Would your patients vote yes on your team management skills?

Sept. 1, 2009
When was the last time someone compared you — and the way you manage your team — to a member of Congress?

by Gary Serota

For more on this topic, go to www.dentaleconomics.com and search using the following key words: team morale, productivity, performance management system, Gary Serota.

When was the last time someone compared you — and the way you manage your team — to a member of Congress?

A few years ago, I was meeting privately with one of my clients, a prominent U.S. senator, well respected by colleagues and the press, and regarded as an up–and–coming national leader … but he was anguished by his own staff — the people he relied on for support and “smarts” and follow–through — the people he knew were critical to his success.

Just outside his door in the outer office, I had observed the pace was frantic. Lots of motion, lots of commotion, but it was clear that this staff, like so many others, was struggling to figure out “what's my real job here, how is my success measured, and when will they let me know how I'm doing?” Sound familiar?

Before applying my management and marketing experience to help dental practices use proven tools to enhance patient satisfaction and profits, I ran a foundation that taught members of Congress how to be more effective managers. Of all the skills required for running a House or Senate office, the most challenging for most of them was managing staff.

Like members of Congress, have you found managing, motivating, and leading your team a lot tougher than you ever imagined?

The similarities are striking. Dentists tell me “they never taught us this in dental school.” Members of Congress too, mostly local legislators or lawyers before election, were rarely taught anything about managing their “team.” Congressional staff duties range from issue expertise (clinical expertise in dentistry) to keeping constituents happy (patient satisfaction).

While you may measure your bottom line in net dollars, growing a patient base, and patient satisfaction (perhaps you survey or “poll” your patients to measure this), they measure it in political support (polling is their measurement tool), legislative achievements, fundraising success, and votes.

At least you don't have to surrender your office to another dentist after a vote of your patients!

For members of Congress, we created various tools to help them better manage and lead their “teams.” We explained why a performance management system made sense, and created a five–step system for handling staff with different needs, recognizing successful performance, and evaluating the system.

Many of these tools can be effective for dental practices and team management. If you, your office manager, or both of you working together follow this process (we have customized content originally prepared for Congress for the needs of dental practices), you'll discover that team morale and productivity will increase, and you and your practice will prosper.

Rationale for a performance management system

A performance management system is an ongoing process for continually improving team performance, built on five simple principles: 1) each team member deserves a clear understanding of your expectations for them; 2) they deserve monitoring and mentoring throughout the year to help them meet your expectations; 3) they should be accountable for achieving the goals you mutually establish at the start of the year; 4) when they meet or exceed expectations, they should be rewarded; and 5) you need a plan to address the performance of team members who fall short of their goals.

If you already create written job descriptions and do performance evaluations in your practice, you are on the way to a performance management system. But if you find yourself intervening repeatedly as problems arise and dealing with turnover and morale problems, you can actually reduce the time you spend on team management and improve your results by employing all five elements of performance management.

You will find you can turn good team members into great ones, and ensure that great team members don't become bored and look elsewhere for new opportunities. A small but sustained commitment will help you “grow” better staff and enhance your opportunity to achieve dramatic results.

The five–step performance management system

1) Establish performance goals with each team member: To do this well, you need to be able to articulate your practice's strategic goals so team members understand your overall direction, and how they fit into your plan. Then team members can each draft their own job description for your comments, review, and approval, including primary and secondary goals and the specific things they need to do to support your plan. When team members draft their own job descriptions, they establish “ownership” in their success and become “invested” in your practice's success as well.

2) Monitor individual progress and provide frequent feedback: The best managers find simple ways to monitor performance. This can be as informal as a periodic “How are you doing?” or an occasional lunch with team members who are adept at keeping focused on their goals; others will benefit from a monthly 10–minute review. To help the latter group stay on track, ask them to detail how they will achieve the goals you established together.

