Good leaders lead; great leaders know when to follow

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Good leaders lead; great leaders know when to follow

Sally McKenzie is CEO of McKenzie Management. (DTI/Photo McKenzie Management)
Sally McKenzie, USA

Sally McKenzie, USA

Tue. 15 November 2011


In business, it is often said that what got you to where you are today won’t keep you there. As you well know, being an excellent clinician requires ongoing training and education; it doesn’t stop with your DDS, DMD, or specialty degree. Similarly, running your practice doesn’t stop with merely managing people and monitoring systems. Those won’t guarantee your success any more than the letters behind your name do.

Your success is contingent upon more than great dentistry and good management. That’s the easy part. Achieving true excellence demands inspiration, motivation, and leadership.

The manner in which you lead has a profound and powerful impact on your personal success. Do you have what it takes to effectively lead your team through difficult as well as prosperous times? Read through the list below, and as you do, challenge yourself to answer the questions honestly. We all have leadership strengths as well as weaknesses. The struggle, of course, is in maximizing the strengths and shoring up the weaknesses.

Communicate: Do you communicate clearly and continually with your team? You simply must express your practice goals and objectives to your staff. It is said that some two-thirds of employees do not know their employer’s goals or business philosophy. Open the lines of communication with your team. Encourage ongoing discussion, feedback, and problem solving from everyone.

Vision: Do you have a vision and do your employees know what it is? Vision is the ability to see your practice, not where it is today, but where you want it to be when you’re done. If so, share your vision as well as your passion for achieving it. If you see the practice you want in your mind’s eye, and you share that with your team, you can develop the systems and strategies to make the vision your reality.

Ask questions: Do you ask the hard questions regularly? Resist the urge to be satisfied with the simple answers. Look below the surface. Ask yourself every day what can be improved. What system is not delivering the results it should? Why? What needs to be changed, adjusted, and improved? Remember that being the leader doesn’t require that you have all the answers, but it does require that you routinely question the way you and your staff do things. While you’re at it, regularly ask yourself questions related to your leadership.

For example: Am I communicating a vision for my practice to my staff? Am I doing what I need to do to achieve my priorities? Do I give my team the tools and training they need to achieve their priorities and help me achieve mine? Do I give employees timely and direct feedback they can act on? Can I handle the pressure that comes with leading a team and running a practice? Do I need help?

Accountability: Have you established clear, written expectations for every team member? It is common for practice leaders to face significant challenges in establishing accountability among the team. Often, job duties and expectations are not clearly defined. Team members don’t take responsibility for their actions. The practice doesn’t have systems in place to solve problems and individuals waste valuable time backbiting, gossiping, and wallowing in frustration. Accountability is key. It builds trust and confidence among the entire staff.

Courage: Do you take action when problems arise? Talk about issues and problems that stand in your way. Don’t look the other way. Address the issues that don’t make you popular: problem employees; showing up on time; following the dress code and office procedures; and treating each other and every patient with dignity, respect, and patience.

Address your own weaknesses

Leaders demonstrate many positive qualities and chief among those would be the ability to build a team of leaders whose strengths balance the boss’s shortcomings, which brings me to a very important step: Unlock your team’s leadership potential.

Your staff looks to you for leadership and guidance. But too often, dentists set themselves up not only as the leader but as the only person with the answers. Do all eyes turn to you every time there is a question or problem? If so, you’ve placed a virtually impenetrable ceiling on practice potential. If Individuals on the team are not encouraged to problem solve and demonstrate some measure of leadership themselves, personal and professional growth is stymied for everyone, including the doctor. But leadership doesn’t just happen. You have to cultivate it in your team.

To do that likely requires that you let go of some of the very beliefs and behaviours that enabled you to achieve success in the first place. Where you’ve insisted on control you may need to step aside and provide the opportunity for employees to step in. It likely means that everyone needs to be open to adopting new mindsets and skill sets. It requires changing and adapting in order to realize the vision that you have for your practice, and it requires encouraging others to take risks and grow as professionals. That begins by taking an honest look at each person’s strengths and weaknesses.

Encourage each member of your team to identify two or three of their greatest strengths and weaknesses. Ask them to work with each other in doing this and gather feedback from others on the team who will be honest and constructive.

Next ask each member of the team to identify the three or four critical activities that are essential for their individual success. If Joelle’s critical responsibilities as a dental assistant are communicating with patients, turning over rooms, and anticipating the doctor’s requests during procedures, she cannot excel if she is routinely interrupted with questions from newly hired business employees. Consequently, she cannot grow as a leader in this area of the practice. Identify those tasks, procedures, weakened systems, and gaps in training that are stymieing the team members’ individual leadership abilities.

Insist that employees lead each other by example. Individual employees seldom realize how their actions affect the behaviours of their teammates. Employees both consciously and subconsciously look to each other for positive or negative behaviour examples. If one person continually blames others when things go wrong, so too will others on staff. If one employee routinely comes in late, others will be more likely to do the same. Negative behaviours unravel leadership potential. Don’t ignore them; address them.

Cultivate a leadership mindset. Ask your team to consider what they would do if they were the ultimate decision maker. Urge them to make recommendations that will benefit the practice’s overall performance, even when it means changing the way they do things. Insist that they speak up even when expressing unpopular views.

Hold your own thoughts until others have voiced their opinions. The boss’s words can instantly blanket the room in stifling silence. Never put down a team member’s opinion. Even if you disagree with someone’s suggestion or recommendation, try to build on it rather than knock it down. Embarrassment will shut down the flow of ideas immediately. Dissenting opinions and different ways of looking at problems to identify solutions are critical. Playing it safe could cost the practice patients, profits, and eventually staff.

Support your team in their efforts to use their creative problem solving skills to develop best practices for serving patients and moving the overall goals and objectives forward. Use experience to teach and failure to coach. Teams must be given the chance to learn from their mistakes or they will never have the courage to lead in their areas. Don’t let the ghosts of former failures haunt you or your team. An idea that was ahead of its time two years ago and failed may be exactly what you’re looking for today.

Finally, get out of the way and let your team members take ownership and leadership of their areas.

Note: This article was published in Dental Tribune Canada, Vol. 5, No. 5, October 2011.

About the author

Certified Management Consultant Sally McKenzie is a nationally known lecturer and author. She is CEO of McKenzie Management, which provides highly successful and proven management services to dentistry. McKenzie welcomes specific practice questions and can be reached at


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