When it comes time to sell, how should practice owners balance their responsibilities to their team against business realities?

IF YOU’RE LIKE most practice owners, your team is special to you. Often they’re more like extended family than colleagues. That only makes it harder to tell them about changes in your practice. I know firsthand, as I’ve bought and sold multiple practices, as well as merging one with a DSO.

Change inevitably causes anxiety, even under the best circumstances. Few things will be more stressful for your team than learning that you’re retiring, selling your practice or otherwise transitioning. Rarely are circumstances perfect, so questions of when, where and how to break the news are always a judgment call.

There are two best-case scenarios to aim for, but neither is always achievable.

Scenario 1: You’ve been careful and diligent about finding a new owner, and that person is a perfect fit for guiding your practice into the future.

Scenario 2: An associate your team knows and loves will assume ownership, and the transition will be relatively seamless.

Either instance means you can confidently deliver the news that while you’re moving on, there’s a great future ahead.

However, things happen. You may find yourself forced to sell due to unforeseen circumstan­ces like family or medical issues, and time may not be on your side. Or you might not have an associate who’s able or willing to take the reins when you’re ready to move on. (That’s why I always say it’s never too early to start thinking about transitions, even if they might be five or 10 years down the road.)

Many practice owners are tempted to tell the team that they’re considering selling the practice even before finding a buyer. I understand that temptation. It can feel like you’re hiding something from them. But whose feelings are you really trying to protect: theirs or yours? Telling them might make you feel more honest, but it usually only makes them uneasy. Some team members may even feel compelled to quit unnecessarily rather than face uncertainty. Is that what you’d want if you were in their shoes?

Even if you want to be 100 percent transparent and are willing to risk some consequences to do so, you also have an ethical obligation to potential buyers. They deserve the right to explore opportunities to buy a practice without word getting around. You also owe them the right to assume control on terms that are mutually agreed upon. Telling your team your practice is for sale robs prospective buyers of those rights and limits your sale opportunities.

Finally, don’t forget that transitions work both ways. If team members are looking for a new career opportunity, they’re under no obligation to tell you, and you have no right to expect them to. As much as you want to protect your team’s feelings, they’re professionals, and change is part of every career. Don’t underestimate their ability to confront change and make it a positive.

There are no hard and fast rules for transitions, but a good guideline is to treat your team the way you’d want to be treated—while adhering to basic business ethics and protecting your own interests. If you’re struggling with tough questions like these, get in touch with me and let’s talk them through, confidentially. Don’t make hard decisions more trying by making them alone.

JAMES M. CLARK, DMD has filled many roles in clinical dentistry for more than 30 years. Now the head of Practice Transitions at Benco Dental, he can be reached at jclark@benco.com.