Your Practice Made Perfect

This podcast series provides support, protection, and advice for today’s medical professionals. Brought to you by SVMIC, a mutual insurance company that is 100% owned and governed by our policyholders.

Aug. 03, 2018

Episode 027: No One is Too Good

A lifelong medical practice executive, Tom Stearns shares the wisdom he’s learned over the years as a manager and leader. With host Brian Fortenberry, they explore the role of a manager in a medical practice and how they should be standing behind their employees in a role of support, instead of cracking the whip.

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  • Transcript

    Speaker 1: You are listening to Your Practice Made Perfect; support, protection, and advice for practicing medical professionals. Brought to you by SVMIC.


    Brian: Hello and welcome to today's podcast. Thanks for joining us. I'm Brian Fortenberry and with me today is Mr. Tom Stearns. Welcome Tom.


    Tom: Thank you Brian.


    Brian: Well, thank you. And today we're gonna be talking about gems of management. I know

    Tom, you have an incredible bit of experience in this area. So, let's start by telling us a little bit about yourself.


    Tom: Well, I've spent my entire career as a medical practice executive, starting in the early 70s. I was a medical service corps officer in the army. When I got out of the army I went into clinic management and I managed orthopedic and neurosurgery practices for about 20 years. And then came to SVMIC in 1996 and started the medical practices services department, which is a consulting arm. We help practices on the business side of medicine, help them through the myriad of things that occurred around a medical practice.


    Brian: And those are deep and wide these days.


    Tom: They are definitely are. They definitely are.


    Brian: So, today we're talking about gems of management. You give a presentation on this, is my understanding. This is one part of that. Can you tell me a little bit about how this presentation came about?


    Tom: Sure. Two of my children are medical practice managers. My daughter was forming a small group of managers, so she just asked me to come speak and just come speak and just talk about some of the things I had learned and experienced in my career. So I just jotted down some ideas and thoughts, and over the years they've expanded and I've probably given the presentations... Oh, I know I've given it several hundred times. It's by far my most popular presentation and it just has topics and little vignettes. I go over each topic one at a time and tell stories around those. By the time we get to the end people have laughed a lot and we've usually have shed a few tears and cried along the way as well, so.


    Brian: Well, you know I think that's the perfect way though to really get the information across, is to make it personal like that.


    Tom: Yeah, I tell them when I start, it's really I'm gonna be telling stories or parables as it were, and hopefully they can relate to things that have happened in my life and that then they can relate those things to their lives. Both from the business world and I tell a lot of personal stories as well.


    Brian: That's the way I relate. I totally get that. So, based on that, what's today's topic? What are we gonna be talking about?


    Tom: We're gonna talk on the first subject, everyone is good and no one is too good. And I used to say that to all of my supervisors when I was managing a practice. It was one of the first conversations we would always have is about the understanding that everyone is good. And it just sort of seems like, well yeah. But, if you think about how most people, particularly new young managers, manage. They think they're the boss and as a boss, their role is to be a task master and to therefore stand behind people with a whip. They just sort of have that image in their mind to...


    Brian: Right.


    Tom: people to do what they're supposed to do. And to catch them doing things wrong. Because we know everybody's stealing those paperclips and those sticky notes and so, it's just sort of that kind of mentality, even though they, people don't really think about it much, most new managers and some old managers manage from that perspective. It just then creates a competitiveness between the manager and the employee, where the employee then is playing the game of what can I get away with so I won't get caught. So, it's just not productive at all. If you make people stop and think about that, why would you be acting like that if you didn't think everybody was bad if you were trying to catch them doing something wrong.


    And so, I don't believe that's true. I don't think people wake up in the morning and say, "Gee, wonder how I can go in and screw things up today?" We go at great lengths through the hiring process to only hire the best people. And so, why not assume that they are good and work with people with the idea that people are good. I think they are. I think people wake up in the morning and say to themselves, "I wanna go to work and feel good today and when I go home at the end of the day enjoy what I have done and felt like it was productive." And so, if you think about that's what's going through the employee's mind, then it really changes the role that we have as the leader or the manager. And so, if we lead from that perspective then our role is not to stand behind the person and catch them doing something wrong, but to stand behind them and help them do things right.


    That first really solidified in my mind, one of my daughters while she was in nursing school worked as a server at a restaurant here in Franklin actually, in Cool Springs at J. Alexander's, which a lot of people are familiar with.


    Brian: Sure.


