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5 stages of becoming a great leader in dental management

Nov. 12, 2020
This dental office manager did what many of you have done: she dug in and made an overlooked position her own, thus guiding the practice to success. Here's how she rose through the ranks and why she loves her growing practice.

By Monica Payne, MAADOM

Reprinted with permission from the American Association of Dental Office Management

How do you transition from being part of a team to leading a team? Most of us (dental office managers) did not start out in a leadership capacity; we had to work our way up to it. Some of us did not start out as an office manager or practice administrator in our current offices, but someone recognized our leadership qualities and offered us a shot at leading the team.

Now what?

I was one of the lucky ones. During my first job in dentistry, I was hired with the title of office manager, the “glorified receptionist” type of office manager. I sat at the front desk, answered the phone, checked patients in and out, filed insurance claims, posted payments, mailed statements, etc. To be honest, I was not really a manager at all. From what I could tell, the doctor tried to micromanage the employees between seeing patients. Yikes!

I spent the first few months learning a new language—a little about coding and a lot about the chaos that comes from an unstructured, undersupervised team. There were no meetings, no goals, no systems, no accountability. We were literally flying by the seat of our pants.

At about three months in, I began to see through the cracks and realize how broken the office’s system really was. Most of the team had been together for 15 years or longer, and everyone (including the doctor) seemed completely content with this arrangement. I was just the new girl. How could I make a difference?

What makes a great leader?

I was viewed by the team as a glorified receptionist, because that was the role that the previous office managers had played. I realized there was a problem when the phone rang and the assistants would run to my desk, listen to the conversation, and tell me when to schedule the patients, usually the following day. It had nothing to do with availability and everything to do with their laziness.

Similar situations occurred with the hygiene department; they were allowed to completely control their schedules, were paid a daily rate with no goals, and had no incentives to schedule a full day of production. There seemed to be no concern about the health or growth of the practice.

I questioned my decision to take this job. Was this normal in dentistry, or just in this practice? How could I grow into the position as a true manager? How was I going to help grow this practice? Although I wasn’t viewed as a manager, surely I could evolve as a leader within the team! But where to start? Who understood my position? Where would I gain support?

Soon my answer came via fax: The American Association of Dental Office Management.

I received a fax about joining the organization built specifically for the needs of dental office managers. Wow! My cry for help and prayers had been answered! I immediately started using the AADOM website and forums to receive help and answers to my questions. I quickly realized there was something more to my job. It was a career that many had grown to love and feel strongly about.

But I needed more. I needed to be face-to-face, interacting with people like me. I built up my courage and approached my doctor about attending my first AADOM

conference. I expressed a desire to nurture this team and grow his practice. I was a little surprised by his response because he was incredibly supportive, paid my expenses, and sent me to Orlando to connect with my tribe.

This was the turning point of my career in dentistry. I was completely overwhelmed at the knowledge, support, and resources that were available during those three days in Orlando. As a newcomer, I was encouraged to take away three things that I had learned and implement them over the next year. It would be impossible to retain all this new information, much less put it all into practice at once.

I took the advice and had a great year, becoming a leader within my team. As my leadership skills grew and I started to make positive changes in the practice, my doctor gained trust, and gradually began to let go and allow me to manage the practice and employees.

5 stages for becoming a great leader

Over the next several years, we bought two existing practices, took on patients of a third practice, made two building expansions, purchased a second location, and hired two new associates, one new partner, and a host of new employees. I had to learn how to grow into my position in stages each time we made a change or addition. Here’s what it took.

Stage 1. Developing leadership skills and earning the respect of the team
Let the team see that you are willing to do anything that you ask of them and that you are totally committed to both the team and the practice. In the beginning, for me this involved working long days and weekends. I was new to the business, not as efficient as I should have been, but I wanted to make sure all tasks were completed correctly and quickly. I made sure the team knew I was available to them, even if it meant putting my tasks on hold for a moment. I also started planning team bonding events to invest time in each individual outside of the work environment and to build trust between us.

Stage 2. Managing the team
Everyone must be treated equally and held to the same guidelines and standards. You obviously want to have friendly relationships with your team members; however, in most situations, it is best to create solid boundaries with your team where friendships are concerned. Friendships that extend outside of the workplace can become particularly challenging in that they could pave the way to preferential or favorable treatment of certain team members and jealousy or resentment from others.

It will make it hard to have those difficult conversations, if necessary, and could create tension in the workplace. I know that there are situations where friendships outside of the workplace between a boss and a subordinate can work, but it takes mutual respect, emotional maturity, and well-developed boundaries by both parties. In most cases, it is best to just avoid these relationships if you want to be respected as the leader.

Stage 3. The shift from doing to leading
This was the hardest stage for me. I had a hard time mentally transitioning from being involved to being essential, from being busy to being available, from being productive to overseeing production. It was a sometimes unwelcome but necessary paradigm shift. Just when we were comfortable, goals were set and being met, we’d worked out the kinks and everyone was moving in the same direction, we’d get the call: “I’m buying a new practice,” or “We’re interviewing a new associate.”

During the next day, weeks, and months, in addition to my routine responsibilities, I was assisting the doctor with the details of the next business venture. Again, I would find myself becoming more anxious and working longer hours to complete my to-do lists.

It was time for me to make a move that is often hard for most of us: delegate, delegate, delegate!

Stage 4. Delegate
Too many of us are in a constant state of overexertion because of an instinctive need to protect our work. I knew it was time to partner with team members and pass the baton on some of the duties that weighed me down and keep me from being the best manager I could be. When assigning a task that you are concerned about passing on, ask yourself why you are hesitant, and be sure to articulate this to the recipient. Empower them to take on the task and be successful.

Provide them with the necessary training and let them know what is at stake if it isn’t handled with care and detail. Help them understand how it fits into the big picture, and lastly, make sure they know you are confident in their ability to perform the task.

Through your obvious passion, you can cultivate a team that is enthusiastic about helping you and that will commit to doing their best. If you are a good leader, most team members will be honored that you entrust them with a job.

Stage 5. Stay engaged but do not hover
It is essential that you remain involved, but there should be an agreed-upon mix of support and accountability. Do not micromanage! Be ready and available to provide support when needed and clarify the frequency of touchpoints from the beginning. You will still influence, motivate, and build momentum, just not with the hands-on involvement in the busy work. Your time, effort, and attention will have a greater impact elsewhere.

Become the best dental manager you can be!

Remain mindful of how your involvement aligns with the health and growth of your dental practice. Surround yourself with smart, capable team members who share your determination to succeed. Make your number one goal to invest and foster the strengths of those around you!

After 21 years in the floral industry, Monica Payne, MAADOM, found her true passion when she made the change to dentistry in 2012. She is a practice administrator for a multilocation practice, Lifetime Dental PLLC in the Mississippi Delta. In addition to managing clinics, in 2018 she and the doctors started Surety, where they provide team building and consulting services, as well as file dental and medical insurance for other dental practices.