Love as a Business Strategy by Frank E. Danna, Jeffrey F. Ma, Christopher J. Pitre, and Mohammad F. Anwar opened my eyes to what it is I can and should provide to the team of incredibly hard working people who help my practice support patients. It was a reinforcement and an acknowledgment of a strategy that Happy Tooth had been using for almost 2 decades. A strategy that started with: “I am going to reinvent the wheel and become friends with my employees (because I was twenty-something, arrogant, and felt omnipotent),” and later became, “I want to get to know you, allow you to find your talents, bring you fulfillment in what you do, and take care of you.”
It has become a strategy of carrying others, a strategy of shielding them from the bumps of running a business, a strategy of taking care of those in my charge, per Simon Sinek. My own personal journey of being myself and loving people has inadvertently translated into a recruitment strategy.
Despite many growing pains along the way, to be laid out below, my human heart will not give up on those with whom I spend most of my waking hours.
I HURT TOO
Whether it be as an owner, as a provider, or as a human, we have all been on both sides of people making decisions which affect us negatively, affect us emotionally. We have all been taken advantage of and we have all done the taking, if honest enough to admit. For a practice owner, a manager, a director, for myself the proverbial slap in the face, stab in the back, or punch in the gut has often left an undesired sense of lost compassion and empathy for another.
In a moment of weakness, I’d given an employee $800 in cash for court fees after her arrest. It was money I was saving for my splurge, my personal 10 months of savings in a cookie jar. This was after she failed to show up for a nonrefundable $1000 weekend course, due to this arrest. In the time of her employment, I had gone above and beyond what any employer should or would do in supporting her role as a single mom; for several years I’d either given her money for school supplies or taken her kids shopping before the start of school. I’d given her kids computers, even bought them the newest gaming consoles as Christmas gifts.
Despite all of that, as she was let go for poor performance years later, I was not just left with certain predictable labels uttered upon her departure, but all my good deeds were forgotten.
I had another employee who, after the COVID shutdown, chose not to return to the office and under false pretense threatened to sue us for FMLA. Several hundred dollars of attorney fees and HR consults were well worth it in finding out where the line lay and what my responsibilities were as an owner. In the late quarters on 2020, she returned for a dental visit stating that she was in an unhealthy marriage and was heading toward a divorce. She was a mom of 2 young boys, one of whom had special needs; the despair in her body language and the fear of not being able to make ends meet was palpable.
Despite the past, despite being fully staffed, we offered her a full-time position with a very handsome benefit package. We then accommodated her medical condition which prevented her from assisting full-time, reduced her hours (per her request) and placed her in a much less demanding chair-side role appointing her as the clinical manager. A year following her reemployment, she asked that her 3.5 days a week be reduced to only 2. As we could not agree to those terms, already having compromised on the 3.5, she terminated her employment with 3 days notice, 2 of which she called in sick.
She cut all ties with our office, after her 13+ year presence, and divulged to her co-workers afterwards that she was angry and was treated unfairly.
Both of those encounters have always weighed heavily on my heart. I watched both of those employees grow up into wonderfully strong women in the almost 2 decades combined that they stayed at my office. It was difficult to see them go not just because I missed their laughter in my life; it was difficult to see them go because they both had labeled me as the bad guy after all the warmth and care I’d put into those affairs.
The two above are the most significant examples of this kind of hardship; there were many others, many too insignificant to mention, but ones which reduced the heart I put into my future relationships. So when it came to forming new bonds with employees, any history like the above made it a little harder for me to trust. Not a little harder, a lot harder.
Now, the question begs: how do you embrace the next wave of employees and how do you give, when so much has been taken?
YOU SIGNED UP TO HELP, SO HELP
The simple part of the answer is that the desire to give has to come from within you. As healthcare providers, we signed up “to help people.” How many of us put that down on our entrance narratives for dental school? We have chosen to serve our patients and heal them. Serving those who help us serve should be no different.
Whatever the reason to keep you giving, be it faith or karma, it has to come from inside. I can’t convince you of that, I can’t deliver that for you. In circumventing the negative experiences we’ve all had, with those who’d taken more than is left for the taking, you just need to keep stumbling forward. Don’t forget those stories, but move on in spite of them. Stumble forward because it’s right thing to do. Open your heart again, because it’s unfair to make the new person pay the price for what another has taken.
Keep moving for the same reason you always have, because it’s part of the human experience, because it’s who you are, because there is a purpose in it.
PEOPLE OVER PROFIT, ALWAYS
The magic for me in getting past those difficult relationships has been to try and put myself in the shoes of my teammates, my co-workers, my employees. You cannot deny that when you have the right person on your team, they work tirelessly. There are days that they work as hard as you, and days that they work even harder. Maybe with less skin in the game, definitely with less liability and lower investment (lifelong investment) but they work just as hard. When you put yourself in their shoes and see how little they are rewarded, how little they are taken care of, how much they are taken advantage of, how they are made feel to be disposable and unimportant against our degrees…. you want to start taking honor in your care of them. Those who are out there, who are ‘trapped in the op,’ they deserve a healthy work environment to come to.
