Recently, I had the privilege and opportunity to speak at the commencement ceremony of the UNC Adams School of Dentistry. It was an honor to address every graduate, including my own stepdaughter who sat among them. After decades in practice and since my very own graduation, it was delightful to speak to graduates and share with them what I wish I knew when I was once in their position. Here's the speech in its entirety.
Graduates of the UNC Adams School of Dentistry, Class of 2021, it is an honor and a privilege that I can speak to you here today. It is also a day of Great pride as my stepdaughter, Kayla, is a member of this class. With that understood, I have witnessed firsthand the challenges you have experienced as a class and to a lesser extent, individually, these past 4 years. Even today’s event was a struggle, but you identified your needs, developed a plan, faced the challenges and now, we are all here to celebrate your big day!
From my perspective, it is for the Challenges you faced that makes this event most special. No one’s hooding today occurs without great efforts and what I want to tell you today is that effort should never stop. You have come too far to just get this far, so I ask you, what have you learned from your experience that you can use to an advantage going forward?
In her New York Times Bestselling book GRIT, The Power of Passion and Perseverance, Dr. Angela Duckworth writes that a person’s GRIT is a greater predictor of achievement than talent. When I look at you, class of 2021, you are the embodiment of GRIT! So, when life throws you challenges again, and it will, recall the sustained effort with which you overcame all obstacles and arrived at this time of graduation. Without this tenacity, your talent will be nothing more than unmet potential and your skill…, what you could have done but never did.
Now what is next? Some of you are looking to join a practice, some are planning a family, some are off to residencies but all of you, in some form, are thinking of a career, And I challenge you all to take your thoughts and dreams to the next level and imagine a plan. I like the phrase, “If you don’t know where you want to go, any road will do,” and I can promise you there are roads available that If you are not aware and focused, will take you far from where I know you want to be!
Dan Sullivan, who is arguably the most influential coach to small business entrepreneurs today, has a question he calls the R-Factor and it goes something like this: “If you and I return to this stadium in 3 years to meet, what has to happen between now and then for you to be happy and satisfied with both your personal and professional progress?”
It sounds like such a simple question, but really it’s a call to action that requires a deep understanding of your personal goals and then a conscious commitment to reach them. It’s not a five-minute exercise but a weekend retreat that leads you to these answers. To be clear, know what you want, and you will know where you are going. Stay on your road. Put these simple steps into action with the passion and perseverance that Duckworth calls GRIT and you too will find it.
Throughout your time in dental school all focus, faculty and yours, has been on execution, why you should do what we dentists do and how we do it. Your success has, in large measure, been judged and graded by your ability to execute in the class and in the clinic. Your patients were assigned to you and, for the most part, were nice people whose dental problems were consistent with your procedural requirements. Now it all changes and I want to suggest an important paradigm shift in your approach to patient care that puts communication and education first then execution last. After all, the original definition of doctor is “to teach” and it is not “to heal” nor “to restore.”
I have witnessed too many young dentists who enter their practice with pent up excitement and often large debt and who approach their career as a furious race to do as much work as possible because they can and fear they must. Well, they do just that and then people stop trusting them and going to them and then the debt, their primary focus from the beginning, continually grows.
You see, the approach should not be that we must sell dentistry. Rather, the approach that I preach to my staff and doctors and now to you is that first we must engage in relations with our patients, and for me, parents. It is, in turn, this connection that fosters trust and confidence in our abilities to solve their problems, as we have first led them to understand their problems.
The relationship, when communication and education come before execution, between doctor and patient is not only sustainable but expandable as these are the patients who refer their friends and family who, In turn, refer theirs. When you add this simple relational marketing, that costs nothing other than time, to a sponsored online presence, your marketing campaign is a guaranteed success.
Respect that coming to the dentist is not easy for anyone. In fact, within the hierarchy of personal fears, going to the dentist ranks above the fear of death. So, embrace the people who move past these fears, be honored when they place their trust in you and accept the great responsibility for their continued care.
