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Episode 35-
Leon Hermanides

Incremental Change with Leon Hermanides

This week's guest is the rebellious Leon Hermanides, Owner and President of Protea Dental Studio in Redmond Washington. He’s also a Clinical Instructor and Scientific Advisor at the Kois Center. 

 

Leon's journey began in his native Zimbabwe, where his father was a prominent figure in the dental space who had vowed never to leave the country. However, it was a major surprise when his father decided to move the family to South Africa when Leon was 13.

 

Across his life and career, Leon has embraced the idea of incremental change. At one point, he would make drastic changes overnight, believing that this would help his business evolve. However, he now realizes that the best results come from slowing down and figuring out the best changes over a longer period.

Resources

Follow your curiosity, connect, and join our ever-growing community of extraordinary minds.

CariFree Website

CariFree on Instagram

CariFree on Facebook

CariFree on Pinterest

Dr. Kim Kutsch on LinkedIn

Leon Hermanides on LinkedIn

Protea Dental Studio Website

1. John Kois on Enriching The Heart, The Mind, and Dental Industry

TED Talk: The little risks you can take to increase your luck with Tina Seelig

What's In This Episode

  • Leon’s journey across Africa, and then the world.

  • How Leon embraced incremental change.

  • How risk and reward impacted Leon’s life.

  • Why we should all strive to be extraordinary.

Transcript

Leon Hermanides:

I think when people believe that being extraordinary is something intrinsic that you're born with, I think it makes it unreachable for people. They may go, "Oh yeah, okay, well, that's not me," and then give up. And I think becoming extraordinary, which I will tell you, I have a very hard time talking about myself as extraordinary, but I think becoming extraordinary, it's like this journey.

Dr. Kim Kutsch:

On Contrary to Ordinary, we explore the motivations, lives and characters of innovators who see limitless potential around them. Through these conversations, we hope to provide insight into how you can emulate the mindsets of these extraordinary people in your own life and work.

My name is Dr. Kim Kutsch and I spent over 20 years in dentistry before creating CariFree 20 years ago. We offer a wide range of dental products to the industry and the public that promote the health and wellness of people suffering from the disease of dental care. This week I'm speaking to a real punk, and I mean that in a good way. Leon Hermanides has been the owner and president of Protea Dental Studio in Redmond, Washington for over 25 years, and also serves as a clinical instructor and scientific advisor at the Kois Center. When we mention a John in this episode, we're referring to Dr. John Kois. If you haven't already, be sure to check out his episode.

Leon has been described by his colleagues as selfless and one of the most knowledgeable lab technicians in the industry. I consider myself fortunate to call Leon friend and can attest that he is truly the best of the best. Leon's journey began in his native Zimbabwe where his father was a prominent figure in the dental space who had vowed never to leave the country. However, it was a major surprise when his father decided to move the family to South Africa when Leon was only 13. So how did a boy from Zimbabwe who grew up in South Africa end up in Washington state? The answer lies in his willingness to take risk and embrace new experiences.

Leon Hermanides:

I remember being 30 years old or something and starting my business and thinking what I really liked about punk rock was everyone said music had to be like this and these guys were going, "No, it doesn't. I'm just going to make it in my garage with a pair of old tin cans and a rusty old guitar," and look what they did. And I think that spirit is pretty strong in me, really pretty strong in me. And I know when I talk to people, with my dad being a technician, I think it was common in his generation, a fairly fixed idea of how things should progress and what road you should take to where and what an apprenticeship would look like. And he had this son that went, "Yeah, no, that's just not for me. I'm going to do it my way."

Dr. Kim Kutsch:

I think that's also too, a kind of common trait of extraordinary people is that they have the courage to rebel and go, "Yeah, I see it differently and I want to do it this way," and I'm not bound to all of these previous beliefs and expectations. I'm open to thinking about it differently. And I think there's some curiosity that goes along with that rebellious nature as well, Leon.

Leon Hermanides:

Yeah, I think that the rebellious nature kind of helps you search for alternatives. Because people, even five years, maybe even two years ago, were telling me you can't have a lab with 16 people and do good work. That's like a red rag to a bull to me. Oh, really? Come right along, let me show you what it looks like.

