Life Through Loupes
The sometimes myopic leadership perspective of the dental business owner
Craig Spodak, DMD
Many of us have known that we wanted to be dentists since we were kids. We went to school, studied, and graduated with our degrees. "Join a practice and get my feet wet? Nah, I'm going to start my own. I'm going to do dentistry my way and craft the life that I want. It'll be great," said everyone. Sure, you studied GV Black restorative outline form, human anatomy, and organic chemistry—you even know about enantiomer—however, you never received one hour of training on how to run a business or even on how to treat your team. So, what do you do? Dive right in, of course, because you are the business owner, and even if you don't know what you're supposed to do, you better at least proceed like you do. You create mission and vision statements, systems, protocols, "if-then" statements, employee manuals, payment procedures, and more. The doors are open, and you're busy. You're even crazy busy. Actually, you realize that you're just going crazy. Your team is running ragged, you are running ragged, and it just doesn't feel right. What's missing? It may be leadership.
A Vicious Cycle
One of the biggest weaknesses, or fracture points, in dentistry is that more than 70% of dentists own their own practices and function as the leader, but many have no training whatsoever to equip them for this critical task. I believe that the sheer fact that many of us have put ourselves into positions that we were not trained for is one of the most significant contributing factors to why the profession of dentistry is among those associated with the highest rates of depression, suicide, and divorce.
So, the majority of dentists are running businesses without sufficient training, and for those without strong innate leadership qualities, it's easy to be left feeling alone. And when you're uninspired and drained, it can be difficult to communicate with and inspire your team, which causes another fracture that, in turn, can lead to team members feeling like they are unable to contribute. They may withdraw from performing their best because they don't fully understand the "why" behind their efforts to serve patients and grow the business, and that can lead to a vicious cycle for a practice that was built with the goal of helping and serving people. I know because I was that practice owner. I suffered for it and had to experience these things several times before it finally got through my thick skull that people just need to be led.
Lead With Vision
You're the one who wanted to do this, so get clear about your vision. Many practice owners never create a vision statement or a plan at all, and even when they have a plan, many fail to effectively communicate it. People who want to do well and work for a good company where they serve a mission will leave to find a place where they can feel like they're a part of something, so without sharing a clear vision and a well-developed plan to achieve it, you'll lose these people. Then the cycle continues with your new hires, and it's a bad pattern. Believe me; I know.
When you hire good people and demonstrate the necessary leadership to retain them, the possibilities for growth are endless and you will benefit from continued team-driven leadership. There's no need for motivation, which many agree is a farce anyway. A team doesn't need to be motivated to be positioned for success, they just need to understand the practice's vision and mission and feel that it is aligned with their ideals. Remember, the existence of your team members goes beyond fixing teeth. It's about the values that they believe in, the work environment that they seek to be in, and more.
Pandemic concerns aside, I believe that one of the driving factors behind "The Great Resignation" of 2021 was that people were looking for money and meaning, not just money. They wanted strong relationships with the organizations they were working for and, most importantly, meaning. This is why dentistry is such an amazing field; we actually get paid to help people. We are so fortunate because we get to create money and meaning for ourselves and the teams that we lead. We all have stories of scared patients who we were able to put at ease and get out of pain. We get a chance to change people's lives.
I always say that dentistry is a noble profession. However, the caveat is that the person at the helm of a practice must be noble, or it can become contaminated. If the business owner's sole interest is to make money, people can sense that, and it won't be a pure and good endeavor.
To successfully lead their employees, business owners must first lead themselves. They must have a vision that is noble, clearly communicate their vision to their team members, describe what they see for the team members and their roles in the organization, and then take five huge steps backward and give the team the space to grow. Remember, things need to be managed, but people need to be led. A lot of it is about believing in yourself and believing in your people. One of the things that I wish I had learned sooner is that when you are hard on yourself, you're often hard on those around you. If you emotionally abuse yourself, you can unconsciously permit yourself to do it to others. Here's my advice: give yourself some grace. You were trained as a dentist in school, but the business stuff will be learned on your own timeline. By giving yourself grace and understanding, you'll do it for your team as well. When you believe in your people, lead from your vision with clear expectations, and get out of the way, magic can happen. Leadership is essential, but if you never let go, then your team will never learn to grow.
About the Author
Craig Spodak, DMD, is co-host of the Bulletproof Dental Practice podcast and maintains a private practice in Delray Beach, Florida.