HR & Management

Arguing with the boss: Smileworks CEO explains why a company culture of challenging debate is good for business

6 min read

09 May 2018

Former special projects journalist

When we think about company culture we often picture “cool” offices. Here, Smileworks CEO Ed Challinor explains why, for him, a culture of debate is crucial.

The people we surround ourselves with can have a huge influence on us, which is not surprising – but how many of us have factored this in when it comes to our working lives?

According to new research from Sodexo Engage, the “colleague effect” can offer huge payoffs, with 29% of employees reporting that they work harder when surrounded by high-achievers.

In addition, the research found a correlation with age – 70% of younger employees ages 18-24 admit their peers’ behaviour changes the way they behave at work.

How employees interact with each other may seem like a soft issue, but in reality it has the potential to make a huge impact in the running and profitability of your business – especially if you are running a small team.

We caught up with Ed Challinor, first officer at Smileworks, a cosmetic dentistry based in Liverpool, who believes that employee management all depends on the culture of the company.

Getting heated

Is it ever ok to argue in the office? Of course, full-blown screaming matches are going to come across unprofessional, but sometimes it can be necessary to be upfront with colleagues, and argue your case passionately.

“There is now a big swerve towards extreme ownership and brutal honesty. This can often mean very heated debates and rough stuff in meetings,” said Challinor.

“It should never be personal (emphasis – we don’t allow personal attacks – it’s all fact-based argument) but my team are motivated to come to work to solve the hardest problems with other stellar type A personalities, so a ban on rudeness might curb our ability to get everything out and work effectively as a team.”

In the firing line

Recently, Challinor had an encounter with one of his staff members that illustrates this perfectly.

“One of my team leaders also works for a big provider of teeth whitening treatments. They asked her to come to me to change what we had written about them on our website.

“Our dentists make a point of writing unbiased opinions about products to give patients the information to make the right choices about treatments and I wasn’t about to have a big corporation dictate what I write on my website.”

Challinor got defensive about this, something he made clear to her in no uncertain terms.

“I said to her: ‘I don’t care if you get fired from your other job because I’m not your career councillor and your career is your responsibility. I’m here – we’re here – to look after the interests of our patients.’”

In response, the employee yelled back that he needed to “play the game” in the name of collaboration and the ongoing relationship. She also argued that in the long term, it could save money and open up new avenues.

Challinor explained that the rapport within the team is so strong, they can have these kinds of frank discussions “without fear of childish reprisals”.

“We’re grown-ups, and I want my people to treat me (the CEO) and my co-founder, the clinical lead, as equals and not come bowing and scraping around us and worrying about what they can and cannot say.”

Within this particular team, it works for them to be able to have frank and meaningful conversations about the business – and it really is working.

“Smileworks is Liverpool’s most popular dental practice, and we’ve grown from 0-22 staff in three years and from £0-1.5m turnover.

“All of this has been achieved by hiring and training and allowing a team to feel like they can change things and question decisions at the highest levels in the business with their creativity (and creative language).”

Keeping on your toes

This challenging culture is something that is actively encouraged at Smileworks – sometimes they will stage debates and heat them up to get the best results from the team, and even the juniors will chime in.

However, it’s not just these head-to-head moments that define the company culture.

“It’s truly energising when someone comes up to me and says – with not a hint of cynicism – ‘so Ed, we made £172,000 last month, where did all that money go? What did we spend it on?’”

“How many receptionists do you know in a business who would ask the CEO a question like that?”

Yet it is questions like this that push Challinor to constantly evaluate, innovate and listen.

“It actually inspired me to take the P&L line by line and save about 22% on next month’s budget,” he said.

It might not be the right approach for every business – as Challinor said earlier, his employees have type A personalities, and you do need to get to know your staff to know what company culture is right for you.

However, it certainly goes to show that the “colleague effect” can be a positive influence regardless of how senior your position within the company – just remember to listen, and learn from your staff!