Podcast Episode 47 | Carving Out a Path to Happiness and Success in Dentistry

with Dr. Michael Williams

About the Prosperous Doc® Podcast

The Prosperous Doc® podcast by Spaugh Dameron Tenny highlights real-life stories from doctors and dentist to encourage and inspire listeners through discussions of professional successes and failures in addition to personal stories and financial wellness advice.

Shane Tenny, CFP® is our podcast host and Partner at SDT. He has lectured numerous times for hospitals and physician groups and, most importantly, helped hundreds of clients develop strategies to navigate through turbulent times toward their financial goals.

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These discussions are explicitly tailored to doctors and dentists, highlighting achievements to inspire you to reach personal, professional, and financial wellness. You will hear real-life stories of doctors’ winding career paths to turning practice wealth into personal wealth. 

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Full Transcript

Dr. Michael Williams (00:00):

... from the outside, I think a lot of people would say, "Wow, you had things going in a good direction," but internally I was not happy. I knew that things needed to change.

Intro (00:12):

From Spaugh Dameron Tenny, it's the Prosperous Doc podcast. Real stories, real inspiration, real growth. A show for doctors who are ready to improve their overall wellness in every aspect of life. Now here's your host, Shane Tenny.

Shane Tenny (00:31):

Welcome to the Prosperous Doc podcast. I'm Shane Tenny, and so glad to have you with us for episode 47, nearly in our third season, publishing these bi-weekly episodes, featuring stories of your friends and colleagues around the country to help educate, and inspire, and encourage you in your journey. If you are new to the Prosperous Doc podcast and just dialing in because you know who our guest is today, I would just point you out to some of the other great episodes that we've done here. We've talked about burnout and mental health in episodes 12 and 16 and 19. We've talked about financial reality in episode 15. We've talked about malpractice litigation and episode 28. Imposter syndrome. Culinary medicine. Today we've got, I think, a really good topic on tap for you.

Shane Tenny (01:23):

For those of you that have listened to other episodes and have followed the podcast for a while, you may know that in addition to hosting the Prosperous Doc podcast, my day job is serving as managing partner for Spaugh Dameron Tenny, a financial planning firm that serves the medical and dental communities. But what you might not know, however, is that I haven't done this for my entire career. In fact, early in my work as a financial planner, I found myself in a partnership that was a really disappointing, frustrating, and embarrassing. I had worked as an independent financial planner for a couple of years and had been invited to team up with two other folks, which was flattering and exciting initially, but it was apparent pretty quickly that it was not a match made in heaven. We didn't use each other's talents very well, we didn't generate enough revenue. The overhead was too high. After about two and a half years, I realized I'd had enough and needed to make a change and mind you, a change out of necessity, not a change out of desire. But as the saying goes, necessity is often the mother of invention.

Shane Tenny (02:40):

We launch our careers with expectations and plans only to find out that life generally has a curve ball in there somewhere. As we gain experience, we gain clarity on the path that we want to pursue, which often looks different than we had expected. Now, if you can relate at all to this, you'll enjoy the conversation we're going to have today with Dr. Michael Williams, Dr. Williams is a dentist and entrepreneur, business owner of his practice. He's gone through his share of ups and downs and learnings to land where he is today. Dr. Williams is an active member of the ADA, the North Carolina Dental Society, the Academy of General Dentistry, is the past president of the Charlotte, North Carolina Dental Society. Michael, thanks so much for being with us today.

Dr. Michael Williams (03:31):

Thanks for having me Shane, glad to be here.

Shane Tenny (03:33):

Yeah, well, I'm glad you're here too, otherwise it would just be 30 minutes of my monologue. So, this is a huge help to both of us. Start at the beginning, your career. I know you're from Tennessee, trained in Alabama. What were your expectations coming out of your dental residency program at the beginning of your career?

Dr. Michael Williams (03:51):

I think from the very beginning, I was excited about owning a business. That side of being a dentist, being an entrepreneur was always something that I at least verbalized and vocalized, and knew was part of my future. I just didn't quite know what that all entailed. Finished residency, my wife and I moved to Charlotte to be closer to some family, but also just thought it was a good place to start our careers. I joined a private practice as an associate and worked for the first three and a half years in that private practice, as well as the second in Charlotte, as an associate before owning my first practice, about three or four years into my career.

Shane Tenny (04:39):

And you wanted to own your own practice because of all the great stories you had heard, because you wanted the pressure, you wanted the control? What felt like the right jump there? What was the draw?

