What associates want

One of the concerns group practice owners often have is about retaining their ‘awesome’ associate dentist’s long term. This is difficult especially if you are hiring motivated, driven people, who might want to start their own practice some day in the future.

The key here is in creating an environment for your associate that makes it especially hard to leave. An environment where they treasure your mentorship, are compensated well, and given plenty of opportunities to grow. Here are a few things I believe will make your associates think twice before leaving your office.

Anticipate the inevitable

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First things first, anticipate that your most driven associate will leave you one day to start their own practice. Ask at the time of the interview, what their 5 and 10 year plans are. Would they like to start their own practice? Where would they like said practice to be? Ask if you can help mentor them. This is life! You left your owner doctor one fine day to start your own practice. Your associate will only do the same, and by anticipating it, you are preparing yourself for the next step.


Pay your associate on time and include the correct production. Don’t compel them to ask you about it later on; nobody likes doing that! Your associate may or may not reach out to you to collect full wages. They may instead begin looking for a new associateship, which is costlier for you in the long run. It’ll also reduce trust within the community of new doctors and create legal trouble for you. Replacing a good associate is very challenging. Explaining the decision to patients is another story.


If you see your associate make a clinical mistake, bring it up with them right away. Don’t wait for the ‘perfect time’ to do so. Believe it when I say, we do want to improve! We don’t want you to cushion our feelings, we just want your help in providing superior patient care. I had one doc come and ask me if I thought I needed help with anesthesia. I knew right away that she expected me to say yes, and so I did. She then took out a study model, showed me how to block and then said ‘why don’t you shadow me for one or two days and you can give blocks to all my patients and that way I will be right there to guide you through it.’ No judgement, only guidance. I loved it!


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Ask your assistants to audit your new associate’s clinical work. To make this possible, you need loyal staff. You would need to bring your assistants into confidence and tell them ‘hey, I’d like feedback on how the associate is doing. If you catch them doing something wrong, correct them gently there, and then, let me know.’ I realized my assistants were looking at my work because I’d hear from my owner doc every few weeks about things I could be doing better. My assistant was auditing my work! I liked this process a lot, because I got feedback right away and as a result, improved quickly.


Shadow your associate once every 2 weeks for the first 3 months. Listen to how they communicate with patients, and how they are treatment planning. Give them tips on improving their communication skills. The backbone of dentistry lies in communication; communication with your staff, patients and everyone else. If you get that right, you can get a lot of other things right. Associates need a lot of instruction in this area because we don’t learn this critical skill in school.


Create an accountability plan in advance. Tell your associates, ‘hey let’s meet the first Tuesday of every month to go over your progress. You can bring your questions and goals to the meetings, and I can bring mine. I want to make sure we are on the same page and that I’m helping you progress in your career.’ If you have a highly motivated associate, (and hopefully you only have those), she will appreciate that kind of honesty and feedback loop.


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Learn to encourage. One of my owner doctors had a ‘shame-based’ leadership style. She was quick to point out mistakes but would never bolster you when you did something right. It made most associates feel horrible, and one by one we all started to leave. Not only did her leadership style discourage me, it also made me feel like I couldn’t approach her with questions and be honest about my vulnerabilities. Everyone, including associates, likes to feel appreciated. We all would like to thrive in an engaging and positive environment.

If you are not able to retain your team long term, look inwards and ask yourself, what may be causing that?

Are you an associate currently? Do you agree with the above points? Do you feel I am missing something? Let me know!

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