As a part of my series about about how leaders can create a “fantastic work culture”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Steven C. Bilt, CEO, Smile Brands Inc., one of the nation’s leading dental support organizations with over 5,000 employees and affiliated providers delivering full-service dental care across the U.S. Smile Brands has received a multitude of accolades for its award-winning culture, including being named to Glassdoor’s Best Places to Work list three years running and receiving the 2019 Gold Stevie Award for Large Healthcare Employer of the Year. Bilt co-founded Smile Brands in 1998 and has grown the business to over 440 affiliated dental offices through acquisitions and de novo office openings. In 2011, he launched the Smiles for Everyone Foundation, a 501(c)(3) focused on providing free dental care to those in need in the U.S. and around the world.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I began my career in public accounting with a focus on both high growth entreprenurial companies and health care services. When these two interests intersected with a client in the rehabiliation services sector, I took the opportunity to join as a senior finance executive. The one thing I found lacking in the referral-driven broader healthcare services space was a true consumer focus. My shift into the dental sector was the embodiment of all the elements that make the job both challenging and rewarding: healthcare services, high growth and consumerism.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
One of the core tenets of our philosophy is that healthcare is a local business. That means that decisions about what’s best for an individual practice need to be made on the ground. This mindset was cemented early in our history when times were lean. It was mid-July and we were on pace to hit just 63% of budget for the month. I met with my operating team and they asked, “What should we cut?” I told them to stop talking about cuts, and instead get out of the office and come up with a customized plan for each practice. We ended the month at 94%, beat target the following month, and, to this day, leave it to our field operators and affiliated providers to make the right decisions locally.
Are you working on any exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?
We have several going. In the core business we are working very hard to improve our understanding of each patient in a data-driven way that will enable affiliated practices to provide them the services they want and to maintain them in the care cycle, no matter how and when they choose to engage with their dentist.
On the charitable side, our Smiles for Everyone Foundation had a record year in 2019 — giving back over $5 million in donated dentistry in seven countries. This year we’ll expand both domestically and abroad by adding another international outpost.
Ok, let’s jump to the main part of our interview. According to this study cited in Forbes, more than half of the US workforce is unhappy. Why do you think that number is so high?
I think there are two main reasons companies fail to engage their employees in a meaningful way. First, many executives do a very poor job of defining the “why” of their organization in a way that employees at every level can connect with and derive motivation from. Often, even if they define the “why” properly, they fail to live up to it when tough decisions present themselves. Employees are keenly attuned to the authenticity of their leadership. One bad precedent can spread like wildfire through an organization. Second, many corporate cultures fail to promote a win-win atmosphere among employees. In win-lose cultures, people compete for scarce resources or promotions rather that adopting a mindset of abundance where teams work together to grow the business, knowing there is more than enough opportunity for everyone. That mindset has to be reinforced every day in words and deeds by everyone in the organization.
Based on your experience or research, how do you think an unhappy workforce will impact a) company productivity, b) company profitability and c) employee health and wellbeing?
We are in the healthcare services business so all productive assets (affiliated providers and employees) pack up at the end of the day and go home. We then hope they make the choice to bring their special skills back the next morning. If they aren’t happy, they don’t come back as frequently (turnover) or they don’t create an environment that engages patients and team members as fully (patient retention and productivity). So, team member engagement is pretty much where success begins and ends for us.
Can you share 5 things that managers and executives should be doing to improve their company work culture? Can you give a personal story or example for each?
- Lead by Example: Think of yourself not as Abraham Lincoln but as Oliver Wendell Holmes or Ruth Bader Ginsberg. What do I mean by that? It is not so much about the decisions you make as a leader. What is more important is the process by which you make decisions and the example that sets for your organization. The former is a one-time event while the latter will be repeated over and over by others.
- Celebrate: Celebration and recognition are essential elements of the rejuvenation process that help remind our teams how big an impact they have on people’s lives. A few years ago we created Celebrate. Everyday. Miracles.™ as a platform to gather teams together every couple of weeks to give each other shout-outs for jobs well done and share stories of how we’ve made a difference for patients.
- “Lather. Rinse. Repeat.” Culture isn’t a slogan or mission statement. It’s a living organism that needs to be constantly nourished to survive through symbols, actions and daily communication. We all wear blue wristbands embossed with “Smiles for Everyone®” and every morning when I put mine on, I take a moment to reconnect to our mission.
- Create Purpose: We all want to think that we’re making an impact in the world and companies that show a genuine commitment to making a difference are rewarded with higher levels of employee engagement. Our Foundation events make it easy for team members to work together to support their communities. They are great for the individuals who receive care, and equally important for the teams who volunteer.
- Be Authentic: I can’t stress this enough. Culture isn’t something you just talk about. It’s about how you behave and how true you stay to your values through the up and down cycles that demonstrate to the team that you’re the real deal.
It’s very nice to suggest ideas, but it seems like we have to “change the culture regarding work culture”. What can we do as a society to make a broader change in the US workforce’s work culture?
Define a very simple “why” for your organization. Ours is just three words: “Smiles for Everyone”. After you define it, live into it. We do this by beginning every meeting with how it ties into that vision. The goal is to make every decision with that vision and the underlying message of win-win relationships top of mind. Every decision either moves you closer to your “why” or moves you away from it. Business operates on an incline, so “neutral” will move you backwards.
How would you describe your leadership or management style? Can you give us a few examples?
I like to think of my role as setting a vision for who we want to be and then cheering, coaching or driving us in that direction. I say cheering, coaching or driving because if we are on the path, then I can just stand back and celebrate others’ success. If we are meandering a bit, then maybe I need to call a timeout and do a bit of coaching. If we are losing focus or heading in the wrong direction, I may need to grab the wheel for a reset to remind the team that we will not allow any obstacle to take us off course.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I’ve had a number of people over the years that I have been able to both look to and lean on as sources of strength. None have been bigger than my wife, Jennifer, who has helped me set my sights on a bigger vision and chart a path towards delivering that vision for the entire team and patient base. Her focus on broadening our impact was the inspiration for our Smiles for Everyone Foundation; her continued questioning of how we interact with both patients and teammates keeps me grounded on analyzing every action through a win-win lens.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Over 60% of the U.S. population does not receive dental care in a given year. In partnership with the affiliated dental groups, we help activate approximately a half million people each year into care that did not receive it in the prior year. That changes how people feel, it impacts their social lives and professional mobility, it allows providers to screen them and detect oral cancer early, and it puts them on a path to improved systemic health. Additionally, for those who cannot afford care, our Foundation has provided over $20 million of free care in the U.S. and around the world since 2011.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I have a bunch of go-to sayings that I like, but one of my favorites that has been a Smile Brands mantra for many years is: If you want to work for a great company, make one! This has been particularly relevant to us lately as we have entered a period of very high growth. High growth exposes all the cracks in your system and makes new ones. That can either be unsettling or invigorating or both.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I believe that capitalism sharpens the steel of industry better than any other mechanism on earth. It demands that companies continue to evolve to drive greater efficiency in their delivery models. If these same corporations would also study how they could put their specific skills to work to help those less fortunate, the world would change. In our case, by creating a platform that makes it easy for providers and suppliers to donate their skills and equipment, we are able to give back dental care at a rate where $1 invested delivers $25 in care. Not every business can fix teeth, but they all bring something to the world that could help others.