I realized very early on that I needed help, all I could get. I have always sought out the best guidance I could find, and I realized in hindsight that the guides, the ones with whom I stayed, the ones with whom I grew, were growing with me. In 2006 I wrote an article that was published in "Dental Practice Report" about my experiences with assistance in managing my dental practice, and the beliefs about all of us benefiting from guidance has only been strengthened with time.
Business is no longer a dirty word in dentistry. Few are left who feel conflicted when saying professional and dental practice entrepreneur in the same sentence. Several practice management companies have created business curricula for dental schools, and some dental schools have created their own departments and/or programs around practice business management. Part of the force behind this trend is the necessity of most new grads to support significant debt service, and in that regard business had to become part of dental education. The number of grads who feel they have no choice other than working for a large dental conglomerate is due in part to this debt, but I believe a very large factor in that decision is the discomfort many (most?) new dentists feel when considering business. With little confidence in managing a commercial enterprise and looming financial need it can be very difficult to take that leap.
The Three Yous
A primary problem upon entry into the dental business world as a dental practice owner is the immediate need to become both the CEO and the CFO of the fledgling business. In the corporate business world, junior executives are always being consulted and coached and mentored. The competition to ascend the ladder notwithstanding, there are continuous opportunities to learn from those who have been there. Sometimes the learning occurs through doing what one is told to do, sometimes by observation and listening, and sometimes by collaboration with a senior co-worker. Often there are official protocols for direct mentoring by a senior co-worker.
In dental practice, I often hear the words mentor, coach, and consultant used interchangeably to describe the activities of someone assisting the doctor with the management of his or her practice. I believe that these functions, while not mutually exclusive of the same individual, are very different in their roles with regard to you – all three of you. You-number-one is the entrepreneur and leader of the business you have established. You-number-two is the manager of that business. You-number-three is the dentist working IN the business. Each YOU possesses a different level of training, understanding, expertise, and ability. Each YOU also benefits differently from consulting, coaching, and mentoring.
Consulting is all about being an outsider looking in. The adage that dental practice consultants are individuals who are paid a lot of money to tell you what you already knew but couldn’t see, does not diminish their effectiveness or necessity, particularly in offering solutions. You are VERY aware you have a problem. When I have opportunities to work with dentists in their practices, I am always amazed by the clarity with which I see the reasons behind the concerns they express when they invite me in. For 20 of my 23 years as the co-owner of a private practice, my partner and I employed consultants to see that which escaped us.
I met Jim Pride while I was still in dental school. In the early years of our relationship, following acquisition of our practice, Laura, our Pride consultant, Consulted us by telling us what to do. I was directed to employ systems that were developed by Jim and his team while working with many, many Pride Institute clients. I did as we were “consulted” because I had no reference for individualizing the systems, something that changed as we found the parts and pieces that delivered and left behind parts that did not resonate for us. The relationship between Laura and us (and Jim and I) changed, my partner and I changed, our expectations changed, and our needs changed. We continued to need that outsider looking in to see for us that which we could not see. We did not, however, need or want to be offered solutions. We no longer needed a consultant. We needed a Coach.
The spouse of one of the dentists I’ve been privileged to work with is a two-time U.S.A. Olympian in cross-country skiing. We were discussing coaching and coaches for dentists. I expressed my wonder about a particular coach she spoke very highly of who had never skied competitively but was considered by many as one of the finest cross-country skiing coaches in the world. She explained to me that his coaching is not about the skiing, it’s about the skier. In sports, consulting and coaching are often defined with that same word, “coach”. But coaching differs from consulting. When a young Lance Armstrong began his cycling career he had a consultant. He was counseled on technique, on equipment, on strategy. When a seasoned veteran won his seventh Tour, he was being coached. Two very well paid men, who could no longer tell him how to ride that bike, assisted Lance in reaching his potential on it. Later events notwithstanding, he could not have done it without them.
Unlike consulting, where solutions with precise instructions are offered, coaching offered my partner and I a process out of which our vision for our practice developed. Dental practice coaches ask questions rather than give answers. They are observers. They take us inside ourselves and assist in our development as leaders. They draw out what is already within and empower us to take action on it. The best consultants always understand that success comes in no longer being needed as a consultant, but growing into and becoming valued as a coach.
What, then, is a Mentor?
Mentors are individuals who have traveled the path we seek to follow. They may fill a role as a consultant or a coach depending on our needs and their comfort with the things that are working us at any given time, but if they are practicing their primary role is that of an example. I have observed that dentists who develop a relationship with a mentor are able to move more quickly and clearly toward their preferred future. It is precisely for this reason that one of the goals of Spear Study Clubs is to build groups with a broad range of experience and experiences. It is the third YOU, the practicing dentist, that gets the most from being mentored.
Dentistry is a tough job. It’s demanding and stressful to perform highly technical, intricate procedures continuously on a daily basis. Our mentors show us that we can do it because they did, and they are. Unlike our consultants and our coaches who are not dentists, our dental mentors are more like us – they are or were practicing dentists, seeking to do their best dentistry, managing their businesses, and seeking to learn more about each. Sometimes they listen. Sometimes they challenge. Always they support. Their map is not always the map we choose to follow, but their example – as individuals who continue to see their vision and map their future accordingly – inspires us to do the same.
One of my mentors told me that one of the keys to my success was surrounding myself with my Board of Directors. My board is composed of people who are willing and able to see my vision and hold me accountable for going to it. Some are consultants, some are coaches, and some are mentors. Sometimes they are all three in one person. Nobody has ALL the answers, which is why we all need consultants and coaches and mentors, Oh my.
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Gary DeWood, D.D.S., M.S., Spear Faculty and Contributing Author