Coaching and Motivating Staff in an Ophthalmic Context

For Lawyers, Doctors, and Dentists

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March 3, 2013

We are always looking for blog posts from guest bloggers who can add value to our clients' practices.  Today, we are featuring the first in a series of guest posts from long-time friend John Pinto about coaching and motivating staff.  John is probably the most respected ophthalmology consultant in the U.S.  Although John focuses on ophthalmology, many of his ideas are relevant to our other clients as well.  Following is John's guest blog post:

While your original training may be in accounting or medicine, the most important daily skills you must bring to the job as a practice owner or administrator must be much broader, and often very intuitive.  You have to be able to motivate talent, improving the weakest half of your organization, while vigorously rewarding the strongest half.  You have to be a coach, molding the ever-shifting, fragile human ingredients of your business to better serve your patients.

After more than 30 years of watching some of the most talented managers and practice owners at work, here are some of the top skills they apply:

1. First and foremost, great practice managers are constantly improving themselves. To do this, you have to do more than simply read the business literature or attend national meetings. You have to start by being non-defensive. Sharp managers readily accept constructive, even negative, feedback from team members. Doing so is self-reinforcing, when you say, “You know, you may be right…can you tell me more?” to a critic, you’ll start getting feedback that’s faster, more useful, and more honest.

2. In order to get this feedback, you can’t be talking all the time. You have to listen. This is sometimes easier to do one-on-one than during group sessions, such as department meetings, where your staff are looking to you for all of the answers. Be sure to build into every group meeting a formal time for brainstorming or going around the table for input.

3. Most workers are pretty good about picking up on your opinion of their talents, and will perform accordingly.  If you’re sending signals that say, “I think you’re going to blow this assignment,” chances are a worker will live down to your expectations. So no matter how many times a staff member has disappointed you, assume that she or he has hidden talents that you have just not been able to bring out yet.  This can yield surprising results.  The next time you hand out an assignment to someone you’re on the fence about, try this:  Accompany your request with the statement, “Mary, in the past I think I’ve unfairly misjudged your abilities. I know you can do this project. In fact, I’m sure of it. Let’s start with a clean slate for you here at Smith Eye Center.”

4. Try to not be the kind of boss who supplies all of the answers. Yeah, you’re probably the smartest and hardest working member of your team—that’s why you’re a leader.  But your practice will go farther, and you’ll have more time for major issues if you teach people to solve most of their own problems. When giving feedback and handing out assignments, especially to a newer member of your staff,  try being a little more “suggestive” and a little less “directive.” 

5. Always emphasize the positive. Catch your staff doing things right, and encourage more of this, rather than dwelling on what’s been done wrong.  This is often difficult for managers and doctors who hold themselves to high expectations—and give themselves a healthy daily dose of negative criticism.  The same negativity you apply to yourself just naturally spills out with others.  Most employees will simply shut down under negative reinforcement, shrinking from trying to learn new skills, and missing opportunities to improve by taking on duties that are at the edge of their competency.

6. Fearless, fair and well-timed confrontation is a critical administrative coaching skill.  Even while remaining positive, it’s important to call attention to performance gaps, and not sweep important behavioral gaffs or technical errors under the carpet. Every great manager must find their own balance in this area. 

7. Make sure that you first understand a staff member’s or doctor’s motivations and goals before you come down hard on their behaviors.  When you listen to a staff member, also watch for non-verbal clues. Try to pick up on how they’re responding to you.

8. In most practices, managers spend nearly as much administrative time directing doctors as they do leading lay staff. Although it can be difficult, especially as a younger manager, work on being as comfortable confronting these superiors as you are in confronting subordinate staff.   Most doctors, especially those who are insecure and bullying, have far more respect for their managers who are fearless and stand their ground on difficult issues.

9. Finally, realize that your current coaching style may not fit the needs of every worker.  With experience, you’ll expand your approach and be more effective with a wider range of workers, not just those who are naturally responsive to your particular approach to supervision.

John Pinto is the founder of J. Pinto & Associates, Inc., an ophthalmic practice management consulting firm established in 1979. The firm serves organizations ranging from solo practices to high-volume market leaders, teaching centers and medical product companies. John is the most published author in the world on the subject of ophthalmic practice management. He is a regular contributor to numerous eye care publications.  His ASCRS/ASOA books include John Pinto's Little Green Book of Ophthalmology (now in it's 4th Edition), Ophthalmic Leadership,  The Efficient Ophthalmologist, CashFlow, and Turnaround: 21 Weeks to Ophthalmic Practice Survival and Permanent Improvement. He can be reached at 619-223-2233, or