Part 3 of 4 -- The many HATS of dentistry

Aug. 1, 2003
The leadership hat is the most influential one that dentists wear. Very often it also is the least comfortable one. Why? Because success in leadership requires excellent communication skills; it also requires intangible qualities — like charisma — for motivating and influencing others. These skills are counter to those that most clinicians possess.

by James R. Pride, DDS, Amy Morgan, and Alan Dalessandro, DDS

The leadership hat is the most influential one that dentists wear. Very often it also is the least comfortable one. Why? Because success in leadership requires excellent communication skills; it also requires intangible qualities — like charisma — for motivating and influencing others. These skills are counter to those that most clinicians possess. But wouldn't you love for your staff to put their hearts and souls into their work and run your office as a unified, self-directed team so that you can do what you love — dentistry?

"I try to delegate everything," says Dr. Alan Dalessandro, a periodontist and Pride alumnus in Hoffman Estates, Ill., a suburb of Chicago. "The team runs the systems, and all I do is the dentistry." This is every dentist's dream - to practice dentistry unencumbered by business problems, staff conflicts, and office stress, and to have an impassioned staff that works seamlessly together and gives 110 percent to the practice.

"It wasn't always this way," relates Dr. Dalessandro, who is fondly referred to as "Doc" by his team. "When I started practicing in 1979, I knew dentistry, but I had no idea how to work with people. Decisions were made not by me, but by highly directive staff members. There was a lot of dissension because there was no central figure or direction. People did their jobs the way they had learned in other practices. Then, they would leave and be replaced by others who did things differently. As a result, our systems were chaotic, which was very stressful."

Unhappy with this situation, Dr. Dalessandro turned to Pride Institute for comprehensive leadership training and coaching. Twenty years later, here's what his dental team has to say:

"This office is the most professional practice I've ever worked in ... Doctor listens to the staff's concerns and is very appreciative of our efforts ... We're constantly in tune with each other."

"The doctor is an incredible teacher, mentor, and friend. He makes me feel like I can do anything. I'm a very changed person from when I started. I feel much more confident. I'm a leader now, and I'm not afraid to make mistakes ... There's very low tension here, just a busy office with a lot of variety ... The patients sense that we get along great ..."

"The doctor gives you room to learn. He never talks down to you. I've grown immensely ..., even with the 17 years of dental experience I had before. I've grown in my job skills and in my self-confidence as a person."

This is fact, not fiction. These are the actual comments of treatment coordinator Donna Schebler, surgical dental assistant Angela Bender, and hygienist Judie Guest, respectively, three of Dr. Dalessandro's 10 inspired staff members.

Developing effective leadership

By following the compelling story of Dr. Dalessandro, anyone can transform his or her practice into a happy, productive, and profitable model through leadership. Are you ready?

1. Get your vision and practice philosophy in order. "No one's going to follow a leader who doesn't know where he's going," says Dr. Dalessandro. "So, decide what you want in your practice. How many days do you want to work? What kind of dentistry do you want to do? What sets your practice apart from all other dental offices in your area?" Set your direction, and then develop a written plan to achieve your goals.

2. Get the team on your bus. After presenting your vision and philosophy to your team, you may find that some people may not match or value what you want for your practice. "When I tried to improve things, I lost some people who were comfortable with the old way," says Dr. Dalessandro. "What they wanted was okay, just not in my office, so they had to make the right decision for themselves." Now Dr. Dalessandro and his team spend considerable time getting to know prospective staff members to ensure that each individual personifies the vision, values, and practice philosophy. "Every person hired since that time has been in tune with the new way of thinking, so the team today is much more motivated, and we speak with one voice," he adds.

3. Develop and implement systems. Before Dr. Dalessandro acquired leadership training, his staff had no guidelines, written standards, or procedures. "Take scheduling, for instance," he recalls. "There was no ideal model for patient flow and balance. This was very stressful. And before we implemented huddles and staff meetings, the day was never thought out ahead of time. This created a lot of tension and uncertainty." Dr. Dalessandro and his staff implemented Pride's system of scheduling, including:

o Appointing the hardest procedures in the morning, when the doctor is fresh.
o Scheduling a mix of procedures to make each day profitable and to avoid overtaxing the doctor.
o Timing procedures and assigning the right block of time to each one so that the office runs on schedule.

Improving this particular system to support Dr. Dalessandro's vision of quality care significantly organized the office, reduced stress, and inspired the dentists and team to make further systems changes.

4. Develop the staff to run the systems. Once your systems are in order, and job descriptions and training are in place, you can delegate the systems management to your team. If your staff knows what you want and is competent and confident, then you no longer have to micro-manage your practice. You only have to inspect and acknowledge their results. Then you can move from the managerial role into the leadership role. "I used to do everything myself. I'd even write out insurance claim forms," recalls Dr. Dalessandro. "And I would have to help the staff with the schedule every day. Now I don't do any of that. I just look at the weekly and monthly reports, and we talk about what areas need work and how we can fix them."

Traits of effective leaders

Here are just some of the ways in which Dr. Dalessandro has elevated his staff into leaders. His team performs excellent work with minimal supervision — and they love their jobs.

