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Technicians-turned-managers share their perspectives on transitioning into management, the support they receive from laboratory owners and the most valuable lessons they've learned about leadership.
ATTENTION LABORATORY OWNERS: YOU'RE NOT GETTING ANY YOUNGER.
Nearly half of all lab owners are 55 or over, and many experts say that with an aging owner population, the development of middle management is more important than ever before. And no matter what your age, if you're trying to grow your business, or even just maintain an edge in an increasingly competitive environment, a strong management team is a must in your business arsenal.
In many cases, laboratory owners want to reward hard-working technicians by promoting them into management and providing them with an opportunity for advancement. However, this poses a challenge because--as many owners have found out the hard way--the best technicians do not necessarily make the best managers. A typically introverted, focused technician-turned-manager must learn to manage multiple priorities and, most importantly, multiple personalities. "Managing requires a completely different mind-set than benchwork; people skills are just a whole other set of traits. All managers who come off the bench face this challenge," says Paul Vena, who started in the model room at Distinctive Dental Studio in Naperville, Illinois, and is now its general manager.
When a technician is promoted from within the lab, making the transition can be even more difficult if there's resistance from the rest of the staff. The "buddy to boss" syndrome is common: other technicians may be hesitant to accept his authority and the new manager might be hesitant to exercise it. "When I first became manager of the department, it was awkward at first," admits Scott Johnson, ceramics department manager at BonaDent Dental Laboratories, Seneca Falls, New York. "I had worked side by side with all of those people that I now had to supervise, and it was really hard the first time I had to kick a case back for not meeting standards."
Johnson said that what helped him most was that he was given the opportunity to ease into management. "It wasn't like all at once, I was a manager. I was initially asked to look after a few doctors, then do some quality control. More than a year later, I was put in charge of the whole department," he says. "That gave me some time to earn the respect of my co-workers so when I did have to send a case back, they respected my decision."
The transition can be equally difficult when a manager is hired from outside the laboratory because he has the added task of getting to know different personalities, as well as the overall culture of the laboratory. "Coming into the laboratory from the outside was a challenge," says BonaDent's Ron Philbrook, partial department manager. "Most of the managers had been here for many years, so I felt like I had to work a little harder to break into the circle of trust and respect," he says. "I kept a positive attitude every day and always tried to contribute ideas and solutions to problems that we faced as a management team. Whether or not the solutions were used didn't seem to be as important as the fact that I was making a real effort to improve the laboratory."
Clearly much of the reaction of other managers and employees depends on the tone that the new manager sets from the get-go. Coming into the position with a 'holier-than-thou' or 'I'm-going-to-change-the-world' demeanor is not going to win favor among the others. "I've always been a hands-on manager and I think that was the key to easing my transition," says Anthony Calonico, removable manager at Artistic Dental Studio, Bolingbrook, Illinois. "One of my team members recently said to me, 'I respect you because you are always out here with us.' If all a manager does is sit in his office, then there will always be a wall between you and your team."
Easing the transition
Managers say that successfully navigating the transition into management requires the support of the laboratory owner, who can clarify goals and values early on and work closely with managers for the first few months. "When I joined BonaDent, Bruce [Bonafiglia, owner] clearly conveyed his expectations and the criteria by which my performance would be evaluated," says Philbrook. "This allowed me to focus on the proper things right out of the gate. I knew where to focus my efforts in order to become successful."
Managers also need laboratory owners to demonstrate their support to the entire team. They say it's crucial to present a united front so there's no question in the employees' minds that everyone is on the same page and has the same objectives. "Steve [Dearien, owner of Sundance Dental Laboratory] was always there to back my decisions concerning a case or employee, reiterating that the rules or guidelines I was imposing were those of the laboratory, not mine. This eased the stress level quite a bit," says Don Cidwell, who was promoted a year and a half ago to porcelain department manager and again just recently to operations manager of the Scottsdale, Arizona laboratory.
This also means having some freedom in decision-making and never being criticized or underminded publicly. "Being empowered to think for myself and even make mistakes was key," says Scott Elves, production manager of Issaquah Dental Laboratory, Issaquah, Washington. "And if I make a wrong choice, then we discuss it behind closed doors."
Paul Vena calls these closed-door conversations 'coach and consults.' "When I was a new manager, my biggest problem was that I was trying to manage people in just one way," he says. "One of the most important things Jim [Gorgol, owner] did was to sit down with me, discuss alternatives and demonstrate that different people need to be directed and motviated in different ways."
Calonico agrees that frequent input from the owner and even other managers is an important support system for technicians-turned-managers. At Artistic Dental Studio, manager development meetings are held every other week to provide new managers the backup they need. "The management team and owners get together and it allows us to plan, vent, educate and become more aware of what is going on with people in the company. It's vital," says Calonico.
Attending industry meetings and networking is another essential means of support. "In a lab, you're sometimes sheltered and feel like you're the only one in a particular situation," he says. "It's reassuring when you talk to others with similar problems and potential solutions. There's a wealth of knowledge in this industry and people are truly willing to share."
Management seminars such as Dale Carnegie courses and lab-specific programs are also helpful to develop the necessary leadership skills. "I attended the management certification courses given by a company called Pinnacle Training and Development and learned a lot about listening, problem-solving, delegating and simply having fun at your job," says Cidwell.
Like any position in the laboratory, perhaps the most valuable training for new managers is on-the-job training. In other words, you can't beat experience. Time and time again, managers say that they still remember the first truly difficult situations they had to handle as new managers. While unpleasant at the time, those events taught them valuable lessons and helped shape them into the leaders they are now.
Philbrook recalls a time--when he had been a manager for only about six months--that two of his most experienced technicians got into a heated argument that quickly escalated into a shouting match with plenty of obscenities. He followed the company's disciplinary policy, wrote them both up and, a few days later, one of them simply walked out in the middle of her shift. When she came back after a week or so, Philbrook told her it was best if they ended their professional relationship.
"It was really difficult to lose someone with a wealth of knowledge and experience, but once she was gone, the whole attitude of the department seemed to change for the better," he says. "I learned that, no matter how hard it is, eliminating negative energy is necessary to allow your team to stay motivated and grow."
Early on in his management career, Issaquah's Scott Elves also dealt with an experienced technician whose behavior had become problematic. The last straw was when the laboratory owner, Larry Searles, was out of town and the technician didn't show up for work. "I just fired her," says Elves. "I was so frustrated at the time. Thinking back, I should have waited to discuss it with Larry when he got back and decide whether or not to give her another chance. Although he supported my decision when he returned, I learned to not make rash decisions. It's best to buy some time to be sure you're not shooting from the hip."
Not reacting emotionally to employee mistakes is a lesson that Paul Vena consistently learned as a new manager. "There were a few times that I wasn't happy with the way a customer was handled and I'd let the employee see my frustration. That immediately made them defensive; it wasn't productive," he says. "Now, we simply discuss it and end on a positive note. I say, 'whatever happened today, happened. Let's talk about how to be sure it doesn't happen again tomorrow.' Employees respect that."
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