Three Ways Practice Managers Can Be Stronger Leaders

March 16, 2015
Morgan Lewis Jr.

Everyone wants to be a better manager, but with so many potential areas for improvement, where does one start? Here are three suggestions from experts.

Everyone wants to be a better manager, but with so many potential areas for improvement, where does one start? We asked medical practice management experts for their thoughts on the primary areas where administrators can begin improving their skills. Here are a few of their top tips:

1. Make deposits in your trust account
The best way to establish credibility as a strong leader is to build trust amongst your staff by following through on your commitments, Dike Drummond, a former full-time family physician who now focuses on preventing and treating physician burnout at his firm, The Happy MD, thehappymd.com, told Physicians Practice. For example, if the physician partners’ main gripe is that their schedule is always falling behind because the practice never starts the day on time, make a commitment that you’ll work with the staff to improve punctuality. When this is accomplished, you’ll have made a significant deposit in what Drummond calls the “trust account.”

“People are not going to change if they don’t trust you,” Drummond said. “What you have to do is make a commitment to an action that is a win for both of you and then keep it. Do that and then close the communication loop. Tell them what you did. If they don’t know you did what you promised, it didn’t happen.”

2. Remember: People are not machines
Often managers arrive at a practice after earning their MBA or advanced health administration training. Despite those credentials, you must remember that you’re managing people working in a stressful, changing industry and who also may be facing personal challenges.

William Henderson, a practice administrator for the AMC Neurology Group, part of Albany Medical College in New York, started managing his first neurology practice nearly 20 years ago after working as a healthcare IT consultant. He has a unique understanding of the value of these interpersonal skills as he also previously worked as a church pastor for many years.

“One of the things that’s helped me a lot is that I know what my skill sets are and I don’t take things offensively if someone yells at me or criticizes me,” he told Physicians Practice. “You have to recognize that it’s not you that’s necessarily the problem, it may be the stress or other situations.”

Henderson’s skills and experience were particularly useful in 2011 when his former practice merged with a competitor, requiring him to reconcile clashing workplace cultures. Part of the dysfunction was due to physicians from the other practice who had gotten into the habit of being too involved in nonclinical management duties.

“By working with them, they eventually recognized that it was in their best interest to have a professional administrator who understands their business needs, who tells them what they need to know, and they were all better off for doing that instead of trying to manage everything themselves,” Henderson said.

3. Make time to solve problems and learn
Administrators often get stuck on practice dilemmas, but they either don’t ask for help, or they don’t make time outside of the work day to resolve issues. That can be a huge barrier to both practice improvement and professional development, according to the experts. 

Instead, managers should arrange for their practices to close for a staff meeting for at least one hour each month, Drummond said. “This is the purpose of your monthly staff meeting when it is done well.” He also recommended offering a “problems box” where staff can submit their complaints and offer improvement suggestions between meetings. In the meetings you prioritize the issues in the problem box and collaborate to solve the top concern as a team.

For Henderson, solving challenges, such as the merger culture clash in his former practice, occasionally requires him to call or e-mail people from his nationwide network of other administrators he’s met over the years to discuss solutions or locate resources so he can learn more. Learning, he said, should be lifelong goal for any practice administrator and will usually result in improved leadership skills.

“With healthcare changing, it means that I have to change in that process,” he said. “How am I going to change? And where am I going to look for help or encouragement and guide my physicians into that changing environment? When you start asking those kinds of questions, it begins to help you see that there are areas in your own knowledge base that are lacking and you can begin to focus on how to develop that knowledge.”