Do You Need a Guru or Mentor?

Feb. 1, 1997
Some years ago, I attended a practice management seminar where the speaker said that dentistry had more management consultants than any other profession. I was uncomfortable with that.

Barry Polansky, DMD

Some years ago, I attended a practice management seminar where the speaker said that dentistry had more management consultants than any other profession. I was uncomfortable with that.

My grandfather was a grocer, and my father was a cab driver. They did pretty well without the help of management consultants. They made good livings, raised healthy families, and never appeared overly stressed. They weren`t rich, but they had the freedom that came with running their own businesses.

Business is business after all. After spending a small fortune on practice management over the past 23 years, I have begun to contemplate why there is such a tremendous need for management consultants in dentistry.

Feeding a Boom Industry

How did dentists, including myself, lose their common sense? Why do we need these management consultants to teach us what we already know?

I`ll tell you why! Fear and greed. It usually is one of these two basic emotions that invite us to seek the help of a management consultant or, at the very least, buy the latest book on management. It is fear and greed that has created one of the biggest boom industries of modern times.

Statistics tell us that four out of five management books that are sold are not read. If you`ve spent as much money and time as I have on practice management, I`m sure you`ll agree that most of the material that is taught and written about, comes under the heading of "things my father taught me or just plain common sense."

I am not so arrogant to suggest that we can`t be helped by good advice. I think, however, that we should enter into a relationship of learning - motivated not by fear or greed, but rather a desire to learn dentistry. This desire should be fueled by a passion for life and dentistry. Only then will we get the most out of this learning relationship.

The very best teachers are the ones who provide their students with a way to get through life. There is truth to the old saying, "When the student is ready, the teacher will appear." Before entering the relationship, the dentist should know exactly what it is that he expects. He should set goals and measure the teacher`s performance.

In today`s chaotic world, many self-appointed gurus are willing to give their guidance. They bring order to the chaos - for a price. The Sanskrit word "guru" means, "one who brings light out of darkness." Since there are no schools for gurus, they are self-appointed just like politicians.

I believe that most (but not all) of those who call themselves gurus have a certain arrogance that makes them intolerant of criticism. They possess a "my way or the highway" attitude. They thrive on fear factors. They predict that, when doomsday finally comes to dentistry, only those who have followed their path will be saved.

The dogmatic fundamentalism of gurus can be nauseating. But to those who are seeking truth in the wrong places, the distinction between a true saint or master and a trickster or con man may be very difficult to see. Many dentists are emotionally and financially exploited by these so-called gurus.

Eastern thought always has paid great respect to the concept of gurus: Obedience to one`s master. In the West, most philosophy is based on more independent thought: To break free from the teacher. The Western interpretation of the aforementioned expression would be "when the student is ready, the teacher will disappear." That is why I always have been in favor of mentorship.

The Best People Are Close By

Mentor today has come to mean any advisor, role model, or guide in our journey through life. Although many dentists have thrived on a mentor-mentee relationship, I feel that it is sorely lacking in our profession. If more professionals would take advantage of this opportunity, then maybe our industry would not be open to the false prophets who have proclaimed their guru status. During tough financial times, many management consultants come out of the woodwork and feed off of the fear.

Where does one find a mentor? Probably not from advertisements.

The key to management is consistency. Many dentists go awry here by continually searching for the "one way" and then never really committing to any particular philosophy.

The best place to find a mentor is probably right in your own backyard. There are many excellent, successful dentists practicing in small towns and neighborhoods all over the country. Most would love to help teach another dentist the ropes. For free. There are many ways to find them. Ask your laboratory technician. They know who the better practitioners are. Better yet, go to the lab and look at the work on the bench. Ask your lab to set up a meeting with that dentist. Your lab technician, if you respect him, also can become your mentor, and vice-versa.

How about friends and family? Seek out successful members of your family who share circumstances with you. Do you have a successful businessperson in your family? How about a financial consultant or, a family counselor? Remember certain aspects of dental practice are shared with other businesses. Many service businesses share characteristics.

Study clubs are an excellent place to meet and develop mentoring relationships. Study clubs should create a mission to provide education and community to its members. This is a good place to develop a network of like-minded dentists that can become a multi-mentoring group.

But my favorite source of mentors is "the ghosts," that imaginary counsel of people that you have admired all of your life. We all have them, role models that appear to us at our darkest moments to give us sound and reassuring advice.

Many speakers preach about how easy it is to be successful in dentistry. They talk about improving self-esteem as if life were a Nike ad. "Just do it," they say.

If it were that easy then our profession wouldn`t have so many problems. As I get older, I am constantly reminded of just how difficult dentistry can be. Friends and colleagues that I hear about routinely fall victim to drug abuse, sexual maladies, mental illness, family, and financial or legal problems.

I believe mentorship can help save the careers of many dentists. If it becomes widespread enough, it can ideally save the entire profession.

There is one more point that I think I should make. We all don`t just need work, but we need important work. When my grandfather sold milk in his grocery store, he was not just selling milk. He was helping to provide food for families in his neighborhood. When my father drove his cab, he was getting people to work or church on time. When I delivered newspapers as a kid, I was bringing the news to the people. As dentists, we should never let anyone reduce the importance of what we do. I learned that from my greatest mentor - my father.

The author practices in Cherry Hill, N.J.

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