Pick the right people. Dr. Dalessandro and his team collaborate in all hiring decisions, placing more importance on a positive attitude and a willingness to work than on skills. The time invested in hiring and training pays off, because the practice finds and retains gifted employees who are compatible with its philosophy, such as hygienist Judie Guest, who says: "You feel very secure because the doctor dots all his i's and crosses his t's. That's why I like it here, and I'm not going anywhere else."

Create a safe environment. Dr. Dalessandro has taken the fear out of making mistakes, which frees his staff to enjoy their jobs and to expand in them. Surgical assistant Angela Bender describes this approach: "Doctor and I have this joke about years of indentured servitude. If I drop an instrument during a procedure, he might say, 'five years.' Then I'll say, 'Oh, I thought it was 20.' Or, if he wants to correct me on something, he never screams, or throws instruments, or tells me I did something wrong. He'll say, 'What do you think about doing it this way?' or 'This is how I would have done it. Now, my way isn't always right, but in this case it might help you.'"

Dr. Dalessandro's collaborative approach means that he treats his team members as equals. He encourages them to voice their opinions, which boosts their self-confidence. According to Judie Guest, "Doctor Dalessandro turns a mistake around and you learn from it."

Keep your team informed. Dr. Dalessandro shares statistics with his staff that benchmark the practice's progress. This is a leadership tool called "open-book management." Any problems are addressed collaboratively. Treatment coordinator Donna Schebler remarks, "We have staff meetings about the statistics, so we're constantly in tune. We analyze what we're doing that's successful, so we can do it again. And we quickly address problems, so we can keep meeting our goals. We're always informed, and that's a very comfortable feeling."

Listen to your team's opinions and suggestions. "Many other doctors make all the decisions and don't ask for the hygienist's opinion," says Judie Guest. "But Dr. Dalessandro lets me handle patients more on my own. Their calls come in to me first. I talk to the patients and then talk to the doctor with my recommendations regarding antibiotics and medication, and the doctor listens to my opinion. He's always telling patients, 'Listen to Judie. She's an expert in her field.'"

Help people grow. Dr. Dalessandro is a perpetual student of leadership. He provides his staff with multiple opportunities to expand their skills through new books, periodicals, continuing education, and other resources. Staff members meet with the doctor once a year for a "growth conference" where their achievements and areas for growth are outlined. Dr. Dalessandro's emphasis on continued growth has a powerful effect on the staff. Angela Bender relates, "When the doctor first told me, 'I expect you to be a leader,' I thought his expectations were too high. But I felt challenged by his faith in me. For example, I order all the supplies for the office. I never have to consult with the doctor, unless it's for something very expensive. This is my job, and he lets me do it. I learned from the doctor to write down my goals and to make them happen ... I feel much more confident than I used to."

Have fun. Challenge your team through creativity and competition. Surprise and excite them to new levels of achievement by making the workplace a happy and fun environment. Here are just some of the ways in which Dr. Dalessandro spends time with his team and makes the work fun. All quotations are from his staff:

• The tiara. "We have a tiara that we give to team members who reach their 10-year anniversary with the practice. We have a big party, and the doctor makes a keepsake video of that person while working. I've had the tiara for a few years now and will be passing it on to someone else soon."

• The "wow" rock. "This is a 'pet rock' and we use it to evaluate things. For example, if we exceed our goals for the month, the doctor might get out the wow rock. He'll pass it around, and whoever gets it shares thoughts, feelings, and appreciation for the team. And if some people don't have comments, that's okay too."

• Celebrations. "Just for fun, we celebrated Cinco de Mayo. We brought in a piñata and filled it with dental floss, toothbrushes, and other things in the office. We're like a family here, and the patients love it because we're always smiling."

• Team retreats. "The doctor has a strong belief in building up each individual's self-esteem. At least once a year, we take a half day or more to discuss leadership, personal growth, and goals."

According to Dr. Dalessandro, "If you want the job to be fun, hire people who love their work. If there's an attitude problem, I address it immediately. Dentistry is too hard a job in too small a space for people with poor attitudes."

• Show appreciation. "Doctor Dalessandro is always saying things like, 'It was very good that you caught that,' or 'That was exceptional.' He compliments me in front of the patients."

Don't stop.

A recent illness took Dr. Dalessandro's focus off the practice for a few months, and he was amazed to see it start to slip. He says, "It reminds me of a quote from Dr. Pride: 'The bias in nature is toward the wilderness.' Fortunately, I got things back on track. The biggest mistake I see dentists make is to take leadership training and make improvements, then to drop the ball. You have to keep at it, because no one has more financial investment in the practice and drive than the owner. You can't expect the staff to do it all for you. You have to lead them." Delegate, don't abdicate. Remember, you are part of the team, too!

Dentists must make the commitment to wear the leadership hat solidly on their heads. Dalessandro relates that "Becoming an effective leader is the most powerful thing I ever did. It's had a profound effect on my staff, my patients, and me. My family has also benefited, since I can now solve problems at the office and not bring them home with me. Now I get to enjoy dentistry completely without the stress of the business weighing me down. And I get to touch the lives of the people around me, to see the best in them, and to tap into it. I get to take charge of my own life in a way I never dreamed of before."

For more information on Pride's popular leadership course, "Harnessing Personal Power," and on the management program that has helped thousands of dentists to become effective leaders, call Pride Institute at (800) 925-2600.

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