I didn't go to school to be a leader

You learned a lot in dental school, but becoming a leader is the key to moving yourself from a good dentist to a successful dentist.

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You learned a lot in dental school, but becoming a leader is the key to moving yourself from a good dentist to a successful dentist.

by Nancy Haller, PhD.

In my work with dentists, the comment I hear most is, “I didn’t go to school to be a leader.” It’s true. You went to school to be a dentist. While learning how to extract teeth and administer nitrous oxide, you probably didn’t give much thought to hiring, firing, handling office disputes, or delegating job responsibilities. You focused on learning clinical skills. That’s what a good dentist does, right? Yes. But a successful dentist does more.

Like it or not, you need to be a good leader to have a successful practice. You have to influence people every day. You need to show and tell your employees what you want them to do, and how. You need to guide your patients so they’ll comply with treatment recommendations.

Good leaders have good bottom lines

Studies and personal experience have shown repeatedly that dentists with good leadership skills have good practices, while those with poor leadership skills have underperforming practices. I’ve seen it several times while coaching dental professionals.

One dentist came to me because he wanted to expand into cosmetic dentistry. He had no problem getting referrals; he just couldn’t convert them into treatment acceptances. With high-end dentistry, he had to learn to emphasize what the patient would get out of it, which meant listening carefully to what the patient wanted. In one case, a patient wanted a beautiful smile on her wedding day, and the dentist explained that this was the way to achieve her goal. Soon after, the dentist converted two more referrals into extensive treatment plans. He just needed to brush up on his communication and listening skills, which are crucial to good leadership. After all, leadership is about influencing others effectively.

Another dentist I coached wanted a million dollar practice, but his revenues were stagnant. It turns out he wasn’t helping himself. He believed he should not negatively impact his patients’ finances, so he would recommend a filling when a crown would have been a better long-term solution. Although he is a knowledgeable dentist, he feels responsible for his patient’s oral and fiscal health. But the latter is not his responsibility. His responsibility is to recommend what’s best for the patient’s dental health — period. While his intentions were noble, he was doing his patients a disservice. If a crown is the best solution, a good dentist owes it to his patient to say that. When this dentist learned to focus on advising patients about their oral health and left the financial decisions to them, he felt excited about work again. His stress subsided, and his patients began opting for better care. He’s on his way to a million-dollar practice. He just needed to review and improve his leadership skills.

Unfortunately, you are not taught these skills in dental school. Now it’s up to you to learn them. Some dentists think that learning about leadership or using a professional coach is akin to therapy or worse — personality deconstruction. This is not true. It’s actually like personalized continuing education. You didn’t learn how to perform dentistry on your own, did you? How can you expect to learn other essential skills on your own?

Good leaders are made, not born

If you learned the complicated details of oral physiology, you can learn how to be a good leader. And thanks to recent research, we understand more than ever about how to make good leaders.

I have always had a strong interest in leadership. In addition to being a member of the McKenzie Management team, I am an adjunct faculty member at the internationally recognized Center for Creative Leadership (CCL). Founded more than 35 years ago, CCL is one of the largest institutions in the world that focuses solely on leadership. Its mission is to advance the understanding, practice, and development of leadership for the benefit of society. Staff members conduct leadership-training programs and parlay that income into leadership research.

During the past 13 years, I have worked with a variety of leaders at CCL programs including the CEO of a billion-dollar global corporation, military officers, Fortune 500 managers, and industrial executives. While the arenas in which they and you work are different, your challenges as a dentist are remarkably similar to theirs in several ways:

  1. Experience has proven that executives who remain successful and effective are always learning. They develop a wider range of skills and perspectives so they can adapt to change and be effective in different situations.
  2. The most critical factors for being a successful leader are building relationships, managing change, leading employees, being decisive, and being resourceful.
  3. “Confronting problem employees” was rated as one of the biggest weaknesses of Fortune 500 executives, followed by “career management” and “balance between personal life and work.” Dentists frequently cite the same challenges. The research at CCL has shown that developing leadership skills is an ongoing process. You polish these skills over time through education, challenging situations, and input from others.

The days of the “Do-As-I-Say boss” are gone; even the military now puts its top ranks through leadership training. “Command and control” is no longer a way to influence people. If you lead that way, you’ll pay — literally. You will have staff turnover and patient departures because nobody likes that style.

Good leaders lead themselves

The transition from boss to leader begins by taking a close look at your practice and where you want it to go. This requires an accurate assessment of important leadership skills.

The process starts with you. Although not comprehensive, the following lists 10 areas that are important for contemporary leaders. Rate yourself on each using a scale of one to 10, with one being the lowest and 10 the highest. First choose the number that best describes where your dental practice is now, then choose the number that describes where you would like it to be.

