Building a Sterling Reputation

Building a Sterling Reputation.001

Understanding the importance of a building a sterling reputation

When I was in seventh grade, I wasn’t exactly the most popular kid.  I had friends and a small social circle, but I was never invited to sit at the “cool kids’ table.”  Despite that, I had spent years building a sterling reputation with teachers and administrators, and I did have some friends.  I got along well with almost everyone.  Almost.  

During that year, there was a boy (who I’ll call Jake) who was a year older than me, and for some reason he just didn’t like me.  Looking back, I don’t think he had a grudge against me in particular.  I think he was just a bully and I was a pretty easy target: nerdy, skinny, and with no “posse” to back me up. 

He just loved to pick on me.  Usually I was able to ignore it or just remove myself from the situation, but I remember one day when he decided to take it to a new level.  We were sitting on the school bus at the end of the day, waiting for all the kids to load up so we could start heading home.  

I was sitting in my seat, minding my own business.  Suddenly, I felt a sharp pain on top of my head.  Jake was in the seat behind me, punching me in the head.  I turned around and asked him politely to stop.  

Another blow struck my head.  Pain followed, along with laughter from Jake and his cronies.  I moved to another seat closer to the front.  A minute later, another sharp blow struck my head, this time with more force.  I turned around and told him he had to stop, and then I went back to minding my own business, but he hit me again.  Finally, I stood up and told him I wasn’t going to take that abuse anymore.  He asked, “Oh yeah?  What are you going to do about it?” 

So, what did I do about it?

I responded by hauling back and punching him in the face as hard as I could.  Not being a trained fighter, it wasn’t a particularly well aimed shot.  He fell back in his seat, probably from surprise more than pain.  

Suddenly, I realized what I’d done.  I grabbed my things and ran off the bus before he could mobilize, and I didn’t stop running until I got to the principal’s office.  He knew me well from church and from working with our Boy Scout troop.  

I mustered up my courage and said, “Sir, I have to confess to you that I’ve been in a fight.  I punched Jake in the face.”  He only asked me one question, “What did Jake do that provoked that?”

He knew I had a reputation for academic excellence, kindness, and getting along well with other kids, so he assumed that whatever happened must have been Jake’s fault.  Jake’s reputation as a thug probably helped form his opinion as well.  

I told him the story and he made sure I got home ok.  In the end, Jake got suspended from school for three days and I got no punishment.  

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The Value of a Sterling Reputation

1. People naturally assume that you’re doing the right thing.

When you cultivate a reputation for honesty, diligence, hard work, and ethical behavior, people tend to give you the benefit of the doubt when it comes to difficult situations.  I’ve actually had times when my bosses called me to tell me that other doctors were saying untrue or slanderous things about me, but that they didn’t believe it.  

My director once called me to tell me about one such situation involving a colleague and told me to just make sure to keep doing everything by the book.  He had plans to handle the other doctor on his own.  

2. People will come to your rescue and defend you.  

We’ve all had patients complain about us at one time or another.  Sometimes it’s because we didn’t do a good job or were too terse during an encounter, but sometimes it’s just because the patient didn’t like the news we gave them.  When you have spent time building a sterling reputation for clinical excellence, your team members and hospital/practice administrators will be more likely to come to your defense when the quality of your practice is called into question.

The opposite is true too.  When you have a reputation for laziness, poor clinical judgement, or shoddy work, people will naturally assume that you’re in the wrong and will be quicker to judge you harshly.  You’ll be much more likely to find yourself before a board of inquiry rather than in an informal or collegial conversation with your department head.

3. You become an authority.

Sadly, not all physicians are excellent at their jobs.  Even fewer display excellence in leadership.  Building a sterling reputation for clinical excellence causes people to naturally assume you are an expert in your field.  What’s funny about this is that you are an expert in your field, whether people view you that way or not.  

However, if you are constantly late for appointments, abrupt with your patients, rude to your staff, and unhelpful to your consultants or referring physicians, people will tend to doubt your expertise as well.  