Dr. Michael Williams (04:50):

Yeah, I mean, I think it's a combination of some of the dentists that I knew growing up, we had a few family friends that were dentists and watching them own their own business, talk about the autonomy, talk about work-life balance. I think it's just the independence of working for myself and charting my own path, was always something that seemed admirable, that seemed exciting. Again, I say naively though, I had no clue what I was asking for.

Shane Tenny (05:23):

So, it sounds like your early step was the one that a lot of dentists take, which is go work as an employee somewhere, learn the ropes, learn the market and those sorts of things, and then the step that you thought for that presented itself that felt like right fit was, it sounds like kind of a partnership of some sort?

Dr. Michael Williams (05:43):

It was.

Shane Tenny (05:43):

Talk a little bit about that. What seemed attractive at that time?

Dr. Michael Williams (05:48):

Yeah, so I had been out of residency, I guess, for almost four years and had discussions about purchasing a practice, starting a practice on my own and for various reasons had not found the right opportunity, not found the right location. I was introduced to another dentist entrepreneur here in the Charlotte area, who has purchased a few practices around town. We decided to purchase a practice together in a partnership model, 50/50 owners, and grow as part of a growing group of practices that he owned. This sounded attractive from a standpoint of, I got to come do the dentistry, do the clinical nature of the work, and we had people in place to help run the practice and help do a lot of the business.

Shane Tenny (06:42):

And so I guess, what was your perception of yourself as a professional? As a dentists at that point? What did you know of yourself that made you think like, "This seems pretty good."

Dr. Michael Williams (06:54):

Yeah, I think at the time, after practicing for a few years after good education, great residency experience, I was very confident and capable clinically, and felt very confident in that. But when it came to being a business owner, being a leader in the practice, I felt A, that I hadn't had enough formal training, but also just not enough hands-on experience to be able to tackle that on my own. So, having someone to share that burden, lift some of that load, seemed very attractive.

Shane Tenny (07:31):

Yeah and being able to ride on the shoulders of somebody else for the HR and the bookkeeping and marketing and all of those kinds of [crosstalk 00:07:40], yeah.

Dr. Michael Williams (07:40):

[crosstalk 00:07:40]. Absolutely.

Shane Tenny (07:41):

It sounds like a start to a good story, what happened?

Dr. Michael Williams (07:46):

It was a good story. From the beginning, I felt like it had a shelf life. I didn't know what that shelf life was going to be. I looked at it as a stepping stone to learning how to be a better businessman, how to be a better leader. I think that as those happened, as I became a little more confident in my own abilities, the partnership became more strained. So, as you alluded to in your intro, it became more of a burden, became frustrating at times. A lot of it was to do with the fact that I had just outgrown that space.

Shane Tenny (08:29):

You started on this path with a level of commitment. I mean, you were joint owners, you were aware even of yourself that, "I'm going to do this for a while. I'm going to learn some things and then I'm probably going to be ready to bite this apple by myself." I mean, is that kind of what you're saying and-

Dr. Michael Williams (08:45):

I think there was a level of feeling that all along. I think there was a hopefulness that the partnership would turn into something that had longevity, that had a lifelong ... but I think there was a reservation from the beginning, an acknowledgement that, "Hey, I'm outsourcing some things here that I want to be better at, the leadership, the business side of it."

Shane Tenny (09:11):

Elaborate on that a little bit. As you look back, how did you change? I mean, I think you described it as that you outgrew the partnership yourself, it was what it was. I mean, your fellow dentist was running a business that he'd been doing for a while, you outgrew it. So as you look back, how do you see yourself different from when you started versus a couple of years later?

Dr. Michael Williams (09:32):

Yeah, I think the overwhelming theme is me embracing the leader that I was in really all aspects of my career in this journey. I tell the story of back when I was an associate, even before the partnership, having a dental assistant that I worked with for a couple of years, we were at a continuing education event, where she introduced me to a friend of hers as her boss. At the time I'd been out of dental school for a couple of years, I was an associate. In my view, I was not her boss, but I've looked back on that moment that she viewed me as her boss, because I was the dentist in the practice. I was the person that she was directly working under and at the time I don't think I realized how impactful that statement was of my own influence and leadership even in that initial associateship.