After you’ve rated yourself, ask your employees to rate the practice using the same procedure. Here are the areas:

1) Vision: Is your practice mission clear to staff and patients? The practice mission explains what it hopes to accomplish, for example: “At A-Plus Dental, we aim to provide our patients with the most up-to-date dentistry possible in order to help them achieve their optimum oral health,” or “Terrific Dental’s mission is to provide patients with the best dentistry in the most painless way possible.” Mission statements focus and state practice goals. They alert your team to the practice’s main objectives. Displaying your mission statement so patients can see it lets them know you’re serious about their dental health.

2) Planning: Do employees agree on processes to achieve practice goals? It’s important to have a practice mission, or goal. But if no one knows how to achieve it, is it worth much? Once your practice mission is determined, have your team outline clear to take to achieve those goals.

3) Accountability: Do employees understand their specific duties and responsibilities? They should. A team is not very effective if each member isn’t sure what he or she is supposed to do. Discuss each team member’s responsibilities and duties with him or her, then put them in writing for future referral. As duties change, update the forms.

4) Measurements: Do team members have specific measures to know they are on track to meet their responsibilities and the practice goal? It’s a good idea to establish clear, frequent objectives or “mini goals” for team members. This keeps everyone on track for accomplishing the team’s larger goals. Check on each person’s — and your own — progress regularly. Make adjustments as necessary. Remember, every large goal can be broken down into smaller steps.

5) Communication: Do you consistently share information about decisions, plans, and activities that affect the practice? In order to work effectively and in the best interest of the practice, your team needs to know about any changes that affect their jobs and the practice. Sharing this information makes the staff feel more “ownership” of their work and the practice’s health and goals, and increases their trust.

6) Employee development: Are employee duties delegated effectively and do they help broaden employees’ skills? No employee likes feeling that he or she is doing 90 percent of the work or all the grunt work. When defining each team member’s responsibilities, make sure jobs are delegated evenly, disliked job duties are shared as much as possible, and employees are given responsibilities that will stretch their abilities.

7) Relationships: Do employees respect one another? Admittedly, even the best leader can’t completely control how employees feel about each other; however, you can lead by example. Show respect to employees, listen to their input, don’t play favorites, don’t gossip, compliment or thank them for good work. If you need to discuss their performance, talk to them in private so you show respect for their feelings.

8) Team structure: Do you have the right people, in the right roles, assigned to the right tasks? Hiring well is crucial. When looking for new employees, do background checks (you’d be surprised at how many employers don’t), make sure people you interview understand and are comfortable with their potential job duties, confirm any job experience they say they have, and consider how their personality would blend (or not!) with the other team members. Consider doing pre-employment testing. It’s not only legal, it’s a wise investment. Hiring the wrong person is too expensive.

9) Conflict: Are conflict solutions negotiated through cooperation and collaboration? Do you lead employees to a good resolution by talking to them and hearing their perspectives, or do you make a snap judgment and pronounce, like a king, what the resolution will be? Show your employees respect by listening to their side of the situation. Consider all the facts. Ask them for possible solutions. Sometimes those in the middle of a conflict come up with the best ideas for resolving it.

10) Culture or climate: Do employees appreciate and enjoy working at your practice? Employers often set the tone for their workplace. Are you a grump? Do you have unreasonable expectations? Do you ignore staff concerns? Do you bring your troubles to work every day? Do you take time to greet team members or do you fly in just in time for your first appointment? You have the ability to make your practice a good place to work. Remember, good leaders lead by example.

Following the rating process, compare your responses with your employees’. Look at similarities and differences. This should give you insight into your strengths as well as areas that need improvement. Determine specific steps to enhance the areas that need strengthening and to better your leadership skills. Work with a colleague, mentor, or coach. After three months, repeat this exercise to determine how your actions affected team performance.

Good leadership begins with you. How can you expect your employees to improve their skills and performance if you don’t improve yours? Being a good leader is leading by example. You, your employees, your patients, and your bottom line will benefit.

Dr. Nancy Haller holds a doctorate degree in psychology and served as a Commissioned Officer in the United States Navy. She provides leadership training to dentists nationwide through the Advanced Training Center of McKenzie Management. Reach Dr. Haller at coach@mckenziemgmt.com.


The difference between a leader and a boss

Today you need to be a leader, not a boss — big difference. I think the following piece, written by an unknown author, best describes some of the differences between a successful leader and an ineffective boss:

The boss drives his/her team; the leader coaches them.
The boss depends upon authority; the leader depends upon good will.
The boss inspires fear; the leader inspires enthusiasm.
The boss says “I;” the leader says “we.”
The boss assigns the tasks; the leader sets the pace.
The boss says, “Get here on time;” the leader begins on time.
The boss fixes the flame for the breakdown; the leader fixes the breakdown.
The boss knows how it’s done; the leader shows how it’s done.
The boss makes work drudgery; the leader makes it a game.
The boss says “go;” the leader says “let’s go.”

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