Starting With the WHO Instead of the WHAT

Nov. 1, 2004
Like many of you, I have attended seminar after seminar on team building and practice management.

Like many of you, I have attended seminar after seminar on team building and practice management. I have worked with consulting teams, participated in leadership training, and filled my bookshelves with the latest texts on business and dental leadership skills. None of these, however, seem to work long-term or feel “right” for me personally.

After spending the past year working through the process of replacing staff members, I have learned a few things that differ from the usual material we hear from dental management teams. Perhaps this will help you too.

I have divided the process into three steps. It sounds simple, but it’s not as easy as it sounds. I tend to take rather circuitous routes to get to wherever I am going. Many of you may be able to get through this faster, but I recommend not skipping any steps. I call them 1. Evaluate 2. Who? and 3. What?

The evaluation process is the one most likely to be skipped over for two reasons. First, it isn’t much fun. It’s sort of like looking over your house before you put it on the market for sale. Second, we think we know our dental office so well. After all, it is our office, isn’t it? Maybe you shouldn’t answer that just yet.

A key issue in getting the right people on your team is first deciding if you are indeed the “captain” of the team. That may seem like a rhetorical comment, but indeed many physicians and dentists have no desire to be the captains of their teams and quickly give that power away to whomever will step up to the plate and accept it. This is completely understandable since we did not go to dental school to become business leaders, but, rather, to be health-care providers. And, of course, we want everyone to love us as much as we love them. (Isn’t that what we said in our dental school interview?)

If you are not sure who is holding the power in your office, you may need to watch the dynamics of the office for a week or so through the eyes of a patient or a new employee. Who makes most of the major decisions in the office? Who would or does a new team member fear and/or respect the most? Who fields the majority of the questions? Is there one person without whom the office would not be able to function?

I am not suggesting that the doctor should not delegate major aspects of running the office. I am suggesting that if you choose to delegate the “team captain” position to an auxiliary member, make that decision based on knowledge of his/her skills, loyalty, and your trust in that person. For many dentists, the captain’s role falls on our shoulders simply because the perfect first officer does not exist in our town.

The next step is “Who,” but my husband and I have stolen a line from Jim Collins’ latest book, Good to Great, to describe the process. We say we are “getting the right people on the bus and the wrong people off the bus.” We feel that is more important than figuring out where we want to drive the bus! This concept is different from that of many management/consulting firms because, to be honest, we do not have all of our goals in mind yet. We simply know that one-third to one-half of our lives will be spent with our office team. No matter what our goals are, if we don’t spend the vast majority of our time with people we love and respect, we cannot possibly have a great life. But if we are happy in our work and spending time with people we enjoy, we believe our patients will enjoy their time in our office also, and the “bus” will have a successful journey.

Here are two principles from Collins’ book that have helped us:

1. When in doubt, don’t hire. Keep looking. I know this can be stressful. For us, it meant using a temp service quite a bit and even scheduling hygiene patients for me one or two days a week until we found the right dental hygienists for our team. Yes, our income decreased for a while, but we survived and now we don’t have to fire someone later.

2. When you know you need to make a people change, act. But first be sure you don’t simply have someone in the wrong seat. This means you may have the right people, yet need to give them a new challenge or direction in your office. If you have an existing employee, however, whom you feel needs to be “managed,” you have a problem. The best people don’t need to be managed. Guided, taught, led - yes. But not tightly managed.

Letting the wrong team members hang around deflates the morale of the other team members, because they find themselves compensating for the negative folks. The worst-case scenario is that you can lose your best people!

How do you know when you know? Two key questions can help you. First, if it were a hiring question (rather than a “should this person get off the bus?” decision), would you hire the person again? Second, if the person gave you his/her two weeks’ notice, would you feel terribly disappointed or relieved?

The third step in team building is where the fun comes in. This is the “What” step. What type of office do you want to build? What goals do you want to see accomplished in the first year? The third year? The 10th year? If you have been successful in getting the right people on the bus, they will go with you because you will have similar core values. You may argue on the way - that’s what makes the journey interesting instead of boring - but you will all stick together and support the group decision after hashing out the details at a staff meeting.

You can then start the team-building skills and games that are taught by many leadership training organizations, including the AAWD, to help your team members get to know each other better and learn how to work together to accomplish the goals you set. The important thing is, you and your team will be happy on the journey! The adage “People are your most important asset” is wrong! Not just any people are your most important asset. The right people are!