Life Lessons: Reflections from a well-lived life

The year 2011 has special significance for one of dentistry’s most well-respected practice management consultants ...

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by Dianne Glasscoe Watterson, MBA

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The year 2011 has special significance for one of dentistry’s most well-respected practice management consultants and speakers Linda Miles, CSP, CMC. This year marks her Golden Anniversary in dentistry. Her contributions to the client offices she has served, her seminar audiences, and her many friends will be remembered well beyond her lifetime. Certainly, there are valuable lessons to be learned from her business savvy and a life devoted to helping dental professionals.

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Life Lesson No. 1 – Bigger is not always better

Linda’s dental journey began at age 17 as a receptionist in a small dental practice in West Virginia. Since her husband (who was also her high school sweetheart) was a military man, they moved many times over the years. One of those moves was to Richmond, Va. It was there that she moved from assistant to practice administrator.

Her successful business systems brought opportunities to consult with other local practices. This evolved into speaking opportunities. With a $500 loan from a bank and working from a card table in her bedroom, Linda sent brochures announcing her first public seminar.

Over the years, her consulting business grew exponentially to the point that Linda added six more consultants and a large corporate office. All the years of nonstop business travel exacted a physical toll, and at age 55, Linda suffered a ruptured disk in her back. At this point, she knew she had to restructure her life. So she downsized her business dramatically.

“I know the ruptured disc saved my life. There was no way I could have continued the 300,000 miles per year, the 180 day-long speaking and consulting assignments, and preserved my health. It was about this time that I decided the ‘tail was wagging the dog!’ My first thought was, I must get off this roller coaster and back on a productive ferris wheel. My advice now to business owners, including my clients is, “Big is not always better. Lean and clean is.”

Linda teaches about the life cycles of a successful dental practice. Most practices start small, enter a time of rapid growth, hit a plateau, and then enter a period of decline. The growth period can be an exciting time, but growth can also be seductive. In the end, all that matters is what is left after all the bills are paid. The life lesson we can learn is production is not nearly as important as profit. Keeping expenses under control is a key factor in generating profit, and growth may need to be restricted to keep profit healthy.

Life Lesson No. 2 – Have a strong management foundation

The sound, business principles that Linda has taught during her entire career have not changed. Dental practices need to be financially healthy to remain viable, and doctors need to learn how to exercise sound business principles. Some of those key principles include:

  • Have a budget, and stick to it.
  • Earmark the budget to prepare for the slower times.
  • Manage your schedule, or it will manage you.
  • Understand your practice overhead. The three big categories are staff salaries (20%-24%), dental supplies (6%-8%), and lab fees (8%-10%).
  • Have a written financial policy that all staff members understand.
  • You have to spend money to make money, but spend wisely to get the highest return on investment.
  • Time spent working on the business is just as important as time spent working in the business.
  • Don’t spend more than you take in, and don’t allow debt to grow until it keeps you awake at night.
  • Take all your staff members to a large meeting at least every other year.
  • If you enjoy what you do, you will never work another day in your life.
  • Start saving for retirement when you are young.

It is easy to read these principles and nod in agreement. Getting doctors to actually live these principles is the hard part. Linda’s message has not wavered from any of the bedrock management principles listed above.

Life Lesson No. 3 – Your staff members are your greatest assets

One of Linda’s great strengths in consulting has been her ability to connect with people. She understands the staff mindset and the steps an employer must take to build a loyal and dedicated staff group. Linda has long been a proponent of teamwork. Good teamwork is far more than a group of people who work together. In fact, one of Linda’s favorite sayings is, “A team will outperform a group of individuals every time.”

Good teams have synergy, which means the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Employers must create a workplace environment that allows people to grow and thrive. Workplace harmony and teamwork are the natural outcome when staff members feel respected, appreciated, and valued. “Staff members make or break your practice. Hire good people with skills that compliment your own. Hire, train, trust, and praise your staff, as they are your greatest investments.”

Linda believes that staff members will treat patients the same way the doctor treats them. Doctors cannot play favorites and expect to have happy staff members. Praise staff members in public, and never criticize staff members in front of others. When doctors learn to encourage their staff members by praising them sincerely and regularly, they feel motivated and inspired to please their leader.

When the only words staff members hear from the doctor is criticism, a sense of feeling defeated is the outcome. Defeated staff members do not feel motivated to please the boss.

Life Lesson No. 4 – Have a generous and abundant spirit

Linda Miles has exemplified the generous and abundant spirit throughout her life. She has always believed that what is given away with the right spirit comes back to the giver multiplied. In addition to serving on numerous charitable foundations, Linda has been known to speak without compensation to certain groups with limited or no ability to pay, such as in dental schools.

One of Linda’s mantras is to be an encourager. Once a young dental assistant came up to Linda after hearing her speak. She mentioned how she would like to be a speaker one day. Linda said, “If I can do this, you certainly can!” She’s the consummate encourager.

Mentoring up and coming speakers/consultants has been one of Linda’s passions over the past several years. In 1997, she formed the Speaking/Consulting Network as a way to bring people together to learn and share. Says Linda, “If you have a dollar and I have a dollar and we exchange dollars, we still each have a dollar. But if you have five good ideas and I have five good ideas and we exchange, now we both have 10 good ideas.” The annual meeting continues to grow and now has about 300 alumni. The idea for SCN was borne out of a desire to mentor people who had asked Linda to help them get started with speaking or consulting.

What are the reasons for success?

When we consider the things we feel are necessary for a successful business, we typically think of advanced education, strong financial backing, or an aggressive business style that one might use to climb the success ladder. However, Linda Miles built one of the most successful speaking/consulting models in existence without any of the aforementioned attributes. Her model of success was built on adhering to the business principles she has always taught — a very strong work ethic, a sense of generosity, and a superb ability to communicate and connect.

Doctors everywhere can build their practices on the same principles that made Linda successful. “Every day is a learning experience, and each lifecycle is a stepping stone to something better,” she says.

Happy Golden Anniversary, Linda. The year 2011 marks her 50th high school graduation, her 50th year in dentistry, and her 50th wedding anniversary to Don (in November). Those of us in dentistry who have benefited from her wisdom and generosity over the years — and there are thousands of us — thank her for helping us improve our businesses and learn how to work together in harmony for the good of the most important people of all — our patients.

Dianne Glasscoe Watterson, MBA, is a consultant, speaker, and author. She helps good practices become better through practical onsite consulting. Her book, “Manage Your Practice Well,“ can be purchased through her website at www.professionaldentalmgmt.com. For speaking or consulting inquiries, contact Dianne at dglasscoe@northstate.net or telephone her at (301) 874-5240.

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