Rick Cohen: Welcome, Michelle Lee. It’s our honor to have you on our 32 Most Influential (People in Dentistry) podcast.
Rick Cohen: Michelle Lee was named OSAP’s Executive Director in July 2018. Michelle came to OSAP with more than 30 years of experience, successfully leading organizations and corporations with real-world business acumen and executive skill sets in dental, medical, and other related healthcare industries. Prior to OSAP, Michelle worked at DDS Staffing Resources Inc., beginning as a recruiter in 1988 before being promoted to Vice President in 1991. In 2007, Michelle purchased the firm, serving as President and CEO until successfully selling and merging the business with Avery Partners in 2012. She remained with Avery Partners as President of the Staffing Division until 2017. Michelle also provided leadership and team development training to dental and healthcare professionals throughout her career. She studied the field of behavioral profiling for more than 25 years and has made numerous presentations on behavioral profiling and communication, customer service, goal setting, as well as interviewing and hiring techniques to healthcare associations throughout the southeast. Michelle is passionate about OSAP’s mission to be the leading provider of infection prevention and control, education, training, and credentialing that supports safe dental visits.
Rick Cohen: Michelle, thanks so much once again for taking this hour with us. And we really look forward to what we can learn together. First of all, where does this podcast find you? Where are you today?
Michelle Lee: I’m working in my home office, like everybody else. We haven’t quite gone back into the brick and mortar building.
Michelle Lee: OSAP is headquartered in Atlanta, which has been perfect for me because I grew up in Georgia. I didn’t have to relocate for this position.
Rick Cohen: That’s great. How is it in the Lee household? How are you handling the COVID crisis and how (has it been)?
Michelle Lee: I have to say, I think it’s a good test for it for any married couple. We’ve been married 31 years and we didn’t kill each other in this house for the past six months.
Michelle Lee: My husband teaches physics at a local high school. He was working remotely in the spring and he is back in his classroom now. I actually have some alone time. His kids aren’t back yet, but he’s in the classroom teaching virtually. So, everything’s been great here.
Rick Cohen: Very cool. And where did you grow up? Did you say you grew up in Georgia?
Michelle Lee: Yeah. I grew up in Columbus, Georgia, which is a couple hours south of Atlanta.
Rick Cohen: How many siblings (do you have)?
Michelle Lee: I have a brother. I have two stepsisters and one stepbrother.
Rick Cohen: Fantastic. Great. So I’d like to get into your background and really learn about what you wanted to be when you grew up, and also what you studied in college. Not everybody that makes it into the dental business just gets there coincidentally. I got in because of my father and I’ve got dental in my blood. I’m always very interested to hear how people get into our space.
Michelle Lee: It was never a dream (for me) to be in (dentistry). Isn’t that funny? When I was 15, I decided that I wanted to be a newspaper reporter. I was on the high school paper and then (I) went to college (and) majored in journalism. (I) never changed my major. I was always focused on print journalism. When I graduated from college, I really couldn’t survive on what newspapers wanted to pay me at the time. I had college loans . . .
Rick Cohen: It’s even worse today.
Michelle Lee: Right? It’s much worse today.
Michelle Lee: This dates me. So I answered an ad in the Atlanta paper—a two line ad. Back then, you would put classified ads in newspapers for this position, and it simply said “Interviewing skills needed.” And I thought, “Well, I can interview anybody. I’m a reporter. I’m a journalist.” And it was for a dental staffing firm. I went in and sold myself. I was this big risk. The founder of the company will still tell you today it was the riskiest hire she ever made because I had no dental background.
Rick Cohen: And you were just out of college?
Michelle Lee: I was just out of college. She threw me into some evening classes, dental assisting classes. I learned how to make temporary crowns. I never made another one, but I learned dental terminology. And the rest is history. I fell in love with this industry.
Michelle Lee: I think dentistry is one big family. And as the business grew, we expanded into medical staffing, which was much larger than the dental staffing business. I actually started up that division for the company and my love was always in the dental market. Eventually, I did purchase the company from the founder and I just love it.
Rick Cohen: It’s kind of a funny thing. You were looking for a job. It happened to have been dental. And all of a sudden, here’s the rest of your life.
