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dental practice leadership

Many healthcare professionals, including dentists, are great clinicians, but struggle with other aspects of their jobs. This might include the business or organizational side of their practice, or strengthening interpersonal skills.

Very often, dentists are comfortable when they start out, as a member of a team, but have difficulty becoming leaders in their own business or as the head of a practice. This is a unique challenge that requires distinct solutions. The good news is that there are only a handful of strategies that, when implemented, can begin to cultivate dental practice leadership.

This article covers five methods for creating leadership and how to put them in place. It will help you formulate a leadership philosophy and create a tangible playbook for implementing it. Keep reading to find out how you can use leadership to create a better practice with more satisfied team members and happier, healthier patients.

1. Establish a Vision

If you want to develop dental practice leadership, action is important, but you must have direction as well. It is essential to create a clear vision of what you want your office environment to look like and what you wish your practice to achieve. This includes the values and culture of the office that you want to establish and work toward on a daily basis.

Start by brainstorming, on your own and with your team. Talk about what makes patients comfortable and satisfied with the care they receive, and what will keep them coming back. Conversely, discuss what would make them leave and never come back. This might sound negative, but it is actually a good practice and mental model to invert and think in reverse.

Like Charlie Munger recommends, ask what would kill your business and then never go there.

Set out goals and objectives to achieve the vision you described. Write them down. These can be as general or specific as necessary. Some objectives may be immediate, while others are something you and your team will work toward over time.

For instance, you might lay out routines or tasks to implement every day. You also might include a goal of growing your practice by a certain number of patients in the next year.

It is helpful to establish a timeline for achieving big goals. Be ambitious but realistic. You want objectives that push you and your team without setting yourself up for failure. We often overestimate what we can get done in a week, month or quarter but we severely underestimate what we can get done in 3-5 years, so think strategically and long term.

Be patient. Often, our goals and aspirations are lofty and we want everything done yesterday. It can take time to see your goals actualized in the real world.

Your goals and vision will help unify your team in a common purpose, build confidence among employees by creating an environment of trust, and spark the motivation needed to reach desired objectives. It's more than just good business; it’s about getting everyone on board with what success looks like together.

2. Lead by Example

Being a leader is not just about confidence or a take-charge attitude. In fact, many effective leaders do so through more subtle means, by doing rather than dictating. Doing things from the top down might work temporarily or in a crisis, but you can't consistently lead this way and be effective. Instead, you have to stimulate and motivate the team from the bottom up.

And the best way to achieve dynamic following is by modeling behaviors and attitudes that you expect from your team. This includes (but is not limited to) professionalism, kindness, empathy, honesty, and a commitment to patient-centered care.

We have all heard the quotes “lead by example” and “be the change you want to see.” Effective leaders are the head of the team, but they are part of it as well.

This sentiment is expressed well by another quote from the philosopher and founder of Chinese Taoism, Lao Tzu. “A leader is best when people barely know they exist, when their work is done, their aim fulfilled, the followers will say: ‘We did it ourselves’.” Being a leader means focusing on the goals and how you all, collectively, can get there.

Your own hard work and a positive attitude can go a long way toward setting expectations for your team. It can be motivating to them as well, especially during challenging times or when things do not go as planned.

Finally, one of the best ways you can lead by example is through modeling patient-centered care. Your practice is a business, but it is also a service organization. Ensuring that you embody an outlook and behaviors that demonstrate a passion for ensuring the best health outcomes and experience for patients can go far in inspiring the same in your team.

3. Delegate Responsibility and Encourage Collaboration

Being an effective leader in dental management means taking ownership of certain responsibilities while being able to delegate duties to others. If you have not already, it is imperative to realize that you cannot do it all on your own. A good leader knows when to take the bull by the horns and when to step aside and get out of the way.

Encourage your team to collaborate. This requires an environment where teamwork and open communication are encouraged and expected. It also is a way of empowering each member of your team to take on new and challenging roles, as time goes on.

Establish a mentorship program for new or younger staff. This will help your team succeed by fostering learning and giving more responsibility to more senior co-workers. All of this will help build trust and a sense of value in your practice.

Finally, don't be afraid to change things from time to time. Revisit your goals and strategies on a regular basis. Organizations are either A. Growing or B. Dying. There is no option C.

Get input from your team about how things might be done differently. This will not only yield new and innovative ideas but will make everyone feel that their role in the practice is always needed and valued.

4. Take Responsibility and Stay Engaged

Leading a dental practice also means delegating responsibilities while remaining engaged with all aspects of your clinic. Your team should know that you are willing to take ownership of how your practice operates. This entails more than merely being a great dentist but becoming a good business leader as well.

Note that there is a fine line between oversight and micromanaging. Remember to respect the responsibilities that belong to others, including the credit for triumphs. You can do this while letting team members know that your supervision is available when it is needed.

The bottom line is that, as a leader in the practice, it is important that people can depend on you to make difficult decisions. They also must know that you will take responsibility for any shortcomings as well as practice success.

Sometimes this aspect of leadership might mean being a positive influence in a situation, while others might mandate intervening even if it is uncomfortable. In short, you need to be willing to be present and available, but also decisive and assertive when necessary.

5. Invest in Your Team

For any business executive, there is always the fear that good employees will move on to other opportunities. While such worries are natural, embracing them is not a sign of a good leader.

First of all, people often change jobs and careers, much more frequently than at any time in history. Seeking to never lose a good employee is futile and foolish.

Second, while avoiding circumstances that make people want to leave is important, research shows employees are more motivated to stay at a job if they feel like they are part of a team and are valued.

More importantly, the capabilities of every player on your team determine its overall strength. In other words, investing in your staff is a good thing to do no matter how you look at it.

Provide internal and external office support. Think about your team's quality of life and the things that they value outside of their jobs. Let them know that you care about them leading healthy, satisfying lives (not just being productive employees).

All offices need structure, but employees appreciate generosity and loyalty as well. There are times when rules should be bent to help an employee who may be going through a tough time personally. Reciprocate their help every day in the office by helping them during difficult circumstances.

This applies to professional development as well. Insofar as it is feasible, offer incentives like helping pay for continuing education and encouraging them to learn new things outside their specific job duties in the practice. Years ago, a group of our team leaders signed up for an improv comedy workshop. At first glance, this might not appear as though it is related to clinical dentistry or orthodontics, but the new skills they learned strengthened their communication and ability to think quickly on their feet... and what job couldn't benefit from those attributes?

This goes for associates, dental hygienists, and administrators as well. If there are ways that your billing or inbound phones team want to expand their skill sets, find ways of helping them do that.

Investing in your team will help them know that you are committed to their success. It also allows you to expect more from them, which is good for the practice.

Learn More About Implementing Dental Practice Leadership Skills

Now that you have some dental practice leadership strategies, you can work to put them into action. Remember that developing leadership is an ongoing process, not an end goal to be achieved. That also means that you can start right now.

Dustin Burleson, DDS, MBA, has served as a speaker, teacher, author, and business strategist for more than 4,000 professional dental practices throughout 35 countries. He is a champion of patient-centered treatment and has a track record of helping doctors transform their businesses through better dental practice management. Reach out to us today to learn more.

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