The road to economic freedom

Feb. 1, 1996
On the author`s map, the road to economic freedom begins with fulfillment and enthusiasm for your job.

On the author`s map, the road to economic freedom begins with fulfillment and enthusiasm for your job.

Glen Wysel, DDS

In February of 1990, Dental Economics asked its readers the question, "If you were starting over today, would you choose the same profession?" Of the 529 dentists who responded, 54 percent said, "No!"

Aside from the obvious tragedy of so many people leading unfulfilled lives, it is precisely this point on which economic freedom depends. It may sound strange to you that the road to economic freedom starts with fulfillment and enthusiasm for your job, but it does. Money, and all it brings, is not really the starting point, but the result of many other things being in place. I call this "context," only a portion of which deals directly with money.

This road map, if correctly traveled, will enable you to enjoy going to work, enjoy your staff and your patients and have certainty that when you are ready to retire, the wherewithal will be there for you to lead the life you`ve always dreamed of.

In this article, I will cover how the prospect of going to work can be exciting, how you can assure your economic freedom and how to have a quality staff.

Dealing With Barriers

Let`s go back, for a moment, to the survey question and explore it further. Only let`s break it down and try to find out what is causing you to not love going to work-what barriers are in the way. Let`s look at why, despite this incredible opportunity to lead a fulfilled and profitable life, you might say to yourself, "I wish I`d opened a donut shop!" or "I can`t wait until Friday!"

When I do seminars, I ask doctors, "What stresses you most about your practice?" I put the answers on a flip chart; it`s always the same list. Staff is the number one item of concern, followed by overhead, dealing with patients and profitability, with a bit of governmental issues thrown in. But mostly, doctors are concerned about running the business.

Now, let me tell you what really is amazing. When I ask clients who have been with us awhile what really juices them about their practices-what provides them with the most joy, the most fulfillment and excitement-it`s the same list: staff, patients and making a great income!

Since some of those clients, too, had visions of donut shops, what changed? What changed was that in the process of helping dentists achieve economic freedom, they see that instead of avoiding these issues, instead of seeing these as the reason they don`t love work, these issues are the seeds of the most fulfilling part of their businesses and practices. They see that when these areas of avoidance are mastered, they get more and better quality patients, have fewer problems and more income, which, if managed properly, will give them the economic freedom they want.

The fact is, you`re always going to have staffing issues; you`re always going to be focused on profitability, marketing and regulations. That`s all part of doing business. But running the business is not what most of you got into dentistry to do, and it`s not what you were trained to do either. If you`re like many dentists I know, you`re more comfortable dealing with the technical aspects of doing quality dentistry, rather than dealing with personnel issues or the lives of your patients beyond what is necessary to fix their teeth.

The First Step

Since hindsight never got anyone anywhere, where does a person start this process of renewal on the road to economic freedom? It starts with an exploration of what I mean when I say "context." Because, if you really understand context, you realize that it is the most powerful thing you can focus on.

Your life right now, including the condition of your practice and the state of your financial affairs, is defined by the context you have created. If you can identify what the elements of that context are-the results you`re getting, the quality of your staff, how profitable your practice is and how excited you are about your work-then you begin to see that everything you ever hoped to accomplish or will accomplish is generated from that context.

And the most important part of this context is you: your vision, your standards, your goals, your results. But it also includes what you think about yourself, what you feel that you deserve and what you feel you are capable of delivering. One of the first things you need to do is pry yourself loose from the day-to-day stresses about money, what`s happening in health care and questions like, "Am I in the right location?" to define what you really want.

You need to define it in terms that are so grand and so powerful, that the idea of it engages your imagination and excites the soul. Something so wonderful that it consumes every quiet moment and gets your creative juices going.

