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How to be a successful dentist CEO


The best CEOs know that their success or failure depends on their ability to inspire and guide the people in their company.

When I work with dentist entrepreneurs in emerging or small group practices with three to 10 practices, they often began their journey envisioning themselves as the CEO of their future enterprise-away from the “chair,” sitting in a corporate wood-paneled office, meeting with a stellar executive team that is getting the job done in each department, with little or no oversight. They imagined themselves in a leather padded swivel chair, turning around as they look out through their floor to ceiling windows at the cityscape, all the while having a conversation on their headset. “Ah, it will be great,” they think.

What they don’t realize is being a CEO isn't about having a C-level title, a corner office, or the power to make important company decisions. The best CEOs know that their success or failure depends on their ability to inspire and guide the people in their company.

Being a CEO doesn’t mean to manage people; being a CEO means to lead people.

Read more: How to grow your dental practice in a competitive market

Manager versus CEO corporate leader

Having worked in a number of corporate environs for more than a decade, along with having worked with many dentist owners in solo or small group practices, I’ve noticed some parallels. If I had to classify who dentists are in a corporate setting, I’d say dentists are basically “middle managers.”

Middle managers make sure that people do their job. Middle managers make sure all the operational pieces are working. Middle managers stay in communication with the other stakeholders who are needed for operational success. But dentists differ from middle managers because dentists don’t report to anyone, and that is one of the major flaws of dentistry. Dentists have no one to be accountable to except themselves-and that’s dangerous.

Management’s job is getting work done through people. The CEO’s job is developing people through work. Management is about the day to day. The CEO is about the future. Management is generating appropriate action that leads to results. The CEO is about generating appropriate thinking so the people grow and develop, which leads to better actions and results. Management is about reaching the goal. The CEO is about setting the goal. The CEO is about peer relationships, while management is about hierarchical relationships.

Dentist CEOs have difficulty because they think they’ve been leading, but what they’ve actually been doing is managing.

The accountability of the CEO

The CEO is accountable to the core values being stringently upheld -- that the vision is clear and the team is fully engaged in those actions that will make the vision a reality. The CEO is accountable for hiring the right executive team to get it done. The CEO is accountable for the fulfilment of the strategic plan and making the agreed upon goals each quarter. The CEO is the ultimate “committed listener,” ensuring employees, managers and directors all deliver on their word. The CEO is accountable for generating a culture where integrity really matters.

The CEO is also accountable to the lenders and vendors. The CEO inherently gives their word that they will honor the organization’s agreements, leases and contracts. The CEO is accountable for payroll being met.

More from the author: Are DSOs headed for trouble?

In summary, the CEO is accountable to the core values being profoundly embedded and embraced in the enterprise, the senior executive team performing well and the company achieving its strategic goals. They do this not through management, but through leadership. Not through direct orders, commands or requests (that’s management), but through influence.

Influence is the capacity to affect the character, development, or behavior of someone or something. Influence is an area where dentists perform poorly. They haven’t developed the skillset to influence people, so they revert to management to get things done. Dentists’ ability to impact, stimulate and inspire is simply not well developed.

The CEO sees where the organization needs to go as the future unfolds. The CEO’s job is to keep the company relevant and growing, increase recognition in their space and expand brand awareness. But the CEO’s job always comes down to being a powerful leader who inspires and ignites others in such a way that they are committed to the company and to its mission.

Up next: Why dentist CEOs fail...


Causes for dentist CEO failure

In the U.S., according to a recent study by the Center for Creative Leadership, nearly 40 percent of new chief executives fail outright within their first 18 months on the job, and even more of them fail to live up to the expectations of those who hired them. I assume this ratio is also applicable to dentistry.

Most budding dentist CEOs are not clear on what is expected of them, of their behavior and actions related to their new leadership role. In her book "Lead Like It Matters … Because It Does," Roxi Hewertson presents her view of why CEOs fail:

High or low self-confidence. "Knowing is the easy part-doing is the hard part," Hewertson told Business News Daily. "We all know what good and bad leadership looks like and feels like. Once in the role, however, people often forget what they know and get full of themselves, or are so totally unsure of themselves which makes them ineffective." 

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Wrong expectations. It's one thing to be a “boss in a dental practice”; it's another to lead your senior team members. Up-and-coming CEOs are frequently unprepared to deal with the cold, hard realities of working with a group, so many times they either ignore problems that arise or react poorly to them.

When they were in practice, they could order people or correct people in a one-on-one fashion. They were benevolent dictators in order to get things working. But as a CEO, if you lead by being autocratic, the team will respond poorly and perform poorly.

Rarely do new CEOs have a clue about what they are really getting into. For many dentist CEOs, it's not what they expected or had the desire or even the competencies to do well.

Wrong fit. You need many different capabilities to master the discipline of CEO leadership. It's no longer just about you. You only succeed when your people succeed, and many new leaders don't make this shift elegantly. Instead of focusing on work as they have done in the past, CEOs need to support the other people doing the work so that those people are successful.

Ignoring relationships. Being a CEO is all about relationships-growing trust, building teams and utilizing excellent interpersonal skills. New CEOs pay a high price for ignoring the important process of building healthy relationships. To create these relationships, CEOs need to pay attention to their teams -- not just their own agenda. The CEO’s job is to have the team succeed, not to make the CEO succeed.

Failure to listen. Leaders tend to think they have or need to act like they have all the answers. In reality, they don't have the answers, and they shouldn't act like it, Hewertson says. “Listening is not a strong suit for many new CEOs, and too often they jump in quickly rather than listening, learning and building on what they see.”  

Lack of self-awareness. One point Hewertson makes over and over about CEOs is, "Without first being self-aware of one's strengths and weaknesses, it's very difficult to manage one's own behaviors or to be aware of others or to manage relationships effectively."

More from the author: Is your practice prepared for the future?

She goes on to say: "It's essential to know your own purpose, values and vision, how you as CEO are perceived by others, including what's working and what's not working for your team. Then you can take that knowledge and apply it to gain and enhance the skills needed to be a highly effective CEO."

One of my jobs is to educate, train and develop dentist entrepreneurs to be CEO corporate leaders. If they can’t see the changes they need to make and how they need to think and act to identify what’s really important and what’s not, or if they get stuck in management and not in leadership, then a tough road lies ahead.

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