05.08.09 Issue #374 Forward This Newsletter To A Colleague

Are you Thriving or Merely Surviving in the
'Family Business'?

by Sally McKenzie CEO
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Family businesses can be very complex – to say the least. And navigating through the potential minefields is no small challenge for many. After all, when it comes to working with family there is a lot to gain …and a lot to lose. In dentistry, family-run practices are common with fathers and sons, husbands and wives, mothers and daughters, siblings, in-laws, aunts, uncles, etc working under the same roof.

Some function very effectively together and, typically, those that are the most successful are able to deal with business issues as partners, not as husband-wife, father-son, mother-daughter, etc. Family communication and trust are essential. But well-established management systems and accountability are absolutely critical. Without clearly defined roles and detailed practice systems, emotion and family “issues” can quickly take over.

Maybe the doctor’s spouse has been doing things “her/his way” since she/he arrived in the office five years ago. Such as, asking prospective patients whether they have insurance immediately after the caller indicates that they would like to schedule an appointment. But the approach simply isn’t good for the office – no matter how long she or he has been doing it “her/his way.” Perhaps, brother Joe, the financial coordinator, is allowing his friends and neighbors to carry balances indefinitely, sending accounts receivables over the top. And Aunt Carol is habitually late. Joe, Carol, and yes, even the doctor’s spouse, must be educated and held accountable for their systems, their actions, and their results.

In other cases, family members are in the wrong jobs and would be much more effective in another position. For example, Ellen, the wife, is working as the office manager but would make a much better financial coordinator. Doctor must have the courage to make the change and Ellen must have the courage to accept it – a tall order for both. And oftentimes, it’s necessary to bring in outside help to navigate the players through the process of developing job descriptions and identifying who will work best in which positions. The fact is family members are often too close to the issue … literally.

While conflict may seem to be an obvious area for family strain, trying to avoid it can be far worse. Too often family members won’t question one another’s decisions or actions. They won’t address problems. They refuse to buck the status quo and push for necessary change because they are afraid to start an argument within the family. And if family members won’t confront family members, where does that leave the rest of the staff? Most likely searching for employment elsewhere.

Then there’s the issue of control. Countless dentists or their spouses are running dental offices. They are “in charge” but don’t understand what it takes to manage the business side of a practice. They don’t comprehend practice reports and business statements. They don’t understand the impact of overhead. Yet because they “own the practice” they make decisions that affect their own long-term financial health as well as the fiscal health of the practice based on what they think is right. They are flying blind. Dental practices, whether family are running them or not, are businesses first, and they need to operate like a businesses, yet many of the family members in these family-run practices have never had a day of business training.

For some, joining the “family practice” is something that is simply assumed. But before you decide to work in your spouse’s, your father’s, your mother’s, your brother’s practice, realistically consider if you can work with your family. Being honest with yourself from the beginning will potentially save you years of frustration and discontent. Remember, a “good son,” “good daughter,” or “supportive spouse” is far different from being an effective business partner. It will take courage to raise issues that may put you at odds with your family. Yet serious problems will arise if communication is weak or if the relationships in general tend to be strained.

Certainly, there are those families that sincerely enjoy working together and are successful in doing so. But it’s not for everyone. Before you decide to partner with your spouse, sister, brother, mother, father, uncle, cousin, or whomever, evaluate the decision carefully. We all have family members whose company we enjoy, but we wouldn’t necessarily want to spend 40+ hours a week with them.

Interested in speaking to Sally about your practice concerns? Email her at sallymck@mckenziemgmt.com.

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