Have you ever thought how wonderful it might be to work alongside your spouse and build your professional futures together? As more women dentists enter the profession, we at Pride Institute expect more spouses will practice together. This application of the “family business” to dentistry can be rewarding professionally, financially, and personally - or it can be a disastrous mistake for a career and marriage. Sometimes, both reward and disaster can occur within the same week. Not only do we authors coach married dental partners, but we also have worked directly with our own spouses - and we’re alive to tell about it. We have defined 10 Marital Musts for couples to agree on in building a healthy, happy, prosperous, joint practice that supports long-term goals of both dentists. If you want a successful practice that supports a healthy marriage, read on.
Marital Must No. 1:
Share practice visions and values
A dental practice, like any business, is defined by the owner’s vision and values. Those describe the kind of practice you want to build, patients you want to see, and care and services you want to provide. The kind of practice, patients, care, and service each spouse envisions needs to be compatible with the other’s objectives.
If the wife wants a lavish spa practice while the husband desires a cozy, country office, they must resolve the issue to their mutual satisfaction. If he wants to spend generously on the latest technology but she wants to save for retirement, the issue must be resolved or it can cause conflict and resentment. The facility you buy, staff you hire, marketing you do, patients you attract, and every aspect of the practice depend on your vision and values. If owners clash on their fundamental approaches to dentistry, the practice will reflect it.
Sharing the same vision and values does not mean that the husband and wife must share identical preferences. It’s OK to pursue diverse goals within the same practice, provided you both agree that your directions are viable for your business. For example, consider one Pride husband-and-wife team, Drs. Clement and Kamron Monroe, who have had a thriving joint practice for five years in Pinehurst, N.C. Dr. Clement Monroe is interested in implant dentistry and full-mouth cases, while his wife enjoys treating children and performing general dentistry. Each has a niche, is happy developing it, and is glad to give less-favored procedures to a partner who likes them better. Because the Monroes work so well together, their patients accept their diversity, Dr. Kamron Monroe says.
“With Clement doing implants and prosthetic dentistry and me handling the children and cosmetic treatment, our skills complement each other,” she says. “Often the children come in first, then once the parents see our practice, they follow for comprehensive treatment. It works out well because we have the same practice philosophy, which is to provide patients with extraordinary dental care to improve the quality of their lives.”
Each person needs to pursue his or her vision for practicing dentistry within the partnership so each one’s professional needs are realized and supported.
Marital Must No. 2:
Establish rules for working together
In a marriage or business, partners must agree on issues that vary according to the couple. When two people enter a marriage and business together, it is especially important to lay ground rules. For the dental practice, questions include: Who is responsible for what aspects of the practice? How are decisions made? How will the couple communicate? How many days will each partner work? Who will take care of the children?
“What has really worked for Reza and me is that we have compatible personalities,” Dr. Farr says. “I think you basically have to have that in place. But you still have to set ground rules for a successful working relationship. We have two sets of ground rules - one for issues arising between the two of us, and the other for issues involving us and the staff.
“One ground rule between us deals with how we want to be addressed. When we see our own strengths and weaknesses, how do we share that information without offending the other person? For example, if I handle a team member in a way that Reza doesn’t think was right, and he tells me, ‘That was ridiculous. I would’ve done it differently,’ I might not be OK with that. So we know how the other person wants to be addressed when we don’t agree on something. If he says something like, ‘Do you think it might have been helpful to handle it this way instead?’ I like that better. There is so much togetherness in this picture that if our individual needs and wants are not met, it can cause resentment and frustration. But when you know what each other’s expectations are, then it’s easier to address those things.
“Ground rules between us and the staff center around making us consistent leaders in the examples we set for the staff and the messages we give them. For this consistency to happen, we’ve set the rule that the staff must make requests in writing. The requests go on our desk. One of us looks at it, decides, and signs it, and the other doesn’t second-guess it. The staff knows we’re consistent. They’re not going to get a different answer from the other one. Then, we go home and discuss between ourselves what we think went well and what we could have done differently.”
