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The Benefits of a Strengths-Based Orthodontic Practice

By Dr. Emily Watson

Medical practitioners who open their own practices –– or take over an existing practice –– aren’t always ready for their new role as a business person and boss.

In part, this is the nature of our training.

Doctors, dentists, orthodontists, and other medical professionals devote years to learning the skills we need to improve the lives of patients. What we aren’t taught is how to manage a business or read a profit-and-loss statement. We aren’t taught how to figure out what the expenses should be for the practice. We aren’t taught how to manage employees. Our credentials say such things as MD or DDS, not MBA. 

We arrive at our newly opened or newly acquired practices excited about treating the people who come to us for care. But we also have, almost overnight, become bosses and are asking ourselves, “What leadership skills do I need? How do I set expectations and communicate them to my team?”

That was me nine years ago.

I took over an existing practice ready to put my orthodontic skills to use, but walked into a work situation where gossip, drama, and negativity ran rampant. What in the world had I gotten myself into? I preferred to focus on correcting overbites, underbites, and other problems with teeth, but it was clear that one of my priorities needed to be correcting an out-of-balance work culture.

Initially I was hesitant to do so, not because I was OK with what I saw going on, but instead because I didn’t relish the idea of having those difficult conversations with team members. I didn’t want to deal with the conflict and make people resolve the issues they had with each other.

Looking back, I know that’s not the right course. Sometimes those conversations must happen and it’s better for everyone involved when they do.

So, like many other medical professionals who suddenly are business owners, I got to work learning.


Finding Your Strengths

As it happens, I had a foreshadowing that I needed to hone my people-management skills back when I was in my residency. One day someone in an assisting program was assigned to do X-rays with me. I was in a time crunch and in my haste to finish I was abrupt with that person, leaving her with hurt feelings. Afterward, a faculty member discussed the situation with me. “I understand you were in a rush and needed to get this done,” he said, “but six months from now you are going to graduate and will have an entire group of people you need to lead.”

That was my initial wake-up call and I thought, “What will I do? I better figure this out.”

I started studying leadership development by listening to audio books, one of which happened to be StrengthFinders 2.0., which is based on a study by the Gallup organization and promotes focusing on strengths rather than weaknesses. So, before I took over the practice, I already had at least an inkling that running an orthodontics practice required knowledge of more than just orthodontics. Clearly, I hadn’t realized to what degree, though. 

The question now was how fast could I get up to speed –– especially since my natural tendency was to avoid conflict. I had arrived on the first day excited about owning my own practice, but within months all of that excitement was being slowly and inexorably drained from me. The stress was compounded by the fact I was pregnant with my first child and we also did some remodeling to the offices that brought its own series of difficulties and tension.  

Fortunately, even though I didn’t have the training and background to address the leadership challenges before me, there exist people who do. In the first year I owned the practice I attended a conference where a consultant using that Gallup research gave a lecture on how to build a strengths-based team.

In effect, Gallup has a list of 34 strengths and each person has certain ones they are especially good at and that come naturally to them. There are other, lesser strengths that they might be good at some of the time. And finally, at the bottom of the list are strengths that don’t come naturally at all and may continue to be a struggle for them no matter how much effort they give. The concept is that you focus on your true strengths, making those better and putting them to use so that you are more effective in bringing about results.

After the seminar, I approached the consultant, Vicki Newell, and let her know I could use her help. I have been working with her and her team at Engaged Practice Growth Specialists ever since.

Over the course of that time I have seen evidence that it makes a difference when you understand a person and their strengths. My current treatment coordinator, who has been with me for seven years, is a good example. She originally called about a front-desk position and that’s the job she interviewed for. When Vicki met her, Vicki told me, “She’s going to be your treatment coordinator one day.” One of her top strengths is woo, which stands for winning others over and is the perfect strength for a treatment coordinator, who needs to be good with people and make them feel comfortable. 

Sometimes people don’t realize just how strong they are in certain areas. The strengths assessment showed that one of my employees ranked high in the “developer” trait, which is a great strength for teaching and helping others to hone their skills. This apparently surprised her because she insisted she wouldn’t be good at training someone and was hesitant to do so.

But we trusted the assessment and it was correct. She is a wonderful teacher. 

I love focusing on how people can use what they do naturally to be happy and productive at work, rather than force them to be someone or something they are not.


Keeping the End Goal in Mind

One important leadership lesson I have learned through the years is something we talked about in our team’s book club –– that being clear is being kind. If your employer asks how you are doing, and your response is, “Everything is great,” when in truth everything is not great, then that’s a problem. You can’t expect someone to intuitively know you have a problem unless you communicate with them about what the issues are.

The same holds true for those in leadership positions. It’s crucial that I communicate my expectations to my team. If a struggling employee asks me how they are doing, and I’m not clear with my reply and make suggestions on how they need to improve, then several months later they are going to wonder why they are being fired.

Dealing with conflict still doesn’t come naturally to me, especially if I am in the basement of my strength, rather than the balcony. But I’ve learned that it is important to keep in mind what your end goal is. If your goal is to have a team of people who are honest, care about each other, and trust one another, then you aren’t going to get there if you can’t communicate and be frank with each other.

When you think of it that way, you can summon the courage to go through that difficult situation because you know it’s what’s best for the practice.

Even if you feel uncomfortable while you’re doing it.