Dr Vandana Katyal on education, gender imbalance, business and success
- If you truly enjoy learning, then teaching – in some form – will follow naturally
- Behind any success there’s a lot of hard work, practice and discipline
- In Australia the field of dental specialisations is 75% male, 25% female
- The traditional university model of studying dental specialisations suits males but not females, especially those with children
- We need an education model that is more flexible and engaging to help address this gender imbalance
- It is my hope that Australian accreditation will enable the flexible online learning of BOSS courses to be a pathway to dental specialisation
- Seeking feedback in every area of business and life is the key to growth
- To effectively grow your business you must understand exactly who your audience is and build a community of like minded people to whom you can market
- The dental profession needs more mentorship, which can be very useful in helping young dentists, orthodontists and specialists successfully start their practices
- Don’t be upset by perceived ‘failure’: everything you do provides an opportunity to learn how to do things better in future.
I recently had the opportunity to chat with fellow dental professional, and BOSS Diploma graduate, Dr Vicky Prokopiou on her ‘Inspiration Speaks’ podcast.
I’ve known Dr Vicky for a number of years and have long admired her fantastic work ethic, striving to always grow and develop her professionalism while juggling a busy family life. It’s a balancing act that always impresses me when I see it being performed by women in our field, as well as in other industries.
This is more than just an observation though: I think it goes to the heart of the dental profession and the way in which it needs to evolve. It’s something we discussed in our podcast chat, along with many other topics, including motivation and growth, better marketing, the changing face of learning, and gender imbalances within the dental profession.
As I mentioned, Dr Vicky and I have known each other for many years, and over this time we have witnessed each other’s professional growth. When Dr Vicky asked me how I stay motivated to keep learning and growing, I barely took a beat to respond. For me, the passion for learning is intrinsic, it’s deep within. I’m a person who wakes up with excitement. I believe every day will bring something new, and I don’t view challenges as being negative. I believe that, with determination, I can overcome any ‘obstruction’ and learn something valuable from the experience.
In fact, I think that if you really enjoy learning, then teaching – in some form – will follow naturally. It did for me, in the creation of BOSS. Dr Vicky, too, shares her knowledge through her podcast and her mentoring of new dental professionals.
The added benefit of teaching is that every time I teach, I’m also learning myself, because course participants bring up new ideas, fresh perspectives and questions that keep me on my toes! As I said to Dr Vicky, they really do push me to do better every day.
When it comes to success in the dental industry, I have to say that I subscribe to the same school of thought as the late US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, who said “There are no secrets to success. It is the result of preparation, hard work, and learning from failure.”
Success can appear easy from the outside, but that’s seldom – if ever – the case. Behind any success there’s a lot of hard work, a lot of practice, a lot of discipline. I recounted to Dr Vicky how daunting I found it to deliver my first orthodontics lecture to a conference of almost a thousand orthodontists, but how I had prepared for the experience by practising my lecture for two full days beforehand. I won the award for Best Postgraduate Presentation. This really drove home to me that practice is the key to extraordinary performance in every area of work and life.
Today, I can get up and talk about any area of my expertise very naturally and spontaneously – because I have put in so much practice and discipline preparing courses, lectures and workshops on these topics over many years. I may not have prepared it on the day that I find myself talking about it – but I’ve been preparing it throughout my entire professional life.
All this talk of professional life naturally led to Dr Vicky asking how I balance my work with my personal life. Good question!
For me, it’s not a case of work-life balance, so much as work-life blend. When you genuinely love what you do – as I do – it’s not about ‘bringing your work home’ because your work and your personal life are so deeply intertwined. I cannot leave orthodontics at the practice: it’s part of who I am. This is particularly so when working remotely, delivering virtual consultations and late-night webinars from home, as so many of us have done in the past couple of years.
Having said this, I do recognise that however much I love and live my work, I need some separation from it. To help me get some important personal time, a while ago I decided to no longer work at weekends, whenever possible, and to only take on work that I find fulfilling. As I told Dr Vicky, “I will not do anything that I do not love – so it doesn’t feel like work!”
This discussion gave me the opportunity to express the admiration I feel for female dental practitioners with children, like Dr Vicky, who work so hard to balance their family commitments with growing their learning and their careers. This raised what is, for me, the hot topic of the current structure of education – and the need for it to change in order to be more accessible to women and others that face barriers to their professional development.
As I explained in the podcast, I no longer believe in the traditional, university model of learning. It’s not practical for lots of people, including women with kids, who do not have the option to attend 8am-5pm study days. We cannot continue to exclude a vital, talented and incredibly hard working demographic from learning and from upgrading their professional skills and qualifications.
So, what do I believe? I believe in an education model that is going to become more flexible, more engaging and more evolved with the practitioner to give the skills and knowledge required in a bitesize format.