    Tom: It had a real rigorous training program about how servers were to function. And a server's job was to keep food moving in and out of the kitchen. That was their role. And the supervisor's job was to handle problems. When a problem occurred at a table, it wasn't the server's responsibility to do that. They called the manager. I think they called them a coach. And the coach would come to the table and solve the problem, while the employee went ahead, server went ahead and did what she was supposed to do.


    Well, if you think about that at a medical practice, it's sort of the same thing. The whole nature of our work is that there's just this constant flow of paper and people. It just never stops.


    Brian: That's a great point.


    Tom: If an employee gets stuck trying to deal with something they don't know how to deal with, then all of that just backs up.


    Brian: Yeah.


    Tom: And pretty soon they're gonna get swept away in the flood or drowned. So if you think about what our role is as the manager, is to stand behind them and when that occurs, they simply turn around and give it to us. We step forward and help them solve that problem or we solve that problem. Then later we can talk about, "Well, let's talk about what happened today and how if that were to occur again, how you should handle it or we should handle it."


    So I think just looking at your role as a manager that way, is that we're all on the same team and we're all trying to get to the same place and how can we help each other to do that. It makes the end of the day enjoyable for everybody.


    Brian: I love the picture you paint of standing behind them in a role of support, not that cracking the whip, like you said.


    Tom: Yes.


    Brian: To me that really resonates. Everybody wants to be supported.


    Tom: Yeah.


    Brian: And it frees you up. I think that's a beautiful mind picture. Do you find, though, that people can be real different in their approach to their jobs, how they work?


    Tom: Sure, and that's the other real issue for new managers to try to understand, because often new managers have their way of doing things and they want everybody to do it that way. I was at a seminar one time and they were doing one of those personality things where you take a test and they divide everybody in the room into four corners. I don't remember if it was DISC or Myers–Briggs or one of those things. So we did that and they put us all in four corners. So the person running the program came over to my little group in the corner and said, you know, excuse this in the podcast, but they said, "These are all the anal retentive people over here." So he said, "I'd like to see anybody's money in this group." And so some guy just reached in his pocket and pulled out his wallet and all the money was in there by denomination, all facing the right direction.


    Brian: Oh wow.


    Tom: My money's exactly that way. I understood it completely. If I drive through McDonald's or something, I can't drive out of the parking lot until I put my money back in order.


    Brian: Really?


    Tom: It just... oh yeah, it has to be that way. Everybody in our group understood that. But then he went on the other-


    Brian: All the same, I guess.


    Tom: Yeah, he went to the other side of the room and he says, "So, let me see your money." And some lady pulled out this duffel bag of a purse and stuck her head in it and started rooting and digging and throwing things out. Her money was wadded up in the bottom of her purse. There was just change in there. Her bills were literally wadded up. It just makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up just even thinking about it. And if you think about that, I mean there is no way the people in my corner would do things the way the people in the other corner did. It doesn't mean that those other people are bad, it just means that they see life differently.


    From that perspective, they are good. But everybody's not gonna do it the same. So then the role of the manager is to truly be able to identify what the goals are. This is what we are trying to accomplish and then say to that person, "What are the tools you need to get there? Is there education you need or there are different tools, computers, or whatever it is that you need to do it your way that would be totally different than the people on my side probably would be happy with a pencil. But..." So you just have to understand that that's okay and those people aren't bad. We often make that mistake in practices because people have different personalities and we try to put them all in a box. They just can't be in that same box.


    Brian: That hits it right on the head. Everybody doesn't fit the same mold. And, whenever you know that everybody is valuable, you just have to find their way and their niche and knowing that there may be multiple ways to get to the same ultimate objective. That really does make a difference.


    Tom: Exactly.


    Brian: Now, the second part of this phrase here. You said everyone is good, but no one is too good. Talk about that a little more. That's interesting to me.


    Tom: Well, sure. That's exactly the way it has to be. Because as a manger, you can't be too good to do anything. Particularly if you're expecting your employees to do something, they need to understand that they can do it the same way you can. I'll often go into a practice and you'll see the manager walking around back there, and the phone's ringing, or people are backed up at the front desk, and they’re just doing their thing. Instead, the customer in our case the patient, should come first. And even if we don't have the ability or the knowledge to necessarily do the task of the person there at the front desk, we could certainly reach out to the patient, and just greet them and say, "Somebody will be with you in just a moment." That satisfies most people. Or answer the phone and just say, "Just a moment let me take a message." Or, "What can we do to help you."


    And so as you begin to do those things, showing that you're willing to do whatever you can in their role, or walking down the hall and picking up a piece of paper, or helping patients get in and out. If you see that things are backed up and you can help in some way and you're willing to do that. The employees will emulate the way you're willing to act. That even works for physicians.


