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The 21st Century Optician

The Importance of Leadership and Management 
in a Diverse Environment

The optical world is continually changing. Today's optical organizations are comparatively larger than the small, independent practices of the past, and mom-and-pop solo practices are slowly declining. 

On top of that, corporate, as well as private practices now face a different, more diverse workforce then ever before, so it is imperative that people who own, or hold management roles understand the importance of not only managing but leading the organization to be successful in the contemporary climate.

Management versus Leadership

Robbins and Coulter (2007) define management as "coordinating and overseeing the work of others so that their activities are completed efficiently and effectively." In brief, making sure someone does what you ask them to do. Leadership, according to the same authors, is described as "the process of influencing a group to achieve goals," a somewhat different perspective. In today's organizational climate, and in particular in health care organizations of all types, the owner/manager must be a leader as well. Understanding what motivates this diverse workforce is imperative for success in today's environment.

Evaluating Different Perspectives?

Diversity is a good thing, in that it provides us with opportunities to learn about each other, but that can also be a concern for management. We must understand what makes our employees tick to be successful, and to do that we need to learn about the different ways to motivate them.

What Are the Differences?

We all know there are gender differences in the workforce today, because we see it. In the optical world, there are more women entering the profession than men. In the past, the field was clearly dominated by men. Diversity is also easily recognized in the ethnic and cultural makeup of the workforce today. Also important is the age differences we must face, and that may be as difficult as any. Let's take a closer look at these issues.

Gender Differences

Some years back I was a volunteer soccer coach at a high school. Our boys and girls teams were highly successful, despite the rather questionable fellow they had coaching them! One day, I was asked to step in for the girls' coach who needed to tend to a family illness. I was pleased to do so, and knew all the young ladies and their families. My very first practice I used the same strategies I had with the boys, and my next door neighbor's daughter made a rather egregious error, for which I chastised her immediately. I was shocked when she began to cry uncontrollably. I did not understand what happened, but upon reflection and some research, I learned to speak more softly next time, and that the first rule in coaching young ladies is to show them you care about them as individuals and treat them respectfully. Above all, do not embarrass them in front of the group! While my boys were used to my yelling at them for a mistake, the girls simply did not relate to that at all, and I changed my approach the next time.

With over 50% of the eye care workforce female today, learning how to effectively motivate women is important. When I first went to Opticianry School, my class had 2 females out of the 20 students who started the program. Now, most of the classes are female. The bottom line is this, men no longer dominate the optical world, and Optometry is the same. The lesson is not that you shouldn't yell at the "girls," but that all professional colleagues need to be treated as such, and effective communication must be free of any gender influence. Again respect is the key word.

Cultural Differences

Today, you may be working with people from a variety of backgrounds and not even know it. My city (Fayetteville, North Carolina) is one of the most diverse communities on the planet, due to Fort Bragg, the nations' most populous military base. It is located right outside the city limits, and will soon be annexed by the city. We have 85 recorded cultures here, and to be able to work with this variety of backgrounds can be both a blessing and a curse. Melding all those different perspectives together without public unrest can be difficult. The workplace is the same and policies and procedures need to be designed to allow for cultural differences. An example occurred a few years back that stuck with me. A man, who happened to be Muslim, was fired from his job after 9/11. He was born in the United States and lived here all his life, but was blamed for what happened on that tragic day because of his faith. He won a lawsuit for wrongful termination, and was awarded significant back pay and other monetary concessions from the company.

Another recent case centered on race. A woman, who happened to be Caucasian, was married to an African-American man. The boss was unaware of that and was notorious for telling degrading racial jokes. The woman finally had enough and sued, winning a substantial settlement. You never know who you are talking to and it is best to keep things like that out of the work environment. Cultural and ethnic differences are found in every city, and we need to recognize that the folks we manage may be somewhat different from us, and respect those differences.

Age Differences

Managing the millennial generation and managing the Baby Boomers in the same organization can be a real challenge. I happen to be a Baby Boomer, or someone born between the years 1946 and 1964. My generation is known for idealism, self-focus optimism and involvement. We wanted to work hard, and get paid. We grew up with President Kennedy, the Cold War, and television. The Generation X population, born between 1965 and 1977, grew up with President Clinton, the Iran hostage crisis, MTV, and AIDS. They are motivated by enjoyment of life and want to balance work and personal life. Often referred to as the millennial generation, Generation Y grew up with President George W. Bush, the Internet, and is technologically savvy. They want flexibility, choice, and meaningful experiences and work. They ask why, and appreciate diversity.

All of the generations want something different from work and to effectively motivate them all simultaneously, one must understand their differences. It is important to provide a variety of incentives that may be motivators across the generational boundaries. Just giving someone a raise may not positively affect Generation Y, but may work well with the Boomers. Generation X may prefer time off versus a raise. All-in-all, respecting those differences can provide significant rewards for your organization, so take the time to learn more about what motivates your staff. It will pay dividends in the long run. And remember, a simple informal recognition of a job well done can be a positive motivator for all generations.


You can clearly see that we face hurdles in managing successfully in today's healthcare environment. Organizations must be cognizant of the makeup of their workforce and develop policies and procedures to address diversity. At the same time and even more important than policies, is the fact that those who manage must understand that Gen X and Gen Y may not be as easily "managed" as previous generations. Leadership plays a significant role in "influencing" folks from those generations to effectively reach organizational goals. Just telling someone today to do it because I am the boss is ineffective and will certainly be a source of constant turnover. You may have noticed a key word intertwined throughout this article, respect. Respecting the differences in the generations, cultures and genders is our key to managing and leading successful organizations of the future.

References on request

Warren G. McDonald, PhD
Professor of Health Administration
Reeves School of Business / Methodist University

Warren G. McDonald, PhD

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