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Leading Dentistry Into Prosperity: A Conversation with Smile Brands CEO Steve Bilt

As COVID-19 case numbers began to spike again across large portions of the United States, Patient Prism CEO Amol Nirgudkar sought wisdom from visionary Smile Brands CEO Steve Bilt.

The conversation began with a few thoughts on how to maintain a positive mindset in the face of the unprecedented challenges and obstacles set forth by the pandemic. Amol, long an admirer of Steve’s business acumen and leadership philosophy, wanted to know how Smile Brands, a DSO that serves more than 400 offices, has managed to weather the ups and downs of 2020.

One way, Steve said, is an ongoing acknowledgement of the “tragic optimism” concept taught by Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist Victor Frankl. In short, it is a quality of maintaining “big picture” optimism despite the knowledge that life is marked by pain, guilt and death.

“The first thing I want to remind people is you have to have an unwavering faith that you'll get through this,” Steve said. “But you have to be very, very careful not to set a deadline in your mind, because that's how you'll break your heart and your spirit.”

Optimism & Practical Decisions

It takes more than an optimistic mindset to function well during a pandemic. Lives and livelihoods are at stake. Practical decisions must be made every hour of every day.

Steve told Amol that when the crisis began to emerge in the early spring, he began to make decisions in 24-hour cycles – and was prepared to shift based on how circumstances altered from day to day.

“By tomorrow, the world may change enough that I have to do something different or suggest something different,” Steve said. “We have to figure something else out. And so, the power of that was taking the pressure off myself and by extension my team to say, ‘You don't have to figure it all out. You don't have to know where this is all going because by the way, it's unknowable anyway, but don't waste energy trying to think you have to see all the way downfield or around the next corner.’ You have to just say, what are you doing right now, for the next day?”

One important factor, Steve said, is the ability to identify how circumstances have changed and continue to evolve. Steve said he relies on his team to help him understand the shifting dynamic from day to day and week to week.

Celebrate Today: Recognize & Replicate Success

A technique that Steve employs is to begin team meetings by inviting attendees to share something good. He calls it celebrating everyday miracles, and it’s not only about paying homage to business victories.

“Number one, it reminds you what's going right,” Steve said. “I'm also an entrepreneur, and the best way to make a successful business is to realize what's going well and do more of it.”

In addition to gaining insight into what is going well and how to replicate it, focusing on everyday successes – no matter how small – helps build a habit of noticing the foundations of success.

“It's setting the mental model of the team to see miracles and to see what's going well,” Steve said. “So, we're trying to set the psychology to be experts in what we're good at and remind people more – a lot more – is going well than is going poorly.”

Building Community: Empathy and Trust

Based on feedback from the team, Smile Brands recently codified its philosophy of maintaining a “Safe Smile Space” at every office.

“We’re building a community around infection control, inclusivity, tolerance and civil discourse,” Steve said. It’s an answer to the question, “What do we want to stand for in this world?”

The idea is to build and maintain a “model community and a safe haven” for team members to express themselves, to feel safe in their work environment, and to provide the best possible care patient care.

These concepts are not new, Steve said, but the rise of social action and protests in American streets has provided the opportunity to focus the conversation on moral equity, social justice and workplace relationships.

“That shouldn't have been new, right? That shouldn't have been like, whoa, 180-degree turn for our organization about suddenly we care about people,” Steve said. “Hopefully, we cared about people all along, but we're codifying it so we can raise the dialogue around it. I want a better workplace. I want a workplace where it's more inclusive, want to work place where people feel better about coming to work and feel safe.”

Smile Brands has been recognized as a Best Place to Work by Glassdoor for three years and as a Top 10 U.S. Large Company for Culture, Diversity and Best Places for Women by the career-monitoring website Comparably.

Absorb Information & Take Action

One takeaway from the pandemic crisis, Steve said, has been an increased recognition of dentistry as essential healthcare.

“We did elevate our status as healthcare providers, as essential healthcare providers,” Steve said. “Now, we need to run to daylight with this and it needs to be all of us run to daylight, we need to all pound the stone on that message.

“We are essential. We're keeping people out of the ER. We're improving lives and improving oral health.”

Dental offices with the support of a DSO can work with member partners to develop the best way to frame and deliver the message about dentistry as an essential facet of healthcare. Everyone, including independent dental business operators, can take advantage of the emergence of new media – webinars, video chats and other free or inexpensive content can provide relevant updates to the circumstances influencing the industry.

And this, Steve says, is only the beginning as dentistry continues to pursue a “more perfect” form.

“Don't expect to listen to one webinar and absorb it,” Steve said. “But really start along that journey of every day, consuming a little bit of content, experimenting inside your organization and then really enlisting your team.”

Steve is part of the Association of Dental Support Organizations and is actively investigating ways to expand the reach of the organization to share best practices with emerging dental groups and solo practitioners.

Additional Resources

Comeback Strategies for Dental Practices

Guide: Staying Safe in the Dental Practice: Guidance on everything from what the CDC recommends to how to acquire PPE to whether you should pass along the cost to patients.

For more interviews with experts, training resources, and guides, visit Academy.PatientPrism.com.

More people than ever will have questions about safety, affordable treatment options, and what’s covered by their insurance plans post-COVID. Visit PatientPrism.com/Overview to find out how we can help your team convert more callers into booked appointments.

About this Industry Leader:

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Steve Bilt

CEO, Smile Brands

Steve Bilt is the Chief Executive Officer at Smile Brands Inc. (SBI) and OneSmile, LLC. He co-founded Smile Brands and OneSmile and in 2016 combined the two businesses (collectively “Smile Brands”). Steve was integral in SBI’s three initial platform acquisitions and led the acquisitions of Monarch Dental Corporation and Castle Dental Centers Inc.. In addition to these transactions, Steve has overseen the development and operationalization of over 200 de novo practices at Smile Brands and each of the OneSmile platform acquisitions. Smile Brands and OneSmile have 5,500 employees and affiliated providers in 450 locations across the United States.  Smile Brands has been recognized as a Best Place to Work by Glassdoor for three straight years (#1 in multi-site healthcare) and by Comparably as a top-10 US Large Company for Culture, Diversity and Best Places for Women.

Steve also serves as Chairman of the Smiles for Everyone Foundation. The Smiles for Everyone Foundation is a 501 (c)(3) and has established international outposts serving six countries in South America, Asia and Africa and conducts ongoing events each week throughout the United States.

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