Michelle Lee: Right? It’s kind of crazy.
Rick Cohen: So cool. So you began working for the dental staffing company, you had some promotions along the way, and then you bought it from the owner. Can you tell us a little bit about how that worked?
Michelle Lee: Well, she was ready to retire and I’d been groomed for a number of years too. That was what I wanted and that’s what I’m wanting to do. And I did purchase the company with a partner, someone who had been in the business with me in the past.
Michelle Lee: We bought the company in 2007. Right before that (was) the Great Recession. I learned a lot during those five years that we owned the company because it was some of the toughest years in my business. That was my third recession. But it was different, as we all know, than any recent recession that we had had. And dental offices really hurt during those times. So we made it. Sixty percent of staffing firms went out of business during that time, but we made it. We’re very proud of that. And then we had the opportunity to merge with a larger staffing company. There were just so many great benefits to make that move.
Rick Cohen: There’s an NYU professor named Scott Galloway who says that the best investments he’s made have been during recessions. He’s a big startup investor and the ones that have had the most success for him have been the ones that started around the 2000 and 2001 Dot-Com crisis or the Great Recession of 2008 and in 2009. And the reason for that, he says, is because that’s when competitors go out of business, you can take their business. It’s also easy to get good associates at that time. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that you’ve had great success in business when you took over in 2007. You probably had a couple of scary years.
Rick Cohen: Do you have any interesting stories from the dental staffing business? We’ve got a lot of dental people listening. Like I said, I’m sure you have a story or two.
Michelle Lee: Any temporary staffing business is a crazy business. We add the hours that you work in and throughout my entire . . . almost 30 years in that business, I always said (that) there’s got to be an easier way to make money, because we would put in so many hours. We would have dental offices call us at 5:30 (or) 6:00 in the morning, and their dental hygienist was sick. And (they would ask us), “Could we get somebody there by 8:00?” You felt their pain and you just wanted to be there. If they didn’t have that dental hygienist, then patients had to be canceled. You know how difficult that is, especially in a successful practice—it can take six months to get back in and your appointments canceled. So we worked really hard. But yet, you’re dealing with people.
Michelle Lee: Our screening techniques were amazing. We did background checks on people, we would check the references, you do all of that. People are people and they’re human.
Michelle Lee: I’ll never forget this—(it) happened many years ago, probably in the early 90s, but I had a working interview scheduled for someone. This was a chance for her to go in and prove herself. She calls at 7:00 in the morning and says, “I can’t come in. My grandmother has passed away.” And let me tell you, people have lots of grandmothers. But she called and said, “My grandmother passed away. I’m in Savannah and I’m not going to be able to make the working interview.” “Understood. No problem. I’m really sorry for your loss.” As soon as the office opened, I called in (and) rescheduled that working interview for her. The office was very understanding. I called her house at around 9:00 (or) 10:00 to leave a voicemail message. And of course, this is pre-cell phones . . . and she answered the phone. I recognized her voice immediately. I said, “I thought you were in Savannah.” You have to understand, Savannah is a four- to five-hour drive from Atlanta. And she said, “Oh, yeah. Well, we decided that my grandmother was so ugly. We’re not having a funeral for her.” Who can say that about any grandmother?
Rick Cohen: I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.
Michelle Lee: But it’s one of those things. I just said to her, “I don’t think this is true or whatever.” I never heard from her again. You have those kinds of stories that you just can’t make up. But then you have those amazing stories where . . .
Michelle Lee: One of my favorite meetings because it’s based here in Atlanta is the Hinman Dental meeting, which I’ve gone to for . . . this is the first year I’ve ever missed it. It was canceled because of COVID. You go to those meetings and you see people that you placed 20 years ago. They come up, they hug you, and they thank you. They’re so appreciative. And the doctors thank you for the staff that you’ve placed in their office. The reward was always there. And that’s why I hung in there for so many years because I loved it.
Rick Cohen: That is so cool. So you sell the business and then you are, I would imagine, looking for something to do. How did you learn about the OSAP opportunity?