Dr. Kim Kutsch:

Oh, yeah, watch this.

Leon Hermanides:

Yeah. Oh yeah, watch this. And I remember being one or two or three or four people and people saying things like that to me and I would be like, "Oh, yeah, I'll show you." And so I think that kind of rebellion, that push against what's expected, that I think truly uniquely contrary people, they embrace that a little. They embrace the ability to think, "Okay, yeah, it doesn't have to be like that." I also think that there's a selflessness that is inherent, that you almost have to be ready to accept the sacrifice, accept the fact that people are going to say you can't do it. That there are members of your community that may ostracize you, because you're saying things that contradict what they think they've known for 40 years. And I think that that is part of it too.

Dr. Kim Kutsch:

So you kind of have to get comfortable with arrows in the back.

Leon Hermanides:

I think so. Yeah. I really do. It's not comfortable always. I have had some moments of incredible self-doubt. Even as long ago as just after COVID or just before COVID, I think we had a period where we were really questioning what can we do. And I think it's inherent that you have to be able to sit with those moments.

Dr. Kim Kutsch:

Yeah. And get comfortable with being uncomfortable.

Leon Hermanides:

Yes, absolutely.

Dr. Kim Kutsch:

You moved from South Africa, next you went to Amsterdam?

Leon Hermanides:

Yeah. So I didn't even go to my graduation ceremony or anything. I was out.

Dr. Kim Kutsch:

So how long were you in Amsterdam then?

Leon Hermanides:

I was about three or four months just looking for work. And I took, in those days, the yellow pages, and literally personally went to every single lab in Amsterdam and could not find work.

Dr. Kim Kutsch:

Wow.

Leon Hermanides:

And then my money was running out, so I had to leave. So I made some phone calls, figured out that I could probably get a job in London and then you could buy the Eurail Pass and just hop on a train. So I took a train and then took another train, ended up in Dover, went to London, and within a couple of days I had work.

Dr. Kim Kutsch:

How long were you in London then?

Leon Hermanides:

It ended up being, I think, about three and a half years, nearly four years. When I worked in London, I ended up working in Harley Street, which was kind of the high end area for dentistry in London. But London was so expensive to live in and so expensive just to exist. Your travel cost was about a third of your income. Rent was insane. And I really enjoyed my time in London. For a 23-year-old guy with a affinity for punk rock, it was kind of a great place and I learned a lot. That's when this, I kind of call it, it's like a tick. I want more. I'm not doing enough. I'm not getting good enough. I want to be better.

Dr. Kim Kutsch:

And so there was this drive calling you?

Leon Hermanides:

So I was introduced to a guy who told me to come and interview in Seattle, and I came out and I actually had to buy an Atlas, because I didn't know where Seattle was. I mean, this is like 1995. There was Nirvana and all the chaos that was going on with the Seattle music scene. So I came out for an interview. I met some people here that I thought were just absolutely the most talented technicians I'd ever seen, and I made it a priority to come out and work in Seattle.

And so that was 1995 that I came out to Seattle. Yeah, I was young. I think I was 27 or something. And people, when I talk to them, they're like, "That's another continent." And I don't think we ever saw it like that. It was just like, "Oh, yeah, we can go there and if that doesn't work out, we'll go somewhere else. What have I got to lose? No children. Let's just see what happens."

Dr. Kim Kutsch:

The ability to just move and go and see what happens. It takes a lot of courage, a lot of gumption to do that.

Leon Hermanides:

I appreciate you saying that. And I understand it didn't feel like courage. It just felt like, okay.

Dr. Kim Kutsch:

It was a drive.

Leon Hermanides:

Yeah. The tick for you got to be better-

Dr. Kim Kutsch:

Right. That was going on.

Leon Hermanides:

... that drum beat was pretty solid by then.

Dr. Kim Kutsch:

Everyone has a different tolerance for venturing into the unknown. Earlier in his career, Leon had a high capacity to handle uncertainty. It made sense, he was young, child-free and thrived on new experiences, embracing risk with enthusiasm. As we progress through life, things change however. We settle down. And with the accumulation of time and experience, we become increasingly aware of the consequences of risk. However, for many of us, this additional experience doesn't necessarily translate into confidence in our own judgment. If you're experiencing doubt about your ability to assess risk, I recommend listening to Stanford professor, Tina Seelig's Ted Talk on taking small risks to increase luck. We'll include a link to it in this episode's show notes. Today success holds a different meaning for Leon than it did in the past.

Leon Hermanides:

It's changed, as I think for most people it does. There was a time in my life what I really wanted to do was make the prettiest teeth on earth. And when the crash came-

Dr. Kim Kutsch:

And you did, by the way.

Leon Hermanides:

Thank you. I felt like I really got good at what I did. I felt I can look back on some of the work that I did, and I feel real pride in that work. I think, like most people like me, there's also every case I look at and why wasn't that corner a little bit? But you say that, because you're looking at it on a 16-foot screen. You're not looking in someone's mouth.

Dr. Kim Kutsch:

If you want to be humble, take a photograph of your dentistry and blow it up until it's 16 feet large and then look at it.

Leon Hermanides:

Oh my goodness.

Dr. Kim Kutsch:

That's a humbling experience.

Leon Hermanides:

That is a very humbling experience. That was a driving force. And what happened to me was that in order to do that and to be able to live, you end up charging more and more money for what you're doing, which is not wrong. It's what it is. And that's the way the world works. And in 2008 when the market crashed and things were really tough in, all the way, 2012, it was still not great, what I figured out was that we have a lot of knowledge and skills that are really being priced that only a very few amount of people can afford that.

And wouldn't it be a better way to think about what I do that maybe we have to make some compromises on making the prettiest teeth and actually find ways to treat more people, whether it's to segment care to make it available to more people or transitional strategies. And the challenge for us then in the lab was to figure out how to fulfill that strategy. How do you make things more accessible? How do you not just keep charging more and more for your crowns that no one can afford it? So I think price becomes an ego thing, and people like to boast about how much they charge for their anterior restorations and whatever.

Dr. Kim Kutsch:

As if somehow that validates who they are.

Leon Hermanides:

Yeah, I think that is how it all works. And I think I did go that way for a little while, and then I started thinking, wait a minute. There's a lot of people that need treatment that could benefit from this. And what was also beginning to form for me, I'm a slow learner, was the idea that it was more about my brain than my hands. That actually what I had learned in putting all these cases together was the real skill, not the pretty teeth at the end. The pretty teeth at the end were only part of a biggest system, and I had to build that system.

Dr. Kim Kutsch:

That kind of care, skill, and judgment.

Leon Hermanides:

Yes.

Dr. Kim Kutsch:

So you're being paid for your knowledge rather than your hands.

Leon Hermanides:

Exactly. And that in itself became liberating, because by the end of 2014 of, I think I no longer did cases. All I did was the brains behind bringing the cases to life. The treatment phone calls, meeting with dentists, looking at cases, figuring out what to do.

Dr. Kim Kutsch:

Training technicians.

Leon Hermanides:

Training technicians, yeah. So that really became the focus of what I wanted to do.

Dr. Kim Kutsch:

And so you mentored people.

Leon Hermanides:

Yes.

Dr. Kim Kutsch:

Let's talk about your mentors for a second. So when you think of some of your mentors, what kind of traits did they have? Do you see any of those traits showing up in your own life?

Leon Hermanides:

So I think if I think about my father, he was a very hardworking man. I mean, it's a double-edged sword, because when I talk about it, I also bear some resentment, because he was never around. He was working. It's okay, it is what it is. He is passed now, so I can't fix it. But really this idea of selflessness that what we are here for as a patient and that we have to give everything for this patient. It was intrinsic in him. It was just this hardworking, really-

Dr. Kim Kutsch:

Selfless.

