The Intervention : Learning from Mistakes
They all pulled up together in front of Barb and Joe’s house in Rich’s Lexus LS460 luxury rental car—Rich; his wife, Liz; Brian; and Jen. They had agreed to take the risk that Joe and Barb might throw them out once they realized their guests had more planned for the evening than just a dinner party. “I hope Barb doesn’t kill Joe for telling us about their problems!” Jen whispered to Brian as they approached the house.
It was Friday night, exactly a week since Rich counseled Brian about his practice management problems. Brian had called Rich early the previous morning, eager to share his progress on the diary project. But even more importantly, he wanted to talk to Rich about Joe’s marriage problems, hoping that together they could find a way to help the situation. He couldn’t believe that Joe and Barb’s problems could be so serious and irreparable as to end a long, successful, stable marriage.
“Out of all of our friends, who has the most rock-solid marriage?” Brian questioned as soon as Rich picked up the phone.
“I won’t mention that it’s 7 in the morning here because you know that,” Rich grumbled, his vocal cords not yet limbered up. He forcefully exhaled the night’s carbon dioxide, then grudgingly asked, “What’s going on with Joe and Barb that’s so important you would wake me up early on the one morning this week I can sleep in a little?”
“What if I told you that I have two pages in my diary on why problems at Joe’s work led to Barb threatening to leave?” Brian asked with obvious excitement in his voice. He was anxious to tell Rich what he had discovered about his own practice and how he believed it could help their friends. Not waiting for Rich’s encouragement, he continued, “When Barb and Joe decided to have kids, Barb had a very rewarding career of her own. She had and still has a small practice counseling teenagers as a consultant to the regional school board. She volunteers for the Meals on Wheels program as well. So she made a deal with Joe before she became pregnant that she would give up some, but not all, of her career and volunteer work to raise the kids for their first five years. However, she absolutely had to have Fridays to devote to her other interests. So Joe agreed to be a full-time parent on Fridays.”
Rich didn’t bother to stifle a yawn. “What does any of this have to do with your staff shortages? Wait a minute, am I dreaming that I’m having this conversation or . . . ”
“Rich, listen carefully. You and I both love Joe like a brother, right?”
“Yeah, sure,” Rich mumbled, “and brothers sometimes hate each other too!” Rich’s point made it almost too easy for Brian to continue.
“Exactly. Rich, you are so much more successful than Joe and me that, well, I wouldn’t say we hate you, but we’re both probably jealous of you from time to time. Which is why Joe never told either of us that he is having major financial problems!”
“What kind of financial problems could Joe have?” Rich wondered out loud. “He owns a house without a swimming pool, a cheap car, and seems to have a reasonably busy practice. He’s only got two key staff members—you would appreciate that. And doesn’t Barb do his books and help out sometimes?”
“You already taught me that seeming busy and making good money are two completely different things. Listen to the rest of the story, OK?” Brian continued. “Joe and I attended the same seminars last year—the ones that preached about cutting expenses and only taking on the more lucrative work. I wavered, but Joe took the seminar’s message to heart. He immediately laid off staff and stopped doing low-value procedures. He cut all patients who didn’t want his comprehensive treatment plan.”
“Did Joe discuss this with Barb before he did it?” asked Rich.
“No, he told me he didn’t want any partners in his practice, including Barb. That was probably his first mistake,” Brian answered sadly.
“And what happened?” Rich asked, already predicting the answer in his head. Rich had heard the same story from so many of the dentists he had surveyed several years ago, when he had begun his journey to success. Some of those dentists had left their private practices and were now working for large, group dental center corporations.
“The first month, Joe claims he was able to take a few thousand dollars more out of his practice for himself. He not only saved a salary but also the company portion of taxes, the health insurance premium, and other benefits. All of the low-value procedures were still fully booked that first month, so he just carried through with them.
“The second month, Joe’s bookings were down. The receptionist became angry with Joe because of her increased workload, which had been overwhelming even before the cutback, so she quit. Barb had to spend more time helping Joe in the office, and the tension between Barb and Joe was showing. Then Joe ended up hiring a temp until he could replace his receptionist—at 40 percent more than what he had been paying his permanent staff.”
“What was Joe paying Barb for her hours?” Rich asked innocently.
“Nothing directly. The extra profit share was added to Joe’s take-home at the end of the first month.”
“So was Barb able to keep up her part-time work on Fridays?” Again, Rich was pretty sure he already knew the answer to his question.
“That’s when the fights really got out of control. As Joe’s bookings got worse and worse, he begged Barb to spend more hours during the week helping him. So they hired a sitter, which of course cost money. Because of their worsening money issues, Joe decided he needed to work Fridays just to pay the bills. That was another decision he made without discussing it with Barb—one Friday morning he told Barb that he wouldn’t be able to babysit. Of course, Barb couldn’t get a sitter at the last minute and lost her consulting fees for that day.”
“So why didn’t Joe just go back to the setup he had before he reduced staff? At least he was paying his bills then.”
“I asked Joe the same question, but I don’t think he even heard me. He’s not himself right now. I mean, he was saying things like he deserves to be able to run his life the way he wants to—that if he wants to work on Fridays, Barb has no right to oppose him. This whole thing is ridiculous. It’s downright disturbing.” Brian shuddered, thinking that if such a thing could happen to Joe and Barb, how unlikely was it to happen in his own marriage? Was some financial pressure all it took to break people down and turn them against each other?
“Hey, weren’t you and Jen supposed to have dinner with Joe and Barb tomorrow? Are those plans still on?” Rich’s question interrupted Brian’s worried thoughts.
“Surprisingly, yes. Which brings me to the other reason I called you. Are you doing anything tomorrow night?”
Rich chuckled and said, “Just leave it to me.”
Rich and Liz were able to get last-minute reservations to fly from Albany to Grand Forks in time for supper on Friday, which is how all four of them now found themselves at Joe’s front door.
They were taken aback when Barb threw open the door, all smiles and hugs and warm welcomes. They ate a delicious dinner, during which everyone made small talk and tried to ignore the awkward silences. A/>