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The green thumb advantage: Cultivating and keeping a happy dental team

July 12, 2022
From a business perspective, culture is an atmosphere that nurtures positive relations with everyone involved in the success of your practice. How's the culture in your practice?

Have you ever met someone with a green thumb, who can pluck any seed, put it in soil, and make it grow as if by magic? What a gift to bring something to life. I often marvel at skilled gardeners, how they compose colorful masterpieces out of nothing but dirt and vision. Entering their sacred domain, I can see the synchronous miracle of an entire ecosystem, cultivated with a rare combination of ingenuity and intuition. Good gardeners know soil, sunlight, water, worms, and pollination. They’re attuned to every component required for life to thrive. To them, horticulture is as much art as it is science.

What if I suggest every private dental practitioner develop a green thumb to ensure lasting success? Some of you might suddenly be worrying about the last time you watered that potted ficus in your office waiting room. You can put down the watering can. I’m referring to your ability to cultivate employees. From a biological standpoint, culture involves the maintenance of conditions necessary to support life. From a business perspective, culture an atmosphere that nurtures positive relations with everyone involved in the success of your practice. 

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How to retain your team

Now more than ever before, finding and keeping the right people is at the forefront of every business owner’s mind. The labor market gets tighter each passing day, and the prospect of hiring seems like a constant uphill climb. The costs associated with bringing new employees on board impede profits, no question. To minimize the cost, you must count on your ability to gather and retain a loyal team. Otherwise, you’re caught in the hamster wheel of constantly training new recruits. A fresh face here and there is fine, but real success comes from having a tried-and-true veteran coalition. The obvious solution is to increase pay, but ever-increasing salaries aren’t a panacea, especially if a weekly paycheck is the only thing motivating your team to show up each day. 

Pay your employees what they’re worth, but don’t assume that a paycheck alone will keep them satisfied. Do you remember why you’re in business for yourself? It’s likely because you’re the boss of you. You control your destiny. This might come as a surprise, but the same holds true for your staff. Worthwhile employees instinctively know that they alone control their own fate. Ultimately, they’re only beholden to what’s best for themselves. 

As their employer, you can align your own vision with theirs, and vice versa, to create mutual benefit. Start thinking of your staff members as partners, and they’ll invest themselves accordingly into the success of your business. In other words, salaries aren’t the only tool you have to energize your team. Implementing remuneration that means your employees become invested in your company will incentivize them to grow alongside you, not run for the exit when a competitor offers higher pay. 

Bonus and pay plans

Some of the dentists I counsel offer monthly bonus plans that allow the entire team to earn unlimited upsides based on performance. It’s not unusual for each member of the practice to earn an extra $500 or $1,000 a month. I’ve even seen office staff earn $3,000 a month. Other options include deferred compensation, golden handcuffs, shadow accounts, and long-term incentive plans for associates and key employees. Not surprisingly, offices that adequately reward their employees don’t have performance issues, and they certainly don’t have retention issues. 

You can structure pay schedules a million different ways based on your business model, including ways to minimize your tax liability in the process. However, resist the temptation to rely solely on matters of money to build and keep your dream team. Dollars are an integral part of the equation, but they aren’t a substitute for culture. If all it took were sunlight and water to grow a garden, everyone would have one. But having a true green thumb requires finesse. Great gardeners know their plants. Great leaders know their team members. 

Make the workplace enjoyable

People want to have a good time at work, and they deserve that. How wonderful it is to have a workplace that’s fun! The best business owners know this. They’re as serious about fun as they are about success, and as a result their success is inevitable. What’s more fun than ensuring patient satisfaction? Not much, in my book. Except maybe one thing: ensuring employee satisfaction. Why? Because fun and satisfied staff members lead to fun and satisfied patients. Personally, I’d rather have a somewhat talented employee who loved being at work than a genius employee who hated every waking moment on the job. It doesn’t matter how talented someone is; if they’re miserable, they’re useless. Furthermore, they certainly aren’t a match for your business or its culture. They’ll drag it down. Keep them around long enough, and they’ll ruin everything you’ve built despite their skill set. 

Are you noticing a theme here? If you want enjoyable employees, you have to set the standard. You’re the leader. Notice I didn’t say parole officer. You already know about respect, and that is to get it, you need to give it. You also need to exhibit flexibility. Your employees are human, and sometimes they’ll need a mental health day. They’re going to take them regardless. It’s a whole lot better for you and the entire team if they can be honest about it. If you want them to give you 100% of themselves when they’re with you, then it’s a good idea to let them rejuvenate accordingly. Also, you deserve the same. Your employees know when you’re at your best, and they’ll likely rise to the occasion. They also notice when you’re not, and it’s downright impossible to hold them to high standards if you’re perpetually falling short. 

Good dentists choose their profession with a sense of purpose. Good employees are no different. Just as each plant, flower, and pollinator has a specific role in the larger biological symphony that is a garden, every member of your team serves an integral function in your business. Do they know this? More importantly, do they enjoy it? Their satisfaction is key to yours. Take the initiative. Establish a culture based on the simple premise that it’s fun to be of service and it’s satisfying for everyone to play a role in the team’s success, and then watch your practice thrive. 

It doesn’t matter how well you craft your company mission statement. If you don’t have the culture in place to support it, you’re going to struggle. On the other hand, if you have employees (and patients) who derive tremendous satisfaction on your watch, it might not even matter if you have a written mission statement at all. They’re going to stick around with you a long time because nobody else can offer anything close to what you have. You’ll be unstoppable. Cultivate such a garden long enough, and your green thumb may in fact turn to gold.  

Editor's note: This article appeared in the July 2022 print edition of Dental Economics magazine. Dentists in North America are eligible for a complimentary print subscription. Sign up here.    

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