Leon Hermanides:

... selfless person. And so I do understand that, and I think that a lot of the, certainly in the early years when things were doing a lot of hours and not earning much money, and I think a lot of that, I was able to withstand that because I had lived through that experience.

Dr. Kim Kutsch:

You saw your dad model that.

Leon Hermanides:

I saw my father model that.

Dr. Kim Kutsch:

And I think that's kind of appropriate balance. When you're young and you don't have any money and if you're trying to feed a family and you're trying to have a house and you're struggling through that and you're just trying to start a business, those are tough years. And so you may be gone from home more, but it's appropriate in terms of what you're trying to do for your family at the time, right? But then as time goes by, you set boundaries and say, "No, I'm sorry, but I don't work weekends. I spend those with my kids," or whatever, right?

Leon Hermanides:

And sometimes people help you with boundaries.

Dr. Kim Kutsch:

Hey, Contrary to Ordinary listeners, I want to tell you about my company, CariFree. We offer affordable science-based solutions to common dental health concerns for the whole family, vanish cavities for good, and welcome in a healthy smile and a great first impression. Visit carifree.com for more details. Now back to the show.

So what's up next for you and your practice, Leon?

Leon Hermanides:

Oh, I don't know. It's a very interesting question. What's up next? So I think one of the things that has struck me is I read Matthew Syed's book, Black Box Thinking, and he talked about the British cycling team and how they embraced incremental change. And 10 or 12 years ago, I believed every time I changed, it had to be revolutionary and that I had to do everything. It was certainly this early career thing that I would embrace, it's going to be different tomorrow. And then I began to accept that that wasn't always the kindest way to deal with people for sure, but it wasn't always the kindest way to deal with my business as a sustainable organism, essentially. That actually the ability to just drop one thing, go the next, it doesn't really get you where you want to go. So we're constantly refining what we do, and I think that will be till my last day.

Dr. Kim Kutsch:

So evolution, not revolution?

Leon Hermanides:

Yeah, absolutely.

Dr. Kim Kutsch:

Incremental change is a fascinating concept. It emphasizes making small adjustments and gradual improvements to accumulate significant gains over time. The self-help author, Robert Collier, captured this idea when he said, "Success is the sum of small efforts repeated day in and day out." In our careers, we often need to balance between two simultaneous tasks. On one hand, we sometimes feel pressured to make big decisions quickly. On the other, we need to maintain a steady pace of incremental change. Professors Charles A. O'Reilly III and Michael L. Tushman, discussed this duality in their 2004 essay, The Ambidextrous Organization. They concluded that successful ambidextrous organizations separate the roles of those who innovate from those who maintain steady progress. However, the key to success is communication. As long as both sides are in regular dialogue about their activities, the organization thrives. No one begins their career with all the answers. And even now, Leon sometimes questions whether he's making the right decisions.

Leon Hermanides:

Maybe a little bit of honesty. I think what a lot of people don't know is that I still have the self-doubt. I still have the, are we good enough?

Dr. Kim Kutsch:

You still have that voice on the shoulder going-

Leon Hermanides:

I do.

Dr. Kim Kutsch:

... are you good enough? Are you sure you're good enough?

Leon Hermanides:

And so I think when you asked me, what are you going to do as you go forward? The incremental change is all about that voice. It's all about the question, how we doing, is it enough? Could I be better?

Dr. Kim Kutsch:

But what I'm really hearing there too, Leon, is kind of a strive for excellence. You want to go and be the best that you can be and make a difference and take it as far as you can.

Leon Hermanides:

Yes.

Dr. Kim Kutsch:

Is that fair?

Leon Hermanides:

Yeah. I think that it seems maybe a little egotistical to say this, but think about the opportunity we have to touch as many people as you can in your life in a positive way. How many people get to do that? It's just not many people get to make such a fundamental change in people's self perception on a daily basis.

Dr. Kim Kutsch:

And that's a real gift to be able to do that.

Leon Hermanides:

That's a gift. Yes. Yeah. And in the meantime, I've met some incredible people. I've been lucky enough to have as one of my mentors, probably the finest mind in dentistry. I don't even know how I got this lucky. I wake up some mornings, and what keeps me going is, how lucky could I be today. If I've been that lucky, oh my goodness.

