Post-COVID leadership in dentistry
Simon Gambold explores how effective leadership can help build a more productive practice and build a better patient experience.
Much has already been written about the impact of COVID on the operation of practices. However, the effect on our leadership and the challenges that go with it, have received little coverage. But, I believe, these present the biggest opportunities.
Many practices have seen their whole process change, their patients journey digitised and their teams changing working hours and treatments patterns.
We have seen a terrific response from team members to the changes required. The ongoing uncertainty has left many of us in vulnerable situations. Situations we as leaders are looked to for comfort, support and a clear view of what lies ahead.
As principals of a practice, or associate dentists, we share a leadership role in the eyes of our teams. We have the opportunity to develop our leadership skills to provide the right working environment for team members and patients alike.
Walk the talk
By practising our skills as leaders each day, we can create a happier, more productive workplace. A workplace that we can enjoy coming to and one that leaves our patients with a great experience whenever they visit us or contact the practice.
Through engaging our team members, those we work with, to input their ideas, we encourage enthusiasm as well as eliciting great ideas. In doing so we create motivated colleagues who will input more, co-operate more and achieve more as part of a team that they believe in.
Key to engaging our teams is to help them understand how their work contributes to the overall mission. That they are part of a team and critically that they trust the leader of the team.
Trust can be built through the actions we take and not just by what we say. We must ‘walk the talk’.
Being open to ideas, having honest conversations, encouraging new ideas and discussing mistakes in terms of how we can improve things next time, rather than asking who screwed up.
As leaders we can bestow a unique gift. We can help others be more successful than they believe they can be.
Each of us has a voice in our heads telling us we cannot do something, asking are we good enough, giving excuses why we will not try something new. Great leaders create the environment that allows people to try, to fail in safety and try again – the best way to learn!
Contrary to popular myth, we can learn leadership. By practising the essential skills, we can become better. This will help our team members be successful and creating a more rewarding environment.
There are some simple steps to follow, steps that you can execute in a few hours a week. They recognise that we are the production engine of our organisations and cannot spent every hour of every day leading our teams.
The key elements on our leadership journey are:
- Creating a compelling future – setting the vision; where do we want to be in five years? What can we do that will inspire us and others?
- Engaging in meaningful work – our purpose; what is it we will do over and above providing oral care that supports the communities we serve?
- Being clear about standards and principles – setting standards and agreeing values; how will you treat each other and customers? Set a clear framework in which others can operate effectively
- Create a ‘high performance’, yet safe culture – hold the team to a higher standard, being strong on performance yet kind-hearted on the people
- Creating positive relationships – connection, be the ‘oil’ that connects and lubricates relations. Building relationships with all the practice stakeholders: team members, patients, suppliers, owners/investors and the local community
- Prioritise personal and professional growth – create personal development plans for you and your teams. Review progress and secure the training needed.
By having regular, open and honest conversations with each team member we can build their engagement.
Delegate day to day administration to the right team member. But what we cannot delegate is the responsibility for understanding each team member, their needs and ambitions and crafting our story in a way that helps them meet their goals.
If we can do that, they will love us and the team they are part of.
Collaboration and productivity increases
Research demonstrates the relationship between engaged teams and productivity, profitability, creating outstanding customer experiences and building a great place to work. *
The evidence shows focus on leadership and the resulting greater employee engagement drives performance, customer and team satisfaction.
As engagement builds, so team members become more motivated to go the extra mile, both for colleagues and customers. As a result, accidents at work and sickness absence reduces. Collaboration and productivity increase as we create a virtuous circle that drives positive benefits for patients and other stakeholders alike.
I see this happen in many of the practices I work with. However, the busier and larger the practice becomes, the harder it is to focus on these goals and to act in line with our vision.
We need to allocate time, block out windows in our schedule for review and reflection, build slots into our diary to have the ‘one to one’ and group sessions with our teams.
As we came out of lockdown, practices had to re-invent their processes and accelerate the change to a digital customer journey.
