What is office culture? Why have I spent my entire career blazing a trail unheard of in most businesses and in the majority of dental practices to intentionally create an office culture that equips my team to thrive both personally and professionally? My whole life, I have seen the effects of a toxic culture on employees. The sad truth is even businesses and organizations that simply ignore their work environments are complicit in negatively impacting those that they should be leading to greater heights.
I spent the Summer months during college working in a local factory building dryers. It was a great job because I could keep moving, build things with my hands and meet a lot of people due to the nature of my position. I was the person who filled in on basically every position on the assembly line, so I interacted with different personalities on a daily basis. The people I met were dedicated to their craft and, quite honestly, some of the nicest I have ever met. I witnessed good people in a work environment that only cared about quotas and keeping the assembly line moving feeling suffocated by their positions. They remained dedicated to their posts in an effort to help their coworkers survive the day, but any measure of dedication to something bigger than themselves was absent. They simply wanted to survive the day and collect their paycheck. Who could blame them? After only a few weeks of being submerged in that culture, I, too, simply wanted to survive the day and collect my paycheck. Counting the minutes until I could clock out and go home.
After graduating dental school, I entered my career as a dentist with the memories of working in that factory feeling thankful that I picked a career where I would be surrounded by inspired teams working toward the goal of improving the health of others. I mean, I went to college all of those years to enter a prestigious profession so the work environments should be amazing, right?! Boy, was I young, naïve and flat-out wrong! Office after office, employee after employee, I met uninspired individuals who were simply trying to survive the day, clock-out and collect their checks. It doesn’t matter what career you choose if your leader isn’t committed to fostering a culture to empower his or her team to thrive. I decided right then and there that when I was privileged to lead a team, I would break the mold in dentistry by valuing my team and create a culture to be proud of together.
Despite my apparent passion for office culture, I am sure you are still asking yourself the questions, “Why is this important?” and, “Will it really impact my business?”
As business owners, we spend a large amount of time studying marketing plans, profit and loss statements (P&L), overhead, and revenue sources. I did this too. I lived and died by the numbers in the early years of my start-up dental practice. Something started to stand out to me as I closely examined my P&L statement. I could either lose sleep over trying to save 0.5 percent on dental supplies, or I could make sure that the areas of the P&L where I was investing the most were optimized. If 90 percent of business owners look at the overhead category where they spend the most money month after month and year after year, what do you think they will find? The largest expense for most businesses is in their people. Payroll is the largest piece of the overhead pie. That is exactly how I believe it should be – especially in a service industry. One thing that every dentist – and really every business owner – needs to realize is that they cannot do it alone. Without a team, there is no business. The honest truth is that dentists would be nothing without their teams. Why, then, are we not concerned about creating the absolute best environment for the group of individuals who are the face of our company and who constitute the largest part of our overhead expenses?
The culture of an organization can be hard to define. Webster’s Dictionary defines culture as “the set of shared attitudes, values, goals and practices that characterizes an institution or organization.” In the simplest form, our culture is created by EVERYTHING in our business. It is comprised of leadership, onboarding, communication, benefits, people, policies, mission, vision, core values, environment, hiring and firing principles, delegation, etc … The good and bad news is that whether you know it or not, if you own a business, it already has a culture. If you haven’t been leading the formation of that culture, it has formed on its own. This is why it is important that you intentionally foster the creation of a “team-first” culture and surround yourself with team members who protect that jointly formed culture with a fire of passion.
One of the main reasons that culture is important is that it creates a positive, collaborative environment where team members feel valued and appreciated. In my career, many of my most valued employees have come to my office from another position where they were fleeing a toxic culture. Every one of them had a different story: (1) The owner did nothing but yell at us, (2) Our benefits package was cut, (3) The office was full of gossip, (4) No one but me even cared about the customer service that was provided, (5) There was no communication, (6) Everyone was only interested in what was best for them. The list goes on and on. In my office, every employee who entered our culture fleeing a toxic culture has flourished. If you give your people the opportunity, tools and environment to succeed, they will surprise you. They do, however, need to feel like a valued member of the team to care enough to invest their time and energy in your mission and vision. If you can accomplish this you will see increased employee retention and job satisfaction.
If small and medium-sized business owners are honest, owning and managing a business can be a lonely endeavor. Long hours of working and problem solving within the business can be isolating as the owners feel as though they are the only person in the room who truly cares whether the business lives or dies. Owners who create a “team-first” culture don’t experience that loneliness. A team emerges that is completely and totally focused on the culture of the office, and this fosters teamwork. Out of this teamwork, employees no longer feel like they are a cog in a wheel, and they start to take ownership of their contributions to the office. They begin to walk and talk like an owner, and the actual owner is no longer alone. He or she is now the leader of a team of leaders who choose to be led. Nothing is more powerful than a culture where a team chooses to follow a leader instead of being managed. If you want to see real growth, don’t be a manager – be a leader!
One of the most surprising and unexpected benefits of intentionally creating a team-first culture was patient retention. Your patients are not as oblivious as you might think. They choose to interact with your business largely based on how that interaction makes them feel. You could be the best dentist in the world, but if you have a terrible culture, you will never reach your full potential. Patients and clients want to spend their time and money with a business that makes them feel appreciated and valued – much like employees want to feel that from the organization for whom they work. I worked at an office shortly after I graduated dental school that had a culture problem. It was rooted in a divided staff that was constantly bickering. The infighting was a poison to not only the staff, but also to the patients. There was a palpable negativity when the patients entered the office. Everyone did their job – but only their job. The patients came and went like numbers, and the services they received were adequate. Yet, the practice was losing patients and revenue was decreasing. The patients could feel the negativity in the practice and, although the services were adequate, they chose to take their business to an establishment without a culture problem where they didn’t feel that uncomfortable tension. In my office, our patients can feel a difference. In the end, happy employees equate to happy customers which equates to sustained business growth.
The bottom line is that culture is important because it exists. The question is, do you want to be intentional about creating a culture that represents you and your business that is team-focused, or do you want it to create itself, thereby taking control of your office. If you want to experience accelerated growth and completely differentiate your practice from everyone else, creating a team-first culture is the path you must take.