New Dentist Frustrated

Thursday Troubleshooter: How can new dental practice owner deal with pushy former owner?

Nov. 13, 2014
This new dental practice owner realizes the former owner truly wants to help, but her criticisms are starting to unnerve the new owner.  

QUESTION: I recently bought a dental practice and it was a long transition. We were partners for three years and I now have full ownership. The previous owner always wants to find fault in the way things are run in the office. While some points are valid and could be implemented, it's been really challenging for the last few months. I understand constructive criticism is a plus and should be taken as an advantage at times. How can I handle the situation? As you can see I need her for the practice, and at the same time she can be quite controlling, which is bothering me. Please advice.

ANSWER FROM LINDA MILES,Founder of Speaking Consulting Network: I can certainly see where you’re coming from with the former owner dentist/partner still at the office offering her advice, and you are now the full owner wishing to make the practice fully yours. This is never easy, but it can be better if you work at it. As you said, she means well but gives advice or criticism in a way that you find controlling and destructive, even though you know she wants to help. In addition to the stress she’s causing you, I’m sure this is flowing over to the team members, who may be “trying to serve two masters.” Along with the team wondering who to listen to, this also ultimately affects the office atmosphere for your patients as they are very keen to pick up on this type of friction.

Your first action should be a private meeting with the previous partner. Make a list of all the things you admire most about her and the values she brings to the practice. Then make a list of all the little or big things that she’s doing that you feel is overstepping her boundaries as a non-owner. List how this makes you feel as the new owner and how it affects the staff and the patients. Let her know that you realize she is trying to help, but from now on this is how you will accept and discuss her ideas:

• She is to make a weekly list of things she hears others say or do that she feels are harmful to your goals and the practice.
• She should list any system improvements that she feels can better the practice or productivity.
• She should mention staffing issues regarding who is doing what or who should be doing what.
• She should not voice her opinions openly but quietly in a weekly breakfast or lunch meeting where the two of you can go over her list.

She is obviously valuable to the practice. The void in productivity would be totally felt if she left. Let her know you’re glad she wants to stay on, but her critical way of sharing ideas or suggestions is creating a big problem. Let her know her voice will be heard privately, not publicly, and that you appreciate her input.

People who are critical of others (bossy) often have no idea how they come across. It’s time for you to have THE conversation with her to tell her she will need to abide by your requests of HOW she provides feedback. Setting boundaries is key. Good luck!

ANSWER FROM AMY SMITH, Amy Smith Consulting:
There are probably many different things going on here, but let’s focus on the ones you can control. Have you talked to her in private, giving specific examples of things that have bothered you, without coming across as angry or resentful? Have you thanked her for pointing out the things you have changed or implemented? If not, start there.

Consider also – is she acting out of fear or uncertainty about her future when she points out what you are doing “wrong”? Is she trying to convince you that you need her, and should therefore extend her contract? Does she feel responsible for making you a “success” since you purchased the practice from her, and is this her way of trying to ensure that?

Whatever her motivation, remember – you’re now the owner and your leadership should not be in question. Her actions are probably bothering others as well, and they need to see you taking charge. Be compassionate and understanding, but make your feelings known. Letting them fester will not to anyone any good.

You as the new owner should take the previous owner to dinner, which is a non-threatening space, to thank her for the opportunity of allowing you to create new successes in the years to come. In a professional way point out the changes that you feel will be good for the practice at this time and in the future. No doubt the previous owner wanted to make changes, but for whatever reasons did not at that particular time. As the new owner I think it is important for you to meet with the previous owner on a regular basis to discuss changes you would like to implement, and for both doctors to agree before the new owner presents them to the staff.

The new owner will no doubt make a few mistakes along the way, but will learn as the practice moves forward. The business aspect, and dealing with staff and the various state laws and regulations is not something dentists learn in dental school. Both doctors are different and each brings her professionalism, education, and knowledge for all to learn from. It is important for staff members to look at the leaders and how they interact with each other in a positive way.

Letting go for the previous owner can be rather difficult at times. For whatever reason the previous owner decided it was time for change, but with that change comes compromise and letting go. Everyone has an opinion, and sometimes it is best to keep that opinion to ourselves.

A change in leadership does not mean relinquishing control, just allowing someone else to take the helm and steer the practice in a different direction. The previous owner should be there to support, encourage, and show the right level of professionalism. Building up a practice does not come from looking behind but rather at looking at the riches ahead and how those riches can enhance the practice, doctors, staff and patients.

While you may feel like you’re being criticized at times, remember that you have much to learn from the previous owner. How detailed was the associate contract, and what areas need to be strengthened for both doctors to go forward to work on the success of the practice’s future. Communication is the key, with both doctors knowing they are where they want to be at this point in their lives, and for harmony to be maintained a few changes may be necessary at this time.

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