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Women Working With Women: "Do I belong here?"

Sept. 1, 2003
While attending the 83rd annual meeting of the American Association of Women Dentists (AAWD) in Nashville in July, I met some of the most incredible women dentists, dental students, and faculty members.

While attending the 83rd annual meeting of the American Association of Women Dentists (AAWD) in Nashville in July, I met some of the most incredible women dentists, dental students, and faculty members. What an exciting blend of mentor/mentee relationships! The students were like sponges in a fountain, soaking up all the how-to's as they contemplated the end of dental school, with the future as one big question mark. They asked so many questions: Will I pass the boards? Will I find a job as an associate? Should I start my own practice, get the added experience of a General Practice Residency program, or perhaps join the military? With so many options, staying focused on the practice of dentistry remains a challenge!

One universal challenge — facing both established dentists who are AAWD members as well as students — is the logistics of successful change management after joining a practice. What criteria should be used to join a practice as an associate or partner? What is the best way to be hired successfully? How can you create the dream practice? The most common stumbling block for new practice buyers and associates is inheriting existing team members. These team members sometimes do not welcome a new dentist with open arms. They may view a new addition as "more of a burden" than a way to enhance the practice with new income and patients. Team meetings and teamwork are essential to overcoming these challenges and a key to making a successful transition with a new dentist in the practice.

There are several ground rules for successful change management:

1.Use team meetings to establish a positive, collaborative tone during the transition. Dr. A, the senior dentist, must establish support for Dr. B, the new dentist, at team meetings and with each team member. The senior dentist should be positive and encouraging in front of team members, not critical of the new dentist and his or her skills. Praise — not humiliation — is more effective in maximizing performance during the transition. Each team member needs to understand her unique and essential role in the practice, with each role clarified and valued. Creating an environment built on success allows all team members to function at their best in the transition.

2.Acknowledge that new ways of doing business are part of the transition. Change can be a scary process for some, with sabotage as a way to slow down those necessary changes. Sabotage by team members can derail practice transitions. If team members view Dr. B as "the reason the office must now be open on Fridays," or remark when trying new procedures, "Dr. A doesn't do it like that," the results can be disastrous. Over my 25-year consulting career, I've seen sabotage more times than I would like to report.

3.Communicate the transition to patients. The way phones are answered can indicate how the transition is proceeding. If one of Dr. A's patients calls with an emergency and can't be scheduled for Dr. A, team members may respond, "I'm sorry, Mrs. Miles, Dr. A doesn't have any openings at all this week, but you could see Dr. B." This does not convey a positive message. The best way to respond would be, "I'm sorry, Mrs. Miles, Dr. A doesn't have a late afternoon appointment this week, but I know he would not want you to wait. He would want you to see Dr. B, who has recently joined our practice since your last visit. We are delighted that Dr. B has joined the practice; she is a real asset." This type of response indicates the entire team's acceptance of Dr. B, leveling the playing field for the two doctors with both established and new patients.

4.Make sure all communication among team members indicates that the new dentist is one of the new team leaders, not a "buddy." Successful communication is marked by the team leaders' trust, openness, and willingness to address problems that arise during transition.

Both dentists as leaders must lead by example. Save conflict resolution and negotiation for contentious issues in an open dialogue with appropriate team members. Complaints about either team leader by team members should be resolved in joint problem-solving sessions.

If an issue arises, either doctor should listen to the complaint and then say, "I know how you feel, but in fairness to our other doctor, he (or she) should be brought into the discussion. Do you mind if I arrange for a special team meeting to resolve this issue with both of us?" Refuse right from the beginning to be brought into anything that pits one doctor against the other. Avoid gossip. Remember that it takes two people to gossip — the one who is talking and the listener!

Creating an environment of trust and loyalty during the transition is essential for keeping a smooth functioning office.

5. Establish a clear, written new dentist arrangement, whether it is a phased-in purchase or an employee/associate relationship. This is also true in military or academic settings. Team member performance can be included in contracts to establish monetary rewards through a bonus system once Dr. B achieves an agreed-upon productivity level. Then, team members can become excited about the new dentist and his or her contribution to the practice!

This also helps to communicate the importance of team-building with a critical new team leader to provide the best service to patients during the transition. Following these simple ground rules can make for a very successful transition for everyone.

Linda Miles, CSP, CMC

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Ms. Miles is a certified management consultant and sought-after speaker. Visit for a listing of dates for the 2003 Women Working With Women seminars. You may contact Ms. Miles at (800) 922-0866 or [email protected].