    One of the physicians that I saw that was best at that was a neurosurgeon and he would come to the office every day and the first thing he did was go to the front desk and greet the ladies on the front desk and say, "Good morning." You know, "Let's have a great day today." And when he would leave in the afternoon go back and say, "We had a great day and thanks. Except for that one lady in the yellow sweater. You know it was a great day." And thanked them for the day. You know, he didn't feel like he was too important to do that. Or if he was really backed up, he personally would walk out to the waiting room and say to the patients out there, "I'm sorry we're backed up today. We had an emergency, but we will get to all of you just as quick as we can or we'll be happy to reschedule you." Took that burden away from the employees and let them know that he was willing to do it as well and take that responsibility. So, the more you can demonstrate that no one's too good to do anything, the more your employees will step up and follow you anywhere.


    Brian: I think you're exactly right. It's that mentality of, "I'm not going to ask you to do anything I'm not willing to do myself."


    Tom: Exactly.


    Brian: And when I see that, it makes me even more eager to go above and beyond.

    Tom: Exactly.


    Brian: That makes a tremendous amount of sense. When you give this presentation, when you're generally talking to physicians or practices, do you see that light bulb kinda go off?


    Tom: Oh, yeah.


    Brian: Like my eyes are today. Like, "Oh yeah. I get it." What kind of stories of implementation have you had that they've come back to you and gone, "Tom, we implemented this and what a change it's made." I'm certain you've had many of those.


    Tom: Yeah, it's fascinating over time that people will come back to me and say, "You can't believe the impact that this presentation has had on me, the total presentation." Ran into a physician one time and he had his lab coat on and in another city somewhere. He reached into the pocket of his lab coat and pulled out the handout. He says, "I carry this with me every day."


    Brian: Wow.


    Tom: "And it had that kind of impact on my life." So, that's rewarding. I'm almost to the end of my career and to be able to think that maybe people can learn from some of my experiences and certainly from my mistakes.


    Brian: Well, certainly I can attest to many that have learned a lot and speak very, very highly of you. Give us some Tom Stearns parting words of wisdom here that will be applicable to really any physician or whoever might be listening to this podcast of some simple things that really helped them make a difference in their practice.


    Tom: Well, I think on the today's topic, everyone is good and no one is too good, to think of yourself as the leader as being a quarterback. And certainly the quarterback can't win the game by themselves. They're just one of the integral parts of the team. But everybody on the team is just as important, those blockers and the guy hiking the ball.


    Brian: Sure.


    Tom: Everybody's important. So, I think if you begin to understand that there's no way a quarterback can go out on the field by themselves and accomplish this without those other people. It sort of brings you down to the reality and humility that you need to have to be a good leader.


    Brian: Well I think that is a fantastic way to end. Tom, thanks for being with us today. This was extremely informative. I feel like I learned and I know those listeners will as well. Thanks for being here.


    Tom: Thank you Brian.


    Speaker 1: Thank you for listening to this episode of Your Practice Made Perfect with your host Brian Fortenberry. Listen to more episodes, subscribe to the podcast, and find show notes at The contents of this podcast are intended for informational purposes only and do not constitute legal advice. Policy holders are urged to consult with their personal attorney for legal advice as specific legal requirements may vary from state to state and change over time.

The contents of this Podcast are intended for educational/informational purposes only and do not constitute legal advice. Policyholders are urged to consult with their personal attorney for legal advice, as specific legal requirements may vary from state to state and/or change over time. All names have been changed to protect privacy.

About our Guest

Tom Stearns

Thomas H. Stearns, FACMPE is the VP-Medical Practice Services for State Volunteer Mutual Insurance Company in Brentwood, Tennessee. After serving as a Medical Service Corps Officer in the US Army he entered Clinic Management in 1976. Over the next 20 years he managed two orthopaedic practices in Middle Tennessee. In 1996 he started the Medical Practice Services Department at SVMIC. Tom has served as Chair of the American College of Medical Practice Executives, President of Tennessee MGMA, President of Southern Section MGMA, MGMA Board of Directors, Finance/Audit Chair of MGMA, and Chair BONES (American Academy of Orthopaedic Executives).

About our Host

Brian Fortenberry is Assistant Vice President of Underwriting at SVMIC where he assists in evaluating risk for the company and assisting policyholders with underwriting issues. He has been involved with medical professional liability insurance since 2007. Prior to his work at SVMIC, Brian worked in the clinical side of medicine and in broadcast media.