Michelle Lee: Well, I got a phone call. I’m a big networker. And I really wasn’t looking at that particular moment. I was doing consulting. I was working with a dental practice management company, doing some leadership training, team development, (and) dental practices, and having a blast. I just loved doing it and then got this call. I usually get a call asking if I knew anyone because of my recruitment background. And then a few months later, they called me back and said, “Why aren’t you interested?” I thought, “Well, I’ve never done an executive director (role). I’ve not done that. But why would I be?” The more I talk to them, the more I realized this was such a great role for me.
Michelle Lee: And I knew about OSAP. I think the first time I learned about that was in 1990. When OSHA first required that all dental professionals have a yearly bloodborne pathogen training for OSHA, our company would do that training for our clients. I hired a woman named Jackie Dorst, who’s still a very active member of OSAP, to do the training. I remember having to introduce her and this name, the Organization for Safety, Asepsis, and Prevention. I just thought, “What a lot of words to introduce somebody.” And that’s why it always stuck with me. When I did get the call, she was the first person I called to say, “Hey, tell me about this association. What do you think?” And I thought, “She’s gonna come through the phone.” She was so excited and she said, “Oh, you have to do this.” I went through, did five interviews (for) the job, but it was the perfect fit.
Rick Cohen: That is so cool. There may be people in the audience that don’t know that much about OSAP. Tell us about OSAP, why it was founded, when it was founded and the role that it plays.
Michelle Lee: OSAP is an international dental association. Our focus is solely on infection prevention and patient safety. Bottom line. We’re the only dental association that has that as our sole focus. Of course, every dental association has a piece of that at their annual conferences and their trainings. But this is who we are. And the association started in the early 80s, (around 1984).
Rick Cohen: I just want to interrupt you for once. I guess I’m learning something big about OSAP, which I didn’t realize. I always thought of it as an American organization.
Michelle Lee: It’s international. We have members all over the world.
Rick Cohen: Are there competing organizations? Are there other countries that have their version of OSAP?
Michelle Lee: This is the only one that I know of.
Rick Cohen: So by default, OSAP is the international source of information for dental safety.
Michelle Lee: Most of our focus, of course, is on the U.S. standards. September is Dental Infection Control Awareness Month and I was recently on a call with our Brazilian members because they were celebrating this month in their country. They called it—I hope I say it correctly—SETBIO. And that is their version of Dental Infection Control Awareness Month. So each country has some differences in their guidance. We have people from all over the world attend our conferences. At our annual boot camp that we had in Chicago in January (of this) year, we had over 700 people. We had people from 28 countries and 48 states attend (the event).
Rick Cohen: I would assume that the traffic light was invented in America, and then the other countries copy (it), right? (This) is one of the many reasons to be proud of America. But this is just yet another one where we kind of set the tempo for the dance of infection control. And experts in most other nations are all looking to see what we’re doing.
Michelle Lee: Another example that happened this year before COVID really started. Back in the fall, we were approached by a group from Pakistan wanting OSAP subject matter experts to come over to do some training for their dental practices because they have huge issues. There’s no regulations in Pakistan for dental infection control.
Rick Cohen: I’ve been to Pakistan. There’s a lot of dentistry done right on the street in Pakistan.
Michelle Lee: Yes. It’s one reason they have such a problem with hepatitis C there. And so we were not able to go in July as planned. But we have done two webinars for Pakistan. So, we do have that reach.
Rick Cohen: Webinars are changing everything. And I think OSAP is already the international standard for dental safety, but these webinars can really solidify the position.
Michelle Lee: Absolutely. Yeah.
Rick Cohen: So I did interrupt you and I was asking about that. What OSAP is, what it’s done, and what excites you about the organization. And I want to talk pre-COVID because I think COVID really changed everything for OSAP. I believe it was founded around the time of AIDS.
