Man in charge—meet new ADA president Dr Stephen Liew

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ADA president Dr Stephen Liew
Photography: Eamon Gallagher

New ADA president Dr Stephen Liew promises a dramatic new era ahead for the national organisation, but insists he’s leaving the agenda-setting to members. By John Burfitt

Upon his appointment as federal president of the Australian Dental Association in mid-November, Dr Stephen Liew took to his LinkedIn social media account to comment on his new position.

His main message was to stress the importance of diversity in the current Australian dental landscape.

His statement—which included the fact that at age 38, he is the youngest-ever president of the ADA and the first of Asian ethnicity—was a bold one and it marked a significant changing of the guard at the national institution. He also announced the new ADA board is one-third female and that the current team represents a range of ages, demographics and ethnic backgrounds.

The post, which attracted hundreds of comments, made the point that things at the ADA are changing. Towards the end of his statement, Dr Liew wrote: “There is still work to do. But the seeds have been planted.”

Dr Liew admits now that making such a declaration was a long time coming. 

“It had actually been an aspiration for quite a while,” he says. “But diversity should not be had for show or tokenism. When I first joined the Federal Executive a few years back, there were a number of complaints that it had no diversity. I don’t claim to represent the pinnacle of diversity with my Asian ethnicity, but my place on the board marked a slight change. 

“As I saw it, the problem was that among the profession was a belief the ADA does not welcome new demographics or show them it’s possible. To me, it’s extremely important for people to know once you turn up and want to do the work, no-one will block you from getting there. But a greater embrace of diversity is important because it defends our decisions against bias.”

The job ahead

Dr Liew seems intent on making sure the new ADA Executive Board leads the profession more by example than with grand statements or well-intentioned announcements. So amidst all the enthusiasm that greeted his appointment, it comes as something of a surprise when he admits he has no grand plans for the ADA in his new position.

“There is nothing I desperately want to achieve in my presidency, and I say that not as a cop-out, but just to be honest,” he says clearly. 

Time is a choice, and you have to mentally be in a position where if you are passionate enough, then all of this doesn’t seem like work. And most days, it doesn’t seem like that to me.

Dr Stephen Liew, federal president, ADA

“I do not and should not have my own agenda for what’s ahead, because what I should be doing is listening to what our board members who represent all our members think should be our agenda. I also need to be listening to what our members think about our current strategy.

“The job as president is to just make sure the culture we’ve improved over a number of years doesn’t slip and that we continue to positively pass it on and achieve good governance throughout the organisation.”

And yet, he remains busy rolling out the changes that were already underway when he assumed the top job. Along with outgoing president Dr Mark Hutton, Dr Liew had arranged for the ADA board to complete the Company Directors Course through the Australian Institute of Company Directors from 2020. 

He believes for changes to occur for the benefit of the profession, a positive cultural standard needs to be set at the top tier of the ADA. So there was an overhaul of how the executive interacted with each other and stakeholders. 

“We worked on a multi-year presidential agenda to totally reform what was acceptable in the boardroom, and it started by calling each other out for behaviour seen as aggressive. So we decided to remodel it at the top, and try to seed that standard in the wider environment of our branches.”

In doing so, Dr Liew hopes that creating a more inclusive working environment within the ADA will encourage a greater range of people to engage.

“This is one of the biggest drivers we have, in order to attract the really valuable pool of talented people we have in this profession,” he says. “The other biggest driver is getting us to the point of what is best practice and accepted governance.”

This new chapter of the ADA included a recent strategic planning exercise by the federal ADA in which a better focus on governance emerged as a main priority among members. A review is currently underway with a report due later this year.

“We’re making sure we represent everyone in the most effective ways possible,” he says. “All this comes down to the idea we need a baseline of governance language and a psychologically safe culture before you can achieve anything.”

In the beginning

The job of ADA president seems far removed from Dr Liew’s teenage ambition to pursue his love playing percussion and piano. “I actually had my heart set on teaching music, which I had been doing for a few years before realising I might have a different calling,” he says.

I do not and should not have my own agenda for what’s ahead, because what I should be doing is listening to what our board members who represent all our members think should be our agenda. I also need to be listening to what our members think about our current strategy.

Dr Stephen Liew, federal president, ADA

Dr Liew studied at the University of Melbourne Dental School and graduated in 2006. In his final year of study, his volunteer work in Aboriginal communities in Central Australia and in Gippsland in rural Victoria, and then later in Nepal, had a major impact on his outlook.

“I found my feet during those experiences as it was inspiring to have reinforced the idea you actually have a vital skill as a dentist to add to society,” he says. “It helped to drive me as I felt we can get stuck in at a grassroots level with population health and make a difference.”

He joined the ADA Victorian Branch Oral Health Committee in 2008 and was elected to the ADA Victorian Board in 2010, and the ADA Federal Council in 2016. He recalls those early experiences shone a light on where the ADA culture could improve.

“As a young bloke in his first time in a Federal Council room, nobody came up to say hello,” he says. “I had to force myself to go around the room to shake hands and meet people. It was not a welcoming environment and I thought it was very strange. I have spoken about that experience since, as it was pretty obvious you cannot do anything strategic if you don’t have the emotional intelligence and culture right across your board and organisation.”

Since then, he has been active on a range of committees, including the Australian Digital Health Agency Secure Messaging Committee, the FDI 2021/23 World Congress Committee and the Australian Dental Council Review Panel of Professional Competencies. 

“Speaking to a few mentors who worked on the board level pointed out that if you really want to make a difference, then the best way to do so is to get involved with our professional body,” he says. 

In 2013, Dr Liew became a partner in the Camberwell Dental Group clinic, where he continues to work. With the duties of his new ADA role, the family man has had to cut his clinical hours down to three days a week. 

“It’s thanks to my business partner Erik Magee, practice manager Angela, and the other nine practitioners I work with that I can do this and be interstate every other week,” he says. “We also live in an age where I can be in a hotel room and following up on cases. But time is a choice, and you have to mentally be in a position where if you are passionate enough, then all of this doesn’t seem like work. And most days, it doesn’t seem like that to me.” 

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