Follow the Leader

Author: Andrea Kowalczyk, RDH, BS– – Dental Hygiene Performance Coach – Enhanced Hygiene

If you know a thing or two about how successful dental teams work, then you know that teams need leaders. You also know that not all people are effective at guiding others simply because they bear the title.  At a minimum, team leaders should ensure that folks are held accountable to following protocol.  Fantastic team leaders do this and help to increase team morale and foster confidence and team comradery. High levels of morale, confidence and comradery contribute directly to staff retention and the practice bottom line.

When it comes to the hygiene department, appointing a hygiene leader is advised, particularly if the hygiene team is four or more hygienists strong. Hygiene leads can be a subject matter expert for new hygienists and team members regarding hygiene protocols, and help to elevate teams to a higher level of performance through mentoring. Having a hygiene leader in the practice can also serve to take some of the day to day responsibilities of the hygiene department off of the doctor’s shoulders.

With hygiene being the backbone of most practices, selecting the best hygiene leader for the job is critical. It may seem logical to appoint the most experienced or senior hygienist in the practice. But be warned- this is not advised in every case. Being seasoned does not necessarily mean a person should, or would even want to be a leader.

On the same vein, don’t assume that because a hygienist was a leader in their former practice, they can effectively lead in your practice. Every office has its own unique dynamics and standards.

In order to select the right person to appoint as a leader, you must first decide what their responsibilities will be. If you want to find the best fit for the job, it is critical to know what the job is! The list of duties can get long; because this person will do double duty as a clinician, it is recommended to keep the list fairly short and relevant to their clinical role.

First and foremost, it is most effective to keep this person in the role of mentor, rather than manager.  The hygienists should not report to hygiene leads the same way they would to a doctor or office manager. This should be made clear to the hygiene leader as well as the rest of the team. Structuring their authority this way will help to avoid cross messaging and “too many cooks” in the management kitchen. This is especially true in a group practice setting, where clinical hygienists are not necessarily privy to management initiatives. An uninformed hygiene lead may not be on message.

The best use of a hygiene leads time is spent performing duties that a practice manager cannot. Presenting a clinical hygiene orientation for new hires, coaching and mentoring fellow hygienists on clinical protocol, hygiene product ordering, giving input into what CE courses the hygiene team should attend, and reviewing clinical performance metrics with the other hygienists are good places to start.

So what are the qualities to be looking for when selecting a hygiene lead?

 A superior hygiene lead should:

See the big picture of the practice and know where the leadership wants the practice to go. Rather than be in a hygiene department bubble, the hygiene lead should be included in meetings where policy that affects the whole practice is discussed.

Lead from behind- be a facilitator, not a dictator. This person should be able to solicit feedback from the other hygienists before making decisions that will affect the hygiene team. At the same time, this person should be able to get others to agree to disagree when required.

Have excellent written and verbal communication skills. The lead should be comfortable coaching others and giving direction; in a positive way.

Be committed and put patient care first- “Negative Nelly’s” or those who cut corners should not have a leadership role.

Be a mentor, not a manager. Hygiene leads should not be responsible for administrative duties such as time off requests, payroll issues, or employee grievances. Remember to keep their duties as clinical as possible.

Ensure they are always developing their replacement. Should your hygiene lead leave the practice for any reason, there should be another hygienist who can step in to the role.

The hygiene team represents almost 30% of the practice revenue. A great hygiene team lead is worth their weight in gold. A poorly selected one can take the whole gang south in a hurry. Be sure to take your time when selecting the person who will have such a critical role in the practice. If you do not feel you currently have such a person, you are probably right. You may need to further develop the hygienists you work with, or be on the lookout for that special person who will help take your hygiene team to the next level!