In the summer of 2016, Jennifer Almodovar was faced with a big decision. The human resources executive had three job offers on the table. Each one was for a vice president-level role, and each company was at different points in its growth and development. Ultimately, she chose Aspen Dental Management Inc. (ADMI), an organization that provides business and administrative support to independent dental practices that operate under the Aspen brand. “I had the biggest connection with Aspen,” says Almodovar, who joined ADMI in August 2016 and is now the vice president of culture and people experience. “I felt like if I came here, I would be challenged to do things I never had before.”
In early 2018, ADMI supported 640 Aspen Dental-branded practices across the country. Seventy-five more practices are scheduled to open throughout 2018. More than 560 dentists were hired in 2017, and 750 will be brought on this year.
Although the organization has come a long way, it’s still looking to ensure that the Aspen Dental brand experience is consistent across all markets—no easy feat for such a geographically dispersed, fast-growing company.
But that is exactly what Almodovar wanted. From the beginning, she liked that she was walking into somewhat uncharted territory. ADMI already had its core human resources functions, which was her main focus initially, but ADMI chairman and CEO Bob Fontana wanted an increased focus on people. With that desire came a shift in Almodovar’s role. She’s now laser-focused on setting a strategic direction for company culture and the people experience.
“If we don’t get the people side of the business right, then we will be challenged in keeping the pace of our growth and achieving long-lasting results,” she says. “Talent is a hot commodity these days. When we get talented people, we want to keep them. That means creating an environment where they can thrive.”
Almodovar is doing lots of work around the Aspen people experience and building a purpose-driven culture. Part of her job is to ensure Aspen is delivering on its employee value proposition and that when a team member comes on board, they live the experience they were promised. In the long term, she hopes to position Aspen on the “Top 100 Places to Work” list and strengthen the organization’s ability to consistently deliver on its brand promise—breaking down barriers to better care, better smiles, and better lives. To that end, 2018 will be a big year of gathering data.
“We’ve moved away from the one-time a year engagement survey to regularly pulsing team members to better understand what’s working and what’s not,” Almodovar says. She is also leading a cross-functional team that’s chartered with creating a culture blueprint that supports the company’s business strategy. “We’ll fine tune our purpose and build leadership capabilities that enable an enduring culture that will propel the company forward like never before,” she says.
Almodovar is partnering with the Daggerwing Group, a global change consultancy, to help articulate and embed this purpose-driven culture. “Aspen Dental has incredibly passionate, dedicated people like Jennifer who are driven to make lives better for their patients and for each other every day,” says senior principal Michelle Mahony. “We are working with her and her team to harness that passion by telling a cohesive, consistent story and then driving it into every aspect of the people experience, which will translate into an even better patient experience.”
“I work hard to create an environment where people can grow. If people aren’t growing, the business isn’t either. It’s not always easy, but if we lock arms and support each other through the good and challenging times, we are all better for it.”
It’s important for Almodovar that while the company grows, it doesn’t lose its community feel and the company culture is not fragmented. She is proud of how Aspen Dental treats people in underserved communities and provides free dental care to veterans through its Healthy Mouth Movement program.
Almodovar certainly understands the importance of community. She grew up in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood, back when it was mostly Latino. She describes it as a place where she learned the power of community, support, and courage.
“As kids, we were always outside, always together. Everyone on the block knew everybody else,” she says. “We spent lots of time together. It was a ton of fun, and people took care of one another, whether it was someone in your family or not. Everybody’s door was open.”
She credits her parents with teaching her people skills. Her parents were divorced, but her mother would call her father whenever Almodovar and her sister misbehaved. They would sit their daughters down and ask them to explain what happened. No one left until the issue was resolved. This shaped her views as an executive.
“My parents didn’t know it, but I really grew from those times,” she recalls. “I learned that you can go through times and come out stronger, individually and collectively, because of them. Work is no different because you’re dealing with human beings. I work hard to create an environment where people can grow. If people aren’t growing, the business isn’t either. It’s not always easy, but if we lock arms and support each other through the good and challenging times, we are all better for it.”
It’s important to Almodovar as a leader that team members and peers know they can go to her for help. She strives to make people realize that things can always be better, and she likes to paint a picture of what’s possible. “I’m a driver of change, and I know that positive, sustained change happens when you start with your people,” she says.
She is thrilled to take ADMI and the Aspen Dental brand to the next level and help its leaders make sure they are equipped to help strengthen the company’s culture.
“It’s a tremendous undertaking,” she says. “I’m extremely grateful to be leading this vitally important effort. But even though I’m leading it, I couldn’t do it without everyone on board. It’s going to be a fun, game-changing ride.”