Steve Bilt Transcript

Steve Bilt is the CEO of Smile Brands, a company with 5,000 employees that provides business support services to over 425 dental offices. Smile Brands has been on Glassdoor’s Best Places to Work list three times and Steve is one of the top CEOs on Glassdoor.

Steve was recognized as People-Focused CEO of the Year and Healthcare CEO of the Year by American Business Awards. He is also a top-rated US Large Company CEO on Glassdoor, Comparably and CEOWORLD Magazine.

Steve was on the founding management team of Smile Brands in 1998. He started as the company’s CFO before becoming the CEO a year and a half later. As the CEO he worked hard to build close relationships with the dentists so that he knew what kind of support they really needed. That is what has set Smile Brands apart from other companies, because it allowed Steve to tailor the business model in a way that works at scale with a lot of dentists.

Several other companies who were trying to provide similar services ended up failing, and Smile Brands was able to acquire a few of those companies. From 2003 to 2004 Smile Brands went from 45 locations to over 300 locations.

Smiles for everyone

The mission of Smile Brands is really built on three words–Smiles for Everyone. It is the purpose behind everything they do. Steve really wanted to make sure that every party involved in Smile Brands got a fair deal and was happy with the result. So everyone at Smile Brands is focused on making sure patients, employees, vendors, the community, and the investors all get a fair deal, it is always a win-win for everyone.

Giving an example of this mission Steve says, “I was just on the phone today with someone saying, you know, I’m sensing by your body language, that you feel like this isn’t a good deal for you. It’s a good deal for us, but if you don’t, you shouldn’t do this. That’s Smiles for Everyone. The guy was like, wow, that is great to hear. And let me clear that up. And as we had a great conversation with that basis, we think that way with all of our employees, our patients and everyone that becomes part of your DNA as a culture.”

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At one point Steve left the company. He had been the CEO for a while and it was suggested to him that he retire. At the time he took the hint and left. After he left the company the leadership decided to try to move to a more execution oriented model, which was very different from Steve’s purpose driven style with focus on direct interaction with the dentists.

The mission statement went from Smiles for Everyone to Give providers and their dental teams the freedom to put patients first so that they can become the most preferred dental office in their community. And while it’s not a bad statement, it really did not resonate with the Smile Brands team. Moving from focusing on purpose to focusing on metrics really caused the company to lose its soul and its art.

Steve was actually away for 2 ½ years and he missed the business a lot. But in 2016 he was given back the role of CEO. And as he went around to different locations to meet with employees he realized how much they had been waiting to go back to Smiles for Everyone. In fact he had originally had bracelets made with the phrase on it for everyone to wear. And when he returned he found people pulling the bracelets out of their drawers saying they had been saving them for the day he returned.

Creating a mission that resonates with employees

Anyone can come up with a mission statement or a company purpose that sounds good. But it can’t be something that just lives on a wall or in the company handbook. It has to be something that is infused into every aspect of the business.

Steve believes it needs to be something short and catchy that people can remember. It needs to be something that you can evaluate and check in on to see how well the company is living up to it. It has to be something that is living and breathing inside your company.

For example, with the mission Smiles for Everyone, Steve says he uses the phrase in every meeting and he tries to use it in every interaction to show people what it actually looks like to live out the mission.

Steve says, “As soon as you start to lengthen it, to create more explanation for it, you’re doing two things, you’re making it harder to use. And you’re also telling people what the standard of success is. When the point of the mission statement that we have is only you can say what makes you smile in this situation. So I can’t put criterion around it to say, well, as long as my lighting is good enough, you’re gonna be happy with this interview. As long as my, you know, shirts the right color, I can’t put the standards on it. Only you get to judge that. And so that’s why I kept it very short, so it was highly subjective. But you as the constituent and me as the constituent would evaluate it qualitatively. That’s another thing, which means I have to ask you, if it’s working for you, not just hand you statistics and say it is working for you, which is what most businesses do.”

Leading through a pandemic

This year has been difficult on so many businesses around the world. And Smile Brands has definitely been impacted by current events. Their business dropped by around 93% in three days when the pandemic first started. Steve and his leadership team knew they had to act fast.

One thing they implemented right away was daily calls for the leadership team. For the first full month of the pandemic the leadership team met every single day Monday to Sunday. And after the first month they eliminated their Saturday and Sunday meetings, but they still meet every Monday through Friday even now, six months into the pandemic.

He also told his leadership team early on, “his is my first pandemic. So I’m probably not going to do it that well. I’ll make you guys a promise, my second pandemic, I’m gonna be really good at this.” He says it was tongue in cheek, but it also was his way of letting leadership know that they have the freedom to figure out things together as they go. He was telling them none of us have been through this before, so mistakes will be made, and that’s okay. None of us should be afraid to fail.

They also did have to furlough 85% of their workforce, which was a really hard decision for Steve and his team to make. But he explained to employees that while it is painful to go through this now, it would be even more painful to go through this and come out the other side and not have a job to come back to.

One of the biggest things they have done to help employees through this tough time is constantly communicating with them. Employees have been kept up to date throughout the entire pandemic so they know what is going on, what to expect, and how to plan for the future.

They also provided webinars and assistance with common issues employees were dealing with, such as how to sign up for unemployment in their area.

Steve says, “We also set in mind a canyon metaphor, not a mountain metaphor, but a canyon metaphor. And the reason the canyon was so important, as we sort of started here, we slid down to the bottom, which could still be a mountain metaphor. But what I wanted people to think about is surviving on that canyon floor during COVID. And then building back to a new place, not climbing back to the old place. So we really reinvented every aspect of our business, while we’re on the canyon floor.”

The good news is they have started emerging from the canyon floor. They’ve got 100% of their revenue back and they are starting to hire back their employees.

Steve’s advice for leaders looking to be more effective 

One of the biggest pieces of advice Steve offers to others looking to be more effective leaders is to find a mechanism as a leader to be wrong. Leadership is not about knowing everything and having all the answers.

He says, “It’s not reality, especially today, when things are happening so fast, and short cycle. And oh, by the way, we’re in the middle of pandemic and social unrest and everything else. So you know, you’re doing a lot more to help people understand how to explore their way to making decisions or to commit to a decision than you are necessarily knowing the answer. So I think that’s number one. And so, you know, that thing about that being my first pandemic was a freeing trick, if you will. All of us as a leadership team need to say, hey, don’t sweat it. We don’t have to be right. We just have to be moving.”

Steve believes that one of the most powerful things leaders can do is to say “I don’t know the answer to that. Let’s figure it out”. Growth comes when everyone is questioning things and exploring things together instead of having answers given to them.

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