Confessions of a Recovering Helicopter Doctor

March 18, 2024
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The practice was on a steady growth trajectory.  Everything seemed to be going well.  Then Jane, one of the 2 receptionists who had worked for 5 years in the practice, moved away.  Her replacement Sarah was bright-eyed and eager to start her job.  Sarah stepped into the office ready to greet patients with a warm, welcoming smile eager to assist them with any inquiries they might have.

As soon as Sarah started her first day, she quickly realized that she was under constant scrutiny from the practice’s doctor-owner.

The doctor seemed to always be hovering around the front desk. Every time Sarah answered the phone or greeted a patient, he seemed to be nearby, watching her every move. He would interrupt her conversations with patients to correct her wording or suggest a different tone of voice. Even the way she arranged the files on her desk didn’t escape his meticulous gaze.

At first, Sarah tried to take the feedback in stride, thinking that he was just trying to help her improve. However, as days turned into weeks, the constant monitoring and nitpicking began to take its toll on Sarah’s confidence and performance. She found herself second-guessing every action she took, afraid of making a mistake that would draw the doctor’s disapproval.

Despite her best efforts to meet the doctor’s high standards, Sarah’s morale began to plummet, and her interactions with patients started to suffer. She became more reserved and hesitant, lacking the warmth and enthusiasm that she initially brought to her role. Patients noticed the change, with some even expressing dissatisfaction with the service they received at the front desk.

Meanwhile, the doctor remained oblivious to the impact of his micromanagement on Sarah’s performance. He continued to scrutinize her every move, convinced that his approach was necessary to maintain the practice‘s efficiency and professionalism.

Sarah gave her notice.

I know this story all too well, because I am a recovering helicopter doc.  Scrutiny was not only aimed at Sarah but to every team member.  Being new, poor Sarah became the prime target.  My finely tuned radar zeroedin on the tiniest blip of turbulence.  Immediately when recognized, a barrage of offensive weapons aimed to eliminate the enemy were unleashed.  The helicopter then returned to base (my office or the treatment room), unaware of the fallout and damage left behind.

The problem was that the targets involved human beings.  That targeted individual, the cause of the turbulence or perhapssomeone adjacent to it, felt the impact of the barrage.

When the barrage happened at the front desk, or in the treatment room, collateral damage was also the reputation of the practice, as patients might have seen or heard the explosion.

Helicopter docs just can’t seem to keep their hands out of, what should be, other people’s tasks.  Meddling in the schedule, looking over shoulders or other micromanaging actions convey distrust and promote team insecurity.

Helicopter docs are smart and resourceful.  They know best and have all the answers.  They can pack a destructive power that can topple the most secure aircraft carrier or spoil an office culture.

But the acute radar system of a helicopter doc, when directed appropriately, can be extremely valuable.  Their ability touncover flaws in a system and people can be used constructively to improve performance, increase efficiencies, and promote profitability.

Some of the symptoms indicating there might be a helicopter buzzing around in your office are (it’s important to acknowledge that helicopters are not only driven by the doc.  Anyone can be one):

Hight staff turnover rate
People making the same mistakes over and over.
Lack of accountability
Low team morale
Meetings with no participation
High absentee rates
Low rates of internal referrals resulting in higher than necessary marketing costs.

How can a Helicopter Doc or other micromanager use their superpower for good and not evil?

Consider these strategies:

1. Delegate Responsibility: Trust your team members to handle tasks independently. Clearly communicate expectations and provide necessary training and support.  This all begins with hiring the right person (ask for our free guide).

2. Empower Employees: Once the right person is in position, encourage autonomy and decision-making among your team. Allow them to take ownership of their work and contribute their ideas.

3. Set Clear Goals: Establish clear goals and objectives for your practice, then give employees the freedom to determine how to achieve them.  This includes a clear and frequently updated job description.

4. Provide Feedback: Offer constructive feedback and guidance regularly but avoid constantly hovering over employees’ shoulders. Set aside time and have such conversations in an appropriate place, using metrics and stories to avoid defensiveness.

5. Establish Systems and Processes: Implement effective systems and processes that streamline operations and reduce the need for constant oversight.  An operation manual with videos can help communicate “best practices” and specify desired outcomes.

6. Encourage Communication: Foster open communication channels where employees feel comfortable expressing concerns, sharing ideas, and seeking guidance when needed.

7. Lead by Example: Demonstrate trust in your team by giving them space to work and showing that you respect their expertise.

8. Focus on Results: Shift your focus from monitoring every detail to assessing overall performance and results.  Each position should have a set of KPI’s that can be used to objectively measure performance. (Ask for our report “Success by the Numbers).

9. Develop Trust: Build trust with your team by showing confidence in their abilities and respecting their professional judgment.  Regularly showing appreciation and giving praise provide people with emotional energy.

10. Reflect on Your Management Style: Continuously evaluate your leadership approach and be willing to adjust it to foster a more collaborative and empowering work environment. Leadership is a skillset.  Like dental skills, it requires constant examination, evaluation, and education.  These can be best helped by having a coach or mentor.

The key to my helicopter doc turnaround was first, the realization that I was the problem.  It took a trusted team member and a “come to Jesus”, frank discussion.  I let it sink in and realized that she was correct, and I needed to change.  Then, with the help of my coach, mentors, mastermind buddies, and reading books such as David Marquet’s “Turn the Ship Around”,Patrick Lencioni’s “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team”, and Peter Drucker’s “The Effective Executive”, I began to regain control of the helicopter and convert it from an offensive weapon to an Influence machine.

Dr. Robert Cialdini’s book did more to change my style of leadership than any other.  So when the opportunity came to become a founding member of the Cialdini Institute, I jumped.  You too can learn how to harness the power of Ethical Influenceand learn how to gain contril of your helicopter.

Moving people through inspiration, vision and effective communication contribute to the formation of a positive culture.  As “the bottleneck is always at the top of the bottle”, reducing leadership toxicity opens the practice up to a positive flow of energy that infects the team and patients alike.

If you’re a Helicopter Doc, and want help, Let’s talk!

To calmer skies ahead,


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Dr. Michael Goldberg is one of the leading educators on dental practice management in the United States.

Michael ran and sold a prestigious group practice in Manhattan and has been on Faculty at Columbia University and New York-Presbyterian Medical Center for 30 years including Director of the GPR program and Director of the course on Practice Management.

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