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The Dentist as the Chief Executive Officer

The dentist’s average workday can be hectic and stressful just caring for the patients’ oral health. The additional burdens of worrying about new procedures, practice finances, staff issues, and equipment concerns can make workdays even more demanding. The complexities of modern life—actively participating in the family, eating right, exercising—only further extend the responsibilities of overworked clinicians.

Dentists are the primary revenue generators of the practice. Patients trust the clinician with their oral health, and the staff depends on him or her for their livelihoods. These demands require that dentists act as responsible chief executive officers (CEOs) of their practices. Dentists do not receive extensive business training in dental school, and they do not generally read business and leadership books or attend business seminars. This managerial aspect of the practice, however, does deserve consideration. Business training is a critical component that enables the practice to achieve its potential.


The Role of the CEO

Although most dentists feel they should be involved in day-to-day managerial operations, a CEO’s primary concern should be the implementation of a management team that will run the company’s operations and achieve the corporation’s goals. Successful CEOs understand that they should not have to do everything in order for their corporations to be successful.

Consider the fact that 9 out of 10 entrepreneurial businesses go bankrupt within 5 years. This factor is not necessarily due to an unsuccessful company or product concept. Entrepreneurial businesses generally fail because their CEOs do not know how, or are unwilling, to give up control. The clinicians do not trust the dental team because they do not know how to train their staff to manage specific responsibilities. Clinicians are so busy being entrepreneurs and producing results that they fail to build successful management teams.

Typically, dental practices do not go bankrupt. They do not, however, maximize their productivity or profitability either. In the 1990s, dentists were less concerned about profitability due to the stock market boom. Now that a significant shift in the stock market has occurred, more dentists are becoming increasingly concerned with profits. In order to achieve these challenging financial objectives, the clinician’s role as the CEO must change.


Method of Leadership

The author has developed a method to identify and continually elevate proven models for dental practice management. One of the models involves leadership training and has been of great benefit to many practices. The following steps outline this leadership model:

  1. Dentists must recognize that they are not available to truly manage their practices. Even if the clinician has a desire to manage his or her practice, it is virtually impossible to be a true “hands on” manager while remaining involved in patient care. As entrepreneurs, the first goal of every dentist should be to build a management team that understands the objectives of the practice. The dentist then becomes the evaluator of key performance indicators to guarantee that the desired results are being achieved.
  2. As the leader, dentists must create a vision for the practice. The vision is not simply a mission statement that reads, “Our practice is dedicated to the highest quality of care in a comfortable setting for our patients.” While that may be a delightful mission, it is probably the same one used by every office worldwide. A vision statement more clearly focuses on where the practice is going and serves as an internal document to guild decision making. The vision statement is not directly intended for patients. It should demonstrate to the team that the clinician—as the leader and CEO—has an understanding of the future goals of the practice. If a clinician successfully defines a vision, his or her team will become more involved in the envisioned goals.
  3. Dentists must understand that as leaders, they must coach their managers. The dentist should develop a written job description for every team member and provide Continuing Education and skills-development training courses, as well as a list of yearly objectives for each manager. Regular performance review meetings should keep these objectives in mind. Properly coached and empowered managers should be able to handle 99% of the issues that occur within their assigned areas without asking for support.
  4. As CEOs, clinicians must create a set of systems and processes. Dentistry must incorporate step-by-step systems, as do all successful businesses. The only difference is that most businesses demand that mangers document systems with collateral information in the case of staff turnover.
  5. Dentists must create a work environment that encourages regular communication. Most dentists say that while they are committed to open communication with their team members, their busy schedules often prevent them from communicating with their team members about anything other than a patient’s clinical care. The key to communicating effectively begins with the ability to listen. Listening skills can be improved by recognizing that listening is necessary for professional and personal success. Never listen just to be nice to others. Listening earns power, respect, and gratitude, and often reveals necessary information. More than 120 words per minute (wpm) of concentration should be given to the speaker. Most people speak at an average rate of 120 wpm. The average listening capacity is about 480 wpm, or four times faster. This differential causes minds to wander when another person is speaking. Giving team members a little more concentration—about 200 wpm of listening capacity—dissuades the mind from wandering as much. This is achieved by making eye contact, thinking intently about what is being said, sitting or standing upright, and asking questions. Do not think about responding until the speaker finishes talking, then say “Please give me a few minutes to think about what you have said.”

Leadership also requires the CEO to maintain a positive attitude at all times, demonstrate emotional stability, have an “open door” policy, and challenge team members to develop their own solutions and systems when they ask for guidance in areas where they are already proficient and skilled. Successful leaders will provide Continuing Education and skills-development opportunities within the practice and evaluate the team members who may not be able to improve their skills. The CEO is also faced with the difficult task of identifying nonproductive members who may need to be replaced. The clinician is responsible for setting an example by treating every patient the way the team should treat him or her, as well as treating the team as patients are treated. He or she should act as the team motivator by recognizing that motivation is a short-term emotion that needs to be reinforced on a regular basis and providing rewards and fair compensation so team members feel appreciated.


It is important to understand that developing leadership skills is a lifelong process. The best CEOs teach leadership and continue to act as students. Only through exposure to experts who have worked in numerous situations will the dentist gain a broader perspective of leadership. It is important to understand that leadership alone will not take the clinician where he or she wants to go. A leader without new skills will not be proficient. The combination of documenting step-by-step systems that are sustainable over time with excellent leadership skills will allow the dentist to become a true CEO. Ultimately, this will pave the way toward maximizing the practice’s performance and profitability.


*Founder and CEO, Levin Group, Baltimore, Maryland.

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