Creating a Successful Associateship or Partnership Requires Outstanding Communication

  • by Don Deems, DDS, FAGD, PCC
  • Oct 31, 2022
10-31-22_Partnerships_AAssociateships and partnerships often fail. This is something you may not want to hear, but it is true. I have never seen a study that definitively provides a certain percentage, but, in my experience, the rate of failure is high. On a personal level, I’ve experienced two associate arrangements that failed, both for different reasons, despite all the planning, support and myriad details that went into making sure I had found the right person. Yet my own first associate position out of dental school 35 years ago was successful, and I eventually became the owner of the practice. 

Over the years since failing to retain my own associate, I’ve had plenty of time to reflect on what might have caused those failures. Although there wasn’t a single factor — and I may never know all the reasons — one common denominator was a lack of effective communication from the very first time I met the potential associate. This has always been humbling to me as a certified professional coach because a huge part of coaching involves communication. Perhaps there were hidden agendas of the person I was interviewing or a hundred other possibilities that I will never know. Perhaps it was me. (Gulp.) 

I want to give you some important parameters for having exceptional communication from the start of your professional relationship. 

1. Work with a professional who has expertise in helping you develop excellent communication skills. One word can make all the difference in a conversation. And, of all the skills involved in the communication process, listening is the single most important element of successful communication. My coach-mentor taught me long ago that in order to have successful communication, both parties must be good at communicating. Unfortunately, you can only control your own communication skills. You should model good communication skills, such as asking questions that clarify, are open-ended, and that cause the person to pause and think more about what is being discussed. 

2. Establish a safe environment for being totally open and honest. That first meeting is critical and will establish the tone of practically all future communications. Creating a safe environment starts by having a quiet, comfortable space, open body posture, a smile on your face, and total focus on practicing excellent listening skills. Avoid being in a hurry to ask questions that make the conversation feel like an inquisition. Have the conversation in a neutral location; it may be at your dental practice, but not your private office, and certainly not when any team members are present. Asking every question at that first visit isn’t important, as you’ll need plenty of time to get to know the person in a purposeful way. Wherever the conversation is held, the “feel” of the environment you’re in during your conversation will have an effect. 

3. Prepare your questions in advance of your conversation. Write the questions down. Spend plenty of time getting to the heart of knowing exactly the type of person who will fit well with you. To do that, you need to know yourself well — often an overlooked part of this process. Understand your own values, philosophy of care and boundaries. If you truly know yourself, then it’s much more likely you’ll know when you’ve found the right person. Remember, this is like interviewing a potential team member, but, this time, the process is on steroids. Bringing an associate or partner into your practice can affect you in many ways — more than what can be covered here. 

4. Know where you’re heading for the short and long term in an associateship or partnership. Put yourself in the position of the person coming to you — wouldn’t you want to know what the future might hold? All too often, I get inquiries from young dentists frustrated that there is no plan for their future in the practice they’re in now, and they’re stuck regarding what to do next. Naturally, this could have all been discussed ahead of time. The result in situations when there is a lack of communication about the future often will be failure, wasting precious time (and often money) in the lives and careers of both the associate/partner and the owner. 

5. Maintain contact with that potential associate or partner during the entire process when you’re not conversing face-to-face. The candidate would not have gone to all the trouble to meet with you if were they not interested, so do your part by being proactive in communicating what’s going on and the time frame you’re working in. Excellent communication also means regular communication, in part because the candidate wants to know what’s going on (and rightly so), and in part because there should be zero surprises coming from you. 

Successful associateships and partnerships are founded on excellent communication, both in spirit and the written word. Never forget that failures are common and often come with hefty price tags. Take your time, utilize professionals to help you through the process, and consistently improve your communication skills. Even if that first associate/partner doesn’t work out, try to understand what you can do differently the next time around. Few dentists have the luxury of riding off into retirement by just closing their practice doors. 

Even if you’re thinking that having an associate or partner in your practice is years away, it’s never too early to be thinking about the process and what you can do to know yourself better and to develop excellent communication skills. 

Don Deems, DDS, FAGD, PCC, known as The Dentist’s Coach®, is a trained professional, personal and business coach, and a practicing dentist. To comment on this article, email