We do not need to stay wedded to the old way of doing things, just because that’s how it’s always been. It was done in that way because there were no viable alternatives. Today, there are – thanks largely to technology. Doing my MBA online taught me how engaging it could be to learn in this way, compared to a face-to-face model. The pandemic has also played a role in positively changing perceptions of online learning and collaboration. People have started to value reductions in commuting, and appreciate the ability to reach wider audiences than is possible face-to-face.
We fought for three years for Australian accreditation for the BOSS Diploma, which is studied online. It is my hope that this recognition will enable BOSS courses to be a pathway to specialisation, or sub-specialisation – and this is the next battle we’re going to fight. It will be another three-to-five years away, but I want to change the way that education is delivered.
If those traditional university models – especially in dentistry and specialist degrees – can also flex a little to allow our general dental practitioners to gain the skills and knowledge required via a more accessible route, that will be real progress.
Dr Vicky and I continued to discuss gender in relation to dentistry. In Australia, the field is actually very gender-equal in terms of general practitioners – but when it comes to specialisations, it’s 75% male, 25% female. I’ve spoken with female professionals who say ‘Well, women choose not to specialise, and choose not to study and choose to have children and prioritise their families.’ This may well be true, but only because the current options for studying these specialisations are incompatible with their other commitments. What if they were given the option to have both? To be able to go into a specialty degree in a flexible manner, and still have that family focus? I think many women would embrace that opportunity. The current structure suits males, in general, but not females – so this is where the gender imbalance starts, and where it needs to be addressed. I would dearly love to see more women in our profession evolving their careers through ongoing education.
Business lessons I’ve learnt
As our conversation progressed, Dr Vicky asked me about the most important lessons I’ve learnt in my career. Some have been taught to me through the generosity of others, and others I have learnt the hard way.
The best piece of professional advice I ever received, for example, was ‘Always seek feedback. If you don’t, you will never grow or evolve.’ How true this is. With education, webinars, patients – even your personal life! – asking for feedback helps you grow better at what you do. It really is the best data you can work with.
When it comes to marketing, I’ve learnt that it brings two key benefits: one is brand power, which makes people know that you exist; the second is revenue. We truly live in a golden age in terms of being able to target our preferred customers via numerous platforms. What I’ve realised, however, is that in order to do so effectively, you must first understand exactly who your audience is, and then use fun and creative ways to show them what you can help them achieve.
I’ve discovered that whatever really grabs me marketing-wise will likely also engage the people I’m trying to attract. Like breeds like, as they say. By emulating the things that connect with you, and then tweaking them for your brand and market, you can build a network of connections with like-minded people. I explained to Dr Vicky that the most useful thing my MBA taught me was the value of building relationships and keeping them alive as my primary audience, because every successful brand is built on internal marketing.
Build your audience and market to them, don’t follow the advice to throw endless dollars away on external marketing via Google Adwords and similar. You can use these, yes, but not excessively, because internal marketing trumps external. My message is: hold the power of your own customers, your own patients, your own clients, because that’s what will last.
I learnt this the hard way. As I confide in the podcast, I got very burnt when I first started out many years ago. I was convinced by an unscrupulous salesperson to spend way too much money – over $100,000 – on Sydney-wide radio advertising for my dental practice. It soon became clear that this didn’t make sense for a single location practice, and that I was wasting money reaching listeners who would never travel hours and countless suburbs for dental treatment. When I refocused on local marketing, from flyers to local market stall presence, the return was far greater, a hundred times more, than the slick radio advertising achieved. Local can be very powerful.
The whole episode made me feel like a failure. There wasn’t, and still isn’t, enough support for new business owners in dentistry. We need more mentorship, which can be very useful in helping young dentists, orthodontists and specialists start their practices.
My radio marketing mis-step was one of the reasons I studied for my MBA: I wanted to understand business, not rely on self-interested third parties to unduly influence my decisions. As I say, the most valuable thing my MBA taught me was the importance of building a like-minded community to whom I could market my business. Five years ago, many of our BOSS course participants were finding us via social media, YouTube and our website. Today, around 80% of our new course participants are coming from referrals. It’s a fantastic way to grow. Like-minded people constantly coming in – and the referrals are growing exponentially.
A final word: no regrets
Towards the end of the podcast, Dr Vicky asked me what one thing I wish I had known when I was starting out. Rather than pinpoint a specific skill or business strategy, I told her that what I would like to tell a younger version of myself – and all up and coming young orthodontists – was more mindset related: Don’t be upset by perceived ‘failure’, because nothing is a failure. Everything is a learning opportunity that highlights your strengths and weaknesses and shows you a better way to do things next time.
The podcast chat, which is part of the Influential Women Series, was a wonderful opportunity to reflect on my own career thus far, as well as to chew the fat on some topics that I am truly passionate about, namely education, women in dentistry and better business practices. You can listen to it here.