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Succession Planning for Dermatologists

Succession Planning for Dermatologists

Leadership transitions can be risky times for dermatology practices, no matter whether the circumstances surrounding them are positive or negative. When a departing lead dermatologist has had a strong run, there is worry about a successor’s ability to maintain that momentum. If, on the other hand, leadership has been poor, there’s anxiety about whether and how fast a successor will be able to correct course. Physician owners are responsible for ensuring that the practice continually has high quality operations and employees. One of the most important means of achieving this responsibility is to conduct successful succession planning. 

As the term implies, succession planning involves just that: planning ahead. So even if you don’t see your practice leadership changing in the immediate future, it is wise to have a plan in place for when it inevitably does happen. 

It is also advisable to have at least annual discussions with key employees regarding succession planning, including how to manage effectively during a transition. This is information you’ll want to revisit regularly, not just discuss once and never think about again. 

Having a strategic plan that clearly conveys the practice’s mission and current strategic priorities is essential. The plan should include specific actions that detail who is going to do what and by when in order to address each priority. 

Strategies for Success(ion)

When talking to others about succession, realism must be your foundation. Having a clear leader is key. This is no time for wishful thinking, hoping that an uninterested or incapable physician will suddenly become full of passion and business skills. Objectively evaluate physician candidates for their experience and potential, ideally with the assistance of knowledgeable outsiders. After this tough decision, take the systematic steps to pass the reins of leadership. This may take some time, but remember: The best successions are those that end with a clean and certain break. In other words, after you give up the reins, get off the wagon. 

Again, seek outside help. Even if you would never use an outside adviser for any other decision, consider the value that a qualified consultant can bring to this important event. By obtaining help from a professional, you’ll be working to reap the rewards of succession in a different and smarter way.

First and foremost, a smooth succession requires the ability to be honest with yourself about your goals and desires for both your practice and your life after leaving the practice. Once you have a clear and honest vision established, it’s time to implement a detailed plan that will help succession go as smoothly as possible.  

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Finding A Successor

While succession planning has some science behind it, it is also an art. There are indeed any number of variables which must be taken into consideration in specific situations, but one of the biggest is the physician owner’s personality, which could play a significant and unexpected role in determining how the future plays out for the practice.

Physicians who start private practice are usually very strong people who took a lot of risks to achieve success. In working with numerous practices over the years, I have encountered many physicians who believe their successors must be clones of them, since their way of operating has brought the business to where it is today. This mentality is understandable, but shortsighted. 

It is not realistic to expect the next generation of ownership to fit an exact mold. Too many physician owners get frustrated if their junior partners don’t emulate them, but what the owners really should be doing is taking the time to talk with their staff, hear their perspectives, and even learn something from them. Physicians who are stuck in an unworkable model may be getting their practices stuck as well.

The most important aspect of appointing a successor is to ensure you have values that align with your own. Then you can use the unique styles of the individuals working in the practice to achieve these values. A good strategy for achieving this goal is to determine the roles and responsibilities that give probable successors the best opportunity to showcase their skills, and then let them flourish using their own style. 

It can come as a big surprise to some physician owners that their incoming partner’s style, even if different from theirs, is a big hit with patients and staff members. For instance, it may represent a welcome change to move from an emotional, passionate, frenetic physician to one who is calm, thoughtful, and never panics. What should never be lost, however, are the aspects of style that have made the dermatology practice successful—non-negotiable things like responsiveness and patient care.

The Payoff of Planning Ahead

Succession planning can be contentious or it can be orderly. The difference depends on all participants in the process being willing to put the practice first and work toward the common goal of long-term sustainability. Smart physician owners will take time to uncover what other partners bring to the table, even if it looks different from the status quo. When values are aligned and owners back down from the belief that their way is the only way, the transition will be smoother and the future quite bright. Succession planning gives you time to train up your successor, show them the ropes, and make sure that they really understand your business.

Remember, too, that transparency is crucial both internally and externally. Proactive communication about leadership changes alleviates the normal fears associated with change and uncertainty. Plan for this. Poor management of this process shakes organizational credibility and effectiveness. The bottom line is that transitioning from a practice takes time and preparation. There are a variety of issues that must be considered, which is why it requires education and adequate planning to ensure the handing over of your dermatology practice is seamlessly executed. 

Mr Hernandez is the chief executive officer and founder of ABISA, LLC, a consultancy specializing in strategic healthcare initiatives (

Disclosure: The author reports no relevant financial relationships.

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