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Dentists and the enneagram

I normally don’t write about my actual consulting work or speeches so as to preserve client confidentiality. Occasionally, I write a case study, changing information that would make the client identifiable.

However, this past weekend, I had a surprising and really wonderful experience giving a speech/workshop for the California Dental Association that is worth sharing. It was a project I should absolutely have said “no” to doing, but there were a few reasons why to say “yes.”

The “nos” outweighed everything else. It was to be a large group (72 maximum, though it ended up being 83). The organization knew nothing about the Enneagram, and the session’s focus was to be on leadership, and more specifically, on strategic leadership, although they wanted me to use the Enneagram to give the session an edge. I was given 2.5 hours divided by a 15-minute break, not enough time to really even just teach type somewhat well. In addition, I was to do this all by myself with no assistance; there was no money in the budget to bring in others. How could I possibly do anything more than basic typing, much less also do something on how leadership style grows out of our Enneagram type, and then, leaders and the development of strategy.

But I said yes, for several reasons. First, the person who recommended me was someone I slightly knew who is an Enneagram lover and really wanted me to say “yes.” This is not really a good reason to say “yes,” as it goes with my type Twoness– that is, the tendency to say “yes” to someone I know and like without checking in with myself to see if I want to do this! The second reason was that the conference was in Orange County, California, which is somewhat local to where I live. Normally, it takes less than an hour to drive there. When I went, however, it took me four hours due to traffic. The third reason I said “yes,” and this was the main reason, was that I thought, “What a great way to bring the Enneagram into the Dental industry!” So, “yes” it was.

Who they were
First, all my assumptions about dentists (and I didn’t know I had that many) got instantly blown up. The conference had about 270 attendees, and I had dinner with them the night prior to my session. I expected mostly men and mostly white men; I expected them to be more middle aged than not; I expected them to be serious rather than fun-loving. I expected them to be more solo players than team players; after all, don’t most dentists practice dentistry on their own, even if they are in a group practice?

What I got was the biggest array of Diversity I have ever experienced at any conference. Men and women ranging from 23- 70 years old and from every cultural background imaginable were there. They were also the most playful and fun-loving group I’ve ever been with, as they were eager to greet old friends and meet newcomers. I felt easily included, even though I am not a dentist myself. They were charming and talkative; they were smart and introspective, and these qualities were apparent even at a social dinner.

The session itself
Although I knew my session time was limited, I started the session – and this was spontaneous – with a “getting to know each other” activity. I asked them to meet the 7-8 others at their table and to find out an unusual or wacky thing about at least two people sitting there. They loved this, of course, being unusual and wacky themselves, and I asked for a brief report out. We had amongst us, for example, a pole dancer, an ex-Chippendale dancer, and a person who drove his motorcycle, a BMW, all the way up to the Artic Circle.

In teaching them the Enneagram, I went slow to go fast. The concepts and examples flowed easily, I took my time, participants asked questions whenever they wanted, and then they engaged in self-typing using my Enneagram Typing Cards and Enneagram Workbook. Their engagement was high, they understood the system quite readily, and so when we got to the Enneagram leadership styles that grow out of our enneatype, this made sense to them and helped them clarify their types.

And then there was the section on strategic leadership, where I drew less from the literature on strategy and more from a strategic negotiations model, one I learned from my colleagues Andres and Pablo from Bogota. It involves a three level approach to negotiations: the strategic, the creative, and the tactical. Most negotiators and most leaders start with and stay with the tactical because they are the most familiar with tactics. However, doing so makes them less effective, particularly when they need to lead and/or when they are dealing with other people who are creative and strategic as well as tactical.

Case study
To get participants to engage at these three levels of strategic leadership, we created a case study called “Smile Bright Dental Society,” complete with the smiling zebra seen above as its logo (which did amuse them; one might have expected smiley disembodied teeth or a well-formed single tooth and toothbrush). Here’s the case:

“The Smile Bright Dental Society has 1500 member dentists and a 70% market share. 60% of their members are 55 and older. In the past five years, they have only been able to recruit and retain 50% of the new dentists in their area.

The dental society projects that 50 of its members will retire in the next year, but you are only expecting 40 new dentists in your area.

Given the above conditions, what would you do about the following in terms of The Strategic, The Creative, and The Tactical: Recruitment; Programs and services; Governance.”

Case study process
After reading the case, participants chose which of the three areas was their greatest interest – strategic, creative and tactical – and then considered how this choice reflected their Enneagram types. This was quite revealing, with 4s and 7s all selecting the creative; most 8s, 9s and 1s selecting the strategic, and the remainder either picking the tactical or being spread out through all three areas. Their reasons for how their selections related to type were astute and informative.

Curiously or not, there were only two 5s and two 6s in this group of 80+ people. One possible explanation for this may be this question: Do certain types get drawn to certain professions? When I worked in health care for many years, it was pretty obvious that many anesthesiologists were 5s, while orthopedic surgeons tended to be 8s and pediatricians tended to be 2s and 9s. Possibly, dentistry may put many 5s in too close-for-comfort proximity with their patients. Possibly for 6s, too many things can go wrong too easily with a mere slip of the hand. These ideas about type and dentistry, however, are simply speculative and based on a very small sample size.

The next step was to select one area of challenge – recruitment, programs and services, or governance – and in mixed type groups, develop 1 strategy, 2 creative and wonderful ideas, and then 2 goals for one of their ideas. Time was not our friend at this point, so we heard of few of the ideas they liked the best. They were all jazzed up!

From this project, I am more than excited to go way beyond my comfort zone with the Enneagram, to work with groups and play with time, and get over limiting assumptions I carry, often unknowingly. And I will never look at a dentist the same way again!

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8 years ago

Ginger, I just love this approach to presenting a session.  The idea of playing with time and not fearing that the “content” or the “knowledge” will be lost gives me fresh inspiration.  So often we have time constraints in leadership sessions and you have demonstrated a free-wheeling fun process.  Thank you!

6 years ago

I’m a type six dentist. I work for a large dental corporation. I wish they used the enneagram throughout the company for leadership development amongst dentists and managers