“He’s not even good at talking to me, how good a doctor can he be?”  That’s what people will tend to think.  

Your business depends on people believing that you are able to help them.  Honing your reputation as a thoughtful, insightful, kind, and knowledgeable physician will naturally lend credibility to your educational bona fides.  Patients and colleagues will come to naturally accept your authority as an expert in your field.  

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How to go about building a sterling reputation

As the expression goes, “It takes a lifetime to build a reputation, but only seconds to destroy it.”  That’s not fortune-cookie wisdom, that’s absolutely the truth.  

When you first start your clinical practice, you won’t have any credibility built up with patients and colleagues yet.  As far as they’re concerned, you’re Nobody from Nowhere.  You’ve got to build up your reputation, and that takes time.  So, how do you do it?

  1. Start off on the right foot.

According to Newton’s First Law of Motion, “An object in motion tends to stay in motion unless acted on by an outside force.”  It’s very difficult to change your reputation once it has been cemented in someone’s mind, and that process happens very quickly.   

One piece of advice I give to all new interns in our facility is, “Be the best you can be this first month.”  

      • Do more than is asked.  
      • Be early to every meeting and every lecture.  
      • Look up articles without being asked.  
      • Ask lots of insightful questions.  
      • Stay late to help your residents.  
      • Come early to round on your patients.  
      • Spend extra time learning from the nurses.  
      • Teach the medical students.   
      • Most importantly, don’t do anything really stupid.  

“The reputation you build your first month will be your reputation until you graduate and leave.  If you develop a reputation for being rude or a screw-up, that’s all anyone will ever see.  However, if people see you as kind, generous, helpful, and hard-working, you’ll find that people will love having you on their team.”

Nurses especially tend to develop a one-sided view of physicians based on their earliest interactions with them.  Right or wrong, it’s very difficult to shake off a bad reputation.  So, anytime you start a new job, work with a new team member, or meet a new patient, make it the best encounter you’ve ever had.  If you do that over a lifetime, you’ll have thousands of raving fans.  

  1. Have patience, build your reputation slowly.

Reputations are not built in a moment, they are built over a lifetime.  Each patient encounter, each phone call, interaction with your staff, procedure, and note you write is like a single tile in a giant mosaic that ultimately forms the mental picture people develop for you.  

You will not have authority as an expert after one month working on a job.  It takes months, even years of building a corpus of excellent patient and staff encounters for people to view you the way you want them to view you.  This is especially true if you are in a position of leadership.  Team members are naturally suspicious of new authority figures.  

  • “Will he be a tyrant?”  
  • “Will she listen to my concerns?”
  • “Does my opinion matter to them?”

Their fears may be well founded, especially if they’ve previously worked with someone who was mean, who undercut their own authority, or who treated them as inferiors.  

The same goes for your patients.  Their interactions with their previous physicians, whether they were good or bad, will frame their perception of you from the time they first meet you.  

You can’t do anything about their past experiences, but you can ensure that any experience they have with you is positive and helpful.  Doing this over many encounters, over months or years, will build your reputation in a positive way.

3. Set a goal of working to ensure that others succeed

One of the easiest strategies for building a sterling reputation is to have a goal of always working to ensure that others succeed at their goals.  This is already your natural goal with your patients.  You’re working to help them feel better and get more healthy.  

How are you working to ensure the success of your team members and colleagues?  The more you do to help them achieve their goals, the more you’ll cultivate a reputation of being the “go-to guy” for solving their problems.  You’ll naturally assume a role of expert and may even have the opportunity to become a mentor for them.

4. Excellence in the Ordinary 

Usually, it’s not the grand gesture that solidifies your reputation with your staff and patients – it’s being excellent at small, ordinary things.  

When I was a gastroenterology fellow, some of my medical assistants told me that I was the only physician that would help them haul all of our endoscopy equipment from the GI clinic to the ICU when we needed to do endoscopies there.  They really appreciated it and one specifically told me that it made him respect me more.  

