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Choose to be a servant leader for your dental practice

March 4, 2024
This dentist admits to being a bad leader in the past. She changed her ways and has watched her team and business thrive. Here's how she does it.

There’s no doubt that leadership will continue to be redefined. It must shift from a self-serving, self-celebrating mentality to that of servant leadership, not just for the sake of those under said leadership, but also because servant leadership reestablishes our need for human connection. It’s the opposite of domineering, arrogant, and narcissistic. It’s a utilitarian thinking that looks for the greater good and allows all to be heard.

Though the philosophy might not seem to prioritize a thriving company, servant leadership and its culture of trust accomplishes that very thing, just in a less traditional way. The core values of a company are not used to hire or evaluate the growth of team members. The core values of the team members and their personal growth success are used.

This is a much more balanced approach than what we’ve seen in the past. The means and motive, not the end result, are what drive action. It goes back to basics, using respect toward the humanity of others. It’s far more rewarding than the blueprints leaders have lived by for years.

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Practice versus personal (core values)

Leaders must create a company culture, no matter how big or small, based on factors other than what the leader deems important and effective. It also should be based on the team’s needs to have fulfilling lives. There are many articles about building the core values of a practice, and I agree with its importance. Its development along with team engagement is a powerful team boosting activity that drives patient care.

There is, however, one omission in that process—the cultivation of the team’s personal core values. One of the most significant exercises I did during self-discovery was to define my personal core values. If done properly, the exercise takes some time. I read the list of core values twice—once starting from the top going down and then starting from the bottom going up.

The first time, I circled anything that I connected to, and the second time I was a bit more exclusive and put a star by it. Depending on how accurate you want to get, you can return to the exercise a third and fourth time and space out the time between making choices. At the exercise’s completion, I chose five main core values as they define me. I complete the same exercise at least once a year. As I lead a more authentic and joyful life, it’s no surprise to me that the core values I chose have essentially remained the same.

Meet with your dental team

Since the process has been so powerful for me, I’ve mirrored it with my team. I meet with them one-on-one and mentor them through discovering what they see as non-negotiable. Each time I’ve facilitated this exercise, I set aside two sets of 10-minute blocks for the team to look over the core values. I want them to have a chance to really think about what matters to them.

I’ve often wondered if they consider this activity an invasion of privacy or an exercise too personal to complete in a group setting. But I’ve never received any pushback. Some of them have told me it’s a little like taking a personality test. They’re instructed to first circle and then star the core values that they identify with the most. They finish by writing down five that speak to them the loudest.

Next is my favorite part. We go one by one and (if everyone comfortable) share the top five core values that are important to us personally. Sometimes we guess one or two for each other, and we often get those right. Everyone is tremendously supportive, engaged, and understanding. What we’ve found recently is that most of us have at least one personal core value in common. As a team of 14, we find five personal core values from a list of 120 that each person can connect to. I then make copies of our work and file the values in the employees’ 90-day check-in folders to be reviewed at future meetings.

Choose people over profit, and profits will increase

We encourage an office culture where everyone has an opportunity to fulfill their personal destiny, a powerful way of creating fiscal success. But fiscal success and driving up profits is not the reason for this. I’ve said many times that people should be put ahead of profit. If you treat people with dignity and respect, do the right thing for the right reasons, and do not allow your personal ambition to drive your leadership style, the company will move to its next level of growth. The camaraderie created between team members will be driven by the relationship of leader and flock and by employee satisfaction. It will lead to retaining the most valuable team members for years and maybe even decades.

I’ve always had a unique relationship with each of my employees. Some need oversight, others can outperform if left to work by themselves. I use my knowledge of who my coworkers are and the core values they hold to find out what works in their favor and if they find job satisfaction.

I revisit their core values at our quarterly check-ins. I’ve found that by using personal core values as a reference, some of the best teammates may not be “lifers” at Happy Tooth. They may leave when the time is right for them. This doesn’t upset me like it used to because I understand where they’re coming from. For example, if a dental assistant’s core value is financial independence, they may not be able to fulfill that with us, and they may look for educational opportunities to fulfill that in their lives.

I’m sincerely happy for those who leave the company when they find a place that better allows them to live their core values. Part of that happiness comes from the faith and understanding that I’ll be able to find another team member whose values I can help grow in our organization.

Redeveloping job descriptions

I use the top five core values to redevelop and alter job descriptions. I don’t put introverts, unless they choose to, in positions where they may grow weary of overwhelming patient interactions. I encourage those who value personal development and growth to listen to podcasts and take continuing education courses, and I pay them for that time.

I don’t push anyone to use technology or materials before they’re comfortable with them. I honor my team’s need to stick to a rigorous self-assigned schedule. In our quarterly check-ups, I keep a close eye on their desire for growth or their need for consistency. Depending on what they need to succeed, I’m either more lenient or I understand I have some leeway to push them a bit more.

None of those things are difficult to figure out once you know who your team members are and what they hold as their highest ambition. But you must be willing to put in the work to get to know them and you have to care. My team has taken us to great success. The least I can do is help them fulfill a fraction of their desired destiny.

I've seen both sides of the spectrum

Part of the reason I’m so committed to this is because I’ve seen both sides of these leadership styles. I’ve been the boss everyone avoids. I’ve been the domineering leader with no concern for what the minions need. I’ve been accused of creating a toxic environment. I’ve mistreated people to elevate my own standing. These aren’t easy for me to remember, let alone admit.

During a mid-life transition, I saw the error of my ways, the disdain and the hurt of others that came with failed leadership. I saw how it led to a failed practice. Having done it the wrong way gives me more authority to unapologetically speak against it. In the last the years, I’ve read, learned, practiced. and written about this new leadership I’ve been practicing. As a result, I’ve come to know that no amount of money or success can be a place holder for what it feels like to work among people who are encouraged and supported.

Walking into our huddle and seeing my team gathered around the table with laughter and family-like warmth is part of how I experience flow on a daily basis. Getting to know them and cultivating relationships between us makes me want to walk to the end of the world for them. I’ll never be able to adequately express how serving those with whom I spend my days leaves me eternally fulfilled and grateful.

Editor's note: This article appeared in the March 2024 print edition of Dental Economics magazine. Dentists in North America are eligible for a complimentary print subscription. Sign up here.

Maggie Augustyn, DDS, is a Dawson trained practicing general dentist, owner of Happy Tooth, faculty member at Productive Dentist Academy, author and inspirational speaker. She speaks nationally bringing attention to the importance of authenticity and self discovery igniting audiences towards a journey of a less tainted self-actualization.

About the Author

Maggie Augustyn, DDS, FAAIP, FICOI

Maggie Augustyn, DDS, FAAIP, FICOI, is a Dawson-trained practicing general dentist, owner of Happy Tooth, faculty member at Productive Dentist Academy, author, and inspirational speaker. She speaks nationally bringing attention to the importance of authenticity and self-discovery and igniting audiences toward a journey of a less tainted self-actualization.

Updated April 10, 2024

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