Michelle Lee: That’s the reason it started, because it was actually Peggy and Jim Cottrell who owned at the time at a contract. They were in the industry and they were coming back. Apparently they had been to—hope I have this right. They’d been to Africa. And they were on a plane back and they realized (that) we needed an association to focus on infection control because they realized then that AIDS was just a plane ride away. To the US. That’s when we had the first big change in infection control. OSAP was really behind all of that. If you remember, a lot of dentists didn’t wear gloves. So, that changed. Over the years, OSAP worked and worked to get this message out there, to help with infection control. And we worked really closely with the CDC and the Division of Oral Health to help them with the guidance and to get those messages across. We have OSAP leadership (and) subject matter experts who helped to author the 2003 guidelines (and) the 2016 summary. OSAP has been very involved in all of this for years. But for a long time, it was more of a guild, even. (They were) very specialized people who had this passion and fire in them to really get this message out there.
Michelle Lee: OSAP was led by an amazing woman executive director for 24 years, Therese Long, and she retired. And when she retired, they made the decision to retire. That’s when OSAP decided they would engage with an association management company. So that’s kind of what brought OSAP to Atlanta, because we work with an association management company called Meeting Expectations. When you look back, it’s amazing how all of these pieces have come together. But the OSAP leadership—when (everything was) changing and because Therese (is) an amazing woman. She had a very small staff, just very part-time and (they) really just rely on volunteers. I don’t know how the woman ever slept with what she accomplished. She’s on my speed dial, by the way. She’s still working with me as a consultant. I will never let her go away.
Michelle Lee: When they were going to that transition, the board realized we need to reinvest in the association so that we can grow this more. They made the decision to expand staff. With working with an association management company, we’ve had even more resources at our fingertips. I have an amazing team now. I have a full-time Director of Education, which OSAP never had. I have an Association Coordinator and a full-time Marketing Coordinator. I also have access to an entire Creative and Marketing department. We can put together these great webinars and information to share that we were never able to do before. There’s just so many hours in the day. And the fact that when I started with OSAP two years ago, having this Director of Education allowed me to truly get out and network. Until March, I was traveling pretty much 60 to 70 percent of the time, going to every national dental meeting out there to bring them the OSAP message out to two to more people. And that was kind of what my vision has been—to collaborate more, to get that message out there more. I’m a salesperson at heart. What can I say?
Michelle Lee: I had this amazing woman, Ashley MacDermott, as our Director of Education. She’s got a Master’s in Public Health. She came to me from another state medical association. And she has been able to really help develop our annual conference, our boot camp, and really focus on those things while we get the messages across.
Michelle Lee: Our OSAP board—if they have not done what they did a couple of years ago when COVID hit, we couldn’t do what we’re doing now. We wouldn’t have had the infrastructure and I wouldn’t have been able to get out there and travel and network like I did. When everything happened in dentistry and people were saying, “What should we do? How are we going to practice safely during a pandemic?” I was able to connect with all the national associations and bring our subject matter experts to them to provide the training they needed. And that’s the magic behind all of this and why it’s worked. It’s just incredible how everything fell into place.
Rick Cohen: I would argue that prior to COVID, most dental people couldn’t spell out OSAP or even know . . .
Michelle Lee: No, I would be at the Chicago midwinter meeting and people would come up and say, “So does your company send OSHA trainers into my office?” “We’re not a company.”
Rick Cohen: They didn’t get it. But really, at the time, OSAP was doing some really important work. Let’s not forget waterlines, handpiece [inaudible], instrument processing, designing the dental office of the future, sharp safety, x-ray safety—these are all the things I was always very busy with, pre-COVID. But as you said, the organization set itself. The timing was perfect. Working with an outside association, hiring you, and hiring Ashley—who is amazing, by the way. And in setting OSAP up for you—you weren’t maybe even sure why. Then all of a sudden—COVID hits, and the spotlights from all over the world are on OSAP.
Michelle Lee: Those first three months. I’m telling you, my phone rang seven days a week with people looking for subject matter experts to do a webinar. So we worked with companies like your company, providing speakers. We worked with all the different associations—national associations, (and) state associations. I would call and reach out to different experts that were OSAP members. I was trying to spread that out because everybody was just pulled in so many directions and our membership just stepped up and provided some amazing training up there.
