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by Stephan Maldonado | March 16, 2020

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Vault recently spoke with Steven C. Bilt, CEO of Smile Brands, Inc., about how a company's culture is essential to the success and happiness of its employees—and what effective leaders can do to foster a positive corporate culture. "According to a Work Institute study, 27% of employees in the U.S. voluntarily left their jobs in 2018 – an 88% increase since 2010, and the trend shows no sign of abating," says Bilt. "With a tight labor market and increasing transparency around corporate culture, employee engagement needs to be at the top of every CEO’s list. Unfortunately, I still see a pretty big gap between talking about company culture and understanding the kind of commitment it takes to define, build and sustain one. Leaders who succeed have made the leap to understanding that culture is a business strategy, not an HR strategy."

A renewed emphasis on corporate culture is already one of this year's biggest workplace trends. However, as concern over the coronavirus pandemic continues to spread—forcing more and more employers to encourage their employees to work remotely—a solid corporate culture is arguably more important than ever. With employees suddenly isolated from their teams, it's the strength of their culture that can help them navigate this new, if not anxiety-producing, dynamic. Keep reading to see what Bilt thinks is essential to building a culture that lasts.

Vault: Please tell us a little bit more about yourself and Smile Brands Inc.

Bilt: I began my career in public accounting with a focus on both high growth entrepreneurial companies and healthcare services. The one thing I found lacking in the referral-driven, third-party reimbursed healthcare services space was a true consumer focus. My goal at Smile Brands has been to build a consumer-oriented model where dental care is delivered on the patients’ terms ­ where they want it when they need it and at prices they can afford.

Vault: What are the key elements of a successful corporate culture that most businesses lack?

Bilt: 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. To be meaningful, the “why” needs to be both simple and compelling. Ours is just three words: Smiles for Everyone®.

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 than adopting a mindset of abundance where teams work together to grow the business, knowing there is more than enough opportunity for everyone.

Vault: What are some of the biggest mistakes leaders make when it comes to their company’s culture?

Bilt: A lot of leaders lack the commitment and staying power it takes to make culture stick. A strong culture doesn’t happen by accident. It takes vision, planning and continual reinforcement, and that starts at the top. As leaders, the process by which we make decisions is often more important than the decisions because 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. Employees are keenly attuned to the authenticity of their leadership. One bad precedent can spread like wildfire through an organization and undermine the culture you’re trying to create.

Leaders need to understand that culture is a living organism that needs to be constantly nourished to survive. At Smile Brands, we do this every day through visual reminders, symbols, company rituals, and internal communication, but most critically, through behavior and how we treat one another.

Vault: A recent Gallup poll found that only 34% of employees feel engaged at work. Why do you think that is? What are some common struggles or misunderstandings about the importance of culture impacting corporate America as a whole?

Bilt: An expert in the field of employee engagement told me recently, “When it comes to engagement, we don’t have a problem of understanding; we have a problem of execution.” Employees need to know that they are valued as individuals and that they can grow and be recognized for their achievements. They also need to feel connected to a purpose greater than simply earning a paycheck. Culture plays a big part in creating those valuable connections. For example, in 2011, we started the Smiles for Everyone Foundation to provide free dental care to individuals in need. Foundation events are a great way for our team members to work together to make an impact in the community and they have become a huge part of our culture.

Vault: In terms of the human element, as well as financially, what is the cost of widespread disengagement?

Bilt: There have been many studies linking employee engagement, or the lack thereof, to company performance. The most obvious costs are high turnover and absenteeism, but the impact goes much deeper than that. We are in the healthcare service 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.

Vault: How does an effective leader identify areas of improvement within their corporate culture? What does it take to implement sustainable change?

Bilt: I believe one of the most undervalued leadership skills is simply listening. Leaders that make a habit of listening to customers and employees at all levels of their organization generally know where they need to improve. In today’s social media world, no business has a shortage of feedback; it’s more a question of what they choose to do with it.

I like to think of my role as setting a vision for who we want to be culturally and then cheering, coaching or driving us in that direction. I say cheering, coaching or driving because if we are on the right 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.

Vault: How can everyday employees contribute to their job’s culture? Should they feel empowered to speak out about their own disengagement, and how can they do so constructively?

Bilt: For those struggling with a lack of engagement on the job, my advice is to lean into the challenge. According to a study by the Sarasota Institute, 50% of an employee’s happiness is directly linked to their relationship with their direct supervisor, so that’s the best place to start. Without making it personal, try suggesting some ideas that you believe will improve team dynamics and then be willing to make them happen. Think about opportunities great and small. Start small and build the muscle with consistent exercise before moving to “bigger lifts.”


Steven C. Bilt is CEO of Smile Brands Inc., one of the nation’s leading dental support organizations delivering full-service dental care across the U.S. Smile Brands has received a multitude of accolades for its award-winning culture. In 2011, Bilt 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.

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