Feedback often helps a team member improve. Acknowledging good performance is just as important as critiquing shortfalls, but in both cases, it is important to provide objective feedback as soon as an activity is completed. Record feedback in a personnel file, reflecting how a team member achieved goals or responded to coaching. This is critical for determining next year's performance goals and salary levels, or taking steps to improve performance or begin disciplinary action.

3) Evaluate each team member's performance: Once or twice a year, conduct a formal evaluation (30 minutes, in person, shorter if you've been delivering feedback yearly).

  • Require each team member to review goals and write a self–appraisal before the meeting, detailing how well they've met their goals (this is the basis for an open conversation when you meet).
  • Review the self–evaluation before meeting and compare it to the initial job description you jointly developed; review other tracking tools including the notes you've made in their personnel file, and — if you are using the Loyal Team™ Rewards system to track and reward performance each month — check the performance rewards they've earned or failed to earn each month.
  • Choose a primary message (keep this to a couple of key points to increase clarity). For strong performers this message might be: “Great job, you've met or exceeded your goals. How do we make sure you are challenged and fulfilled over the next year?” For underperformers: “You've grown but I need you to resolve the problem with collections we had this past year. How can I help you do this more successfully this year?” Use specific examples. People tend to act on specific recommendations explaining why change is necessary and in their interest. Remember, the goal is to improve team performance, not simply to evaluate it.
  • Money is not a topic for this meeting: Salary and bonus discussions dissuade team members from candidly discussing how they can improve – instead they will probably focus on making their best case for more money. Make it clear that salary and bonus decisions will be made weeks or months later.

4) Follow through and prepare for the upcoming year: For your stars, discuss ideas for new opportunities and responsibilities; for others, discuss how and why they need to improve, and draft a performance improvement plan (PIP) detailing how the team member will remedy problems and how you will support their efforts. The PIP should include new goals, dates for assessing progress, and how their progress will be measured. If an employee is in danger of losing his or her job, the employee must be told to improve performance or he or she will have to be dismissed, but that the office is committed to helping the employee improve to avoid dismissal (firing is, of course, a last resort after all other remedies prove unsuccessful, but it is important to provide ample warning to reduce the risk of legal action against the office for unfair treatment). Put follow–up steps in writing and implement your commitments.

Just as underperforming team members need to be advised and assisted to improve, solid performers should be recognized for their caliber of work. Salary increases and bonuses often occur only annually or twice per year, and these frequently are subject to the practice's ability to increase collections and net profits. During the year, nonmonetary rewards can play an important role in recognizing performance.

This might include professional development opportunities or a more flexible work schedule. It might also include employee recognition rewards such as our Loyal Team™ Rewards system which tracks and provides feedback on each team member's performance every month, and automatically rewards them with savings on everyday purchases, travel, entertainment, and brand–name merchandise.

5) Evaluate your system: Is your performance management system achieving the results you desired? It's important to find out and make refinements if necessary.

You might survey your team for anonymous suggestions and reactions to your process, or consider using a dental management consultant to lead a confidential team meeting to help you determine how well the process has served the office. Compare your goals to your achievements for this year and compare this “success ratio” against your performance in prior years. Look at your team “stats”: Is turnover declining? Are you retaining your stars? Are personnel problems diminishing? Are you and your team happier at work?

Wrapping up

Executing any of the techniques described above should improve team morale and practice performance. Employing the full five–point performance management system should provide a huge payoff, including accountable employees, clear expectations, and a team with a clear sense of direction and how they can help you achieve success. Your patients will notice the difference too, and they'll vote their loyalty and satisfaction by “re–electing” you as their dentist for many years to come.

Gary Serota is the cofounder of Loyal Patients Inc.™, provider of Loyal Patient ™ Rewards and Loyal Team™ Rewards. He and cofounder Scott Johnston customized for the specific needs of dental practices a patent–pending loyalty engine for select Fortune 500 firms that features savings on 150,000 rewards items to promote patient loyalty and team loyalty. To learn more about these services, contact Serota and Johnston at (703) 442–0079 or at www.LoyalTeamRewards.com.

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