How to Become a Team Leader When You’re New to the Practice

An illustration of a staff

As the new associate in a practice, you’re in a tricky spot. You’re the new kid. You don’t know how the practice flows, when staff typically show up, or where to get the best local coffee. And you certainly don’t know any of the patients!

Despite these challenges, you need to immediately establish yourself as a leader so you can effectively work with your auxiliaries to deliver consistent, quality care to your patients.

So how can you make the shift from new associate to team leader? Read on for a few tips.

Think like a dentist, not a student

As a student, you were expected to show up, do your homework, ask thoughtful questions, and demonstrate that you were learning. Your professors guided your path and prompted every step. Your dental school clinic was likely run by the staff. And since they remained a constant fixture as you rotated through, and they controlled much of the activity in the clinic, you likely deferred to their judgment.

Now that you’re in practice, that hierarchy has flipped. You’re in charge, both in your career and in the operatory. You need to be decisive and respectful with your actions. Your auxiliaries should defer to you when treating patients.

Once you recognize and internalize this, you can begin setting the tone among staff that you are the ultimate decision maker for your patients.

Lead chart reviews with staff

A great way to get the staff on board with you as the team leader is through chart reviews. Lead a morning huddle or weekly meeting with your team. Discuss a difficult scenario or treatment and explain your thought process, listen to the staffs' thoughts, and then come up with a great plan that you can all get behind.

If you’re unsure about best practices or how to accomplish something, work directly with your senior doctor to discuss tough cases or get advice. Do this together in an office, rather than in front of staff. By having these conversations ahead of your all-staff chart review, the senior doctor can agree with your approach and convey confidence in your decision-making.

Get to know your staff and their abilities 

If this is the first time you’ve ever managed people, you likely need to build those skills, too!

You will spend many waking hours with your staff, so it’s wise to get to know them. Have one-on-one meetings with each one as you start your new job. Ask about their strengths, what they enjoy, and what they would like to learn. How are they used to working: relatively independently or very collaboratively? Is there an area in which they would like to take more ownership?

But also strive to know them as people. Look for common interests. Grab coffee together or ask about their weekends.

Own the operatory, but don’t be a bulldozer

To be seen as a leader, you need to act like it. Even if you’re quaking in your shoes, strive to project confidence in everything you do. This takes thorough preparation before each patient, close work with your senior doctor, and a certain amount of faking it till you make it. (Read more about How to Own the Operatory.)

At the same time, you need to acknowledge and appreciate that your staff has been in the practice (a lot) longer than you. They likely hold some extremely valuable expertise, especially when it comes to patient relationships.

The key is to avoid alienating your staff by respecting their expertise while establishing clear expectations.

Remember the “getting to know you” part? Take those conversations to heart and see how you can support their goals. It could be as simple as sharing a journal article on a topic they expressed interest in, or pointing them towards relevant CE. If you know that your hygienist is a whiz at calculus removal, compliment her in front of patients and staff.

Encourage staff feedback or insights about things that could be improved. However, if they contradict you in front of a patient, you need to stress that you need to present a united front to patients. Do this immediately after the incident, away from the patient, and insist that if they disagree in the future, you will discuss it in the hallway/your office.

Good staff relationships take time to build. The clearer you are about roles and expectations, the easier it will be. Lean on your senior doctor to help establish (and enforce) these expectations and to guide your staff to work with you on your patients. It takes a team effort to build a good team.