Dr. Michael Williams (10:32):

I could probably tell many other stories similar to that as I progress through my career as an associate and then into the partnership, where regardless of how much I maybe didn't want to be in a leadership role, it was there and I needed to just learn to embrace it. So, 2018 ish, I think I just got serious about embracing my role as a leader in the practice that I was in, in my partnership, honing in on the skills to become a better leader. Similar in the way that we do with our clinical education, we love to brag and tout how many continuing education hours we get sometimes on techniques and clinical dentistry, but we don't put in the hard work to become a better businessman, leader, the way we do with our clinical. So, that to me was a big turning point.

Shane Tenny (11:32):

So, at that point in your practice, you obviously were becoming aware of kind of the defacto leadership that you had as the dentist, as the owner, the clinician. So, was the leadership awakening that was taking place inside of you, just a by-product of your experience, or had you been doing any intentional development courses, coaching, seeing anything on leadership at that point?

Dr. Michael Williams (11:57):

Yeah, I think at that point it was more just defacto being put into leadership roles. I was also becoming, I think, more aware of my frustration in the partnership with things that were out of my control because of the number of people that were involved in running the practice. So as that frustration mounted, I was internally asking, "Okay, why did this partnership seem attractive at the time? What is it internally about myself that made the partnership work? And are there some holes that maybe I need to fill for my own growth that would allow me to be able to do things differently?"

Dr. Michael Williams (12:42):

So, that's when I did, through some networking, through contacts and trusted advisors that I had, started looking into some business coaching, some formal business coaching, because I realized that was an area where I needed to put in some time and effort, the way that we do a lot of times with our continuing education, from a clinical side. We love to take continuing education and tout the number of hours we spend improving our clinical skills, but we don't necessarily spend the equal amount of time on improving ourselves, and our businesses, and ourselves as leaders.

Shane Tenny (13:21):

Yeah, but this, unfortunately, as I well know, you start down this path of developing and doing soul searching and you end up coming face to face with the inevitable decision, which is, this is not a good fit. I need to make a change. And that's scary, right?

Dr. Michael Williams (13:36):

It is, it's very scary. It's scary when you've gone down a course. In my case, we bought not just the first practice, we ended up buying a second practice a couple of years later. Had a large team and just a large practice that was ... in most regards, things were going well, we were humming along. We were making money. We were from the outside, I think a lot of people would say, "Wow, you had things going in a good direction," but internally I was not happy. I knew that things needed to change. Some of that was that soul-searching that you just referenced.

Shane Tenny (14:11):

Yeah, well, I'll tell you what we got to put a quick break in here. When we come back, I want to hear how you push the reset button and what happened next.

Shane Tenny (14:24):

Do you ever feel disorganized with your finances? Ever feel confused about the right strategy with your student loans? You wonder about retirement or how to determine if you have the right amount or type of insurance? The Prosperous Doc podcast is sponsored by Spaugh Dameron Tenny, one of the nation's premier financial planning groups for physicians and dentists. Their website is a host of information available to you for free. Information under their financial resources tab at sdtplanning.com. It includes information and guides for residents and fellows. There's instructions for understanding and tabulating your net worth. There's all kinds of information around retirement or improving the health of your medical or dental practice.

Shane Tenny (15:13):

In fact, if you'd like to speak with a real financial planner who has expertise in working with physicians and dentists around the country, there's even a link on there where you can request our real conversation at no cost to you. So check it out today, sdtplanning.com and click on the section labeled financial resources. It'll be a great resource for you, and you can start getting clarity to your financial future today.

Shane Tenny (15:45):

So, our conversation with Dr. Michael Williams, and we're talking about how careers evolve and ebb and flow often in all expected ways. Michael, you were sharing before the break, just how, what seven, eight years after training, you'd gone from being an associate to being a partner, to realizing that you were just outgrowing the partnership. It just didn't feel comfortable. It wasn't moving in the right direction and you come face to face with the need to make a uncomfortable, courageous decision. How'd that work?

Dr. Michael Williams (16:14):

I guess, 2019, beginning of 2019, I had just hired a new associate in the practice and onboarded him. Once he was up and running, allowed myself to take a short, but well-needed vacation with my wife. We flew to Europe for just a few days, because I felt like I couldn't be away for very long, but it was enough to get away and do a little bit of soul-searching.

Dr. Michael Williams (16:44):

I remember vividly on that flight, just coming to that realization, like you said, right in front of me that, "Hey, something's got to change, I've outgrown this, something needs to change." So, I had some difficult conversations with myself, my trusted advisors, my wife, to just say, "Is this really something that I'm going to do here?" Which is finding a way to exit the partnership and go out on my own, which seemed scary.

