What You Missed in School

Slate is an online magazine covering current affairs, politics, and culture. This week, they published a fascinating piece that, frankly, said nothing about taxes, accounting, or financial planning. Yet it’s well worth a couple minutes of your time to think about the lessons it offers for your business.

Why Are Doctors’ Offices So Badly Run starts with the tale of Katherine White, a busy dermatologist, trying to manage a staff including a nurse, two medical assistants, two receptionists, and an esthetician, while seeing 40 patients per day. Her staff constantly bothers her with questions about billing, prescriptions, and lab refills, which the doctor feels compelled to fix herself.

Does that remind you of anyone you know?

Dr. White’s micromanaging didn’t just drive her nuts – it kept her from focusing on the big picture issues that we call “working on your business, not in it”:

“One problem became glaringly obvious when a long-standing patient came in to talk about a troubling mole. ‘Within two seconds of walking into the room, I could see that she had a skin cancer on her arm,’ says White. The patient had had to wait two months for an appointment. ‘It was not OK that she had waited that long,’ says White now. ‘I was appalled that she couldn’t get in on a timely basis.’ White realized then that she needed to change the way she supervised her receptionists—and her entire staff—to make sure patients could always see her when they needed to.”

Fortunately, none of us are in the cancer business (although a client calling to put a block on a wage garnish sure sees their problem as an emergency!). Still, many of us feel trapped in the same sort of hamster wheel as Dr. White did. The Slate article goes on to report (as many of us are already seeing among our own clients) how so many formerly independent physicians are saying “the heck with that” and taking salaried positions with hospitals or larger medical groups. But even salaried docs often find themselves managing staff. And traditional medical schools don’t even bother training future doctors how to do that.

It doesn’t help that doctors like being in charge. Dike Drummond, a former primary care physician who now coaches other doctors, describes the average doctor personality as “workaholic superhero Lone Ranger perfectionist.”

Does that remind you of anyone you know?

Drummond offers one specifically helpful suggestion, which I think applies equally well to our businesses. Specifically, he says it’s important to recognize the difference between the clinical context (where the doctor’s expertise is paramount and where staff should follow instructions) and the administrative context (where the doctor has no special expertise and can empower staff to make decisions on their own). Sometimes taking off the “doctor hat” makes all the difference in the world.

Many of you are starting the annual tax season marathon that makes 26.2 miles look like a cakewalk. You probably can’t do it yourself. But when was the last time you stepped back to contemplate how you manage the people who help you along that journey?

If you really are a workaholic perfectionist (and you know who you are), you’re throwing away a lot of the value of having staff on your side in the first place. Let them do their job. They’ll thank you for it – but more important, so will your clients!