How to be an Optometry Practice CEO that Crushes Goals and Crushes Competition

Apr 11, 2018
17 min read

At Vision Expo West 2017, we sat down with industry pioneers to discuss how ODs can take on the role of a successful optometry practice CEO.

Leadership. Some people say it’s something you’re born with, others say you can learn to be a great leader. We at NewGradOptometry and CovalentCareers strongly believe that new graduates and students are more than capable of training themselves to be outstanding leaders within their practices.

At Vision Expo West 2017, we sat down with industry pioneers Dr. Selina McGee, Sean Carranco, Dr. Patricia Fulmer, and Dr. Will Tantum to discuss how ODs can take on exactly that role. Check out their insights on what it takes to be an optometry practice CEO below:

What does leadership mean to you as the optometry practice CEO?

  • Leadership is hard, but you have to wake up every day and choose to do it. You have to be able to leave everything at the door and put on a show every day. Be prepared every day!
  • A leader must remember he or she is not an island. Your staff can make or break you, and you aren’t above them in any way; they are just as much a part of the team as you are and should be treated as such.
  • Leadership means being a mentor. Sometimes it’s hard to understand the different dynamics within your staff but if you aren’t their leader, they’ll find someone else to look toward.
  • A leader’s job is to have a vision. You must make sure your team knows where they’re going and what success looks like when they get there. A leader should not only know what goals are being set but should also be able to explain how to get to those goals.
  • A leader should know the desired culture of the practice. Being able to translate that to the team so that those employees will demonstrate that culture even when the leader can’t be there to watch them.

How do you become a leader when there’s no one already leading?

First of all, you have to be willing to do anything and everything that needs to be done. This sometimes means sweeping the floors or answering the phones, but when the rest of the team sees you doing those things and jumping in the trenches with them, leadership is born. Secondly, make sure that you do what you are doing very well and professionally, with great attention to detail. Don’t halfway do anything — be the best at each task you take on, show up on time, help people in need, and ask yourself before you do anything, “am I acting in a leadership way, and how can I do that in this moment no matter how big the moment is?”

As a student, you can begin to cultivate leadership through getting involved in optometric associations such as AOSA, SVOSH, etc. If you find an area that you’re passionate about and your school doesn’t have an organization for that interest, you can start a group yourself! Strongly consider becoming involved in your state association as well as you can continue those connections once in practice. Beyond school, consider taking on leadership roles within your community. This not only helps grow leadership qualities, but increases your familiarity with working closely with people similar to those who may be your practice teammates one day.

Learn more about leadership from Dr. Ben Gaddie, one of the most well-known names in the optometric community and a leader in the profession.

CEO — chief executive officer: what does that mean to you? What qualities make a good CEO?

First, and quite possibly most importantly, you must understand that the title “CEO” does not automatically make you a leader. Conversely, you do not have to have a title or be a named “boss” to be a leader within the practice. Anyone who strives to be their best each day, is willing to do any job that needs to be done, and helps build up their teammates so that they can be successful is acting as a leader within the office.

A CEO must stay humble. An air of arrogance will quickly dishearten any staff and make it almost impossible for them to buy into the practice’s goals. The entire team must feel that their leader is a part of the team, not above them. Additionally, it is integral that a leader or CEO does not try to do everything himself or herself. The micromanaging approach will cause burn out. Identify and train others within the staff to take on more responsibilities in order to create a unified and smooth environment. It’s about mentorship: you can’t do everything on your own, you don’t have the best ideas. Instead, you’re there to listen and equip your staff and the people you surround yourself with so that they can succeed.

Ultimately, being a CEO or practice leader is about building people, so you’re mining for gold: finding what your team is really good at and building on those strengths.

A CEO is the visionary for the company. He or she is responsible for figuring out where the company is going, what the goals are, and how to get there and then communicating that with the team. Winning for a CEO is getting closer to that vision, and everyone likes to WIN! When you’re able to get a staff behind a goal and that goal is reached as a team, everyone wins. There is more compensation for each team member, and the morale of the practice stays high. Clarity in this communication is key. Remember: to be kind is to be clear and to be clear is to be kind.

What are the day to day tasks that define the CEO role?

