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How to build a successful culture

April 1, 2021
What is dental practice culture, and why should you care about it? It defines who you are and how your patients view you, and ultimately leads to your success.
Jay Geier, Founder, Scheduling Institute

Editor's note: This is Part 2 in a two-part article about culture in the dental office. Part one is "Culture: The ultimate competitive advantage." 

In my last article, I explained why a great culture, unique to your office and your team, is your ultimate competitive advantage. A great culture will engage people in their work, retain and attract top talent, and impress patients, which leads to referrals and attracts new patients.

In contrast, a culture that exists by “default” will give you the same results you’ve always gotten. It’s time to do something different to get different results. In this article I’ll share the proven process for building an intentional culture that, when combined with great leadership, will unlock the highest potential of your people and business. 

Step 1: Be open to learning

Be open to an aspect of practice management you may not have given much thought to, and then trust that you can learn it. Having self-trust in your abilities is essential to being an effective leader. You can’t expect others to trust in you if you don’t trust in yourself. Building this new skill set may initially feel out of your comfort zone, but it’s well worth the effort. A great office culture makes coming to work much more enjoyable, while also driving business results.

Step 2: Maintain ownership

The culture of your practice is defined by the values, expected behaviors, and ways of working that you want in your business. As the owner-doctor, you are and always will be the primary owner of your culture, and you must intentionally and consistently role model and reward the right behaviors and actions. You can delegate aspects of execution, but the minute you stop paying attention, you send the message that it’s not that important to you. Your team will quickly decide it’s not important to them either and they may inadvertently veer off course.

That said, in addition to you, each person must own the culture by taking personal responsibility for doing their part—as individuals and team members—to live the culture you’ve established as “your way of doing business.” 

Step 3: Assess your current culture

Honestly assess your existing culture. Get an objective handle on what it really is, not what you think it is, for the unbiased truth. Try these approaches:

  • Anonymously survey the team.
  • Ask for honest feedback in a group setting. (People may feel safer speaking up with the moral support of others.)
  • Meet with each team member one-one-on and ask, “What’s the one thing you think I most do not want to hear?”

This assessment will tell you if you have something worth building on, or if you need to start anew. At Scheduling Institute’s first “Culture Fest” in June 2019, owner-doctors held frank discussions with the team members who attended with them. More than half realized they needed to reset their culture. Some went so far as to have a “funeral” for their culture, a symbolic and fun event that signaled the doctor was committed to working with the team to make big changes. 

We expect the same outcome from first-time attendees at Culture Fest 2.0 in October 2021, and we’ll hear success stories from those who rebirthed their cultures in 2019.

Step 4: Define your desired culture

Use the honest feedback to help you identify the culture you want to create, and the values, expected behaviors, and desired ways of working. Think about how you want your patients to feel about coming to your practice, and your team members to feel about working there. Here are some ideas to think about:

  • Patients are top-of-mind in all decisions, actions, and behaviors.
  • Patients feel well-cared for, not just clinically, but throughout their experiences with every team member and every process.
  • Team members are honest and respectful of one another. 
  • Team members are positive, enthusiastic, and accountable working as individuals and teams to achieve agreed-upon growth goals.
  • Top-notch performance and continuous improvement are supported through learning and development.
  • You serve your community as well as your patients.

Step 5: Build the right team

You can’t build a solid culture on a faulty foundation. You need people who share your values, are committed to behaving as you expect, and who deliver what you want for your patients and your bottom line. Unless you’re just starting a practice and recruiting a team, building the right team for the culture you want is more about refining the team you have. 

  • Engage the entire team in the process; leverage your strongest players to lead efforts.
  • Train your people on how to deliver on this new culture. Some people may surprise you by becoming stars. Others may disappoint you by being unable or unwilling to learn new processes or to be held accountable for the results.
  • Replace those who can’t or won’t get on board, are not team players, or who have negative attitudes; they will sabotage your ability to instill a better culture.
  • Use culture as a screen when recruiting new people; hire only those who will be a good fit for your particular practice and team.

These adjustments signal that you’re serious about your expectations, which builds team trust in you as the leader. This in turn accelerates how quickly all new ideas will be absorbed and executed. New team members will immediately see you as a trustworthy boss who keeps your word to provide training, development, and meaningful and satisfying work.

Step 6: Execute 

Take actions to execute the values and behaviors you defined. For example:

  • Train the team (you included) to recognize what keeping patients top-of-mind looks like. Every doctor says their practice is patient-centric, but in reality, most offices operate at the convenience of the doctor and staff. Here is the litmus test we use with our new clients, and very few pass.
  • Can your patients reach a live person (not voicemail) every day all day? Even if the office isn’t open for appointments, if you don’t have extended coverage on your phones, you’re not being patient-centric.
  • Are same-day appointments accommodated?
  • Are new team members put on the floor with minimal orientation and virtually no training?
  • Train the team on what teamwork looks and feels like. Demonstrate that you’re committed to becoming more patient-centric by investing in the team’s development in return for their engagement and accountability for results. 
  • Become involved in charitable activities that let your patients and people know you care about your community as well as your patients—especially important to today’s workforce.

Be intentional

If your referral rate is less than 50%, or if new ideas and processes are met with skepticism and inaction from your team, you’re living with the consequences of a default culture. Use this process to build an intentional culture that can be measured by increased referrals, retention, and results.  

JAY GEIER is an authority on growing independent practices to keep for a lifetime of revenue or sell for maximum value. He is the founder and CEO of Scheduling Institute, a firm that specializes in team training and doctor coaching to help people live up to their full potential and uncover the blind spots that are holding them back from that potential. To find out if your practice suffers from these blind spots that could be killing your practice culture, go to schedulinginstitute.com/de to request a complimentary analysis and to learn more about Culture Fest 2021.

About the Author

Jay Geier | Founder, Scheduling Institute

Jay Geier is a world authority on growing independent practices. He is the founder and CEO of Scheduling Institute, a firm that specializes in training and development and coaching doctors on how to transform their private practices into thriving businesses they can keep for a lifetime of revenue or sell for maximum dollar. To hear more, subscribe to Jay’s Private Practice Playbook podcast at podcastfordoctors.com/dentec.

Updated February 15, 2023

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