Optometric Management Tip # 426   -   Wednesday, April 14, 2010
Finding the Right Office Manager

My tip article last week provided an overview of delegation and I touched on the importance of a good office manager. One reader emailed me the following question and I thought it might be of interest to others.

"On the subject of delegation, we really would like to hire an office manager to help take some of the daily burden off our plates. Our problem is how do you suggest finding and hiring a qualified candidate for the job? Maybe you can consider this as a topic for one of your upcoming tips?"

There are many good things that a strong manager brings to a practice, but from a big-picture perspective, none are bigger than these two factors:

Finding the right person for the position of office manager can be challenging, but a good place to start the search is by looking at the status of the current staff.

Promoting from within
In many cases, it's best to reward solid, loyal performance on the job with one of the few promotions available in an eye care practice. It just depends on the people.

Quite often, even in a practice that does not have an official manager, there is an employee who is the acting manager. Perhaps this person has more experience and the other staff members seek her out with questions. Perhaps she already coordinates days off, vacations and lunch breaks. If this de facto manager without the title is good at the job, she may be the natural best choice. Consider how well you communicate with her and if she is loyal to the practice. Problems can occur, however, if this person is too close of friends with her co-workers and will have difficulty disciplining and correcting others.

Sometimes the current staff members in a practice are just not management material. In filling this position, I'm looking for someone who will be compassionate and understanding when faced with a staff member who has problems or complaints. I also insist on a manager who shares my passion for customer service. Finally, we need strong loyalty to the owners and the best interests of the practice. You really can't teach those qualities, so don't promote a staff member and hope to change her.

Bringing in outside talent
Most office managers have experience in eye care and that can obviously be very valuable. But it is not a necessity. In some cases, it is better to find someone who has experience and training in business management even if they come from another field.

I have taken this approach in my practice with success and I've seen it work in many others. My feeling was that to find a great manager within the small pool of optical people in my area would be too constricting. And after all, I already had many employees who knew optical. If the new manager needed knowledge in technical areas, we had plenty of people who could provide it. In reality though, the new manager learned the technical aspects of eye care very quickly. How could she work in our office every day and not learn it?

In some ways, bringing in an expert from another field sets the new manager apart from all the other co-workers our employees have worked with. A fresh perspective can be very helpful.

Multiple bosses and team leaders
I just don't care for the strategy of using team leaders and profit center coordinators where no one is actually a boss. I get the concept of a team approach to achieving goals, but in my experience many optometric employees don't respond well to that management style. Many staff members are just not self-disciplined and self-motivated, although they can still be outstanding employees when given some direction and guidance. I find that the tried and true organizational chart where one person is in charge and everyone knows it, works best.

This is an area where many eye care practitioners make a mistake because they want to delegate some of the practice administration and staff management, but they don't want to upset any staff members by announcing a new boss. But a manager without any authority is unable to be effective. The effort to keep the peace often backfires because the manager and staff often work against each other in a battle for authority.

Upsetting morale
There is no question that appointing someone as manager has the potential to cause a problem with staff morale. We can all understand the fears that will exist in this situation; perhaps there is worry that the new boss will not be fair or that the workplace will become stressful. There is also the potential for someone to feel she was passed over for the job and feel some jealousy.

I certainly think we should work hard to maintain positive staff morale, but this is one situation where the end result is so important and so beneficial that it's best to push through with the task. Appoint someone to the job and explain to all staff that the new manager has the authority to tell them what to do. The side effects will blow over and the practice will have a true manager.

Diplomacy and the role of staff
One excellent way to head off some morale issues is to talk to your current employees in advance. Don't surprise them, but rather keep them informed even if it feels a bit awkward. In some cases this may be with a private one-on-one talk. Alternatively, general announcements can be made at a staff meeting. If you're seeking a manager from the outside, tell your staff you're doing so. They'll learn of it anyway and it really should come from you. You may say that you're seeking someone with managerial experience (as a way to hedge why you're not considering current employees).

If you have an individual who may be an excellent optician or receptionist, but who you don't feel would be a good manager, consider this approach. Describe how the role of the new manager will eventually become almost 100% administrative and will have virtually no contact with patients. You can go on to tell the optician that she is simply too valuable in her technical role to lose to a behind-the-scenes role. The office manager job is not necessarily the most important job in the practice and may not even be the highest paid job. Let the valuable employee know this and let her know that the skill she has shown in patient care is too important to lose.
Best wishes for continued success,

Neil B. Gailmard, OD, MBA, FAAO
Chief Optometric Editor, Optometric Management