We now see a socially-distanced experience that maximises the technology available, whilst maintaining the unique patient experience with the clinician.
Many dentists are telling me they are enjoying the extra time with patients. They have come up with various ways to compensate for the lower productivity that COVID rules have brought. Some open for longer hours and combine treatments into a single appointment for example.
As we approach our teams in the new world, we need to ensure we start with the right mindset.
We need to have a clear-eyed optimism to take the business forward. Whilst remaining realistic about the challenges and what we can achieve.
We need to retain focus, ensuring those issues that concern us but that we cannot influence, do not derail us. Instead focus on those issues we can influence. And especially those we can control. Ensure our time is spent productively and that we do not enter a cycle of negativity.
Key is to practise our skills. As we develop our clinical skills, so we need to develop our leadership skills.
We must ‘walk the talk’. People will see what we do, not just what we say. And we must be tough on standards of performance and kind-hearted on people. People will respect being held to account for something they are committed to, if we are considerate of them when they need time for personal and family related issues.
It’s important to pay attention and listen: ‘Wait for the silence to end’. In other words let them finish speaking and pause, then respond.
‘How can I help?’ is a very good introductory phrase.
They have a problem that they probably know the answer to. Just give them time to get there and permission to action their solution.
Remember, the team comes first, before even your patients. If they are not engaged, not happy, it does not matter how good your rapport is with patients, they will undo the good work.
Engaged, they will build on it and support the vision you have set out.
Why should they follow you? What will you do for them?
It’s important to understand their priorities and goals. By understanding them you are more likely to get them onboard as engaged team members.
Then you can hold them, and yourself, to a higher standard, lifting the performance of the team. Just as we do when facing a higher calibre player at sport, we lift our game.
Finally, do what you say you are going to do; I am always surprised by how often we fail here. Of course, we cannot always meet deadlines. But flagging up challenges and asking for more time works better than just not delivering.
What’s holding them back?
Our job is to remove obstacles, provide resources, give permission. Once we have teased out the ideas, they can execute.
But we have to let go. It’s ok when they do it differently!
Getting the right people in the right role is important. But their attitude is the most important part of our success, something to remember as we recruit.
How patients feel as they leave the practice is what I call our brand.
Brand follows culture, which is driven by the team’s behaviour. So getting them engaged pays.
A team that exhibits enthusiasm, smiles a lot and is always there to help each other and the customer will succeed.
Let’s reflect on our behaviour, how the interactions with team members went. What could we do differently next time?
Time and time again we see not enough communication, both to team members and patients.
Communicate clearly, consistently and regularly. It only seems like you are repeating yourself. To others it takes two or three goes for them to hear us, there is so much going on!
People are nervous and will fill a vacuum with their own concerns if we are not clear with them. Always give time to discuss the new, is it clear, what are their questions and concerns?
Building a better patient experience
Now in 2021 we can step back from the day-to-day changes in the practise routine and focus a little more on our leadership journey.
By taking time to create a personal development plan for our leadership skills we are making an investment in ourselves that will pay dividends.
Next, we can set regular team meetings where we recognise outstanding team members, say our thank yous, update everyone on progress, share experiences and ideas and use the power of the team to discuss and agree next steps in our plan.
Whether running a practice, a team or just learning the ropes, we can practise leadership skills to build teams around us who will be productive, deliver a great patient experience and enjoy a happier workplace.
In our post COVID world, we can make time to talk to each of our team members, understand their perspective, ambitions and concerns, spend time building trust and helping them contribute more and as a result get more back.
The result is not just a more productive practice and a better patient experience, but also a happier workplace for both us and our teams.
Let’s give it a try!
* organisations with a high level of engagement report 22% higher productivity, according to an analysis of 1.4 million employees conducted by the Gallup Organization.
Benefits include lower absenteeism and staff turnover, so lower recruitment costs. Higher scoring organisations report 48% fewer safety incidents and 41% fewer quality incidents.
For further information go to engagetheteam.co.uk.
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