Dentistry changing its culture, empowering faculty, staff

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CNN Money put together a list of the 100 dream workplaces in 2011, and Michael Reddy, D.M.D., D.M.Sc., was disappointed he didn’t see UAB’s School of Dentistry in the Top 10.

Michael Reddy (right), interim dean of Dentistry, says he wants his school to be one of America’s best places to work.

Now, realistically, the School of Dentistry will never make the list. It’s not a private business like SAS Business Analytics, Google, or Dreamworks. But that doesn’t mean Reddy, the interim dean of Dentistry, can’t learn something from those companies and incorporate it among his faculty and staff to improve work conditions and, in some instances, change a culture.

“We’re trying to create a culture in which the School of Dentistry is considered one of the best places in the nation to work,” Reddy says. “You see places like Dreamworks, SAS and Google and think, what are they doing well? What they do is create a culture of belief in what you’re doing and trust in the leadership and the people that what they’re doing is truly important. We want this culture of innovation — which has always been part of UAB — and a culture of trust, which really relates to our core enterprise and our values.”

The 2010 fall universitywide Faculty and Staff Climate Survey — a first of its kind endeavor for UAB — gave employees an opportunity to give constructive feedback on issues of concern to them, and the results revealed to Reddy that the school had work to do on morale and trust.

“We’ve used the climate survey as a tool and a challenge to step forward,” Reddy says.

This new culture is a reflection of UAB’s enterprisewide Code of Conduct, which is built around eight standards, including treating individuals with respect.

To help create this culture, Reddy first met with faculty and staff to uncover what gaps existed between their perceptions and the culture he wants to create. He also wanted to determine the behaviors and cultural norms that hinder opportunities for success. And Reddy wanted to know if faculty and staff believed they had the skills they need to lead and achieve a great workplace.

The suggestions that have been implemented are making a difference, says Steve Filler, D.D.S., associate dean for students, alumni and external affairs.

“In the past six months, a tremendous amount of positive change has occurred,” says Filler, an administrator who works very closely with faculty and staff. “I actually visualize a real difference in the feel of the school.”

Improving communication

The first step was improving communication. Reddy read a book by Google CEO Eric Schmidt, and found an idea within its pages that he’s borrowed.

Every Monday at 4 p.m., Reddy hosts what he calls Open Access. It’s a combination of a town hall and traditional college office hours where anyone can come by his office for a four- to seven-minute meeting where any issue can be addressed.

Students have come to talk about the excitement of treating their first patient. Faculty have discussed ideas for how to revitalize the clinical research enterprise. Staff have requested that patient parking be addressed with the city, specifically the need to add more handicap spaces.

No topic is off limits, and Reddy listens and takes notes.

“It starts off as an informal conversation, almost like speed dating,” he says with a laugh. “I take notes, and I’ll say, ‘I don’t know,’ or ‘yeah we can do that,’ or ‘we’re already working on this and not many people know about it.’ Google does this, and 80 percent of their new products come out of unplanned meetings just like these. Plus, it’s kind of changed the distance between the dean’s office and everyone else, which has been important.”

Changing the model

Reddy believed the survey also showed that a mental model had developed that was inconsistent with the mission of leading oral health care through research, patient care, education and service. This, Reddy says, led to behaviors and cultural norms that hinder success.

“The mental model really was that we’re here to produce dentists for the state, which is an indirect result of all the good things we do,” Reddy says. “We have really well-trained dentists, but that’s not the sole reason we’re here. Our goal is to be innovative, creative and make it a better place to work. Our goal is leading oral health care through research, patient care, education and service. But we want to lead at the global level. We don’t want to just work for the state and produce highly trained dentists and specialists. We want to do more than just produce doctors.”

To help adjust that mindset, Reddy and the school’s Faculty Council (which comprises seven faculty members) began discussing ways to enhance faculty and staff development. They discussed interdisciplinary actions, clinical aspects of teaching, dentistry pedagogies, information technology improvements, diverse cultures and other areas.

Ultimately, they determined they would close the clinical machine a few days a year to allow for faculty and staff development. Once every three or four months, the faculty, staff and students of the School of Dentistry meet at a nearby hotel for a day-long program with multiple tracks. Some of those tracks have included work-life balance, conflict resolution, working with students with disabilities, how to write a case report, building trust, strategic planning and enhancing the clinical component of the school’s mission. The most recent daylong program was held Jan. 18.

“We felt strongly we had to do this, and these events have really gone well,” Reddy says.

Other changes — some small, some large — also have been implemented, including:

  • Linking research and clinical mission through branding
  • Having the School of Dentistry Smile Cam at UAB home basketball games
  • Unifying the types of scrubs worn in the dentistry building
  • Alumni e-newsletter dean’s message sent out monthly
  • Upgrading student facilities
  • Creation of a strategic plan


Empowering faculty

The School of Dentistry’s Faculty Council has been empowered by Reddy to make many decisions within the school. The council drives the faculty meetings and decides the agenda.

And the updating of the strategic plan is important to many, Filler says. “It’s extremely important that we have a timely, living, breathing strategic plan,” he says.

Filler says the overall morale of the school has risen in recent months, and he says a lot of that credit goes to the work environment the administration is fostering.

“Dr. Reddy is making it very clear that he is proud of his faculty, and he wants us to produce excellence in whatever we’re doing,” Filler says. “The climate has changed, and it’s changed for the better. That’s not to say we don’t have some problems to deal with. There will always be new problems present, and some things are difficult to ever completely solve. But we’re really working and making progress in a lot of areas, and I’m very excited and proud of it.”