A Day in the Life of a Dental Business Coach

There’s an excellent new on-line journal and resource for the dental team from Stephen Hancocks Ltd. It’s called identnews and I was happy to write a “day in the life piece for them”. As today is the last day before a holiday I thought I would share it here:

The alarm goes off at 6.50 it’s a habit from my days of practice ownership and parenthood. It always gave me time to shower, breakfast, perhaps drop our son at the bus stop and gather my thoughts for the drive to the practice. I liked to be there in plenty of time to prepare for the morning huddle and a day of patient care.

Now my days take a different direction; most mornings if I am at one of my bases I aim to take a run before the working day starts. Our home is in West Cork where we moved in May 2013 so the roads are quiet, the weather frequently wet and the hills challenging. By contrast I have a UK base in my old home city Cardiff where the roads are far busier and flatter. If I am in a hotel – a frequent occurrence – I will have tried to take my exercise in the evening after travelling.

When I was a full time clinician running used to help me unravel the spaghetti of a busy, challenging day and to unwind – definitely needed during the nearly two decades of practice ownership. Now I find it sets me up mentally for the day.

Having sold the practice in Gloucester that I had started from scratch in the late 1980s I really didn’t know what I was going to do next. I was burnt out after struggling with clinical work for more than a quarter of a century. The acknowledgement that I didn’t actually enjoy being a “hands on / wet fingered” dentist was something of a shock to the system. I liked the patients, gaining their trust and looking after them, particularly the nervous ones and the children. I got satisfaction from starting, growing and developing the practices that I started but I never took any real joy in what I call the “watchmaker stuff” of clinical dentistry. I had studied with some of the great names in UK and US dentistry but it seems to make little difference. So when the light bulb moment of acknowledgement came and I admitted that this was actually making me unhappy I knew I had to get out – but to what?

I was fortunate in that a friend and colleague offered me a locum post in his orthodontic practice whilst I gathered my thoughts. The change was refreshing, no drills or needles and the vast majority were young patients, the variety was a good rest. In the years before I sold my practice I had been fortunate to work with a couple of business coaches and I became interested in what they did and how they did it. In mid 2006 I enrolled with the Coach Training Institute and went through their intensive programme. The training not only teaches the fundamentals of coaching but also makes you look hard at what you do and why you do it. Three months later I found myself as a trained Co-Active Coach and registered with the International Coach Federation (ICF). The path was just beginning; my niche was always going to be dentistry so I set about getting as much experience as I could of other dentists, practices, working models, successes and failures always asking questions and listening.

What is a coach? The ICF defines coaching as “partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential. Coaches honour the client as the expert in his or her life and work and believe every client is creative, resourceful and whole. Standing on this foundation, the coach’s responsibility is to:

•      Discover, clarify, and align with what the client wants to achieve

•      Encourage client self-discovery

•      Elicit client-generated solutions and strategies

•      Hold the client responsible and accountable

This process helps clients dramatically improve their outlook on work and life, while improving their leadership skills and unlocking their potential.”

It is fair to say that I am not purely a coach and that coaching is one skill set. A lot of what I do would be termed as consultancy, mentoring and training and often the boundaries between these can become blurred. What is important is that I am able to help my clients to build their perfect practices.

Why do clients come to me? Frequently I am a trouble-shooter when things are going badly wrong in a practice. These may be challenges with money, people or an individual’s health.

Often a practice owner will acknowledge that something is wrong and change is essential, perhaps they find themselves at a crossroads personally or professionally and know they need to change. Sadly the training of dental professionals doesn’t include anything on basic business skills let alone change management or strategy. So many lead “lives of quiet desperation” as Thoreau wrote, until a crisis strikes them and the pain of doing nothing exceeds the pain of doing something. An often used cliché is, “dentists are unable to see the writing on the wall because they have their backs to it”, and like all clichés it’s true.

How do I work? When a potential client contacts me, usually by email or phone I arrange a time to talk to them when they are not going to be interrupted by patient care, team members or family. I liken the process to taking a history, present complaint, symptoms, signs, time and so on. The next stage is to provisionally diagnosis the problem which frequently involves a visit to the business so that a thorough examination can be undertaken. When I look at a business I do so under the headings of what I call the 7 Pillars of Dental Practice Management, these are: Vision, Financial Controls, Sales, Marketing, People, Systems and Environment. Unless all of these are working properly success will prove elusive. During and following the visit a treatment plan is formulated.