It’s important to plan for how your personal preferences, needs, strengths, and weaknesses will play in the practice. Even the most compatible couples can’t assume that working together will automatically be harmonious without establishing certain ground rules.
Marital Must No. 3:
Clearly define roles in the practice
Each partner should have a job description, such as creating a flowchart for the management of the office and alerting the staff on whom to see for permission to buy supplies, take a day off, and other matters.
Dr. Kamron Monroe says she and her husband make major purchase decisions together.
“For example, if either of us wants something, we write it on our wish list,” she says. “We review the list periodically to evaluate how it would benefit our practice and decide jointly. This prevents us from making spontaneous purchases that we might later regret. Clement is stronger with the numbers, so he prepares the monthly statistics. I’m more of a facilitator and handle many of the office-management issues. We do performance evaluations together. As far as addressing staff performance issues, whoever first notices addresses and follows up on it.”
Other couples, such as Drs. Farr and Moezi, divide duties differently.
“There are certain management and leadership tasks that we share and others that we handle separately,” Dr. Farr says. “For example, Reza handles our pension plan, and I do a lot of the daily managerial tasks, such as payroll. Although we do divide some tasks, the other person still has a good idea of what’s going on.”
Committing your job descriptions to writing strengthens the agreement you have reached on each partner’s responsibilities. This kind of open communication and understanding wards off conflicts and resentments over whether a partner is carrying his or her fair share or doing what was promised.
Marital Must No. 4:
Communicate, address conflicts early
At Pride, we use a 24-hour rule for addressing conflicts, which means we discuss them within 24 hours. Don’t ignore issues that bother you because they will fester and cause resentment. On the other hand, don’t fly off the handle by discussing them immediately in the heat of anger. Calm down first, but address them within 24 hours.
“One of the most challenging aspects of practicing together,” says Dr. Kamron Monroe, “was realizing that we needed to communicate our feelings honestly with each other.”
When practicing with your spouse, remain professional by airing issues in a respectful, non-blameful way.
Marital Must No. 5:
Maintain professionalism, unity at work
Never make snide remarks or disrespectful comments about each other, show impatience or irritation with each other, or display other inappropriate behavior in the office.
Couples must provide a united front and support one another’s decisions regarding staff issues. If one partner questions a decision made by the other, it must be done privately. Make major decisions jointly. On staff matters, both should contribute input about growth conferences, salary increases, and other significant issues, even if only one partner conducts the conferencing with the staff.
Dr. Kamron Monroe uses an office manual that address policies and to which staff can be referred.
“If someone raises an issue not addressed in the manual,” she says, “we tell that staff member, ‘We’ll discuss it and get back to you.’”
Successful spouse-partners have the self-control and established ground rules to maintain their professional decorum in the office.
Marital Must No. 6:
Develop an annual plan
An annual plan for your practice is indispensable, especially for spouse-partners because it forces you to address and agree on key issues. An annual plan allocates resources, sets goals, and tracks the management of your practice. It determines the number of days you will work, production goals each partner will achieve, salaries, pension, operational expenses, etc.
The plan addresses issues such as whether the partners will carry equal weight within the practice or be comfortable with imbalance.
Let’s say you want to start a family. The plan helps you determine how you will maintain your production and lifestyle, cover expenses, and take time off to have the child. Or, you may face a year when one partner wants to take more time off for continued education or other goals. Every year presents new decisions to be made, and the annual plan brings them to your attention. Dr. Kamron Monroe plans her upcoming year each November, she says.
“Then during the year as things we want come up,” she says, “we ask each other, ‘Is it in the plan? Is it in our budget?’ The plan guides us in our decision making.”
Marital Must No. 7:
Adopt a written partnership agreement
We encourage formal agreements between spouses so that each person’s responsibilities in the practice are specified and an equitable way to dissolve the partnership is defined in case a partner exits or the marriage ends.
“As we do in any partnership relationship, we try to define roles clearly for spouses with the Operational Agreement,” says Hy Smith, Pride’s director of transition services. “This process actively encourages the parties to discuss all of the elements of the relationship and to agree on the handling and management of the practice. For example, the Operational Agreement specifies who is responsible for accounting, bill paying, hiring, handling growth conferences, ordering supplies, and other activities.
“The Dissolution Agreement is equally important. It provides a succession process for each of the parties that usually eliminates hostile dissolutions and litigation. Obviously, in a marital situation, this dissolution process can be even more emotional without an agreement in place.”
Marital Must No. 8:
This can be a major problem of partner-spouses and one that must be resolved if the couple is to share a balanced life.
Dr. Farr says the most challenging issue for herself and Dr. Moezi has been being away at the same time. Both are expert back-country skiers and adventurers.
“This is challenging in regard to patient care, covering emergencies, maintaining productivity, and covering overhead.” Dr. Farr says. “We take a ton of time off. We work three to three-and-a-half days per week, plus we take at least eight weeks of vacation. The way we do this is through our annual plan. That sets the productivity goals and the overhead we need to cover. When we know what our expenses and take-home pay need to be, we can budget for it by doing our annual plan properly. Regarding patient care and covering emergencies, we have such a family-like bond with our patients that they support us on this. They know that their care is never compromised. We have created a network of similar valued doctors from different offices in our town to handle emergencies when we’re away. We do the same for them, but I think we take the most days off.”
Marital Must No 9:
Keep family matters at home; vice versa
Spouse-partners must understand that they are in a business together. This means they must neither allow family issues to interfere with work, nor allow work issues to intrude on their family life. They do this through their ground rules and through sound practice management to eliminate chaos and stress. It’s easier to leave work with a free mind when the office is running well and you are achieving your goals.
Dr. Farr says she and her husband never discuss personal matters in front of the staff. Dr. Kamron Monroe agrees it is imperative to keep work and home life separate.
“We really don’t take our work home,” she says. “That wasn’t the case in the beginning, but it’s getting easier as we become better leaders and managers of our practice.”
It’s important for couples who work together to maintain balance in their lives and to share things besides their work. Dr. Farr says denistry is just one shared interest in her marriage.
“Reza and I have so many interests other than dentistry,” she says, “that our work isn’t the only factor that keeps us together, so dentistry doesn’t become 24/7 for us.”
Marital Must No. 10:
Enjoy the benefits of your partnership
“Working with my husband means that I always have someone to bounce ideas off. If I have a question about treatment, there’s a second opinion right there. Another benefit is that we both get to do the dentistry we like best,” says Dr. Kamron Monroe.
Dr. Farr says working with her spouse is rewarding.
“Having a partner you can trust and count on is a huge benefit,” she says. “We truly understand what each other is going through professionally, and that brings us closer as spouses. And we have this opportunity to call on each other and brainstorm our daily work challenges. Reza and I feel we’re pushing the weight of life together.”
Once you agree on key issues, establish open communication, define your job descriptions, and cover all other bases of sound practice management, you’re free to reap the rewards of practicing with your spouse. Good business practices and management, as outlined here, will result in a healthy, happy, professional and personal relationship for both dentists.
Develop the staff and systems for the practice of your dreams. Learn from Pride consultants and client-dentists who conduct AGD-accredited seminars across the country. “Staff, Systems & Numbers, Skills Training & Motivation for the Team,” and other courses are coming to a city near you. See our ad in this issue or call Pride Institute toll-free at (800) 925-2600.
Ms. Morgan is CEO of Pride Institute. She is a speaker at the ADA’s Annual Session and has conducted seminars for thousands of dentists and their teams to turn average or under-performing practices into successful ones. Call Ms. Morgan at (800) 925-2600.
Mary Lynn Wheaton, RDH, MA
Ms. Wheaton has 25 years in dental-practice management and is consultant team leader at Pride Institute. The former assistant periodontology professor at University of the Pacific has lectured dentists in Sweden and Norway.