Speaking of Dentistry: Naomi Rhode's dentistry journey

Naomi Rhode

This article appears in the Spring/Summer 2019 edition of Dentistry Magazine

Naomi Rhode is in her element. She's in front of an audience, traversing the stage and engaging with the crowd as if they were all old friends. She tells stories punctuated with; humor and imagery and personal connection, and delivers what she calls “deep content wrapped in heart.” See her in action and you’ll understand why this dental hygienist-turned professional speaker, practice management consultant, businesswoman, and life and speaking coach has been so successful.

That energy and enthusiasm made Rhode (pronounced like “roadie”) a coveted speaker who’s inspired audiences around the world to achieve new levels of professionalism and personal growth. It also fueled her success beyond the podium.

Capitalizing on her commitment to health, genuine interest in people and emerging opportunities in dentistry, she and Jim Rhode, her husband of 61 years, built a thriving practice management enterprise called SmartPractice. Says Christine Blue, associate professor and director of the School of Dentistry’s Division of Dental Hygiene, “Naomi is, perhaps, one of the most energetic personalities I have ever met. She has taken her background in oral health and created a new career pathway that is a role model for all.”

Different Times

Rhode was born in Minot, N.D. but grew up in Minneapolis where she attended Minnehaha Academy. Her father was a Boy Scout executive and lay pastor in the Methodist Church and both parents taught adult Sunday school. They built a religious foundation for their children and also modeled the effectiveness of communicating and connecting with others, often from a pulpit or podium.

Yet, Rhode’s early career aspirations had no connection to public speaking. She initially planned to be a nurse and train at what was, then, Swedish Hospital in Minneapolis. It’s hard to believe now, but in the 1950s many colleges barred married women. But she was in love. Her brother, Omer Reed (D.D.S. ’57), suggested that she pursue a career in dental hygiene instead of nursing because its shorter program would mean she could get married a year sooner. She enrolled in the School of Dentistry’s dental hygiene program and took 21.5 credits each semester to graduate as early as possible.

But after a year, she couldn’t wait to wed. “At 19, I asked Ione Jackson, who was the director of the dental hygiene program, if I could get married. She gave her permission but said to keep it quiet and, whatever you do, don’t get pregnant.” But––you guessed it––in February of her senior year she got pregnant and had to hide it. She graduated in 1958 and worked for Dr. Erwin Schaffer who maintained a clinical practice in periodontics in Minneapolis (and who served as the dean of the School of Dentistry from 1964-1977).

Ramping Up

A few years later, the Rhodes packed up their three children and moved to Phoenix where she worked as a dental hygienist in her brother’s dental practice. Her husband, who had a U of M engineering degree (’59) and specialized in long-range planning, ran her brother’s dental lab.

Rhode says those early years of practice were an eye-opening experience because she saw how patients’ neglect of their oral health often resulted in extractions and dentures. “It was an amazing preface to the rest of my dental life,” she says. “That’s about when the preventive dentistry movement got started and the thinkers and doers got behind it. This was exciting––dentistry beyond drill, fill, and bill.” But it meant a real challenge for dentists and their team members: how to communicate with patients about the
importance of maintaining their oral health. “It was also the era when ‘marketing’ came into dentistry and practitioners needed tools to communicate and promote their practices in a classy way.”

She credits her husband with the foresight to see the business opportunities in these changes. They created a company they named Semantodontics (later renamed SmartPractice) and offered dentists the materials they needed for patient education, including things like recall cards, motivational materials, perio aids, floss, posters and stickers as well as marketing materials.

Empty nesters by age 40, the Rhodes had time and energy to expand their business and built it on a triangle of lectures, seminars, and products. They spoke at numerous conferences and conventions, and their company also presented between nine and 11 seminars each year of their own, many in Hawaii. They focused on things like building effective teams, office culture, and systems that worked, with titles such as “Planning and Leading the Dynamic Dental Practice,” “Identifying and Maximizing Personality Styles,” “Communication Effectiveness that Wins,” and “Referral Source Management.”

They also covered ‘softer’ topics such as “Reviving Your Passion for Your Personal and Professional Life” and “Charisma, Bought, Thought, or Caught?”

One perennially popular topic, she says, was “Words That Work” in which the audience role-played difficult patient communications situations. “Dentists wanted their new staff members to hear us on that topic––to ‘Naomi-ize my staff,’ they’d say––and they came to hear us over and over, as many as 20 times over the years,” says Rhode. SmartPractice even chartered 80-cabin cruise ships to offer on-board marriage enrichment seminars while cruising places such as the Middle East, Greece and Alaska.

Eventually, SmartPractice grew to 400 employees in Phoenix with divisions in eight countries and offered a full range of presentations and dental products.