Dr. Kim Kutsch:

But that comes with hard work, and I mean, you've certainly earned it. It didn't just happen to you, Leon. I mean, I know that you put the hours in and you've worked hard at making yourself the best that you can be.

Leon Hermanides:

Yeah, I would say, and I think it's fair to acknowledge that I didn't do it alone. I had a family that supported me. And even my kids now, they saw it. They have acknowledged to me in their way that they recognize what was being done and why. And John, I think if there is one thing I can say about John Kois, he opened my mind to what dentistry can be, not what it was or what the guy for 40 years is being said he wants it to be. I think that's what he gave me. And I just think that's just all around me, and I can't even believe it. I truly, some days can't believe it.

Dr. Kim Kutsch:

So I hear gratitude.

Leon Hermanides:

Yeah, I'm very grateful. I think if you had walked past me in the street in 1994 in London, you would've said, "That guy's going nowhere. Look at him, he doesn't even dress right." And I will say that I think you have also been one of my mentors in that the way that you have pursued a passion for treating dental caries. And then many people have passions, but to have so embraced how you see the world, I think that's incredible. And I think those are things that help me feel like, oh, yeah, there's still work to be done.

Dr. Kim Kutsch:

Well, thank you for sharing that, Leon. And I still feel like I got a lot of work to be done yet. And I feel like in some way, I'm doing my best life's work right now, and I'm not even seeing patients.

Leon Hermanides:

No.

Dr. Kim Kutsch:

And so my life has changed some too.

Leon Hermanides:

So I think one of the things about doing less, when I stopped doing cases, is that I thought, "Oh, it's kind of over now." It's not.

Dr. Kim Kutsch:

That's really when it started.

Leon Hermanides:

Yeah, because now I actually touch more people, because what I'm teaching people to do on a reliable, predictable basis, we're touching more patients than I ever could on my own, a lot more. And that's the piece that if I'm here to do good things for people, then the more people I touch, the better I've done my work.

Dr. Kim Kutsch:

Yeah, and you've made a difference.

Leon Hermanides:

Well, I appreciate you saying that. There are days where I would agree with you, and there are days where it seems harder to reach that. For sure.

Dr. Kim Kutsch:

Well, Leon, I really appreciate you sharing that, because I think for everybody, I mean, they look at extraordinary people like you, and they go, "Wow, I could never do that." And then to hear you say, "There are days when there are struggles or days that I have self-doubt or whatever," I think that inspires everybody to say, "Okay, maybe I could do that." It becomes real and tangible and suddenly becomes possible.

Leon Hermanides:

Yeah. I think when people believe that being extraordinary is something intrinsic that you're born with, I think it makes it unreachable. And for people, they may go, "Oh, yeah, that's not me."

Dr. Kim Kutsch:

And then give up.

Leon Hermanides:

And then give up. And I think becoming extraordinary, which I will tell you, I have a very hard time talking about myself as extraordinary. So there's that. But I think becoming extraordinary, it's like this journey. It's this little piece from here. And I remember somebody saying something there, and then I read a book that told me about incremental change, and you just begin to... And then suddenly you're sitting across from an old friend having a discussion behind microphones, and it's just an incredible thing.

Dr. Kim Kutsch:

Right. Well, thank you so much, Leon, for being with us today. Thank you so much for being so open and sharing so much. I love you, man, and I love your work.

Leon Hermanides:

Thank you.

Dr. Kim Kutsch:

You're an inspiration to me, and I think to everybody that knows you. So thank you for spending this time with us.

Leon Hermanides:

Thank you, Kim. I appreciate it very, very much.

Dr. Kim Kutsch:

Thank you so much, Leon Hermanides, for joining me today. And thank you for going on this inspiring journey with me. Around here we aim to inspire and create connections. We can't do it without you. If this conversation moved you, made you smile or scratch that little itch of curiosity today, please share it with the extraordinary people in your life. And if you do one thing today, let it be extraordinary. Bye for now.

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