They should be made welcome in a place to call home, a place filled with celebration and laughter, not just relentless tasks and instructed corrections. In today’s landscape which is obsessed with profitability, in a landscape where money drives management and even patient care, running a business while considering the human factor is a game changer. In today’s culture, it’s being ahead of the curve.
What ends up happening, as you sincerely and genuinely care for those in your employ, is that those in your charge actually want continue to do come to work. Happy employees, engaged employees, encouraged employees… they succeed. If they succeed, your patients leave healthier, happier, and inspired to return. I’m not standing here on my soap box pretending that I have always done the right thing for the right reason.
I have had many moments in my career where I’d made mistakes in what I took from others, what I took from my employees, the impossible standards I set forth and the ruthless accountability I’d instilled. I am standing here on my soapbox because I have lived on the other side of this strategy, I had spent too many years practicing as if I were the the most important person in the room. And guess what, I wasn’t succeeding, and neither were they.
We all lost. Giving your team attention, making them feel revenant, using love as a business strategy will set you apart. And then, everyone wins, literally everyone.
DOCTOR’S ORDERS: TAKE 1 HOUR EVERY 3 MONTHS
The last piece of the puzzle in the love strategy has been getting to know my team personally. No, I am not going back on the failed practice of becoming ‘their friend.’ I am talking about understanding who the members of your team are and what drives them. Not what drives them to work for you, but what drives them in life. What is their purpose? What gets them up in the morning? What makes them giggle and why? For this, I schedule 60 minute one-on-one meetings with each one of my crew every 90 days. With a team of 15 at Happy Tooth, I spend at least one lunch hour a week on this. Yes, I might have some sort of form to take notes on and refer to for later meetings.
We might talk about practice goals and clinic celebrations. In that very important hour, we talk about about my employees, about their lives, their loves, their struggles. They can share as much or as little as they want in our talks. They can get vulnerable (a tissue box nearby) or keep it surface-like. That hour gives me a chance to show them attention, to make their contribution to patient care relevant, to make their contribution to this world worthwhile.
They often open up about their work struggles and tell me more than they would another supervisor. Fortified with what they share, I am able to place their talents to use.
I am able to move their positions as needed, I am able to align them into their own personal success, helping them live out their purpose. As people use their talents, as they begin to love what they do, once again, they succeed; and once again, everyone wins. The change in the atmosphere around the office is so significant that even patients can feel it.
Nothing about running an office or managing people is easy. As practitioners, as dentists, it’s something that has never been taught, and probably never will be with the unforgiving amount of knowledge we need to command while in dental school. With the world of large companies buying up private practices, with little to no oversight in management by said owners, with profitability front and center in treatment planning, the compassionate approach to treating those in our charge has become an urban myth. I speak with various young associates and hygienists alike almost once a week to hear the draconian ways of running these dental corporations.
Practices seem to have revolving doors for clinical teams, assistants, associates, and hygienists, and are constantly on the lookout for more employees. But I can almost guarantee that each one of those practices who have not paused their indeed ads, because as they find one employee, another leaves—those offices do not practice love as a business strategy. Employers blame the new generation for having misguided values, they complain about the lack of loyalty to the company; but where is the loyalty, where is the care and the attention to those who drive the profits sitting in our bank accounts?
I wonder if it’ll ever turn around, and am hesitant to celebrate that forthcoming. And, I suppose, using love as a business strategy, the fact that it’s so unique and so uncommon, that’s what makes it such a powerful tool in attracting and keeping future employees.
A word of caution: implementing the strategy laid out above can cause some to hang on the wrong employee for the right reason. You get so caught up within the human element that you continue to give those who hinder the growth of a practice more chances than appropriate for your business to thrive. I find myself in this situation often, especially once I have a chance to reflect following an employee exit. And, I don’t know that I have much advice to give on this personal shortcoming other than this: by hanging on to an employee that isn’t successful, by spending more time correcting than celebrating, are we hindering that person’s own sense of worth and purpose?
If nothing else, I use that as a gauge to reassess their presence in my practice. And though often, it’s a test that I perform stretched past my own limit, it seems to work into driving me to the make the right decision for the right reason, not just for me, or the practice, but for the employee, for the sake of other employees and of course, above all, patient care.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dr. Maggie Augustyn is a general dentist (Elmhurst, Illinois), an author, and columnist (Dentistry Today). She completed her formal dental education, earning a doctorate of Dental Surgery from the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC). Augustyn reads, researches, writes, and speaks on the things that make us human first and dentists second. She has also been featured on various podcasts bringing attention to mental wellbeing, the things that make us hurt, and those that make us come alive. She is an inspirational speaker around the country and can be reached at email@example.com.