There are many tasks that a CEO or practice leader will complete throughout the day. These are just a few of them:

  • Checking in with the staff — finding out how your staff is doing not just with their day to day tasks, but whether there is anything the leader can do to help the staff/to serve them better is important.
  • Checking the financials of the practice — keeping an eye on the metrics to know where the strengths and weaknesses are, as well as following how well you are making progress reaching your goals.
  • Being a hustler — going out to businesses in the area and shaking hands, getting safety contracts, going to nursing homes or other areas of need, getting your face and your practice’s name out there.
  • Marketing — in today’s world, this is often digital marketing; all platforms need to be unified and portray the same message. The CEO is the face of the practice, so he or she should have a pulse on marketing.
  • Managing the staff on an individual level — a CEO should know the staff. Many times, what one team member considers great compensation or motivation factors may be different than the next, so it is important to know the personalities of the staff and what makes them happy and motivated so that you can cultivate those things. This will help build the person and the team.

Tip: Students and young ODs should work on self awareness! When you look at the people who are most successful as CEOs and leaders, they aren’t the ones with the highest IQ, they’re the ones with the highest EQ.

How do you react to failures? How do you make sure they’re swiftly handled and turned around into something positive?

Contrary to popular belief, failure is actually a GOOD thing. True leaders know how to turn failures into tools for success. If you fail at something, good! Now you can know how to handle that problem in the future and be better next time. Use these times as opportunities to dissect the reason for failure and decide if the end goal was flawed or if the path to get to the end goal was the issue, then adjust accordingly. Additionally, make sure your team knows it’s ok to fail. While we are all striving for greatness, we are all human. Therefore, failure is inevitable. Your staff must know that when these events occur, they can come to you to discuss and grow, not be torn down.

Fail fast and fail often. Failing shows that you tried something difficult, and if used the right way, failure can create the most effective momentum for moving forward.

How do you motivate staff?

The most common way to motivate and touch base with staff is through meeting with them. One-on-one meetings can give you the chance to really dive into what that particular staff member needs, struggles with, and thrives on. You want to figure out how you as the practice leader can help them succeed in their role, and often, this means understanding the employee on a level deeper than just the professional. It means hearing their personal problems and functioning as somewhat of a visionary for them individually as well as for the office. Ask them questions to help them work through problems they may present, whether personal or work related. You will find that the more human a staff member is allowed to be, the more relaxed and comfortable they will be within the practice and the more inclined they’ll be to personally invest in the success of the office. Remember, what one team member needs for motivation may be completely different than the next, so taking advantage of this one-on-one time will help the leader tap into those motivational tools. Just be careful to present yourself as an open door without becoming a sounding board for petty complaints. You want to be their coach, not their counselor.

Another benefit of meetings with your staff is that they allow for time to assess and re-evaluate goals. Each team member should be asked about what their goals are, what tools they need to succeed in that goal, and how the leader can help them get there. Don’t let these meetings get lost in the shuffle of everyday practice.

It is important to remember that these meetings are fruitless if you do not follow through. Going through questions and discussion with a staff member then not following through on any action items or to-do’s is a very quick way to lose the faith of your staff.

Outside of meetings, showing the staff, through own your actions, that you are personally motivated and focused on improving every day will help to inspire motivation within them. If you do not stay on fire for the business, the team can and will sense your complacency and follow suit. Thankfully, they will also sense your excitement and draw off of it as well.

Learn more on how to lead and educate patients and employees.

How do you go about teaching leadership to someone within the practice?

Leadership cannot be done alone, and one of the best qualities of a great leader is being able to recognize those teammates who have leadership capabilities and cultivate them to lead others within the staff. Time is an investment, so you should invest your time in people within your office who you see going above and beyond without direction to make the practice great. Take these people and develop a deeper sense of transparency with them. Discuss your failures and theirs in a constructive, educational way. Review the office’s goals with them and show your passion and excitement for the future. Be sure to include the why behind the goal so that they can fully understand the big picture. This will allow them to fully buy into where the office is going and relay that faith and excitement to the other team members. Build a road map. In most cases, if people know where they’re going and what they need to do, they will do it.

A lot of us have heard the phrase “Wake up, kick ass, repeat,” but what does that mean when it comes to being a CEO?

