Understanding and Evaluating Associateship Opportunities
Some Considerations for Initial Conversations

Course Author(s): David G. Dunning, MA, PhD; Robert D. Madden, DDS, MBA

Some Considerations for Initial Conversations

Exploring a potential associateship involves due diligence on the part of both the candidate and the owner(s). Checklists such as the one offered later in this course can be very helpful in working you through details of the negotiation process; however, initial conversations help to build a relationship and establish a framework for future negotiations.

In most cases, details defining an associateship such as compensation and benefits, while clearly important, will need to wait until after a few initial and foundational critical conversations. Over the years, we have been asked many times a more general question about how to approach initial, exploratory meetings between a candidate and an owner-dentist. These meetings often involve lunch or dinner, include significant others, and tend to be informal.

The following are several recommendations for participating in these types of initial meetings. Remember, if an associateship is being negotiated with the services of a consulting firm, the company may have its own protocol and/or process. These suggestions are geared toward a traditional associateship in a general practice.

  1. Arguably, the most important task is to assess the compatibility for practicing together, particularly as related to practice philosophy. Both parties should ask open-ended questions such as, "Tell me about your practice philosophy…about managing patients…about dental treatment…about staff management." As Dr. David Neumeister, a practitioner in Vermont advises when talking with patients: stay curious, ask open-ended questions with an open mind and withhold judgment when listening.

    An owner might even bring a copy of the practice’s mission and philosophy, and ask some open-ended questions about how the candidate might fit into such a practice.

    In the end, there should be some sense of the extent of overlap in practice philosophies of the two parties.
  2. Similar to the discussion of practice philosophy, how do the personalities of the dentist-owner and the candidate mesh? Are the personalities complementary and compatible? Some key areas to consider in comparing personalities are those measured by the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator: extent of introversion vs. extraversion, a “sensing” nuts and bolts focus (common among dentists) vs. a theoretical “big idea” focus, a “thinking” vs. a “feeling” orientation, and an emphasis on structure and organization vs. go with the flow spontaneity. One of these personality measures could even be used as part of the initial conversations.

    The goal is for you to get a sense of the unique personalities of each person, and how these may complement each other or potentially be in conflict. Further, how might the associate’s personality align with and contribute to the broader dental team?
  3. Are the short- and long-term goals of the owner-dentist and candidate compatible? Again, ask open-ended questions such as "Where do you see the practice in two years?” Or, “In five years, where do you see the practice?" "Describe the kind of relationship you are hoping for?" and, assuming this is a potential mutual interest, "How do you envision a future buy-in/buy-out?”

    The goal is for you to get a sense of the overlap of your career goals with those of the owner-dentist.
  4. To reiterate, in most cases, we would recommend NOT discussing in this initial meeting issues related to compensation, benefits, patient assignment, or other specifics related to a future associateship contract. These issues are usually best reserved for future meetings. Also, the owner-dentist may already have a contract in mind with these issues delineated. Exceptions may of course exist, such as a situation in which the parties have known each other for years, the associate candidate worked for the owner-dentist for years as a dental team member in the past, etc.
  5. Pay keen attention to the communication process up to and including the initial meeting. Are both parties timely in their follow-up or does someone need to be prompted to follow-up or follow-through? These subtle but critical early signs may point toward future opportunities or potential problems.
  6. Importantly, rely at least in part on your “gut” or intuition and that of a significant other. If something doesn't seem right, this may forecast future problems that would be better avoided than confronted.
  7. Answer each other’s questions in honesty and completeness.
  8. Obviously, professional demeanor and attire should be displayed. A later section discusses specific interviewing tips.