New dentists can create and build great dental teams

Whether a new dentist is an employee of a practice or starting their own, understanding how to create, manage and lead a dental team is crucial to success. New dentists must quickly learn how to, among other things, choose new hires and establish and support a productive team of energized, motivated employees.

For some new dentists, conducting a job interview is uncharted and uncomfortable territory.

Lindsey Fong, DDS, graduated from the School of Dental Medicine: University of Pittsburgh in 2007 and began working at her father’s (David Fong, DDS) practice shortly thereafter. In 2010, she took over the practice and was tasked with maintaining the dental team.  

Fong soon had to hire a new employee of her own, and it was a learning process.

“When you are in dental school, they don’t teach much about management and the hiring process,” said Fong, who admits she was nervous about hiring a new employee.  

She went on to hire an employee and was able to establish the type of person she is looking for in her practice.

“I want them to come to work and be dependable and leave at the end of the day feeling like we did a good job,” Fong said. “Our philosophy has always been that it’s a team approach. No one’s job boundaries are their own, I have no problem emptying the trash or getting on the computer and looking something up if I need to, and I expect my employees to have that same attitude.”

Fong said creating a detailed job description for potential employees is key. According to CDA’s Guide for the New Dentist, a well-written job description provides a foundation for hiring and job placement decisions. Dentists can use the job description during an interview or in the screening process, as well as cross-reference skills identified with skills needed.

A job description should include the following:

  • Job title;
  • Job classification (exempt, non-exempt, part- and full-time);
  • Supervisor’s position;
  • Primary job duties and responsibilities;
  • Secondary duties;
  • Physical demand;
  • Minimum qualifications; and
  • Other terms or conditions of employment.

“A job description is critical because when hiring someone new you have to lay down ground rules from the start so that later, you aren’t playing catch-up and trying to add things,” Fong said. “You will prevent a lot of headaches down the road.”

Selecting the right person for the responsibilities under the job description is another story, as there are many things that make for a good employee outside of their day-to-day duties.

Jon Pascarella, DDS, past chair of the CDA Committee on the New Dentist, says dentists have to get the “right people on the bus.”

“Some of the qualities that I look for include: being self-motivated; being a team player; the ability to think outside the box; a hard worker; great conversational skills; friendly; and confident,” Pascarella said.

Interviews can be done in one day or spread out over time. The Guide for the New Dentist recommends interviews be no longer than 30 to 45 minutes each and that dentists try to accomplish these three objectives:

  • Discuss the experience that qualifies the candidate for the job.
  • Evaluate what the candidate’s chemistry would be with the existing office staff.
  • Ask open-ended questions and be prepared to listen to the answers.

Once the dentist has identified the top candidates, he or she can proceed with reference checks. This applies to every candidate they are considering — even if it is a personal friend of the office manager, a friend or colleague. The Guide for the New Dentist says dentists should be aware of lapses in dates of employment. Questioning the applicant about his or her whereabouts and activities during periods of unemployment may offer more information than the references.

If the references check out, it is safe to make an official job offer.

“Once you have the right people on the bus, then you have to make sure they are all sitting in the right seat,” Pascarella said. “This means to make sure that everyone in the office is assigned duties not only they are really good at, but also that they enjoy. When someone is doing a job that they find fulfilling and enjoyable, everyone around them can see it. It is an amazing atmosphere to be around, and patients will definitely pick up on that.”

Happy employees translate into a productive and busy office, and there are many things a new dentist can do to help cultivate an enjoyable environment for their team.

Jonathan Ford, DDS, who went to dental school at the University of Pennsylvania and graduated in 2007, said simply acknowledging staff for a job well done can go a long way.

“I think the most important part of building a new team is acknowledging and appreciating your staff, however, you need to keep the praise fresh and different. Words like 'thank you' or 'good job' may be extremely important, but hearing them over and over again lessens their effect,” Ford said. “By changing the words slightly or altering the delivery, the words can have a greater impact and make others feel more appreciated. So, instead of saying 'thanks' on your way out of the office, say thank you to your staff in front of a patient and use specifics: 'Great job on getting that X-ray!'”

Ford also said simply leading by example is a good way to boost morale.

“Do great technical dental work and don’t take short cuts. If the staff sees you taking shortcuts, that makes them more likely to take shortcuts as well. Lead by setting a great example and treat patients like you would like to be treated,” Ford said. “The staff, more than anyone else sees, the effort you put forth. Going the extra mile for a patient will gain you credibility with the staff.”

Ford often refers back to some advice he received when he first joined his practice: “Praise in public, critique in private.”

Other ways to motivate employees include taking them to dental meetings together, holding monthly team meetings and having office lunch outings.

Another way to make sure staff are getting what they want out of their job (and a way to hold them accountable) is to conduct regular performance evaluations.

Regular evaluations help to ensure that the employee’s performance supports the practice goals. Below are some useful management tools to guide you through the employee performance evaluation process.

  • Conduct evaluations regularly. (Schedule the meeting well in advance, either annually or semiannually.)
  • Schedule enough time for the evaluation. (One hour to one-and-a-half- hours.)
  • There should be no surprises. (The evaluation should be a review of the previous year’s performance to include achievements or improved performance.)
  • Review job descriptions and office policies.
  • Stay factual and fair.
  • Set goals and objectives.
  • Allow comments and feedback.

Another aspect of leading a dental team is the uncomfortable truth that dentists can’t always be close friends with their employees.

“There is a very fine line that has to be skated when managing a team,” Pascarella said. “You have to become a person that they will trust and work hard for, like a friend, but you also have to be that authority figure that they respect and look up to.”

Fong said one of the main bits of advice her father (who still works in the practice) gave her about leading a dental team was to not get too close to an employee.

“It’s difficult, but at the end of the day, you have to separate the personal from the business part. You have to look at it like this is my business and my livelihood and you can’t worry about hurt feelings,” Fong said. “You have to create that boundary because then you will be able to make the best decisions for your practice.”

For more tips on how to build and maintain a dental team, view Chapter 12 of the Guide for the New Dentist at cda.org/newdentist.