Rick Cohen: The work you’ve done is amazing. And I wanted to talk a little bit about that. There is an oral health division of CDC, and OSAP is tightly partnered with the CDC. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Michelle Lee: Yeah. They have partnered with CDC for many years, even before they actually had their own division. A former director of the CDC shared with me (that) when he first went to an OSAP meeting, he was blown away because of our membership. (Our members are) not only clinicians, educators, (and) the consultants that do the training, but it was the manufacturers and the distributors (of) infection control products. And they realized that, as they’re looking at guidance, and back in the day when they were looking at dental pieces . . . Can they be sterilized? They could go right to those manufacturers and say, “Help us understand this.” And so they really relied on OSAP. We work with them to help as they develop guidance, to give insight, and to help get their messages across. That’s a big piece. And they participate with us. They speak at our annual bootcamp every January. It’s a three-day infection control training. It’s foundational, but it is intense. It’s (from) 7:30 to 5:30. It is incredible. And we have many of the CDC experts who come in from various areas of CDC—not just the Division of Oral Health—to talk about infection prevention. Of course, they’re part of our annual conferences as well. So through COVID, we’ve worked really closely with them to help look at FAQs coming in, helping with guidance. We do have a contract with them right now that we’re working on. One of the required tasks in this contract was for us to conduct three listening sessions so that CDC could hear from dental professionals how the interim guidance is working, where there are challenges. As we continue to move forward, they know where adjustments might need to be made so that we’re making sure we’re keeping everybody safe.
Michelle Lee: The first listening session we held was in July. They wanted to hear from the practicing dentists. So we engaged 10 professional dental associations (and) a national dental association. We had representatives from the American Dental Association, the National Dental Association, the Academy of General Dentistry, (and) all of the specialists. They sent representatives from their association. I think we had 121 people that participated in this virtual listening session, which was incredible.
Michelle Lee: The next one we did was on public health and education things. So we had representatives from the National Public Health Dental Association in India. And then the final one, they wanted to hear from the dental team members. We engaged ADAJ, ADAA, ADOM. We had the hygienists, assistants, (and) the office managers so that CDC could hear from them. And then from all of that, OSAP will be presenting recommended changes that might need to be made to the guidance to the CDC. We’ll be doing some webinars that will be coming up in the near future. That’s also part of that contract. It’s very exciting.
Rick Cohen: Such important work. I can’t state your mission exactly. Word for word. But I think I can summarize it by saying that your mission is to keep dentistry safe.
Michelle Lee: Yeah. It’s that every dental visit is a safe visit.
Rick Cohen: OK, there you go. So my question to you is, how do you feel OSAP is doing in accomplishing that mission?
Michelle Lee: The fact that we’re not hearing stories of widespread COVID because of going to the dental office tells you a lot. What we’re doing is working. The changes with PPE, all of it has made a difference. That’s clear. You’re not hearing those stories. The few things that I’ve heard out there are usually because someone went to a family event over the weekend and got COVID that way, not from working on our patients.
Rick Cohen: That’s a great success.
Michelle Lee: I totally agree. I don’t think we’re ever gonna have to shut dentistry down again because we’re doing the right thing.
Rick Cohen: I agree with you. It’ll never be perfect. And, of course, at a micro level, any problem is a very serious problem. But you have to look at dentistry as it is. (There are now) 150,000 dentists. If there’s one or two problems a year, that’s normal. That’s not OK when you know the people. But statistically, if we can keep that number as small as possible without all the precautions that you’re teaching us, that keeps the industry safe. Obviously, we don’t rest until it’s guaranteed zero. But overall, I totally agree with you. We’re doing really well.
Rick Cohen: I’d like to shift gears a little bit and ask you a couple of questions that I like to ask the guests. They’re not dental. Just have a good time with them and I’m curious to hear (what your answers will be).
Rick Cohen: What message would you put out on a billboard, dental or not dental, that you can get across to the world? They’d be on a 10 lane highway.
Michelle Lee: Never let anybody tell you that you can’t do something.
Rick Cohen: I love it. Secondly, what books do you typically give as gifts? Are there any books that you have to have given frequently more than to a couple of people as gifts?
