You can be the best clinician in the world, but if you cannot effectively run a business, you are likely to struggle. Having the right office manager is a key part of that success.
Finding the right office manager can be one of the most important, yet challenging aspects of a practice. I often tell my interns at the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Optometry that while it may be hard to believe right now, seeing patients is the easiest part of practice-running a business is the difficult part. You can be the best clinician in the world, but if you cannot effectively run a business, you are likely to struggle. Having the right office manager is a key part of that success.
Not only can the right office manager help a practice run efficiently and increase profitability, but he can also allow you to focus on practice growth and life outside of the practice. On the flip side, having the wrong person in place or not making a change to find the right person can be very destructive and costly. A good office manager will more than pay for herself. As center director for a multi-specialty referral center for nearly 20 years with a staff of almost 60 people, I have worked with several office managers. In addition, I have also seen a variety of successful and not-so-successful situations in private practices.
I have put together a list of tips that I think are critical to finding and incorporating a successful office manager.
While it is possible to have a successful in-house transition, it definitely comes with its challenges, so be prepared. I had the fortunate opportunity to work within our practice before and during optometry school. It was a time when I gained a lot of great experience. Once I graduated from school, I was hired as an assistant center director, then moved to center director within a few years. Transitioning from coworker to boss can be challenging on many fronts. It is hard for coworkers to recognize the authority shift, and it can be difficult for the new boss to properly manage and not show favoritism. Hiring from the outside can also bring new and fresh ideas to the practice.
For some reason, having your spouse as the office manager seems to be more common in eye care than in any other form of medicine. While I have seen this work well in some practices, I have also seen this be disastrous. Although typically very loyal, the spouse inevitably has much more flexibility at work than a non-spouse, which can create mistrust and tension among other staff. Running errands, picking up the kids from school, or attending a school event may not seem like much of a problem unless your other staff is sitting around wishing they could be with their children. The inevitable “favoritism” ends up creating behind-the-scenes ill will. And let's be honest, do you really want to be in the position of having to terminate the employment of your husband or wife? Things will not go well at home-I promise!
While there are many of you out there who are perfect in all areas, for those of us who have areas of weakness (or room to improve), it can be very helpful to find someone who fills those gaps. If you tend to be quiet and reserved, find someone more outgoing. If you struggle with organization, find a person who is focused on keeping things in order. If you are nonconfrontational, find someone who is not afraid to speak up when needed. Be prepared to be annoyed at times because someone is filling in the areas where you need help; however, having someone fill those weaknesses can be of tremendous benefit.
We all want to find hard workers, but having an office manager who sets the example for work ethic is critical. If your candidate for office manager immediately starts asking about work hours, then I would be cautious. You need that person who is often willing to arrive before and leave after anyone else. He must set a high standard for work ethic.
If you have not had an office manager in place or if you are incorporating someone who supplements your weaknesses, be prepared for backlash from other staff. I always have an open door policy for all of my staff, but you have to be cautious of those who will manipulate the situation and come directly to you, bypassing the office manager to get what she wants. Be willing to listen, but try to involve your office manager in staff decisions and discussions.
If you continue to micromanage the office, then the office manager will never be able to fully manage for you. While you are ultimately in charge, make sure you delegate responsibility and authority to your office manager.
You have made mistakes and have learned from them-allow your office manager to do the same. That being said, try to keep them at a minimum and not too costly. If you see a mistake coming, offer guidance and allow the office manager to fix the problem, but try to avoid correcting things for him (especially in front of other staff).
Good leaders will quickly establish themselves in the practice and learn the medical and vision aspect. It is more important to have someone who can manage and has a good work ethic than have someone with medical or vision experience who is not a good leader. In addition, leaders from other industries can bring fresh ideas to the practice.
Having worked in the practice before school, I was able to gain experience in all aspects of the practice, from scheduling to insurance billing, to acting as a technician. I tell my new employees that I will never ask them to do something that I have not done or am willing to do. If you have a manager who dictates from a distance, it never works out very well. The best generals in history were often those who were close to or in the trenches. When interviewing, role-play with the candidate to try to uncover her leadership style. She needs to be willing to pick up trash in the parking lot as much as she is willing to negotiate a managed care contract.
A strong office manager is often developed over years. Like any staff member, you must have an open line of communication and be willing to receive constructive criticism. If the person is always defensive and has an excuse, then he is often not looking for ways to improve. The best manager will always ask for feedback.
We often want to reward great staff members by giving them opportunities to grow professionally and financially. However, just because someone is a great technician, optician, or insurance person does not mean he will be a good office manager. Being an office manager typically involves managing people, and not everyone is made to do this. Do not push this on someone who is uncomfortable with confrontation or leadership. Praise their strengths and give them every opportunity to excel, but making someone a leader just because she is a good employee can set her up for failure and leave you with a very uncomfortable and unhappy employee.
Finding the right office manager often takes time. I would encourage you to not rush to simply fill a need, but to diligently find the right person. Role-playing during the interview process with different scenarios that you have faced can help uncover leadership styles. I would also suggest having multiple interviews. This is a very important decision for you and your practice, so take the time to meet several times before making a decision. In the end, give the new manager time to settle in and succeed, but at the same time, if it does not seem to be the right fit, do not settle for just having a warm body to help. Be willing to make a change for long term success.