By Dr. Whitney D. Weiner
“We cannot become what we want by remaining what we are.” – Max de Pree
Growth is hard. In our practices, I’ve found that once we approached the $5 million mark, that’s when it became critically important to hire and reposition the right people and utilize the right processes to keep everything moving forward. Without a clear vision, scaling your practice will likely be more challenging with each passing day. I believe that through failure we learn our greatest lessons. In this spirit, I would like to share a little bit about my professional journey.
I’m still a newbie in the world of practice ownership as I bought our first two general dental practices (while being seven months pregnant with boy No. 2) the summer of 2018. Prior to this, I operated in a two-doctor, boutique private periodontal practice, working four and a half days a week. I hit the ground running before ever seeing my first patient at this office. I Google Mapped every general dentist within 20 miles and visited 300 offices in the first four months to drop off goodie bags and introduce myself as the new specialist in town. This was humbling as it was a rarity I was even allowed to pass by the front desk and meet a doctor.
During my time at this office, I grew the company top line tremendously, built many relationships, and launched a successful study club. I was periodontist by day, mom and wife by night. I gave it all I had every day. I floated that world and had a partnership deal that did not work out, which turned out to be a huge blessing.
After my partnership deal fell apart, I took six months off (thanks to my supportive husband – love you Eliot!) to study the market – past and future trends – before deciding to build my own group dental practice. I used that time to gain a better understanding of what I wanted from a dental group practice, as well as what my patients would be looking for. I worked hard on my “why” as I knew that building and scaling a great company would take on a life of its own. Like many dentists, I don’t do things half ass, so if I was going to launch, I knew I would work harder than I ever had before. What I didn’t realize then was that growing this company built on a foundation of compassion – for the people we serve – would become such a part of me and such a source of pride in who I am and what I do. I believe with my whole heart that Whole Dental Wellness makes the lives of everyone we touch – our team, patients, and community – better.
Flexible with your vision
To me, flexibility is a critical component of growth. I’ve found that without a healthy amount of flexibility in my decision making and planning, our practice would likely have nowhere to grow. It’s important for the vision of your company as well. Vision is one of those buzzwords that generates a lot of talk on various social media and leadership sites, but one of the greatest misconceptions about vision is that it must stay the same. Through experiencing it firsthand, I found the incredible value of being flexible with my vision.
People often ask me, “What is your exit strategy? How many offices do you want to have?” My vision has always been more about “impact” than a number. I don’t know how big we want to scale. It will depend on what opportunities there are for us to expand our footprint without compromising our core values and commitment to the communities we already serve. I will continue to look to my team for guidance with this critical decision. For us, our current is building systems – allowing systems to run our company, not people – to maximize impact within our team, our patients, and our community.
While we’ve maintained our focus on our impact, my vision has had to be rather fluid for when things change unexpectedly. For example, when I bought the two general dental offices in 2018, I merged them immediately. Within six months of this merger, one of the two general dentists had a heart attack just months after I had given birth to my second child. Naturally, that dentist triple produced over the other dentist, so our company was in danger. It was a challenging time, but because of the relationships I had built in our community, I was able to scramble and bring in specialists quickly to bridge the gap. Within months we went from being a two doctor, general dentist office to having an in-house endodontist, periodontist, and oral surgeon.
My plan was always to have in-house specialists, but I had to adjust my idea of the timing. Thankfully, I had some friends who helped us out when we needed it, and that setback ended up being a catalyst for our vision and growth.
Building a customer base
When it comes to building a customer base as a specialist within a general practice, I’ve found you may have to get creative. When I lived in Australia, I was the first periodontist in my group practice. The vibe around the office was very much like “Oh, you can’t get external referrals. There is no way any dentist will refer to you when they know we have our own dentists here.”
Challenge accepted. I built a website and brand for myself (@thesmilesurgeon) and drove up and down the south coast of Sydney with my little branded macaroon bag, assuring other dental practices that if they sent their patients to us, we would not vortex them. I spoke of my character and how I believe in collaborative care, affording our patients the best quality work available to them. I knew it would work in the United States because of what we built in Australia.
