How a practice vision can guide the new dentist to success

Dec. 1, 2007
Allison Farey, president of Matsco, has more than 25 years experience in the equipment leasing and financial services industry.

by Allison Farey

Allison Farey, president of Matsco, has more than 25 years experience in the equipment leasing and financial services industry. For more information about Matsco’s Practice Financing and Practice Success™ Program, call (800) 326-0376 or visit www.matsco.com.

It led our young democracy to defeat the British and enabled Winston Churchill to inspire the Allied Forces to victory. It energizes scientists, artists, and entrepreneurs. And Roosevelt demonstrated it when he calmed the country through his actions and in his 1933 speech, “The only thing to fear is fear itself.” And it is just as important to the new practitioner. "It" is vision!

Why is having a vision so important? Dr. Ashish Patel is a textbook example of how a strong practice vision can lay the groundwork for success. Prior to establishing his practice in 2001, he worked as a staff dentist in a large, corporate practice. Back then, he often dreaded going to work.

“Something was missing,” he says. “The high volume of patients was taking its toll. I wanted a more personal relationship with my patients.”

Dr. Patel knew he had to make a dramatic change. He thought long and hard about what he wanted for his career and realized that he wasn’t cut out for corporate dentistry. So he developed a practice vision that supported his passion, assembled a team of experts to assist him, and established his own start-up. In the first month he had 55 new patients and he hired his first full-time hygienist in just one year. Today, six years later, his practice is thriving, with 35 new patients monthly in a strictly fee-for-service practice.

What’s a vision and why do you need one?

For a new dentist, it’s easy to get so caught up in technology, clinical issues, and the daily business of dentistry that you fail to make a far-reaching appraisal of your unique desires and dreams. By creating a guiding vision, young doctors are forced to look beyond their current realities and imagine what they want their practices to look like 10 or 20 years ahead.

Creating a vision goes beyond setting objectives such as “attain gross production of $800,000 in 10 years” or “retire at 55.” Those are important goals, but they do not constitute a vision. Your vision should speak to who you are now, where you want to go, and what ignites your passion about dentistry.

A vision should paint a compelling picture of your future practice and guide you in getting there by helping you stay on track. It should be more expansive than a set of marketing goals and should appeal to staff members at every level of your practice, from the receptionist to the hygienist.

A guiding vision can offer other benefits as well. Having worked with dentists for many years, I’ve seen how an inspiring and well-articulated vision — and the determination to live up to that vision — can transform a good clinician into a great leader. It can provide you and your staff with the energy and long-term focus needed to guide a practice through good times and bad. Also, by giving the staff the opportunity to feel their work makes a difference, the practitioner can build tremendous loyalty. And employees who share your guiding vision will not have to be micro-managed. Guided by your vision and leadership, they will be employees who do the right thing, rather than just “do things right,” regardless of whether you’re looking over their shoulders.

The process of creating a practice vision requires you to deeply explore your natural energies, desires, and inclinations. What attracted you to dentistry? What are your strengths and weaknesses, professionally and personally? Do you like working in a group or do you prefer to go it alone? There are also practical considerations. What kinds of patients do you want to treat? What kind of dentistry do you want to practice? What kind of practice do you want to have?

Having a firm practice vision early in your career can save costly mistakes. If you’re purchasing an existing practice, for instance, do the doctor and staff share your vision? If not, you may have difficulties managing that staff and maintaining the patient base. Is your heart in practicing family dentistry? If so, then perhaps the office space in that upscale mall isn’t right for you.

Most important, what can you bring to dentistry that is different from other practices in your area? At Matsco, our success has been built on developing the distinct benefits we offer as a company, rather than trying to emulate the competition. As a dentist, you have something unique to offer your patients, possibly in your background, interests, or point of view. So rather than trying to imitate the competition, it’s important to identify and build on those qualities.

How a mentor can help

When your experience barely extends beyond dental school, you may not be fully aware of your capabilities, and envisioning your future may be difficult. Or perhaps you have a clear vision but feel too intimidated to take that first step into the new territory of practice ownership. That’s why so many successful doctors I know attribute their success to relationships with mentors.

Dr. Patel, for example, relied on mentors to help him pursue his dream of practice ownership. “Prior to beginning my practice, my vision was clear, but I needed encouragement.” Today, he lectures pro bono on leadership and clinical topics, as well as advises other doctors on how to support their visions.

After graduating from dental school, Dr. William Vitalie identified his ideal practice by spending time in other practices. “Prior to starting my first practice, I visited established practices monthly to observe what made them successful,” says Dr. Vitalie. “Then I developed guidelines for my own practice. I recognized that I did not want to isolate myself from other dentists. So I committed myself to establishing a group practice.”

With 25 years of practice experience now behind him, Dr. Vitalie says his mentors and peers helped him develop and work toward his practice vision. Today he is president of an eight-office, multi-specialty group practice in Pittsburgh.

In addition to a mentor, a young doctor might also benefit from working with a dental management consultant in developing a practice vision. That individual can guide you by asking pertinent questions.

First steps

Explore your past experiences in dental offices. What did you like? What didn’t you like? How could you make it better?

What does your ideal practice look like? Don’t be afraid to aim high as long as your vision reflects who you are. If you already have a practice, consider gathering input from staff members about their past experiences.

When you have a draft, ask your staff to review it with you. While it’s important to remember that it’s your dream, you’ll need them to help make that dream reality. For that reason, work toward creating a vision that resonates with everyone on your staff.

Of course, it also helps to work with an outside consultant who is skilled in developing visions. In addition to experience, he or she can offer an unbiased professional viewpoint.

Your practice vision — use it or lose it!

Once you’re satisfied with your vision, it’s important to treat it as if it were a living entity that must be nurtured in order to flourish. Living your vision — rather than merely printing it on an office poster — can mean the difference between passion and cynicism among staff members. A good practice management consultant will tell you to breathe life in your vision by reinforcing and rephrasing it throughout the workday.

Remind employees of your vision at your morning huddle and refer to it when making decisions at all levels of the practice. Use it to remind staff of what they are trying to achieve, especially when you need to motivate and inspire during difficult times. Apply it during employee interviews to assess whether an individual shares your goals and philosophies and as part of a new hire’s training session. Also, keep in mind that many young staff members may not have formed their own vision and can benefit from your leadership. Employees of every age will be inspired and energized.

Like any living thing, your practice vision also must grow to thrive. The dental industry is evolving rapidly and your professional and personal goals are also likely to change through the years. For that reason, it’s important to reevaluate your vision periodically to ensure that it continues to inspire and energize you.

Dr. Vitalie ensures that he continues to grow professionally by mentoring young dentists, teaching, joining professional affiliations, and taking continuing education courses. “Renewal is crucial,” he says. “I fuel my growth by interacting with other practitioners. This has helped me keep my vision dynamic.”

Dr. Ashish Patel feels developing and living a strong practice vision has helped him stay energized and retain a top-notch staff. “When you’re happy, the staff is happy and the practice does well.”

Taking the time now to define and articulate the unique passions and talents you bring to dentistry will set you on a path toward a rewarding career. Next month in this column, we’ll explore how to create an effective business plan that will help you connect your vision to the present.

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