Using high-tech tools to find your perfect match

No, we're not talking about chat rooms or online dating services. We're talking about using the Internet to find the perfect person for you ... at your practice.

by Dr. Jerry Willbur

Now that we are entering the new age of high-tech digital dentistry, we are still faced with an age-old problem — how do we attract, retain, and motivate the right people? With the specialized training called for in high-tech digital dentistry, the individual performer becomes not only more productive, but is also an expensive investment you have made in your patients and practice. But while we spend months deliberating which digital X-ray machine to purchase, we often take only a minimal amount of time (or even delegate the task to someone else!) when we acquire a new employee on our team. In defense of dentists, this is not unique to dentistry. The correct selection of talent is a difficult task, and can seem like a mystery to most practical people. Fortunately, there are some new strategies — and some that could even be called high-tech talent strategies — that are available to help us make better decisions in this critical area.

Before you launch into a high-tech talent solution, there are a few low-tech basics you should complete that will provide a good foundation for the high-tech tools. You should have a very clear-cut job description, listing the most critical performance areas for the position. You should also determine what eligibility issues — education, certifications, etc. — are necessary for the position. Then comes the most difficult part — you should determine the "suitability" factors you want in a team member with whom you will probably spend more time than with your own family members. These suitability factors have to do with attitude and attributes. For example, if you have a fast-moving, digitally oriented, customer-centered office, you should be looking for people who are up-tempo, continuous learners who like computers and are people-oriented. This is what is called building a talent template or a performance portrait of the ideal candidate.

This construction of job description and talent template will give you a clear idea of what type of person you want. They are also important components of the selection process, since you should never depend on any instrument alone to make your decision. Plus, the better instruments will ask you to design profiles of traits you want in a good candidate, and the job description and talent template will greatly assist you in that task.

So now that you have these basics covered, what should you look for in a good high-tech talent tool? It should be user-friendly and measure things that really matter. We could discuss a wide array of instruments, but for the sake of brevity I will instead feature only two that, while they are distinctly different in approach, have a high-technology flavor and meet the two simple criteria above.

One easy-to-use and inexpensive tool is the StrengthsFinder Profile by Selection Research Institute, a division of the Gallup Organization (www. strengthsfinder.com). A great description of the tool can be found in the book, "Now Discover Your Strengths" by Marcus Buckingham and Donald Clifden, published in 2002. For the price of the book, you can take the StrengthsFinder Profile and discover your major themes or strengths. What do they mean by themes? According to Gallup, themes are areas of talent where you have the greatest potential for finding your strengths. They list 34 major themes and, after you take the survey, they will print out online your top five "signature themes" that act as a filter on your world and consistently influence your actions. Obviously, for the price of the book for each employee, you can get a good reading for what type of strength profile each person has.

Why is this important? According to an extensive Gallup poll cited in the book, only 20 percent of employees working in the surveyed organizations felt their strengths were in play every day. In other words, 80 percent felt underutilized. This is because most organizations are operated based on two flawed assumptions — every person can learn to be competent in anything if they try hard enough, and each person's greatest potential for development is in his or her areas of greatest weakness. However, the researchers state you must discover and build upon a person's unique set of strengths to get him or her in the right position and receive maximum performance.

I have found this tool to be simple to use, quick, relatively inexpensive, and conducive to in-depth discussions about what our best themes should be for each position in the dental office. According to the authors, "The StrengthsFinder Profile was designed to help you sharpen your perception. It presents you with pairs of statements, captures your choices, sorts them, and reflects back your most dominant patterns of behavior, thereby highlighting where you have the greatest potential for real strength." You can find a lot of useful information on the Web site, and I am sure the Gallup people would be willing to let you invest in a more in-depth analysis if you so choose!

Simple, quick, and easy are good guidelines, but what if we really take to heart the idea that adding a staff member to your team is like bringing someone into the family? The disruption to team unity, customer service, and even the standard of care caused by a bad selection is horrendous. Add to this lost training time and reduced productivity while the new replacement person is brought up to speed, and you have sunk a lot of money into the situation. To put an exact price tag on it is difficult, but many experts say that, for even the most basic position, the real price of a bad hiring decision is at least equal to a year's pay. The cost of a bad decision in choosing a partner dentist is easily multiple times this. How do you avoid such a traumatic loss of time and treasure?

The deceptively simple answer is to analyze the position carefully, take an honest, deep look at your practice and team, then look for an instrument with high validity and reliability. Since this is not a treatise on testing, I will give you some quick and easy definitions of validity and reliability. Validity says that the instrument measures what it says it measures. Reliability, often described as test-retest reliability, basically measures whether the test will measure whatever it measures with a high level of consistency. These two factors are legally important in case you are ever challenged on a hiring decision — even though every available instrument says you should never use it to make hiring or firing decisions, only as part of the input you use in making decisions.

In studying various instruments, I have not found another one with the high validity and reliability of the Harrison Innerview (HI). It has more than 85 percent test-retest reliability, and close to 90 percent validity based on several studies. You can check the HI out at the general Web site or, if you want a dental perspective, check out www.masterdentistinstitute.com. The HI measures more than 80 different "suitability" factors relating to four general areas — personality traits, task references, interests, and work environment preferences. According to the Web site and training manual, "A person who is suitable for a position tends to enjoy the different tasks that are required; is very interested in the work areas; has a high tolerance for the type of work environment; has the proper attitudes and motivations to perform competently; enjoys the type of interpersonal interactions and decision-making required for the position; and does not possess negative traits that could hinder his/her productivity."