Now that’s all well and good but rarely does change come about simply. The difference comes with the relationship that occurs after the visit. During our twice-monthly coaching conversations I provide back up for the changes we have decided upon. I hold the client accountable, support them and help them through the transitions. This part of the relationship might last for as little as 6 months or, as in the case of my most successful clients can last for years. These calls take place during the clients’ buffer day (when they work on rather than in their business – time management is one of the skills I try to help them develop) or outside surgery hours and take place via Skype or ‘phone.

If I’m away from base I might be visiting a practice for a fact-finding day of an exam & diagnosis session. I also do some work for clients of Practice Plan who provide some of their clients with a session with the business consultant of their choice from their “approved” list. Sometimes I will meet with the owners or just the management team, on occasions I am brought in to “gee up” the whole team for an afternoon or morning or address some specific issues that might be holding them back. Every practice, whilst sharing some common issues, is different and I try very hard to avoid and handing out “cookie cutter” solutions without getting to know and understand what makes each team unique.

At home or in Cardiff after exercise and breakfast I deal with the emails that have arrived overnight. I subscribe to a number of e-zines and will either read them then or put them aside for later. I am aware that email can be a curse if permitted, so I turn my mail programme off for large chunks of the day. I am fortunate to write for a number of journals and also produce a regular newsletter and a blog so the discipline of writing is one that I have had to learn – and am still doing so. I have enjoyed good editors who have encouraged, supported and tolerated me so much that I am now working on a book for publication in the Spring.

Once the writing is over I might have to go online to record an interview for my podcast, The Incisal Edge. I try to find interviewees who are if not fully involved in dentistry, though many are, have something of interest to offer dentists and their teams. It’s a new venture for me and one that I have been wanting to do for several years but it took a challenge from my coach to actually get on and produce it.

I work very closely with my wife, Susan. She was a dental nurse when we first met in 1981. She went on to train as a hygienist and joined me in my practice in 1990. When our son was born, rather than slowing down she went on to take formal management qualifications and managed the practice in addition to her clinical work. Our relationship started as a professional one and we have always managed to keep business and personal lives separate. These days she runs her own virtual assistant business in addition to being an equal partner in our firm, Dental Business Partners. A trained NLP practitioner she is a more than capable coach in her own right but chooses to stay as close to home as she can.

Together we regularly review the running of our business, vision and strategy, cash flows, marketing, diaries, and discuss anything that either of us has seen that might have an affect on our clients or potential clients businesses and to which we can draw attention through social media. I have a social media presence and I accept that it is important but I choose not to live my life as some sort of “dental celeb”.

I am doing an increasing amount of public speaking and whilst it does not fill me with dread, four years working as a mobile DJ took care of that, I recognise I could and will be a lot better than I am. Hence there is often a sight of me wandering the lanes of Cork in the company of our two Labradors seemingly talking to myself as I practice an address.

Afternoons are kept for reading either dental journals or new books on business so that I am able to pass on my learning. I believe that it is my role to help my clients and their teams achieve the results and rewards that their dedication and work deserve. Dentistry in both the UK & Ireland is in a state of rapid change both clinically and politically and I have a duty to help clients keep up to date and thrive.

Where I can, I take the train to visit practices, it’s less tiring and I can get more work done but sometimes I do need to drive and then I will listen to podcasts and audio books to pass the time. I don’t enjoy television very much and with the exception of live rugby I never have. I boast that I have never seen Eastenders.

My GDC registration will lapse at the end of 2013 but I remain a member of the BDA and hold the posts of secretary of both a section and a branch, so I both organise and attend meetings when I am in the UK.

Evenings continue with variation, client calls can take me up to 9pm. If I am away from home I try to find a pub with decent beer to unwind and people watch until finally bedtime.

Every day varies with very different challenges, it’s still within the world of dentistry but I know I am benefiting my clients and through them helping to improve the quality of care they provide. I thoroughly enjoy my work and I look forward to many years to come.

Dr Alun Rees BDS runs Dental Business Partners to help dentists build their perfect practice. An experienced dental practice owner who changed career he now works as a consultant, coach, analyst, speaker and writer. He brings the wisdom gained from his and others successes to help his clients achieve the rewards their work and dedication deserve.

He can be reached at alun@dentalbusinesspartners.co.uk or on 07778 148583

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