That floored me when he first said that, but the more I thought of it, the more it made sense.  It also reinforces my earlier point about helping people succeed in reaching their goals.  Making his life easier made him think more highly of me.  So, it seems that a small act of selflessness went a long way. 

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4 easy ways to destroy your reputation

1. Lie

Nothing destroys a reputation like dishonesty.  It really only takes one incident to wreck you for a long time with your colleagues and patients.  If you can’t deal fairly and honestly with patients and staff, they’ll naturally question your clinical competence as well.  No matter the consequences, honesty is an absolute requirement.

Besides being the right thing to do, there’s a financial upside to it that you may not have considered.  In his book The Millionaire Mind, Thomas Stanley studied the habits, careers, and character traits of individuals with a net worth over $10M.  

One of the most consistent traits encountered among the super-wealthy was “a fanatical level of integrity.”  That’s not an accident.  Honesty leads to successful relationships which tend to bring more personal fulfillment as well as economic success.

2. Cheat

One of the easiest ways to cheat people is not giving them your best efforts.  This can manifest in even subtle ways such as slacking off at work, deliberately manipulating call schedules to benefit you at the expense of your partners, and preventing your staff from taking needed and earned vacation time because it’s inconvenient for you.  

Basically, if you can think of a way to create a benefit for you at the expense of someone else, they’ll feel cheated.  That breeds resentment, lack of trust, and ultimately a breakdown in your relationship.

3. Don’t take care of your family

As a man, I believe strongly in my responsibility to take care of my family.  My wife and I are partners in managing our family’s needs and parenting our kids, but I feel a deep sense of responsibility to lead my family well.  

Very few things will irreparably damage my view of someone, especially a man, more than failing to care for their family.  When a man speaks poorly of his wife, it makes me question him as a person and a professional.  If he won’t speak well of his own family, how will he speak of his staff, patients, and business partners?

If I learn of someone having an affair, I consider that to be the ultimate grounds for breaking trust with me in a permanent way.  I have utterly no patience or tolerance for someone betraying the trust of their spouse and children by having affairs.  That permanently destroys any hope of trust-building I have with that person.  I know some business owners who see that as grounds for termination from their job.  

So, take care of your spouse, take care of your kids, and take care of your family.  

Don’t miss this.  

You will not have any credibility as a physician if you can’t take care of your own household.  

4. Be bad at your job

Being a poor physician will kill your reputation.  No one will take you seriously if you aren’t even good at your craft.  

I remember moving to a new city one time and taking over as a solo gastroenterologist for the GI physician who had been there for the preceding 3 years.  For the first three months I worked there, every clinic encounter took an extra 15-30 minutes to untangle the clinical snarls he had created by being a genuinely terribly physician.  It was surprising too, as he was a veteran physician, but his clinical judgement was just exceptionally poor.  

The more people I talked to in the hospital, the more consistent the feedback regarding his reputation was.  He was generally disliked and dismissed as an obnoxious, tyrannical jerk who wasn’t very good at his job.  In over a year of working there, I never found a single person who had anything positive to say about him.  It was remarkably consistent.  


Final thoughts

Building a sterling reputation takes a lifetime, but it takes just seconds to destroy it.  As a physician, your chief currency is credibility.  It’s critically important to your success that you work on cultivating a reputation for yourself as a kind, insightful, skilled physician.  If you do then you’ll have better relationships, stronger connections with your patients, and ultimately greater business success.


None of this happens by accident.  It requires excellence in each patient encounter, each clinic note, each business transaction, and each hiring and firing decision.  Building a sterling reputation happens one day at a time, one moment at a time, one person at a time, and you’ll find that you have built your reputation on a foundation of unshakeable granite.  

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Further Reading

Leave a comment below and tell us what you think is the most important thing you can do to create a sterling reputation.

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Comments (2)

  • There are so many great lessons in this story. I’m going to share this with my teenage daughter. Thank you for sharing, Brent.

    • Hey Brooke, thank you so much for the comment! I’m glad it resonated. I hope this information is good for all ages. I think it’s especially good for young folks as they are starting to think about building a reputation, especially in this age of instant availability of all digital information.

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