If you can identify what that is, what the dream is as a first step, then everything else can be marshalled around that. Then you can focus on what it`s going to take to make that dream a reality. Minimally, you`ve got to have the ability to deliver high-quality technical dentistry. But you`ve also got to have a commitment to never compromise a standard of excellence. You`ve got to have a staff around you that totally owns the vision that you create-staff members who are willing to do whatever it takes to create not only that technical result, but make the patient`s experience, while in your office, a special one.

From this special experience, your patients will understand not only the technical components of the service they receive, but they will get the trust, the caring, the commitment to their well-being that makes them go away thinking that if they`ve got to go to a dentist, this is certainly the place they`d like to be! (Continued)

None of this can occur if you don`t start with yourself. Working at the level of details may enable you to improve some things, but you will not break through to significantly higher levels of accomplishment and profitability or personal fulfillment along the way. To change your future, you`ve got to change your context. To change your context, you must change yourself.

The `L` Word-Leadership

If you`re like most of us, confrontation was not one of the reasons you became a dentist, nor was standing out in a crowd or being unpopular, even for short periods of time. Yet, running a business-any business-requires that a person be willing to confront, stand out and apart and, sometimes, dare to be unpopu-lar-all leadership skills which were not part of your formal training.

To lead, one must be willing to speak up, to be wrong, to fail, to ask people to go beyond their current capabilities and rise to greater heights. This ties right back in to the number one area of stress: staff-which also is probably the biggest cost factor for most dentists and why most dentists see their staffs as liabilities, not assets.

You can learn how to lead, but from what point does leadership begin? It begins from your vision, because what you actually are doing is getting others to align to that vision and support it. When you are certain of that vision, it is easier to say to your staff, "This is what I`m about; this is the level of commitment I expect. If you want to play at that level, then I want you on my team."

Making Patients Happy

Another area of concern to many dentists is how to define the relationships they have with their patients. In dentistry, you have an opportunity to interact with people on a level of intimacy that very few other professional people do. Because you see people every few months and deal with them in close physical proximity, you get to know them-their goals, their fears-and form very close relationships.

While the financial rewards for this work are nice, how laborious, how boring is it to not enjoy those moments of closeness and, while you`re at it, touch peoples` lives in ways that enrich both you and them? Personally, I wanted people to leave feeling that we had made a difference in the quality of their lives.

This manifests in a dentist`s staff by everyone being in alignment with that concept and looking for opportunities to create that level of relationship. Sometimes, it`s a little note: "I hope it turned out OK with Bill`s operation." It`s those little touches that make the difference between "ho-hum" dentistry and "so happy to be here again!" dentistry.

But, if you don`t see that improving the quality of life of your patients is important, if all you see is a place to do good dental work and a good way to pay all your bills, then you are operating with the kind of thinking that will limit the kind of practice, the kind of life and the kind of economic freedom you will have in the future.

Achieving Goals

In looking at the differences in the practices I`ve worked with, it`s about how much they love their practices, have great staffs who are doing more with their lives, have hope for the future, and how they`re saving money and becoming economically free. Your vision and goals are very much related to your economic freedom.

None of this will require you to be something or somebody you`re not. What I ask you to do is be more of who you are. Your dreams and aspirations, fears and self-imposed limitations, probably are not much different than those of people with whom I`ve worked. They`re doing it. So can you.

Defining Your Vision

In a quiet place and without distraction, define your own vision for your practice. Your vision is your dream of what is possible. Start by asking yourself, "If I could have it anyway I want it, how would it be?"

After writing it down, it should create a picture that focuses on important aspects of your practice: quality of care, qualities of your staff, the experience you create for your patients and staff, the contribution you make to each other and patients, the enjoyment your environment creates and the profitability you enjoy. It should be stated in the present tense, as if it has occurred.

This vision creates a framework to examine what needs to change to move you toward your ideal practice. Creating your vision is the most important component of leadership. Share it with your staff, let each of them contribute to enhancing it.

The author serves as chief executive officer of Mercer Global Advisors. His firm provides financial solutions to individual and group practices. For information, call 800-444-6162.