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Lessons learned from a young associate dentist

June 6, 2020
Associate dentist Sampada Deshpande, DDS, made some "rookie" mistakes. Automatic bonuses? Check. Tolerating mediocrity in a team member? Check. She wants to help her peers avoid the same choices.

“I’m in the best associateship!” said no one, ever. There is always much to learn from every experience, whether you work in a corporate, private practice, or public health setting. I firmly believe that the more challenges someone faces early in their career, the better. After reflecting on my own experiences, here are five things I have learned as an associate.

Do not tolerate mediocrity

After working with a coworker who became “sick” every other Thursday and found an excuse to leave exactly at 5 p.m. without helping close, I blamed myself, figuring I was not a good role model. As a team, we decided to make this person feel more appreciated so that she would return the favor and respect our needs.

After a few weeks of no improvement from her, I told my sister, who is a successful entrepreneur, about the situation. She heard me out and said honestly, “It sounds to me like your coworker simply does not care and needs to be let go. Tolerating indifference can damage the behavior of others in the office. You can help change a lot of things, but mediocrity is not one of them.”

Realize money is not a motivator

After a successful month at the office, I made the rookie mistake of giving bonuses to all of my assistants equally and all of my treatment coordinators equally. I assumed that after receiving a bonus tied to my production, the team would be motivated to perform even better the following month.

For a few days, spirits remained high. On the third or fourth day, everyone went back to their usual performance levels. This incident taught me to always use objective criteria on which to base a bonus and use the bonus to tell team members what they did right and what skills need improvement. As leaders, we need to use every opportunity to facilitate professional growth.

Get hiring right

When I browse the website Indeed, I notice that experience is stressed more than coachability. We recently hired an assistant who seemed kind, optimistic, and eager to learn. I knew I would need to spend additional time training him on his clinical skills, and that he’d be slow for the first few weeks. Despite this, our team decided to hire him. We believe happy people are easier to train. Happy people are also great for team morale and customer service. In a dental clinic, we need both.

Your team members are your first customers

I was a few months into my first associateship when I heard a dental assistant speaking to a patient about the owner-dentist. “Dr. L is the nicest dentist you will meet. My family and I have been his patients for years. This guy will do anything for you. He once drove two hours in traffic to see my son after a traumatic bike accident where he lost his two front teeth! I’ll never forget what he did for him. You are in excellent hands, ma’am!”

It did not take me long to figure out that (1) my owner-dentist was awesome, and (2) my boss’s case acceptance was great, thanks in part to his lead assistant’s belief in his abilities. Without being asked to, she was helping him build trust with patients. This simple conversation taught me that earning our team members’ respect and faith should be a top priority.

Build a strong culture

“I have your back” is a truth a strong team holds dear. What this means for a dental office is that team members feel comfortable discussing their weaknesses, thereby helping each other grow and pulling up the team. If everyone, including the leader, is open about their vulnerabilities, only then can they go about filling gaps in knowledge, holding each other accountable, and building trust.

I have yet to find a team that is perfect. The idea, though, is to keep trying.

Sampada Deshpande, DDS, is a general dentist practicing in Seattle. A foreign-trained dentist from India, she completed her DDS equivalent from the University of Washington in 2018. Dr. Deshpande is a founding member of the New Dentist Business Study Club and a contributing member of the Spear Study Club. Outside of dentistry, she enjoys hiking with her husband and reading books about finance and management. She can be reached directly @dr.deshpande on Instagram.