Dr. Michael Williams (17:21):

It also seemed like, have I missed the boat here? I'm pretty far along in my career. I got good things going for me, but I sat down, had some conversations with my partner. We went through multiple iterations of how we would sell stakes in the partnership, partial ownership, full ownership. We went back and forth a lot, and to be honest it was difficult. It was messy, it was stressful.

Dr. Michael Williams (17:48):

We thought we had a plan in place that that sounded really good on paper. I had already signed a lease on a new space, was in the middle of construction for a new dental practice and then March of 2020 hit, with the pandemic. That put things in even a different perspective. It added some challenging hurdles for us to all jump through a very long story made short, is that at the end of May of 2020, I ended up selling my share of the practice to my partner and finishing the construction on my new practice. We've been open for about a year at this point and things are going great.

Shane Tenny (18:36):

Yes, so a little rabbit trail on this. I can't help myself, but the word to the wise, if you're about to sign a partnership agreement, make sure you have your lawyer look it over and think about it with the end in mind. If it doesn't work out, what are the provisions to extract yourself? Because that is where there is an awful lot of stress. I think I hear you as case study number one for that.

Dr. Michael Williams (18:57):

Absolutely. And I think that even though we had planned exits, we had planned, you can never over plan. I think it's an uncomfortable conversation to have with a partner that you're about to go into business with, because it seems like you're focusing on the breakup, but I would echo that completely, that if you are in a position where you're contemplating a partnership, really focus on what that exit looks like. You may or may never have to cross that bridge, but at least be ready.

Shane Tenny (19:31):

Yeah, you hope you don't, but it's kind of like talking about a prenup if you're an established professional, that's built up some wealth and it's awkward, but helpful and even more so in businesses-

Dr. Michael Williams (19:43):


Shane Tenny (19:44):

... where the majority of partnerships don't don't survive because people do grow and change. So, you made the decision around about '18 to set up your own practice, entered into the uncomfortable conversations, but along the way, found real estate started to set up your [inaudible 00:20:03] signage, working with a team of professional and personal advisors to, help you navigate all the different decision-making. I imagine in there you started to feel wind in your sails and the excitement and the nervousness of, "I'm building something myself." I know through that process, you really got hungry for development coaching yourself. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Dr. Michael Williams (20:29):

Yeah. So, as part of that growth that we just talked about, in hiring a business coach, I went through a very structured program with Harvey Smith who really challenged me in ways that I couldn't have even imagined going in, at my shortcomings as a leader, which had so many trickle over effects into personal life and other relationships as well. But I think that Shane and I talked about it a little bit earlier off-air, that the intentionality about that training was key. I even I've had some amazing mentors over the years, both clinical and personal, but as a step up from a mentor, was having a coach that I was intentional about setting aside time, making a financial investment in, those were key to my growth.

Shane Tenny (21:24):

Well, you found a coach, a professional coach that you paid money to, dental specific or just business leader-

Dr. Michael Williams (21:31):

No, he does leadership coaching for executives, entrepreneurs. I don't remember exactly how many dentists he said he had coached, but I know it was less than three.

Shane Tenny (21:42):

Okay this is a pretty small-

Dr. Michael Williams (21:46):

It's a fairly small number, but no, not dental specific at all. I found that refreshing because in my practice previously, we'd had a lot of consultants, a lot of dental-specific consultants and coaches who brought some great insights to running a dental practice and to coaching through some of the things that happen in a dental practice that are very specific to dentists.

Dr. Michael Williams (22:11):

This was different. This was much less about me being a dentist. This was me being a leader, an entrepreneur, which has carry over to all industries. So for me, that was important. I don't think I went out seeking him just because of that. But when I realized how non-dental specific that he was, it was actually very refreshing.

Shane Tenny (22:35):

Thinking about somebody that might be listening to this early in their career or facing similar crossroads of, "I need somebody to speak into my life." What are your thoughts about round when you need to find a mentor? Friend, somebody who's in the business, somebody who understands the industry, who can give the tips, when do you need a mentor and when do you need a coach? What's your thoughts and experience around that?

Dr. Michael Williams (22:56):

I think it's never too early. I wish I had done it sooner. I think the mentors are usually easier for us to find if we're active. I'm a huge proponent of organized dentistry through some of the things that I'm involved in. Just from a networking standpoint, if we're involved in things like the dental societies and organized dentistry, I hope that fosters relationships, and a lot of times turns into mentoring-type relationships with colleagues. Again, the coaching that I went through and what I would encourage people to explore, takes a little more intentionality than that.