The instrument generally takes 25-35 minutes to take online, although there is no time limit. It is comprised of a series of rankings of activities exploring a person's work preferences. What do they prefer doing most? What do they prefer doing least? It is a deceptively simple process that provides an in-depth look at the preferences and strengths of the person. What you get is a very detailed report on close to 100 basic traits, task preferences, interests, work environmental preferences, behavioral competencies, and generic position ratings. More specifically, you will get a reading on how well the person communicates, how optimistic and outgoing he or she is, how self-motivated, persistent, flexible and helpful he or she is, and how oriented he or she is to computers and self-improvement, among many other insights. The HI also provides a built-in truth detector so you can see just how consistently the person answered the questionnaire.

The only drawback to this more in-depth approach is the cost. Because it is a licensed online tool, and because of its underlying complexity and the sheer amount of information available, when you use the HI, you also need to have it interpreted by a certified Harrison Innerview consultant. Since these are professionals, and since preparing the debrief takes a couple of hours, you are looking at approximately $500 a person.

Is it worth it? The next time you make a personnel decision, remember, in some ways you are betting the practice. Why not use the high-tech talent tools to minimize your risk and maximize your return? How could using a tool like the Harrison pay for itself? Let's take a look at a major event in any practice, such as adding a partner or taking on an associate. I don't have figures available to me but, from talking to many dentists at seminars and in their offices, I discern that more than half of these decisions do not work out to each person's mutual benefit. Much of the effectiveness hinges on personality factors. Successful partners do not have to be alike. In fact, this can create clashes for some personality traits, but they have to have respect for each other's differences or at least a high level of tolerance.

Let's take work speed as an example. Some people have a high preference for doing everything quickly. A high-tempo person with a high need for precision can be very successful in dentistry, especially "bread and butter" dentistry. However, a person can also be successful being a low-tempo individual, preferring to work at a deliberate pace. Combined with a high need for precision, this person can almost be accused of meticulous perfectionism. He or she would need to work more with cases and patients who demand a lot of time and deliberate attention. Two such different dentists working in the same office could create tremendous tension among staff and with the office manager — unless the issues were thought through and roles clearly delineated. It doesn't mean either approach is wrong or right, but to coexist in the same partnership could cause a lot of confusion. A high-tempo person tends to perceive a low-tempo person as being slow. A low-tempo person tends to view a high-tempo person as being hasty. Any staff members who have to work with both have a tendency to choose sides and add to the tension.

Another major pitfall for partnerships is communication. Not in the amounts of information shared, but the style in which it is shared. Some people are very frank, very direct, and to the point. Others place a high value on being tactful or diplomatic. While excellent communicators can skillfully employ high degrees of both traits, most people tend to emphasize one over the other. The frank person can come across as blunt or intolerant to the highly tactful or diplomatic communicator. The diplomatic individual can come across as dithering or indecisive to the frank person. As each continues to aggravate the other, their communications bandwidth shrinks until they can barely communicate with each other. Each person is convinced their style of communication is correct and, until they respect that there are many ways to communicate and that incorporating some of both gives them greater flexibility, an explosive situation can develop. Wouldn't it be wonderful if everyone had a low need for diplomacy, a low need for frankness, a high tolerance for evasiveness and a high tolerance for bluntness (giving us a wide open communications bandwidth)? Unfortunately, unless we clearly understand how others prefer to communicate, communications continues to be a volatile minefield waiting to blow up relationships.

I could explore many other areas of potential havoc, but let's look at one last area that contributes to much of the trouble in shared offices. Since an office manager and staff are shared, differences in leadership style between dentists can become an issue. Some people have a style that is very authoritarian and minimally collaborative. They want to make all the decisions. Others have a collaborative style, with minimal emphasis on being authoritative. The best leader obviously combines the two, seeking involvement and input, but ultimately taking responsibility for the decisions. Most dentists, like most managers, fall either under the more authoritative or more collaborative approach and don't have a good balance. When two authoritative individuals inhabit the same small space, without mutual respect, sparks can fly. When two collaborators inhabit the same office, often nothing flies as each defers to the other. In either situation, the office manager and staff are caught in the middle, which creates conflict and stress. If one dentist is primarily authoritative, and the other primarily collaborative, the situation can be tolerable U until the collaborative person finally resists the constant "domineering" of the authoritative person.

At one time or another, most of us have found ourselves in one of these situations. What can be done? I believe that the first step to solving a problem is defining it clearly, then analyzing it to determine the contributing factors. The Harrison Innerview is an excellent way to bring these areas of contention out into the open. Then, an open discussion about different styles can lead to mutual respect, or at least to mapping out a process for improvement. In some cases, conflict, especially if it has festered too long, cannot be resolved. However, I have found that if people can recognize a problem and respect differences, especially when a split could be professionally and financially prohibitive, an amicable solution is possible. If people really want to solve a problem, I believe it can be solved.

While the use of such high-tech talent tools can't solve all of our problems, they can certainly help shed new light on the biggest challenge in dentistry. If we can get the right people doing the right things the right way, the rest of the issues can be handled. Choosing the right partner or the right associate, or learning to work with the one you have, is not easy but it is necessary.

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