From dental assisting to office-management leadership

Jane Walkley and Terri Lenihan receive awards for contributions in dental office-management leadership

When Jane Walkley, DAADOM, and Terri Lenihan, CDPMA, FAADOM, started their dental assisting careers more than 40 years ago, neither dreamt they’d transition to dental office management and find recognition and so many rewards in the field.

Both have professional roots in working chairside and were inspired to make the switch to the front office. There, these dental leaders realized they could keep growing in leadership and mentorship, while continuing to make important contributions to the dental team and provide patient care.

“My favorite part about dental practice administration has always been the interaction with the patients and the team,” says Walkley, practice administrator at Kopit Dental Care in in Frederick, Maryland.

Last fall, both Walkley and Lenihan accepted awards for their outstanding contributions in dental office-management leadership. Walkley received the American Association of Dental Office Management’s first-ever Leave the Ladder Down award for mentorship during AADOM’s September 2022 conference.

Lenihan — office manager at Broadway Family & Cosmetic Dentistry in Council Bluffs, Iowa — was one of three “oral health champions” recognized in October 2022 by the membership organization FAMILY Inc. during its annual awards ceremony in Council Bluffs. Lenihan was honored for her work locally to help provide underserved children with free oral healthcare.

Improving access to care

Lenihan, whose dental career has spanned nearly 45 years, has been involved with FAMILY Inc. since 2015. Of winning the organization’s “oral health champion” award, she says, “I was surprised, but very honored that they thought of me for helping start Give Kids A Smile in our area.”

The American Dental Association Foundation’s Give Kids A Smile program launched nationally 20 years ago, and Lenihan is proud to participate. “We started Give Kids A Smile in our area since there was, and still is, a great need to have children see a dentist,” she says. Broadway Family & Cosmetic Dentistry was the area’s first participating office. Lenihan has been working with Broadway Family & Cosmetic Dentistry since November 2019.

To help establish the Council Bluffs-area program in 2008, Lenihan contacted local schools, and one agreed to participate. Now, most of the area’s elementary schools and all three local junior high schools are involved, with students bussed to Broadway Family & Cosmetic Dentistry and a handful of other local offices. With its growth, FAMILY Inc. now supports the local program Lenihan assisted in launching.

“It is so rewarding to see their smiles when these patients are done with treatment, especially on their front teeth,” Lenihan reflects. “It chokes me up just thinking about it.”

Supporting colleagues in their careers

Walkley was selected for AADOM’s inaugural mentorship award based on her outstanding coaching of fellow AADOM members, especially those pursuing AADOM educational distinction. This was Walkley’s first AADOM award, in addition to joining AADOM’s first class of Diplomates in 2021.

“I was shocked and honored to be chosen for the award,” shares Walkley. “I think AADOM could see my mentorship commitment through my interaction with other members, how I am always willing to guide and help them.”

Walkley also notes she’s humbled by the honor: “It’s hard to say why I was chosen, because in mentoring, I’m just doing what I always do, which is helping people.”

Getting started in dental assisting

When did these leaders realize that working in the dental office was right for them?

Walkley was drawn to dentistry during a vocational assisting class in high school. She recalls noticing that her dental assisting teachers seemed confident, knowledgeable, and dedicated. “I knew I wanted to be like them,” she says.

Following a two-year stint in dental assisting after high school, Walkley welcomed the opportunity to move to the front office, calling this a “natural progression” because she still could work with people, from the team to the patients.

Similarly, Lenihan started out as a dental assistant almost 45 years ago, working in this capacity for more than 20 years. When a doctor approached her about a front-office position, Lenihan was eager to make the move.

“Your goal as a team is always patient care,” Lenihan elaborates. “In management, you are just doing it differently, in scheduling, case presentation, and answering questions. Starting my career working in the clinical area has always been a benefit to me.”

Growing in dental office management

Once finding the path to practice management, how did Walkley and Lenihan ramp up their skills and knowledge in this area? In 2007, Lenihan earned DANB’s Certified Dental Practice Management Administrator certification, which she still maintains. “I worked hard to get that certification — I passed the first time and am proud,” she says.

Lenihan also has maintained AADOM membership since joining in 2007, finding knowledge, camaraderie, and support through the organization. She received AADOM’s Practice Administrator of the Year award in 2017.

Likewise, Walkley has long enjoyed all AADOM has to offer, noting, “My favorite part of AADOM is the education, but also the relationships I’ve built within the membership.” Walkley has been an AADOM member since 2011.

Both dental leaders tout the importance of continuing dental education for accelerating careers. Walkley recommends the OSAP-DALE Foundation certificate program and DALE Foundation office-management courses. “They’re great refreshers on important topics.”

Lenihan agrees DALE Foundation courses are “a huge help,” especially for those carving a niche in dental practice administration.

“No matter how long you have been in dentistry, no matter what your role is, there is always something to learn,” Lenihan adds.

Learn more: Become a dental office manager