From the top


21358547_xxl_PPEffective leadership is essential in practices of any size, but many dentists struggle with staff management. Here’s how to be a better boss. By Angela Tufvesson

Owning and managing a dental practice requires both clinical and managerial skills. Keeping up with advances in technology, managing treatment plans and maintaining good relationships with your patients is just as important as leading your staff.

The trouble is, although about half of Australian dentists own their own practice, most haven’t undergone any management training. University courses don’t typically offer subjects that teach small business management skills, so most dentists simply purchase a practice after doing their time in a clinical setting.

Because of this, Dr Rick Olive, president of the Australia Dental Association (ADA), says staff retention is becoming a major issue for practice owners because they lack the skills to keep staff happy, which could put their practice at risk.

“We don’t retain staff—we tend to turn them over,” he says. “When studying dentistry, we’re not selected because of our leadership or management skills. We get a good score to get into university and the training has nothing to do with management—it’s all about how to do dentistry. There’s not much opportunity for leadership training and that’s an issue for the future leadership of the profession.”

Anita Roubicek, chief executive officer of dental practice management firm Prime Practice, says the problem isn’t isolated to dentists. In fact, most small business owners struggle with leadership.

“If you’re a small business owner in a niche area, you’re very good at your craft but chances are you’ve never really had any training or education around how to lead a team or even how to run a business, and that makes it tough,” says Roubicek. “If you’re in a larger organisation, they often have a lot of development training for people they put into leadership positions.”

On-the-job training

Recent research published in the Australian Dental Journal found that without being prompted by a response category, dentists nominated efficient and loyal staff as the most important contributor to a successful practice. And the overwhelming majority of dentists believed that small business management skills, including staff leadership techniques, should be taught to the dental fraternity at undergraduate and post-graduate levels.

Dr Olive says the ADA is concerned about the issue but there has been little interest in adjusting course structures among Australian universities. The good news, however, is that there is a lot you can do to improve your leadership skills without committing to an MBA that you don’t have time for or hiring a management consultant you can’t afford.

Develop a vision and goals

“Many people just decide to buy a practice and hope it is successful, but they really don’t have a vision in mind about what it should look like,” says Roubicek. “Without a vision, you don’t know what you need in your practice to help create that business for you.”

Whether you’ve recently purchased a practice or your doors have been open for many years, she recommends doing an audit of your business. What are your business values? What sort of image do you want to convey to patients? Where do you want to be in five years?

Next, Roubicek says, set goals that will help you to achieve your vision and share them with your team. You might want to grow your patient database by a certain percentage each year, decrease client turnover or see more patients each day. Sharing these goals with your staff will help to create trust and loyalty, as well as benefit your bottom line.

Communicate your expectations clearly

You may have a great chairside manner, but many dentists struggle to communicate with their staff, often erring too far on the side of either draconian boss or best mate. “The easiest thing to do is to simply make your expectations as clear as possible from the beginning so staff feel comfortable to express their concerns and communicate what’s going on,” says clinical psychologist Dr Jeremy Adams, director of Eclectic Consulting.

When it comes to managing staff individually, Dr Adams says it pays to remember that in addition to the legal employment contract you have with your staff, an informal ‘psychological contract’ also exists.

“This is an unwritten agreement between the employer and employee that contains each party’s expectations,” he says. “For example, a psychological contract from the employer’s point of view might say, ‘I expect this person to turn up on time, give notice when they can’t and be professional’. The employee’s psychological contract might say, ‘I expect my employer to treat me with respect, take into account I have a life outside work, not have unrealistic expectations and communicate well’.

“It’s never actually written down in a formal contract but it’s really useful to discuss the expectations of both parties at the beginning so people don’t have to read each other’s minds and end up disappointed.”

Delegate and share your business

“As a leader, it’s hard to let go and trust and empower others,” says Roubicek. “You may want to get involved in everything but you can’t.” The solution? Delegation. Create clear position descriptions for each of your staff, including yourself, and maintain a flat business structure that encourages collaboration.

“If the head dentist is sticking his nose into a whole lot of things that aren’t his responsibility, that’s going to be a waste of everyone’s time,” says Dr Adams. “I recommend encouraging staff to be a lot more responsible for their own actions, but there should be lots of opportunities for touching base with each other. Having a strong hierarchical structure in a small practice doesn’t make sense at all, so people should feel comfortable giving feedback and talking things through.”

The feedback loop

So, how do you know if you’ve filled the leadership brief? Both Dr Adams and Roubicek agree that low staff turnover and reduced rates of absenteeism are positive signs that your staff is engaged with work and happy on the job.

“Regular sick leave is a good indication that a person has withdrawn psychologically from the job,” says Dr Adams. “If your staff appear to be engaged, enthusiastic, happy, have been there a long time and give useful feedback, that’s a sign you’re doing a good job.”

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