After two years of building up a customer base in Australia, we were getting about two days a week of external referrals (on top of what our in-house general dentists were feeding me). We found that operating an organization with a strong moral compass gave general dentists a way to see that we were not a threat to them. When we did have those harder conversations where patients did not want to go back to their general dentists, we would advocate for the dentist and talk about how wonderful they are. We always encouraged external referrals to stick with their general dentists, which helped to further cultivate that relationship with the dentists.
Let me be clear – the system isn’t perfect. Some patients will refuse to return to their general dentist and that is a very sticky situation that – I’ll be honest – hasn’t always gone well for me. But in those moments, you too see the character of the dentists you work with. I have an anti-scarcity mentality. I believe our biggest hurdle in building or practices is getting patients to walk in our doors vs. shop at the mall or online. The dentist down the street or “rival periodontist” (this always makes me laugh now) isn’t – and has never been – the threat. It is through empowering and educating our communities of the importance of oral health that we grow. Teaching people how oral health relates to whole body health. And that is the belief that Whole Dental Wellness was born on.
Developing your culture
As I mentioned earlier, I structured what I am doing about my “why.” I believe so strongly that we are creating a huge impact to the people we serve and on the home front. For me, that is my three boys and husband. I’ve done the grind. I’ve worked late nights, early mornings, and many Saturdays. I’ve worked five days a week while going out to meet referrals, lecture at local, national, and international meetings, and build study clubs. I wouldn’t change any of that as it helped me grow and shaped my vision and goals moving forward. It built grit. But let’s be honest, working like that is physically and emotionally draining. When I get home now, I feel rejuvenated, thankful, and grounded. That feeling is what continues to push me to keep working on my own leadership and scaling our company.
As we continue to acquire dental practices, part of my role is to go in, build up the team knowledge around the foundational importance of periodontal health, get the team going, make everyone super excited, and then backfill myself. While I may be working five to six days a month in the chair now (and keep cutting this back), I still put in about 50 hours+ a week doing other things.
Not being tied to the chair allows me to invest in my home life as well. I’m now able to schedule workouts with my friends, get a massage, and drop my kids off at school – all things I longed for in my previous positions. I can work from home when my kids go to sleep and make them pancakes in the morning. I’m present in all parts of my life – not just my work. At the office, most days I feel like the rah-rah unicorn rainbow, cultural ambassador, keeping our team excited about what we do and the impact we create. They are a big part of that and it’s my job to ensure they understand that without them, we cannot do the great work we do.
I’m spending more time these days investing in my team because I strongly believe that there is so much talent in the workforce that has not had the opportunity to shine and grow. People get labeled as “front desk” (a huge pet peeve of mine – people are not furniture!) or “dental assistant,” and valued based on what their hourly wage is – as if that defines them.
Our model is very much focused on promoting from within breaking down that label of worth. We’ve been promoting employees within our team and launching new divisions – such as centralized supply ordering, bringing RCM as a service in house, and launching our own insurance billing department within the last year. The heads of these divisions were team members who had been in their previous roles for over a decade in offices we acquired. Through listening to their goals and wants we were able to not only allow them more autonomy and happiness in the workplace but also launch new departments within our company. A true win-win as we like to say.
I’m very inspired by Gary Vaynerchuck. One of the things he said that resonates with me is along the lines of “Know what you suck at and hire around it.” I’ve done a lot of introspection on the qualities and abilities that I lack, and intentionally spend the time finding the people that excel in those areas. After hiring (or promoting) these people, I also work to help them understand that what they are doing is important. I want them to feel like a critical part of the team, because I would not get the job done without them. And that is reality. We are only as strong as our weakest link. We all have blind spots. A big part of our organization is stripping the ego out of all of it. We say that the team can let a doctor go because we are all on the same playing field. We encourage our docs to use their first names (vs “Dr.”) as we are all people with one common goal – to improve the quality of lives of the people we serve – our team, our patients, and our community – because they deserve it.
Dr. Weiner has received numerous accolades for her work as a surgeon, a researcher, and a lecturer, she is most proud of her role as a leader – in her practices, her home, and her community. She founded Whole Dental Wellness with the belief that true dental care must look beyond the mouth and embrace everyone as a whole. She believes in collaborate leadership and radical interdependence. Her optimism is contagious as she is centered in a foundational belief that you only fall forward, and the best is yet to come. You may knock her down, but you will never knock her out.