Dr Christian Coachman in conversation with Dr Jonathan Levine
As part of Coffee Break with Coachman series, I have been fortunate to speak with my long-term friend and colleague, Dr Jonathan Levine, owner of Jonathan B. Levine and Associates, celebrated dental clinic on 5th Avenue New York. We talked about the key ingredients that contributed to his success in his career, discussing how playing professional sport at college taught him the value of working collaboratively with a shared common vision in the pursuit of success.
Dr Levine explained how he achieved mastery in prosthodontics, building confidence and learning to trust his skills under pressured situations. Further, he credits the following things to his success: having grit and determination, picking the right mentor, having emotional intelligence, passion, having a proactive attitude of being willing to do whatever it takes, creating a great working environment, and always having humility.
Watch the full interview with Dr Jonathan Levine here:
Lessons from lacrosse
DR JONATHAN LEVINE: “I grew up in New York and went to college in Cornell, to Boston University and Goldman School of Dentistry. Cornell was really interesting for me because I was a microbiology immunologist, but I was also a lacrosse player! For anyone not familiar with it, it’s a game that combines soccer and basketball. So I learned very early on, to set very big goals and to dream big; in fact, if you think you're dreaming big, dream bigger. And even better, if you do it with people you love to be with, magic happens. For us, it was a culmination of four years with our senior year being undefeated, going on to win the national championship, on TV crazy double overtime win, but it’s helped to set the stage for me in my thinking. It has made me collaborative and very team oriented.”
“I was the captain but we had a very balanced team, so we were all leading scorers, so individually we were good but together we were great. That led me to understand the power of bringing people together that have a shared vision or purpose in whatever you do. I quickly learnt how it would translate into dentistry. Fast-forward, I went through Boston University and then Goldman School of Dentistry in the late 70s, early 80s and it was then and still is one of the top schools and still as a top schools, strong in specialty dentistry such as perio-prosthodontics, before the days of implant dentistry. Everyone who came out was a specialist. So I went into private practice and about four months in, I met a technician called Adrian Germ. He sadly passed away last year, but leaves behind an amazing legacy as one of the earliest technicians to work out how to bond porcelain to teeth. So figuring out how to etch porcelain, how to etch the enamel surface and to create this sandwich with composite resin and to do these ultra thin veneers; and this was 1982!! At this time there were just three of us putting on porcelain veneers in our country, and I was just 26, thinking I knew everything, but really knowing nothing! But I was really pleased to meet Adrian; an amazing person.”
Four things to remember
- Never be afraid of failure.
- You get nothing unless you put the time in. You have to build skills and capabilities to have the confidence to get out there and excel.
- You trust your teammates over time because you love your teammates. Without that love and trust everything falls away but with it, magic happens because you know what to expect from your colleagues and you work to those strengths.
- There always has to be a leader; for us it was our coach. The coach helped us to develop and grow, nurturing our skills and confidence.
For me dentistry was too much of a solo sport and I wanted to know how do we work as a team. It was inventive and a time for change.
The path to dentistry
“I knew no-one in dentistry. We had a lot of physicians in the family and my father was actually a fur merchant, which is a crazy business and my father used to tell me lots of stories about his work, which made me think I didn’t like business! So it was a process of elimination; I didn’t like hospitals so didn’t want to be a physician, so I thought I may get a PhD in Biochemistry and stay working at the university, but I like working with my hands. So for me dentistry was a great choice because you can wear many hats, you can be academic, clinical, develop a great team and be extremely creative. I took a big leap of faith, not knowing all that.
"Straight out of dental school I went right to work, as you didn’t need a GPR back then. I loved esthetic and restorative dentistry and then I met Adrian Germ and I started doing esthetic dentistry. I was working for a very innovative periodontist, Howard Marshall, who decided to no longer send patients elsewhere and he brought in some restorative dentists. So it became a very early multi-speciality practice in New York. He brought me in as a restorative dentist and we started to do cases immediately. Then when I learned how to do porcelain veneers my practice really started to take off because I was one of the only people doing them.”
Going back to dental school to specialize
“I then went back to school four and a half years later because I had friends who were prosthodontists and I realised I needed to learn the basics of this to be the very best dentist I could be. I think specializing and getting to that next level, especially the restorative dentist to the prosthodontist, is a very interesting educational journey and helpful. Having said that, you can still be an amazing restorative dentist by backfilling with courses and having the proper mentors to go to that next level of restorative dentistry.
