The power of purpose

March 1, 2008
Power consists in one’s capacity to link his will with the purpose of others, to lead by reason and a gift of cooperation.

by Linda V. Zdanowicz

Power consists in one’s capacity to link his will with the purpose of others, to lead by reason and a gift of cooperation.
— Woodrow Wilson

How many times have you sat at your desk and wondered when your practice will become what you most deeply want it to be? It can sometimes be frustrating to be in charge — to have created something from nothing, but to feel constrained by the will of others. If you’ve ever felt like this, there is a solution. You can take your imperfect, unfinished creation and turn it into the dream practice you’ve always wanted. But first, you have to figure out what that is: You may need to revisit and develop your vision for your practice.

A clear and compelling vision to share with everyone in the practice gives you and your team direction. Without it, the best you can hope for is just to make it through the day without any major problems — and then return day after day for more of the same, while still hoping things will get better. Hope is good, but it is too uncertain to live a life by or run a practice on. Hope is all about wishes and desires. It is noble but, by itself, unpredictable. A clear vision gives you the confidence to make your dream a reality and the freedom to state your purpose and invite others to join you.

Yesterday I was a dog. Today I’m a dog. Tomorrow I’ll probably still be a dog. Sigh! There’s so little hope for advancement.
— Snoopy

Poor Snoopy was right, given his way of thinking. He was just a dog, and dogs don’t have too many choices. He certainly didn’t seem to have the gift of a clear, imaginative vision. In his mind, he was what he was, and what he’d continue to be. But you and I do have choices, and we have the ability to develop a powerful vision for our futures and practices. Think back to when you were in dental school and remember all the excitement and apprehension you felt about your future. Back then you really didn’t know what your practice would become. Is it still that way? If so, then remember this — you open new doors to your future, your happiness, and your contentment when you dare to look clearly at what you have, decide what you will keep, and determine what you want to develop.

One way to do this is to be very open with your staff. Tell them what you need and expect from them and see how they react. Be positive; be supportive; but be true to your highest vision of what your work together can be. Once you have firmly established your vision in your own mind, have a staff meeting and let them know what you’re thinking. Tell them where you want the practice to go and ask them to go with you. You may be surprised; people really do tend to live up to our expectations. Let them know how much you appreciate and value them, and how excited you are for them to join you in taking the practice to its next level. When you send the message that you trust your team to help you attain the practice of your vision, they may well become more energized and enthusiastic than you’ve ever seen them before.

Nevertheless, let’s be completely honest. It’s possible that some people may not initially be all that excited about your vision. Human beings react in varied and interesting ways to the idea of change. I emphasize that word because it’s the unknown they’re resisting, not the change itself. Once the change begins to happen, they may lead the cheering section and even take the ball and run with it, so don’t count them out based on their initial reactions.

Once you begin working toward your vision, don’t let anyone hold you back. At that point, if any staff member is still having issues with your practice vision, a heart-to-heart discussion may be in order. You may find, together, that this is no longer the right practice for that person. It may be the best thing to happen for both of you. A person in the wrong place will never be able to relax and feel comfortable. We spend so much time with each other in our practices that it’s essential we feel at home. An employee who can’t fully share the new vision will eventually become like the relative who comes to visit and stays too long. Everyone feels it, including the relative, and that’s not good for anyone. Your working relationship doesn’t have to end in unpleasant recrimination or accusations; you can simply acknowledge that something else awaits both of you. Then you can sincerely help your associate transition into his or her best next adventure.

I believe most people are basically good and want to be noble and serve a higher purpose. Things go wrong when there is no one to guide or show the way, which results in no clear purpose. Think about how often you hear of dental teams buzzing about an issue they perceive as unfair. Perhaps it’s a staff debate about paid time off or salaries, or the dentist is concerned because staff members are clocking in early, only to sit and drink coffee and read the paper. This all stems from a lack of firm leadership and an absence of shared purpose. When there is a clear and compelling vision to focus on, employees don’t need constant reminders of their responsibilities because they feel a strong sense of direction and purpose. The person in the primary leadership role, whether it’s the doctor or practice manager, must be confident in his or her leadership and must earn the influence needed with the team. People can’t commit to uncertainty and they won’t follow someone who isn’t sure about where to go.

What do you do — and why?

The first sure step toward building a team is when the dentist develops and shares his or her vision for the practice. It builds trust and allows everyone to share in something important to you. You’re telling them what you’re committing yourself and your future to and inviting them to help you achieve it. You are asking them to join their future with yours in a specific and exciting new way.

At such a juncture you must make it clear that, from now on, some things will be different, you’ll be different, and you’ll expect some different things from each team member. It’s also necessary to stress to everyone the new benefits you’ll all receive from successfully implementing your vision. That’s what will spark their enthusiasm for the journey. Employees who want to be part of a team with vision and purpose will rise to the occasion. They will appreciate that you trust them with your reputation, your livelihood, your vision of the future, and your patients. It brings to mind the story of the stonecutter. As the story goes, a traveler came upon some men who were working with stone. He asked the first one what he was doing. “I am a stonecutter. I am cutting stones,” he replied. The traveler asked the next man the same question. He said, “I am a stone cutter. I am making money to support my family.” Finally he asked a third man who said, “I am a stonecutter. I am building a cathedral.” In the purpose lies the nobility of the work.

How would you answer that question? Would you say, “I am a dentist, I work on teeth.” Or, “I am a dentist. I make enough money to pay my staff and support my family.” How does this sound: “I am a dentist. My team and I use our skills and talents to help our patients enjoy life with healthy, pain-free mouths and smiles that can do great good in the world. Because of what we do, they can eat a variety of wonderful, nutritious foods that will help keep them in good overall health. I enjoy working with my team and we make it a point to grow together as people and professionals in knowledge and skill. We have built a practice that I am proud of.”

Here is another way to consider the impact a change in vision can have on the culture of your practice. Think about drug-infested, high-crime neighborhoods. It takes just one person to say, “I’ve had enough. I believe we can make our lives and our surroundings better. I’m tired of waiting for someone else to fix it. I don’t want to just hope for that to come someday. I see a better future for myself and my family and I’m going to work to make it happen.” This person’s group tells others about the vision and they begin to do things differently. Still more catch the vision and they join them. Things will then change, perhaps slowly at first, but once everyone sees that something better is taking shape, other leaders emerge. People start to take ownership in the situation and have a new pride in what they’re building. Before you know it, they become protective of what they’ve built and come to love it, and God help anyone who tries to harm what they cherish. What was bad can become good, and for that matter, what was ordinary can become extraordinary. Neighborhoods, schools, and businesses can experience a leap forward because of one person’s clear and compelling vision. It can be that way for your practice, too.

Once your team understands that great service is actually a definitive use of their talents and a worthy way to spend their lives, they will enjoy doing whatever they can to assist you and their teammates in building something extraordinary. They will stop caring who gets the credit or who’s the “favorite.” More important things are at stake. They’ll enjoy the synergy of working together to achieve something greater than they could ever accomplish independently. They will look at you with new eyes because you have grown and they will respect you for it. You will look at them and see a team that comes together every day to join you in building and sustaining the practice of your dreams — the practice of your vision. You will appreciate in new ways what they are offering you, and they will value and cherish what you are sharing with them. That is the heart of the great practice, the heart of the extraordinary team, the heart of your highest and best purpose. That is where the real power lies. And that is how cathedrals are built.

Linda V. Zdanowicz, CDA, CDPMA, has been involved in dentistry since 1977. She has worked for Jeff Price, DDS, for eight years, first as his chairside assistant and currently as his practice administrator and patient care coordinator. Zdanowicz writes a dental practice management weblog titled Exceptional Dental Practice Management ( She is married with three children, and lives and works in Hendersonville, N.C.

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