Every day, I talk to practice owners looking for a new dentist to join their practice. These owners are universally focused on finding the person who will take good care of their patients.
But beyond that, their requests vary — a lot. Some want a confident, independent dentist who can take on every aspect of general dentistry without any oversight. Others are enthusiastic about mentoring an early-career dentist to watch them grow. Some want a personable, chatty colleague to discuss cases with, while others want someone who can work solo so the practice can expand hours.
When owners join ADA Practice Transitions (ADAPT) to find a buyer or associate, they fill out a detailed profile about their goals, expectations, and needs. We ask what they’ve learned from prior hires and what they hope to find.
We recently analyzed that data to see which attributes stand out. While answers were all over the place, several key themes emerged.
The right personality and attitude for the office
Personality varies tremendously! Many owners who regret previous hires note that while the person they hired was a perfectly fine dentist, they just didn’t “fit into” the office atmosphere.
Some have learned that since skills can be taught and polished, they would rather hire someone with a complementary personality, then train or mentor to fill any skill gaps.
“Attitude is more important than aptitude. Always strive to do the right thing, even if you make less money that day.”
“We have found it’s best to hire to match core values rather than hire someone with specific experience.”
“I want to hire the person rather than the skills. We need someone who is, first and foremost, a nice person. Someone who comes to work on time, smiles, is nice to staff, nice to patients, upbeat and positive. Someone who wants to be part of our family. Yes, we provide dental care to our patients. But more importantly, we provide a place they want to come.”
“I think the most important thing with a new hire is that personalities get along with one another.”
“We want someone who is aligned with our mission, vision, and values.”
“Personality is a big plus. People want an honest, caring, capable, hard-working dentist that they can trust.”
“Clinical skills are not as important as people skills.”
Willingness to learn; open minded
Dentistry is an always-evolving field. Many owners indicate that they want someone who is willing to keep learning.
“I want an associate who has a desire to improve the practice, expand their skills, learn from me — but also teach me what they know.”
“I love to work with highly motivated doctors looking to better themselves as clinicians. I can provide the tools and experience to help them grow while avoiding costly mistakes.”
“The best associates are always willing to learn.”
“Be willing to listen because you might not know as much as you think. You can always learn something from others if you will listen.”
“Ongoing staff development and training are important to our team. I find it highly satisfying to watch new hires develop their skills.”
“Looking for someone who is open minded to trying new things, is willing to experiment and take risks. Understands that dentistry is both humbling and yet rewarding. Willing to learn is key.”
“We’re willing to work with a new grad and will actively mentor someone. The only thing we ask is that they have a willingness to learn, be a part of the community, and have an entrepreneur’s spirit.”
Especially in smaller towns and rural areas, owners know that the most successful dentists will become part of the community. They also know that this isn’t for everyone: some doctors prefer some anonymity in their personal life, which is perfectly fine! This is definitely a point to discuss during an interview.
“We really need someone who is ‘community service’ minded.”
“Practicing in a small-town environment, community involvement has been the key to our success. We get to know our patients and their families, and that builds trust that benefits everyone. It leads to new patient referrals and higher case acceptance. A new dentist here needs to want that kind of community involvement.”
“Our patients sit in the same pew and stand in the same grocery line as I do, so I must do right by them. A new dentist in town has to understand that.”
“I'm looking for someone who wants to put down roots and become active in our practice AND our community.”
Shared goals and expectations through open communication
Among owners with previous failed hires, many cite a difference in expectations or a lack of communication. In some cases, the associate was looking for a short-term stepping stone, rather than a forever practice — or an associate was itching to buy before the owner was ready. These owners have learned that it’s best to have this conversation upfront, then put the decisions in writing to ensure both sides are aligned.
“Communication is key. Do not assume the other person is on the same page. Both sides need to ask questions and get answers.”
“Must have a definitive agreement on takeover timing, or else it will fail.”
“Know yourself. Do you want to be in charge? Do you like to know that you control your own fate? Be honest with yourself. Don’t try to make something fit that doesn’t feel right.”
“Make sure your expectations are clear in the beginning, and that communication is open and always a priority.”
“It’s best to keep the lines of communication open and ask questions when things don’t make sense. Every dentist has a different background and we can always learn from each other.”
A strong work ethic
Across the board, owners want associates who are willing to work hard, follow up, and keep the patients’ and practice’s best interests at heart. Work ethic comes up a lot, most often because of mismatched expectations.
The owner may end up perceiving that the new doctor has an unearned sense of entitlement when the associate fails to live up to the owner’s unspoken expectations. That’s why it’s so important to have upfront conversations about roles, schedules, and responsibilities. (See: 8 things to discuss during an interview.)
For example, what do you consider ‘on time’ to mean? This is one of the biggest sticking points for many owners I speak with. To them, ‘on time’ means being in the office one hour before patients arrive, allowing time to review charts, have a morning huddle, etc. However, if the associateperceives ‘on time’ as showing up just before they are expected in the operatory, this disconnect can lead to trouble.
Another common issue we see is that the two doctors have very different views on what ‘busy’ looks like. Someonewho is more methodical and prefers to focus on one patient at a time may be seen as too slow by someone who thrives on multi-tasking between operatories. Again, the key is to talk about this during the interview process. Review a schedule together — or better yet, invite the prospective hire to spend a half day in the practice to ensure the pace feels comfortable.
Owners evaluating potential hires who may eventually buy them out are especially focused on work ethic. They want to find someone who demonstrates that they will put in the work to care for the practice long after a sale.
“Be dependable, kind, and considerate. Have a good work ethic.”
“It’s critical that the associate has a similar work ethic. I want someone who is hungry.”
“I do NOT want someone who feels they are entitled to something.
“I want someone confident, yet humble. We have learned that humility is such an important quality.”
“A new associate here will need to show they can work hard to earn patients’ trust.”
Find the right practice for you
If you’re looking for an associateship, keep these attributes in mind. However, don’t fall into the trap of trying to be something you’re not just for the sake of landing a job. It’s far better to wait a little bit longer to find the right fit rather than finding yourself miserable justa few months in.
No matter what, the basics hold true: be respectful, follow up after an interview (even if you don’t want to pursue the opportunity), and keep an open mind. With this combination, you’ll find an associateship that fits just right.
Curious about the other side of the equation? Read: What Practice Buyers Want.