FIVE: Strategy 4: Lead a championship support team

Figure 5.1 Motivation and competence – two parameters that help us assess our employees

If we start off in the lower right-hand box we find our new recruit, often with little in the way of technical skills but brimming with enthusiasm. We can describe this person as ‘ignorance on fire’ – can’t wait to learn about the job, eager to help, desperate to climb up the career ladder. If we are lucky, this person will soon move up to the top right-hand box. With correct training and lots and lots of encouragement our new recruit gains technical skills while at the same time maintaining that oh-so-appealing enthusiasm. This is also the box in which we want all our team members to stay. Of course there is probably no end to the amount of training that can be done to hone and polish technical skills, but the difficulty lies in maintaining enthusiasm. The problem is that enthusiasm tends to wane unless the person is, to quote Richard Branson, ‘watered’. Without due care and attention it is so easy for a skilful, valued employee to slip across into the top left-hand box. We use the word ‘presentism’ to describe these employees – they turn up for work, do the job, but their hearts and minds are somewhere else. Such people possess all the requisite skills but are lacking motivation and enthusiasm for the work they do. Given the previously quoted statistic of the average working life of a DSA being around five years, then for many employees this phase probably happens as early as the third or fourth year. The longer the time people spend in this box the more likely they are to ‘infect’ others with their negative attitude, hence the use of the word virus. Better to try to avoid anyone reaching this stage, because getting them back to the top right-hand box can be difficult indeed, and it is almost inevitable that they will sooner rather than later slip down into the mire that is the bottom left-hand box. Here, motivation is shot to pieces and as a result there is no incentive to maintain technical skills – end result, an employee who will either leave of his or her own accord or one who will eventually be asked to leave.

So, what strategies and tactics can you adopt in order to build a winning, motivated team where every member of that team, including yourself, is nestled safely in the top right-hand box … or at least is heading towards it from the direction of the bottom right-hand one? Read on.

As you will know by now, one of our core philosophies is that you should spend 80% of your time pursuing your unique ability and 20% leading the support staff who have the responsibility for carrying out everything else in the practice. Notice the presence of the word ‘leading’ in this philosophy?


Leadership is one of the most talked about and one of the least understood phenomena in management these days, with hundreds of definitions of what it takes to be an effective leader. It is clear that autocratic ways relying on fear and intimidation are slowly being consigned to the dustbin, to be replaced by leadership through communication and guidance. It is important to realise from the outset that leading people and managing them are not one and the same thing and that we should try to distinguish between the two concepts – even if, in most small organisations (including dental practices), the same person assumes the two roles. Given the trend towards ever-larger dental practice organisations though, the two functions of leader and manager are increasingly being split between the owner-dentist(s) who provides the leadership and a practice manager who is employed to administer or manage the practice. With this distinction in mind, let’s explore the various differences between leadership and management.

Leaders versus managers

  • Managers think incrementally, whereas leaders think radically.
  • Managers do things right, leaders do the right thing.
  • Managers tend to do things by the book and follow company policy, while leaders follow their own intuition.
  • The manager rules; the leader inspires. The manager uses a formal, rational method while the leader lets vision, strategies, goals and values guide actions and behaviour, rather than attempting to control others.
  • Managers know how things work but might lack leadership qualities. Leaders may have little or no organisational skills, but their vision unites people behind them.
  • Leaders tend to be more emotional than managers. Many believe that people are ultimately governed more by their emotions than their intelligence (their heart rather than their minds) and this explains why teams usually choose to follow leaders.

The net result of these differences is that groups are often more loyal to a leader than to a manager. This loyalty is furthered by the leader taking responsibility in areas such as:

  • taking the blame when things go wrong
  • celebrating group achievements, even minor ones
  • giving credit where it is due.

Successful practitioners realise the importance of being good leaders. Without effective leadership it is difficult to focus and motivate staff members to achieve goals and objectives – not only those of the practice but also their own individual aims. Leadership also involves being accountable and responsible for the group as a whole. Ideally, a leader should be a few steps ahead of the team, but not so far ahead that the team is not able to understand and follow the leader. In short:

Leaders stand out by being different. They question assumption and are suspicious of tradition. They seek out the truth and make decisions based on fact, not prejudice. They have a preference for innovation. They are sensitive and observant people. They know their team and develop mutual confidence within it.10

Leaders need to possess and use a wide range of skills, techniques and strategies. We have already established that you need to articulate your vision so that you yourself can understand where you want to be in the future. During this process we hope that you will have identified those underlying core values that help to shape your mission and, consequently, the way the practice is run. Clearly, you must then be able to communicate your vision to all the members of your team. Failure to do so will make it difficult, if not impossible, to gain the support and enthusiasm necessary to turn this vision into reality. Furthermore, you must not only ‘talk the talk’ but also ‘walk the walk’. In an article appearing in the Harvard Business Review, Tony Simons11 showed how organisations where employees strongly believed their managers followed through on promises and demonstrated the values they preached were substantially more profitable than those whose managers scored average or lower. You set the example for others to follow. To a very large extent, team members and patients alike mimic your behaviour. As Paddi Lund8 says: ‘Politeness is the oil of the wheels of society. It is even more important between married people than strangers.’ If you are courteous and gracious in your actions then it is likely they will be in return. ‘Treat others as you would wish to be treated yourself’ – an old saying but one that has endured because of its simple truth.