Simply put, it means working each day to be better than the last. It is a reminder that you should practice as if you have a chip on your shoulder to prove your doubters wrong. Be ready to do things beyond the 40-hour work week because you’re on fire and want to do everything you can to succeed, and be competitive with yourself so that you’re always trying to meet and exceed your goals. Your motivation will come through when you talk to your team and patients, so whatever it takes for you to find that motivation, find it and be better at it everyday. Remember, that “fire,” that excitement, doesn’t come overnight. It is achieved through identifying the things you enjoy and are passionate about, and pursuing goals centered around those passions. Find a practice modality, a staff, or a cause that makes you want to get up, work hard, and be better every single day, and people will see that excitement in you and want to be a part of it themselves.

What are you doing to set yourself apart from your competition?

One thing you can do is focus on the digital world. In Dr. McGee’s practice, they set a goal to be numbers 1,2, and 3 in 25 different online keyword searches, and while it was a monetary investment up front, it paid off with 120 new patients in a single month driven to the practice from Google.

Another way you can set yourself apart is to focus on face-to-face marketing. Get involved in your community so that you can make connections and put a face to your practice’s name. Don’t underestimate the power of networking and  word-of-mouth.

A third example of a way you can set yourself apart is to offer something that you know your competition doesn’t. This could be in the form of a specialty clinic or something as simple as extended hours. If you choose to add a specialty, there are numerous different options you could choose from such as contact lenses, sports vision, and aesthetics just to name a few. Adding a specialty can be hard work, but it will be worth it in the end.

Whatever you do, DO NOT become complacent. Just because you are the top practice in your area now, doesn’t mean you will be that down the road. If you aren’t getting involved and striving to keep your practice and yourself out there and accessible to the community, someone else will. Local meetings are great places to hear what is going on with your competition, so try to attend when possible.

What are some of the best marketing and advertising avenues? How do you delegate those tasks to someone in your practice and motivate them to learn this side of things?

The key here is to think outside the box with your approach. Many practices get stuck in the traditional ways of marketing, when things as simple as keeping an updated and interesting blog or releasing short films of a new frame product on your website can draw patients in. Remember to utilize social media often. These examples don’t cost a lot of money, but they are very effective in communicating the culture of your practice to your current and future patients.

Keep in mind that your practice is, at the end of the day, a small business — one in which retail is a huge part. Look toward other successful retailers — Uber, Google, Amazon — for ideas of how they have marketed to become so successful.

Tip: Don’t encourage your patients to spend their money elsewhere. This means not displaying magazines or other products that advertise other goods while they are waiting to see you. Instead, place information concerning products that may be purchased in your office in your waiting room.

Not every leader is a born marketing mogul, and that is okay. If you are one such leader who wants to do the marketing for your practice but isn’t well-versed in Facebook, digital media, or other marketing areas of interest, make sure you take time to learn those skills before diving in. If you don’t, you risk making your office less appealing instead of more. A poorly-maintained Facebook page, for example, can turn patients off to your practice by sending the message that your practice might be outdated.

If, on the other hand, you are not comfortable or don’t feel like marketing or social media is something you’d like to make your strong suit, don’t hesitate to delegate it to a more qualified person — either a formal marketing firm or an employee you trust who has a passion for marketing or is a creative thinker. Either way, make sure you always have a pulse on what is happening to ensure the correct message is being relayed to your patients.

What are your top tips of being a CEO?

  1. Be constantly learning and read often. Many of the biggest CEOs claim to read 60 books a year!
  2. Don’t talk yourself out of leadership. No matter what your background or challenges, if you have the drive to lead, you can absolutely do it.
  3. Don’t let age stop you. New graduates and students can prove themselves to be the best leaders.
  4. Follow your dream and never look back.
  5. Don’t be afraid to be a visionary. You don’t know what’s next. You are paving the road, and you will pave in areas that don’t make sense and don’t work, but use those failures to grow. You will learn how to produce things that are rough around the edges and can be tweaked as they go to create a great product.
About Patricia Fulmer, OD

Patricia is a 2012 graduate of The University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Optometry and former AOSA National Liaison to the AAO. After graduation, she moved to Amarillo, TX, to complete her residency in Ocular Disease and Primary Care at the Thomas E. Creek VA Hospital. Patricia is the current Center Director for VisionAmerica of Huntsville, a co-management practice specializing in secondary and tertiary care, cataract surgery, strabismus, and oculoplastics in Huntsville, AL. She recently earned her Fellowship in the American Academy of Optometry at the 2015 meeting in New Orleans. In her free time, she enjoys traveling, attending concerts, art, and Alabama football.