Better the boss or the friend?

By Sheri Doniger, DDS, contributing writer

May 4, 2009 -- Editor's note: Sheri Doniger's column, Dental Diaries, appears regularly on the advice and opinion page, Second Opinion.

I went to dental school a while ago, when they did not teach much in the way of basic business management. We were taught basic science and dental sciences, along with the appropriate clinical skills to go out into the field and practice the art and science of dentistry, but we were not taught the basics of business or office management.

Unfortunately, I don't think the curriculum has changed that much in the many years since I graduated.

“We all know dentistry, but some of us don't know the first thing about running a small corporation.”

We all know dentistry, but some of us don't know the first thing about running a small corporation. The first time we negotiated a loan for office space and dental equipment and signed on the dotted line, we became entrepreneurs. Only the D.D.S. or D.M.D. will appear on our business cards, but in reality we immediately became CFO, CEO, CPA, and head of human resources, all in one.

Most women dentists I know are aware of how to furnish their offices, what equipment is needed, and what technology to buy. Women dentists are awesome decision makers with regard to determining best prices (after extensive research, of course). We have innate skills in budgeting, given our experience managing households in our "spare time."

But one of the interesting facets of being a business owner is also being in charge of human resources. This can be especially challenging for women dentists when it comes to developing and managing a dental team.

Women bosses have certainly had their share of diverse press. (Check out this recent article from In dentistry, we want to be seen as dentists who are as equal to the task as our male counterparts. We want to be perceived as compassionately professional.

Personally, I enjoy being a small-business owner. I enjoy being able to shape my practice into my vision and have my team be part of that vision. I am proud of my team. We enrich each other every day. In our end-of-the-day team meetings, we always have positive things to say about the practice and each other. We celebrate everything, no matter how big or how small, and we work in a comfort zone that comes from mutual trust and giving.

Women bosses or owners of dental practices are great role models. We have an outstanding opportunity to mentor other young women in the dental field. Female enrollment in dental schools is approaching 50%. We have the opportunity to show how wonderful it is to achieve a professional place in the community while maintaining a personal life.

But with this great gift comes some challenges. Some of us, me included, may not have had great training in how to be a human resources manager. Hiring, firing, and appropriate interoffice communications are not innate experiences. Our own personality traits may cause us some difficulties.

Business first

Women-run dental offices can often be 100% female. The business manager or front desk chair is almost 100% female (unless the husband is working as the manager), dental assistants are almost all women, and dental hygienists are 97% female.

With all these women in one place, the opportunity for camaraderie beyond the bounds of propriety may occur. But the truth is, as women bosses, we cannot afford to be friends to our team. We are their employers and must maintain some distance for professional respect to occur. We may go out socially with a team member, but we need to remember that words said even in passing may be repeated. "Loose lips sink ships" is not a phrase to take, well, loosely.

This is sometimes a difficult rule to follow. We manage to hire great people and like the people we manage, or we wouldn't survive the day. Between patients, we talk about everything from dinner plans to movie choices to dieting. But we need to be diligent about how far the conversations go, especially when personal issues are involved. Certain things are just nobody's business! 

But still we talk. In fact, sometimes we talk too much because we become too comfortable in our own offices. Does this happen with male owners? I don't know. I haven't worked in a male practice in many years, but I do remember there was never much chatting about diets.

The urge to be a friend to our team members can be quite strong. We establish relationships with our long-term employees and bestow a level of trust upon them, much as we would our personal friends. After all, they are entrusted with personal information regarding our business and patients. They see us on a day-to-day basis and often spend more time with us than do our significant others or our children. They see our different moods, as they would for a male team leader. But women have more of a tendency to let the "boss" defenses drop and the "friend" to open up. And this can become a problem.

There is a big difference between occasional team lunches versus constantly going to dinner or out-of-office activities with a team member. It sends a mixed message to the rest of the team. First of all, issues may arise when progressive discipline needs to be enacted. Will it be fair? Will the other team members feel it is fair? Same thing when it comes to raises and team morale. You would hope that the grade school "favorite friend" does not surface in a professional setting but it does, and it can be more destructive than constructive.

Monitoring "chair chat" is also important. Women tend to get caught up in the conversational moment, myself included. We try to maintain pleasant conversation with patients to help them think about other things besides being in the dental chair. But if you have two conversationally oriented women working in a close environment, they may become unintentionally relaxed in discussion. We all know about HIPAA rules and discussing other patients by name, but it's good to remind your staff about this daily.

Still, our naturally communicative nature has many positive aspects. Some of us have "been there, done that" and can more easily empathize with many of the issues that come up for our team members. I have had children, so when my office manager comes to me asking for a day off during her child's spring vacation, I say, "Of course, we'll manage." And manage we do.

I know women and men who are partners, and the women often end up taking charge of the human resources aspect of the practice. But I believe both sexes have the ability to be outstanding managers of team members. The key is to understand our differences and account for them in our daily interactions.

Sheri Doniger, D.D.S., practices clinical dentistry in Lincolnwood, IL. She has served as an educator in several dental and dental hygiene programs, has been a consultant for a major dental benefit company, and has written for several dental publications. Most recently, she was the editor of Woman Dentist Journal and Woman Dentist eJournal. You can reach her at

The comments and observations expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the opinions of, nor should they be construed as an endorsement or admonishment of any particular idea, vendor, or organization.

Copyright © 2009


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