I met Mark at a dental conference. He was frustrated with many things going on in his practice and wanted to get them off his chest. He didn't know that, in addition to being a practicing dentist, I am a professional dental coach. I could tell he wanted to talk; he NEEDED to talk. So I listened.
Mark told me how, some years before, he had completed dental school and was eager to start practice. He first became an associate in an established practice, and after several years purchased the practice from his senior partner. The practice was vibrant and growing, and Mark was excited about seeing his dreams come true. He was ready to sit back, work with patients, and do the dentistry he loved so much.
But Mark was surprised to discover how difficult running a practice was, especially now that he was the owner. His partner was around still doing dentistry, but he wasn't much help; he, too, was tired of the daily struggles of dealing with underperforming team members, gossiping, squabbles, lack of accountability, and so forth.
As Mark's father said to him during one Thanksgiving dinner, "Yesterday you didn't know how to spell manager, and now you are one."
Needless to say, Mark was discouraged. Going to work every day and being the "heavy" wasn't fun, and he was spending more time than he had ever imagined on the nontechnical aspects of dentistry. Mark was also discovering that dental school didn't teach him many of the things he really needed to know, such as people and communication skills and business acumen. He was feeling more and more inept, frustrated, disillusioned ... even downright angry.
That's when he realized he needed help.
Like most people in pain -- be it physical, emotional, spiritual, or otherwise -- we want out of it, quickly. "Just tell me what to do and everything will be OK" -- or so we think. Mark was no different -- he sought outside counsel, someone to tell him what he needed to do to make his practice something he looked forward to going to each day, whatever the cost. He thought if he could just work harder, see more patients, and make more money, everything would work out. As a bonus, he could focus on doing what he loved best: dentistry.
There's an organization called Heifer International that goes to impoverished countries to help the people learn how to grow crops and raise cattle. They don't just bring food in and then leave; they show them how to make their lives sustainable. Heifer, and organizations like it, understand the Chinese proverb, "Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime."
I contend that the same holds true when it comes to managing a dental practice. In fact, I think it's time to consider a new approach to this generic term we call "practice management" -- that catch-all term that encompasses anything in dentistry that is not technically or clinically oriented.
Consider this: Is it your technical skills that make you successful, your nontechnical skills, or maybe some combination of both? Further, how have traditional practice management approaches worked for you? Even more, why do you feel they have or haven't worked for you?
When we look outside ourselves for answers, we usually won't find them, although there are a plethora of well-meaning people willing to give provide them. Real answers come from within.
Realizing a lifelong dream
Consider my friend Bill. He was an avid sailor, yet he lived inland. He longed to sail in the ocean, and was especially looking forward to retirement when he could buy the sailboat of his dreams and sail anywhere he wanted, with his wife by his side. It was something he dreamed about daily.
But Bill felt that in order to be able to do that, he was going to have to work harder than ever. So he bought some very expensive pieces of technology, consulted with someone about building a new and bigger office and adding more employees, and put his dream off for a while -- quite a while. He wasn't happy about that; in fact, Bill did nothing but complain about his "worthless" team members, how he couldn't get them to do anything right, how the expensive technology he bought wasn't even being used, and how no one could do anything to help him.
Bill was angry, felt stuck, resented everyone who worked for him, and saw no end in sight. He dreamed of just quitting but couldn't.
Traditional practice management proponents might approach his situation by assessing facts about his practice, interviewing employees, looking over his facility, and making suggestions on how to do little things -- such as taking more x-rays -- to big things, such as firing certain employees, instituting monitors, and changing the way patients are presented treatment plans. In this scenario, everyone would certainly be busy, but I would ask you this: Is Bill moving toward his goal?
If your answer is not a resounding "Yes," then it's a clear "No."
Bill is now sailing around the world with his wife. It took less than a year to make it happen. He bought that sailboat he had his eyes on for so many years. He sold his practice for a nice profit, even though when the time came to sell the practice, it was a bittersweet move because Bill was now enjoying dentistry -- and even the people he was working with and providing care for -- more than he ever had in his career. He was actually having second thoughts about retiring, although the adventure of sailing was too great and he wanted to experience every moment as fully as possible from that point forward in his life.
What changed? How did this happen? Do you believe that somehow his team members -- whom he loathed at one time -- magically became incredible employees? Did a new marketing campaign bring in new patients all eager to spend lots of money on dentistry? Did some sort of new bonus program invigorate and excite his team member so much that they couldn't wait to come to work? What would you say happened?
I know Bill because I was his coach. But it wasn't ME that made it all happen; it was Bill. Bill wanted change, he was willing to take action, and he was ready to take a close look at himself. And the rest was ... well, just plain fun.
In my next column, I'll tell you how he did it. And over the coming year, I hope you'll continue to read this series, as I share practical tips and advice from my 24 years as a practicing dentist and my experience as a professional coach. I will offer suggestions and ask some hard questions.
Are you ready to have the practice you've always dreamed of?
Don Deems, DDS, FAGD, is known is The Dentist's Coach, and is actively engaged in private dental and coaching practices. His latest book, The Dentist's Coach: Build a Vibrant Practice and the Life You Want, is available via his website, as well as a book he co-authored with Stephen Covey and Ken Blanchard, Roadmaps to Success: America's Top Intellectual Minds Map Out Successful Business Strategies.