Many of you will go into an existing practice with existing employees. Some may be in startup offices while others may be in public clinics or training programs. For all, it is going to be a fresh start for both you and your staff, and I urge you to make it a positive one. Respect and teach them daily. You are all part of one team and as a team, you must all understand your roles. I am certain that the patient or parent’s experience in my office is Never as desired if my staff, both administrative and clinical, do not embrace my practice’s core values, do not grasp our common purpose and do not understand their relevance to our success.
Your values will, of course, change over time as your practice becomes more and more defined and refined, but don’t let “perfect” get in the way of “good.” You already know what level of daily service and commitment you want to bring, so go ahead and write It down and claim the statement as being valuable to you. By this act, it becomes an anchor for your team and a powerful pillar for your practice. When you stand for something, your best people will stand with you.
I am also clear that by being open and available to my team’s input and ideas, my practice is better for their involvement. Your staff’s primary focus is to help you provide the highest level of professional service to patients. So again, from your first day take the time to listen to and learn from your team. Give them the opportunity to practice as you are building a practice, even when it means you are just standing by and coaching their efforts. You both need to prepare for the schedule, that I know will come, when you have an office filled with patients to see and to treat. Trust takes time from both sides of the chair; don’t waste a day or an opportunity to build it.
Class of 2021, if we do meet here again in three years, I want to hear the great news of both your personal and professional successes and for that end, please indulge me this final “Action List” for your consideration and trust that some will fit your needs:
- Identify and connect with a mentor. Though your days of dental school have now passed, you still have much to learn about clinical dentistry and the business of dentistry but there are many experienced practitioners and coaches who are willing and eager to help; they just need your invitation to do so.
- Be involved early with organized dentistry at the national, state, and local level. In the rapidly evolving world of healthcare, dentistry must have a seat at the table whenever policy is discussed, and your voice needs to be heard.
- Join or start a study club. It is important to have peer to peer interaction. For many, it will be a great change going from an environment where there are hundreds of dentists, both generalists and specialists, to one where there may only be you. We all need more friends and colleagues and less competitors.
- Be active and take care of your body. Consistently performing clinical dentistry is simply hard work and, as mentioned, maintaining a productive pace for a career will demand physical maintenance. Start early and make it a habit!
- Be curious. Read and explore. Don’t be afraid of technology or new techniques, materials or strategies. There is a saying in bike racing that “if you’re not moving forward, you’re moving back.” It is true in our profession too, so always look forward to new opportunities and continually challenge your mind and skills!
- Take time for yourself and your family to recharge and recommit. Approach your career as if it is a marathon and not a sprint. Make sure you have the necessary spiritual fuel to endure! There will come a day or days that you will need it.
- A long range plan is important, but don’t miss the chance to reward yourself. And others who are involved, on reaching short term goals. There will always be challenges for tomorrow but take time, as we are doing here, to really celebrate the victories of today!
So, my new colleagues, in summary I congratulate you on a wonderful four years filled with achievements. I suggest you give great thought to your personal and professional goals so that a path to reach them will be defined, and I urge you to pursue them despite the challenges and distractions that will invariably appear. I counsel you to be an asset for your community. I encourage you to treat your patients as you would like to be treated and teach your team to be an extension of yourself. Finally, I promise you, take these simple steps and the personal happiness and satisfaction you seek will be yours.
Thank you again, UNC Adams School of Dentistry, Class of 2021, for this opportunity to join with you here, and in person, on your special day! I am now honored to begin the process of hooding the new graduates and welcoming you all to our distinguished profession of dentistry.
Congratulations to the Class of 2021! I, as well as the entire Charlotte Pediatric Dentistry team, wish you well on your endeavors in the future, wherever you may be led. Do not forget to seek personal happiness and satisfaction along your new journey of dentistry.
You are just starting out on a road that will stretch as far as you allow it. Be sure to make your travels worth it. I am honored to have been chosen to give the commencement address, as well as be the one to have the graduates move their tassels from right to left to signify the completion of their degree. Thank you UNC Adams School of Dentistry for the opportunity, and for the graduates who listened. I can’t wait to see how these graduates transform the dentistry industry and profession.