Michelle Lee: You know, there’s a business writer, Patrick Lencioni, who writes these great business books, but they’re written like fables. They’re really easy to understand. There are several of those that I have given to people. (I learned) a great lesson several years ago from one of his books. When you hire somebody, you want to hire somebody who’s humble, hungry, and smart. (When) they’re humble, (it means) that they’re coachable, right? (When) they’re hungry, (it means) they need the job either because they need the paycheck or they have a drive or a challenge. And they’re smart. They understand, and they can read people. Whenever something hasn’t worked out with a team member for me, I can always go back and say, I missed that in the interview. They were missing one of those things. Yeah, it’s awesome. But I love those books.
Rick Cohen: Next question: what frustrates you in the world today?
Michelle Lee: There’s a lot, unfortunately. I just don’t understand why we can’t all get along. That’s what I’ve just always (believed) since I was very young. I just appreciated the differences we all bring. And these days, you can’t even talk about it. It’s really frightening. We’re still fighting that, of course.
Rick Cohen: And that’s, I think, fighting it. I think it’s getting worse. I think that there are topics and discussions that can’t be had. I was always brought up with the thinking that that’s what America is so great about. You can talk about anything.
Michelle Lee: Melting pot, right?
Rick Cohen: Right. You should be able to talk. Whichever side of the political line you’re on, you should be able to have normal discourse and conversation with your friends, your non-friends, or whatever. At the end of the conversation, everybody should be happy to have had the conversation. But these days it’s hard to even pick. People don’t bring stuff up. Everybody’s kind of afraid of how the other feels. It’s complicated. So that resonated with me, what you just said.
Rick Cohen: Next question. What podcasts do you listen to? What are you streaming on Netflix or Amazon? Give us some tips.
Michelle Lee: One of the podcasts I love to listen to is Katie Couric’s podcast. That’s the old journalist in me.
Rick Cohen: I even know she had a podcast. That’s great.
Michelle Lee: She’s amazing. And she’s reinvented the podcast over time. But there’s a lot of dental podcasts that I listen to. OSAP has a podcast. And we got started because of “A Tale of Two Hygienists.” Michelle Strange and Andrew Johnston.
Rick Cohen: That’s a great podcast.
Michelle Lee: They started a dental podcast network in which was a group of ten different podcasts on two channels. And they came to me and offered OSAP to have one of those podcasts. We have now broken off of those channels and have our own channel along, of course, still supported by them. All of those dental podcasts are amazing on the dental podcast network.
Michelle Lee: I’m a runner. If I run by myself and not with my group, that’s what I do. I listen to podcasts.
Rick Cohen: I listen to a lot of podcasts, too. And one of my favorites is, first of all, “A Tale of Two Hygienists.” And another one is the OSAP podcast.
Rick Cohen: Don’t miss the OSAP podcast. It’s wonderful. You’re gonna love it. Also, don’t miss the Dental Infection Control Boot Camp for 2021. That’s in January 2021. As you mentioned, it’s one of the most important meetings that OSAP puts on.
Michelle Lee: And it will be virtual!
Rick Cohen: OSAP also does an annual meeting. I was a part of it this year. I did one of the keynote speeches. I loved it. You had thousands of attendees. So don’t miss that coming up.
Rick Cohen: I also noticed on the website you’re also selling luggage grips. Was that your idea of telling people to wash their hands?
Michelle Lee: And we had that pre-COVID. How about that?
Rick Cohen: These are Velcro. They’re made out of wetsuit material. And there’s a message on there: “Wash your hands.” That resonates with me because I travel a lot and I’m a true germaphobe. So I want everyone in the world to get those luggage trips because when you travel, that’s when your hands are most dirty.
Rick Cohen: All of that being said, Michelle, it’s been such a pleasure and such an honor to have you on our podcast. Thank you so much for spending time with us. And thank you most of all for the amazing work that OSAP has done. OSAP has been doing pre-COVID. But especially now that we’re in these troubled times, the work that OSAP is doing is incredible.
Michelle Lee: I am thankful that I work with so many amazing people. We have so many passionate, committed members. They’re the ones who you should be talking to because they’ve been the ones really making the difference out there. I just like to talk about them a lot now.
Rick Cohen: I can understand why. Well, Michelle, have a great rest of the day. Thanks once again. And we’ll talk to you soon.
Michelle Lee: Thanks. Bye-bye.