Communication Sensation

Rhode remembers the first time she spoke before a big group, at the Greater New York Dental Meeting. “I thought I would pass out,” she says. But her charisma and passion for her topic outweighed her anxiety. Soon, she was in big demand, not only for dental audiences but also by corporations and associations. Audiences numbered between 60 and several thousand. Later, she served as president of the National Speakers Association and the theme of her leadership was the THE PRIVILEGE OF THE PLATFORM. She also served as president of the Global Speakers Federation and traveled globally to speak at their meetings.

(From L to R) Naomi Rhode, Jim Rhode, Kathleen Newell (From L to R) Naomi Rhode, Jim Rhode, Kathleen Newell School of Dentistry Adjunct Faculty Member Jerry Erickson saw first-hand the impact that Naomi Rhode had on dental audiences. He was a planning committee member for the annual meetings of both the Minnesota Dental Association (MDA) and the American Dental Association and says, “She was on the speaker programs of dental meetings across the country. When she spoke at the MDA’s Star of the North Meeting, the auditorium was packed and she held that audience for a five hour presentation.” She had the same cache with smaller groups. Erickson also was involved in bringing the Rhodes to speak at a School of Dentistry continuing education seminar.
“It was a smaller, more intimate setting,” he says, “but an equally successful program. Everyone loved their seminar.”

According to Rhode, the secret to developing such enthusiastic audiences begins ahead of time with the advance materials she sends out so the audience begins to feel they know her and forms an expectation. “I always go early to the room where I’m speaking and meet as many people personally as possible in the front row, back row and down the center aisle. Then you have friends in the audience, even if it is huge.”

During the speech, “I move around and forward into the audience with constant personal eye contact. And, I’m always available to meet people and visit after my programs and have some type of a handout with my contact information on it so they can be in touch with me personally.” The reward, she says, has been incredible loyalty, verbal and written responses, and lifetime friendships.

Eventually, about 60 percent of her talks covered dental topics, with the rest devoted to inspirational speaking on other areas of business and on topics relating to faith and Christian life. She has spoken in every state and 17 countries and she once addressed chicken growers, a Boy Scout fundraiser and a dental group in one 24-hour period.

She kept up that pace until about 10 years ago when she had a major stroke en route to speak for a dental meeting at the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island. “I had the stroke in the Traverse City, Michigan, airport and I was in the hospital there for one month. I was paralyzed, and needed to learn to walk again. My mind was not affected nor was my speech and I had no facial paralysis so I had much to be thankful for.

“I went home in a wheel chair, and required physical, voice, and occupational therapy most of one year to get back to where I am now. My only limitation is that I have one frozen vocal cord, which does not limit me with microphones, nerve pain in one leg, and limited energy which is also age-related I am sure.”

She returned to speaking and kept her busy schedule until she cut back four years ago. Last year, SmartPractice sold its dental supply division to Darby Dental Supply. That didn’t change the SmartPractice core business or brand, which is now under the leadership of the Rhodes’ daughter, a dentist, and her physician husband. Together, they continue the forty-plus year tradition of providing to health professionals the people-oriented services and products that will improve patient communication and relationships, with the goal of facilitating the patient behaviors that will lead to better health.

Now, she speaks about once a month (mostly what she calls “giving back speaking”) and does life and speaking coaching, too. But she says there’s a bit more time to spend with her family that now includes three married children and their spouses––among them three dentists––their 12 grandchildren (one a dental student), three great grandchildren and friends throughout the country.

Naomi Rhode

Back to School

Over the years, Naomi Rhode has kept close ties with the School of Dentistry and it’s no surprise that she spoke at the School of Dentistry commencement in 1986. She has been an active supporter of the Division of Dental Hygiene and received the 1994 Distinguished Dental Hygiene Alumna Award.

Says Christine Blue, “She and her husband, Jim, established the Naomi Rhode Center for Dental Team/Patient Relations endowment in 1999. The endowment creates a program to model caring dental team/patient relations. Their financial gift was substantial and the funds have built on Naomi’s passion for the strong interpersonal relationships and communication skills needed for a successful dental team.” Says Rhode, “Schools are so focused on technique and getting things done, there’s not much time to cover anything about business and communications skills, the entrepreneurial side.”

Blue says, “The endowment has enabled Division of Dental Hygiene faculty to provide innovative education and assessment to our students and supported research on dental team/patient relationships.”

Rhode explains her ongoing commitment: “I was given so much at the School of Dentistry, it’s been the basis for an amazing life. We become an accumulation of our choices and we make choices by values instilled in us in life. Our instructors at the school instilled incredible professional values.”

Looking back she says, “Yes, a successful business was developed but I can honestly say that was never the reason for my speaking. My motivation was always that privilege of the platform, to be a change agent for people and for practices. I prayed this verse from the Psalms every time I spoke: ‘May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in Thy Sight, O, Lord, my Rock and Redeemer.’”

She also prayed that with each speech she would change someone’s life for the better. “And…yes,” she says, “that patients would realize the benefits of better oral health because we cared about it not only as a science, well delivered, but also as important for the general health and wellbeing of our patients, our country and our world.”