"I don’t think most patients know the difference between a general dentist, a restorative dentist and prosthodontist. What’s happening today with the specialists is that general and restorative dentists are the feeders and they have the ability to create multi-disciplinary dental clinics by bringing these specialists into their practice. This is becoming more of the norm for young specialists.”
Choosing between a specialist dental course and a mentor at a clinic
CHRISTIAN: “Let’s say I’m a young dentist, I have been working as a restorative dentist for maybe five years and I want to specialise in prosthodontics. I have two options; either I go on an official two-year course back at a dental school or I can work in a leading dental clinic with great mentors who I can work with every day and perhaps combine this with the Kois program and private education. If I can’t combine both, which would you say to choose?”
JONATHAN: “I would say it depends on the program and the leadership in that program, because there are some programs that you are going to get such a high level of both functional and occlusal integration of esthetic concepts and you’re probably going to learn to place implants as well. Then you can take that knowledge and go to that dental practice. But if you don’t have access to that high level of education, you are probably better off going and learning at an amazing practice. It’s all about who will be mentoring and teaching you; in both situations. I come across prosthodontists and I am amazed at what they haven’t learned, but also some who I am amazed at what they have learned. It has to be worth the sacrifice. When I went back to school I had a family on the way and was working 70 plus hours a week, but I was excited to do it. It probably did change my life from the standpoint of confidence and going to the next level.
How do you get chosen by a mentor?
CHRISTIAN: “When you become someone people want to follow, you get people contacting you from all over the world wanting to become your mentee. So I try to teach my young professional colleagues how to become that person that stands out from the crowd. That’s where it begins.”
JONATHAN: “Exactly, because they take you on their journey, and they can’t take everybody. When you think about who is that person that gets chosen? I think about the people I have brought into my life over the last twenty five to thirty years, it’s the people with the passion. It’s the people who are excited about what we’re doing. You can’t teach that. You can’t teach emotional intelligence and the ability to relate, but you can teach pretty much everything else.”
CHRISTIAN: “You also want to see that proactive attitude, really being willing to whatever it takes. And finally confidence; the mentor often picks someone who dares to say, ‘you will not regret picking me’. I am bringing something to the table.”
Creating a special environment to work in
JONATHAN: “My dad was blue collar, fur merchant, worked extremely hard and travelled a lot, but was very humble. It was a journey for me. Coming out of dental school as a specialist, I had some money saved and I was able to purchase a space, shared with a colleague. After a couple of years both of our practices grew too big, so I took the whole space. I knew I wanted to create a special environment to work in; we call it dental heaven. It was about creating the right space with the right people so people would never want to leave. I took on the running of the practice over the decades, but I always tried to make it very collaborative. So as a friend of mine who owns a huge restaurant chain says, ‘I became an overnight success in twenty five years!’
“I think we develop communication skills over time. For me it has been about an equal focus on the team I brought together and our patients. So to give a patient the highest level of customer service experience takes a great team effort to do that. You need to be able to build a great team and inspire them to be the best they can be. I have always believed in education for my team. We have an interesting practice. I have 26 people now, 17 of them are dentists and our assistants are not just assistants but have expert knowledge in aligners, Cerec, Digital Smile Design etc.”
“A great experience for patients is about an outside industry approach. Back in 1994, we went to a day called the Ritz-Carlton approach, where my whole team learned how the Ritz-Carlton give 5 star customer service. We learned very early on what the customer service concept was we could apply to dentistry by looking at other industries.”
Move slow to go fast
“I would say a big thing I have learned is to take risks. Whether that’s buying a space rather than renting it, hiring an extra member of staff...you know in the long run it will pay off. Thinking not for the short term but the long haul is important. Move slow to go fast; test your hypothesis and then if it fails pivot and try something else!
I am very proud that we have a foundation, GLO/Good, that we founded with Lenny Kravitz and have offered dentistry and medical support for those in need. I am also proud that my sons have now started their own toothpaste brand, Twice Toothpaste, to encourage millennials to brush twice a day.
If you would like to know more about Digital Smile Design, the DSD Planning Center and the courses we offer, including our four day residency to take the first step to becoming a DSD Master, find out more here: