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Successful owner and associate relationships begin with mentoring

March 1, 2019
When a dentist takes on an associate, the new person will be looking for and in need of guidance. The hiring dentist becomes a mentor, and this is a responsibility that can be tricky. Here are some guidelines for how to mentor an associate, which often depends on the person’s background and experience.

Jen Butler, MEd

Bringing on an associate in your dental practice creates an obligation and opportunity for you to mentor. Ensure that your associate understands your practice and philosophy of care, and create the support and engagement that we all crave from our work.

At a time when more than 70% of associate relationships fail, acting as a mentor is extremely important.1 Eugene Truono, DDS, a past president of the American Dental Association, stated, “Mentors represent the passing of the baton. The role of the mentor is complex. It involves teaching, providing a model, serving as a listener and a sounding board, and acting as a cheerleader now and then. Above all, it means being a friend.”

Mentoring in general

Prescriptive (formal) mentoring goes straight to fixing a specific problem. Developmental (nurturing) mentoring stresses listening first, then talking, and offers guidance as much as possible in the form of questions. (“Is this going to give you the outcome you want?” “Have you considered this alternative?”) Developmental nurturing allows the associate to participate in finding solutions and take initiative in the relationship. The two styles may be combined or alternated, will depend on the preferences of your associate, and will need to be adjusted for a recent college graduate versus an established dentist.

In any case, mentoring begins with a clear understanding of expectations—what do you and the associate want from this relationship?

• Establish goals—Your associate may want opportunities to lead a team or perform procedures that were not stressed in dental school or his or her previous practice. As the business owner, you may want patient and revenue growth. To avoid frustration, clarify your mutual goals and the timelines for meeting them.

• Explain your office culture—Whether a new graduate or an established dentist, your associate may have ways of treating staff that clash with your office culture. Establish ground rules. For example, the associate and staff both have to adhere to reasonable rules of conduct and respect.

• Make a connection—Sharing your experiences and outside interests is a way to build rapport. Another way is to introduce your associate to fellow professionals while at a dental meeting or a community event.

• Use nonjudgmental language—Make sure you explain the why behind your practice and business philosophy, as well as why you request any changes from your associate.

• Allow yourself to learn from your associate—Your associate may have more exposure and confidence than you in working with the latest technologies and procedures, or may have a case presentation style that leads to more treatment acceptance. In the business world, learning from a new employee is called “reverse mentoring.”

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Mentoring the new grad

Many recent dental school graduates become associates without knowing what it means to be an associate. If you are aware of the gaps in their understanding, you will be able to bridge them. As one graduate put it, “My classmates and I are the future of dentistry, and the only way we will not lose the profession to corporate dentistry is for private practice dentists to start hiring and mentoring new graduates.”2

• Priorities—A new graduate may join your practice for financial security without financial responsibility, or conversely, to learn how to run a dental business. Your associate’s priorities may be quite different from yours, but that does not make them wrong. In fact, those priorities will probably change over time, just like yours did.

• Preparation—According to a 2016 ADA survey of more than 4,500 seniors in dental school, over 30% felt their education lacked information on organizing and financing health services and practice administration.3 And like any recent graduate, dental school graduates are still searching for a place in their careers and for their ultimate specialty. Your associate may need your help to sort out his or her short- and long-range goals.

When mentoring a new graduate, be prepared to share your business experience as well as your clinical experience, and to admit when you do not know the answers. Also, give the associate permission to not know everything immediately.

Mentoring the experienced dentist

Every associate needs mentoring, regardless of previous experience, if only to understand your office culture and patient expectations.

Priorities—An experienced dentist may join your practice to eventually take it over when you retire, to avoid the stress of running an office, because other alternatives such as a corporate-owned practice were not a good fit, or for a myriad of other reasons. The more you know about your associate’s reasons for joining your practice, the stronger the chances that the owner and associate relationship will work.

Preparation—Experienced dentists have acquired skills, habits, and even turns of phrase that worked for them in their previous environments, but they may be unfamiliar with your staff and patients. Rather than reject those differences, see if they have value.

When mentoring an experienced dentist, be clear about boundaries. You may start the relationship by controlling all financial and human resources decisions but then find that your associate has insights you can use. How much control you are willing to share? Also, accept that short-term mentoring may be enough. But check in periodically even if you feel the relationship is going well.

Outside mentoring help

None of us are born mentors. Mentoring an associate takes commitment and can be stressful. If you are unsure of your mentoring abilities, time, or enthusiasm, you may want to take a class in mentoring or call in a third party to observe your new associate at work and offer objective suggestions. The best mentoring occurs right in the environment.

One of the biggest factors in the success or failure of mentoring is accountability. You should set goals for new behaviors and results and then follow up. Again, if you have trouble holding your associate accountable or fear that you are too heavy-handed, inviting in a third party to mentor may be the solution.


Your goal as a mentor is sometimes to fix but mostly to guide. Whether your associate is a new graduate or an experienced dentist, mentoring helps ensure the success of the owner and associate relationship. The more you share about goals, priorities, experiences, and accountability, the fewer problems you will have. Rather than stress about being the mentor you cannot be, consider hiring an outside expert to take on the mentor role temporarily and you may learn some new mentoring tips.


1. ADA launches initiative to help new, established dentists in career transitions, business management. New Dentist Blog ADA website. https://newdentistblog.ada.org/ada-launches-initiative-to-help-new-established-dentists-in-career-transitions-business-management/. Published June 6, 2018.

2. And you wonder why dental associates are moving into corporate dentistry? Patterson Connect website. https://www.pattersonconnect.com/and-you-wonder-why-dental-associates-are-moving-corporate-dentistry. Published 2014.

3. Wanchek T, Cook BJ, Valachovic RW. Annual ADEA survey of dental school seniors: 2016 graduating class. Journal of Dental Education website. http://www.jdentaled.org/content/81/5/613. Published May 2017.

JEN BUTLER, MEd, master certified business coach, has worked in the area of stress management and resilience training (SMaRT) for more than 25 years. The creator of Know~Assess~Reduce Your Stress, she is the author of several books and speaks to dental professionals around the globe about the impact stress has on their lives and businesses. Listen to her podcast at dentalwatercooler.com, email her at [email protected], or visit jenbutlerpartners.com.

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