuable resource.
Data shows that a leader/manager can spend up to 100 hours A YEAR on a problematic employee when the time spent at work dealing with them, at home thinking about them and discussing the issue with family, friends and colleagues is totaled up. Now, compare that to the 10 hours of development time you can instead spend over the course of the same 365 days all without the worry and headaches – reaping the benefits of a high performing team member. We each have approximately 40 hours of work weekly and the quality of those hours matter.
Investing in the people you employ and manage simply makes good business sense. Rather than leading by cause and effect, why not affect the cause?