Shane Tenny (23:38):

Michael, through working with a professional coach, I know you gleaned a lot out of it over the course of the year. What was maybe of the ah-has that you took away or that really hit you upside the head?

Dr. Michael Williams (23:50):

So many, but I think one of the big ah-has was in how I communicate with people and how it was an area that I needed to work. I needed to work on communication skills, but not necessarily verbally talking to someone, but how we relate to different people and the different people we come in contact with on a day-to-day basis, especially in our roles as leaders. So, whether that's our patients, our team members, in my case at the time, my business partner, people that were supporting my business, all the way down to vendors and my family, my kids, and realizing that we can get better at that communication.

Dr. Michael Williams (24:35):

We can work on our own communication skills. Again, it's not the words we're saying, but it's the how we're communicating with people. To me that was huge. That's something that we spent a lot of time working on. It was a big emphasis of quite a few of those sessions.

Shane Tenny (24:52):

I can imagine, and communication touches everything, so it's certainly really important. So, you're a year into the practice, I get the sense that you've laid the foundation you're going to end up building the rest of your career on. This last stop feels like home. Maybe just to wrap up, what's the future look like? What are you seeing from your chair here at the end of 2021?

Dr. Michael Williams (25:16):

Yeah, I mean, from a practice standpoint, there's a part of me that hopes this is the last stop. It feels good now, but at the same time, I think another big thing that I learned through this journey is that nothing really has to be permanent. So I want to say, this is it, but I also know that life changes, desires change, and I want to always be open to that. I do enjoy being able to guide and mentor younger dentists, especially in their careers, because I hear so many people say the same things I was saying now 10 years ago.

Dr. Michael Williams (25:54):

Everybody's journey is obviously different, but if I can help someone in their journey to not necessarily make the same mistakes, I have a hard time calling any of this mistakes, but to help guide someone in their journey, I'd love that. I embraced that and I'm getting excited about that.

Shane Tenny (26:12):

That's awesome. Well then, let me ask you this close-out question because all of us stand on the shoulders of those who went before us, who've molded and built into us. Who would you like to shout out here on the Prosperous Doc podcast before we wrap up, that's made the biggest impact in your life and your career?

Dr. Michael Williams (26:31):

Oh man. From a dentist standpoint, [Dr. Frank Serio 00:26:35] was a professor in dental school, but he, I think instilled just more from not even a clinical side, but a how we deal with patient side. I have to thank him, stay in touch with him constantly. He's on the tail end of his career, but he made just a giant impact in my life. Harvey Smith, that we talked about, business coach, I have to give him credit where much credit is due. Ben [Shaver 00:27:01] is the one who introduced me to Harvey through a series of marketing my practice and realizing it's really hard to market someone who doesn't quite know who they are, and so let's work on that first. I think that that in honing in on my vision, my growth personally, it's made his job marketing a whole lot easier.

Shane Tenny (27:26):

Awesome. Thanks for shouting out three great people that have made an impact in your life and thanks for being on with us today.

Dr. Michael Williams (27:33):


Shane Tenny (27:33):

I appreciate your vulnerability and sharing the story, and I wish you all the best going forward. Michael, before I wrap up, if anybody wants to connect with you because they resonate with your story or they want to pick your brain, or they're looking for a mentor, how can they track you down?

Dr. Michael Williams (27:47):

Easiest way is probably email. Super easy, michaeltwilliams@gmail.com, think it's the same on LinkedIn. Of course, all social media. Find me, Michael T. Williams, pretty easy.

Shane Tenny (27:59):

Excellent. And we'll put that in the show notes, in case you're driving, you can't write it down and won't remember it, you can look it up later. Michael, thanks so much for being with us today. Thank you for joining us for this episode of the Prosperous Doc podcast. If you have suggestions, friends, colleagues, people you've trained with that have a story that needs to be shared. Would you drop me an email? It's shane@whitecoatwell.com. I'll respond to you personally, we'd love to know that. Also welcome you subscribing through iTunes or Google Play to the podcast. You'll know when new episodes come out, also helps our reviews and our ratings, which are precious commodities to all of us in the podcasting space and wish you all the best. We'll see you back here next time.

Outro (28:46):

This episode of the Prosperous Doc podcast is over, but you're not alone on your journey. Spaugh Dameron Tenny has been helping physicians and dentists prosper through financial planning for over 60 years. To connect with us, visit sdtplanning.com today and take your financial wellness to new levels. Join us on the next episode of the Prosperous Doc podcast.