What type of leader are you?

It is possible to look upon leadership as the following sequence of events:

  • vision

  • planning

  • communication

  • setting an example

  • review.

Establishing your vision was discussed in Strategy 1 and is an essential prerequisite of successful team management. Without knowing where you want to go, how can you expect others to follow with any degree of enthusiasm or commitment? Planning was the subject of Strategy 2 and involves the setting up of systems that allow you to delegate responsibility and permit you to focus 80% of your efforts on your unique ability. The way that you address the twin issues of communicating your vision and establishing a style that sets an example to the rest of the team is a true test of your leadership style. There is no one best way to lead and each approach has its own set of good, and not-so-good, characteristics. With this in mind, which one of the following do you think most closely represents your way of doing things? It would be interesting too to find out which one your staff think comes closest!

The autocrat

The autocratic leader dominates team members to achieve a singular objective. This approach to leadership generally results in passive resistance from team members and requires continual pressure and direction from the leader in order to get things done. Generally, an authoritarian approach is not a good way to get the best performance from a team. There are, however, instances where an autocratic style of leadership may be appropriate. Some situations may call for urgent action, and in these cases an autocratic style of leadership may be best. In addition, most people are familiar with autocratic leadership and therefore have less trouble adopting that style. Furthermore, in some situations, subordinates may actually prefer an autocratic style.

The laissez-faire leader

The laissez-faire leader exercises little control over his team, leaving them to sort out their roles and tackle their work, without actually participating in this process. In general, this approach leaves the team floundering with little direction or motivation. Again there are situations where the laissez-faire approach can be effective but usually only when leading a team of highly motivated and skilled people who have produced excellent work in the past. Once a leader has established that his team is confident, capable and motivated, it is often best to step back and let them get on with the task, since interfering can generate resentment and detract from their effectiveness.

The democrat

The democratic leader makes decisions by consulting the rest of his staff, while still maintaining control of the group. The democratic leader allows the team to decide how tasks will be tackled and who will perform which task. The democratic leader can be seen in two lights. The good democratic leader encourages participation and delegates wisely, but never loses sight of the fact that he bears the crucial responsibility of leadership. He or she values group discussion and input from the rest of the team in order to obtain the best performance. The team is guided with a loose rein and members are motivated and empowered to direct themselves. However, the democrat can also be seen as being so unsure of himself and his relationship with his subordinates that everything is a matter for group discussion and decision. Staff may feel that this type of leader is not really leading at all.

Taking this assessment of your approach a little further, another way of looking at leadership styles is in terms of your:

task orientation – this reflects how much you as a leader are concerned with the various tasks at hand and ensuring that those following you complete them

versus your:

employee orientation – this reflects how much you as a leader are concerned for the people in your team, providing support and encouragement for them.

The combination of these two effects leads to the diagram shown in Figure 5.2. This diagram can be used as a guide to how effective your leadership style is, as your general attitude to leadership will fall into one of these categories. It can also be used as a guide as to how best to lead different individuals using different styles to make the most efficient use of both their and your time and talents.


Figure 5.2 The way you express your concern for tasks and for people determine your style of leadership

Impoverished leadership (low concern for task, low concern for people)

This style is characterised by minimal effort on your part, just enough to get the job done and maintain the team.

I’ll just let them get on with it, I’m sure they are doing fine, they don’t really want me interfering anyway.

Country club leadership (low concern for the task, high concern for people)

You take good care of your group, ensuring a comfortable friendly atmosphere. You hope this will lead to the work getting done. Think of David Brent in the BBC TV series The Office and you have the perfect amalgamation of impoverished and country club leadership – someone who confuses popularity with respect:

It’s obvious – they’re happy, they’ll work harder and the work will take care of itself.

Authority/obedience leadership (high concern for task, low concern for people)

You are probably a bit of a taskmaster. The most important thing is the work. You lead from behind by driving the group in front of you. Basil Fawlty probably fits this description.

We’re here to work, the work needs to be done. If they’re working hard enough they won’t have time to feel unhappy. After all they’re not here to enjoy themselves.

Team leadership (high concern for task, high concern for people)

You see the completion of the task and the well-being of the group as being interdependent by virtue of you both having a common stake in the organisation’s future. This leads to relationships built on trust and respect, and work accomplishment from committed employees. Head of Sky Cycling Sir Dave Brailsford is a fine example of this style of leadership.

We’re in this together. We need to support and help each other to get this job done.

Not surprisingly, it is generally accepted that leaders who adopt a team management style are usually the most effective, although this isn’t always the case, and choosing the most appropriate style to match the circumstances (directing, coaching, supporting or delegating) is an important and useful skill.

Tactics for team building

Leadership style is one thing but style can only get you so far. Let’s work through the sequence of events that leads to the holy grail of dental practice – the empowered, motivated, enthusiastic team. As you can see from Figure 5.3, this sequence revolves around our shared values – these are at the core of everything we do.


Figure 5.3 The team-building cycle

The key question is: ‘Do the people in your team feel appreciated?’ In an ideal business environment the following will be the norm:

  • the principal appreciates the team and customers
  • the team members appreciate the principal, one another and the customers
  • customers are selected for their ability to appreciate the team and the principal.
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May 10, 2015 | Posted by in General Dentistry | Comments Off on FIVE: Strategy 4: Lead a championship support team
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