Staff Management

Seven Key Steps to Hire & Develop the Right Associate

By Chad Fleming, OD, FAAO

Dec. 2, 2015


Hiring a new associate OD can fulfill your growth plan. Follow a seven-step process for effective selection, hiring and mentoring on the job.


HIRE WITH GROWTH IN MIND. Hire for the development of your practice, adding skills the current doctors lack, or could use help with.

SEARCH BEYOND LOCAL COMMUNITY. Use sites the AOA Career Center and Local Eye Site to post openings for new associates across the nation.

TAKE TIME WITH IN-DEPTH PROCESS. Have prospective associates work in the practice as support staff members first, and then set the initial contract for just one year.

My practicehas two partners, including myself, and three associate doctors, and when we hire a new associate doctor, we don’t leave much to chance. We use a carefully thought-out processto vet and interview potential associate ODs. We recently evaluated our aging ownership and decided to addan associate to begin a succession plan. This put our hiring system to the test, and we found that following seven key steps is essential to ensure hiring success.

Dr. Blasi, an associate optometrists in Dr. Fleming’s practice, Wichita Optometry, is featured ina video on the practice’s web site. Dr. Fleming says it’s best to have prospective associate ODs work as support staff first, and then to offer in-depth support and coaching through the first year, and beyond, of the associate’s employment with your practice

Add Associates With Growth in Mind

Jeff Yarrow, OD, and I, are the owners of Wichita Optometry, and one of the associates is a past partner of our practice. He successfully led Wichita Optometry for over 30 years, and hewill retire soon. The other two associates started in 2010 and 2014. With a retirement looming, we had to look critically at maintaining productivity levels.

Look forAssociates Early

Most practice owners begin the process of looking for an associate too late in the game. Practice owners see associates as a losing investment because they will most likely not pay for themselves in the first couple of years. An associate actually gives an owner more freedom to work on the practice instead of in the practice, which ultimately improves efficiencies, which, in turn, improves the bottom line.

A good place to begin in adding an associate is to find one who can share time with your practice. Start with one or two days a week, and build from there. Successfully adding an associate also requires a practice owner who is willing to let go of current patients and new patients to allow the associate OD to grow their practice. What we have found is that once you let go of your patients to have the freedom to see another doctor within your practice, it opens up time in your schedule to fill with new patients referred from your existing patients. We’ve heard, “I would havecome sooner, but you were booked out months in advance. Now that you have times available that worked in my schedule, I was able to transition to your office.”

Many optometrists are willing to invest money into the stock market on companies they have no control over, yet they are unwilling to invest in a new associate OD where they do. Most successful optometrists will tell you that their best investment has always been the practice.

Hire to Complement Strengths

Hire a doctor who bolsters areas ofyour practice that you are not serving well. If you do not enjoy seeing little kids all day long, then hire an optometrist who enjoys pediatric optometry. To be a successful optometry practice in the future, you must invest in the medical model of optometry, and in doing that, all optometrists who have graduated in the past 10 years will have good experience in managing the medical eyecare patient. We have hired both an experienced optometrist and a new graduate, both of whom have done a great job.

Assessment and growth in clinical skills for associates are based on one-on-one coaching by one of the owners. We discuss cases and the management of those cases. Many times further development of these skills occurs by creating a culture of humility that lets associates know they are free to ask the “dumb questions.” It is easy to act like you know what you are doing 100 percent of the time, but great clinicians learn to ask questions. We teach and live that philosophy. Through this we are able to discuss clinical care and discuss feedback patients give.

For example, when one of our associates was in their first three months of practice they evaluated a patient of mine who ended up going some place else for a second opinion. When they came back to me six months later and I asked them about it, they said that the new doctor did not seem confident in explaining what was wrong with the patient’s eye problem. I took this as a teachable moment for the new doctor, and we discussed patient perceptions and the art of communication, not just communicating facts, but empathy, and making sure that you as the doctor make the patient feel comfortable.

Search Beyond Your Local Community

The AOA has a great resource “Career Center” on the web site,, as does Local Eye Site. We have also found that when we know a year or two in advance that we will be looking for someone then we have a chance to plant the seed in our colleagues’ minds. I have never minded if I knew of another reputable practice in town that was looking for an associate, referencing that practice to another associate OD who was looking for a job.

Many times an optometrist who practices in a commercial setting may be looking for more hours, so we may approach them and let them know that if they are ever interested in getting more hours, we would like to visit with them. In the past we have had associates come to us and say that if we are ever looking, to please keep them in mind. For ODs looking for an associate position, this is a great idea. Go to the place you want to live and tell the practice owners in that area that if they ever consider hiring an associate, to please think of you. You might be surprised when they say, “I’ve always been thinking about adding an associate, but I never knew where to start.”

We have not advertised once for a new associate. Most practices that do not struggle finding good associates do it by contacting the right individuals and letting them know there may be a position in the future open for them. Also, we look for doctors who have taken the time to be proactive and communicate to us that they are interested in a position at our clinic. A student or new graduate who is a good communicator in trying to find a place to work will also make the same efforts and use good communication skills with patients. Those are the ODs we want in our optometry family.

Take Your Time With In-Depth Hiring Process

The process for hiring new associates is very similar to hiring any other employee in the practice, but it happens over a longer period of time with more in-depth questioning compared to support staff. An associate OD will impact the office much more than a support staff member, so taking the time to find the right person is very important.

We try to get the prospective associate to work at the office as a support staff member for a while, so we can get a feel for who they are. This works very well if you seek to hire a new graduate because you can have them work during their breaks from optometry school. If a doctor is already licensed and working, we may bring them in as a locum tenens (substitute doctor) for a short time to get a feel for how they would work on our staff. This requires more effort and planning, but it allows us to see them in action.

We sometimes hire future associates as support staff members as early as when they are in the process of applying to optometry school. Then, we make sure that if we like them we have a position open for them over their school breaks. Once they get into their third or fourth year, we are ready to plant the seed that they may make a good fit for our practice. When a student is planning that far in advance, they are the type of person we want in the Wichita Optometry family.

We try to keep good long-term relationships with potential associate ODs. For example, we have two staff members who are undergrad students in Wichita, and they are planning to attend optometry school. They are already in the “interview” process for a position as a doctor at our office when they graduate. It is not a formal process; it is simply creating potential opportunities.

Prior to a face-to-face meeting with prospective associates, there must be genuine interest, and this is usually best gauged through phone conversations. Then, we meet with the prospective doctor to learn about their interests and experiences. Also, you may want to discuss with them the type of schedule they are looking for, and if they have any interest in fitting specialty contact lenses or in low vision rehabilitation. Many offices refer patients out for specialty contacts, vision therapy and low vision.

Finding out over a phone interview that the prospective doctor is interested in, and has experience with, specialty contact lenses, can narrow the applicant pool very quickly and make the face-to-face time more productive for both parties. It is also important to find out if the potential associate has any interest in eventually owning a practice. This information will come in handy if, and when, you decide to sell your practice.

Consider Character

We believe that the character of an optometrist is the top priority in hiring. Strong character drives decision making and reflects strong, longstanding optometry practices. We look for ODs who prescribe with the best interests of patients in mind. We look for ODs whose Facebook page is a reflection of a person with a good moral compass and strong character qualities outside of the office. I’ve practiced long enough to see that the way an individual is inside their work environment is a direct correlation to who they are outside the office. An employee who is disloyal, and not trustworthy, outside the office will be the same person inside the office. We do not want individuals like that. Character is non-negotiable. If anything questionable arises, we move on to the next applicant.

The measure of a person is in who he or she is outside of practicing optometry. It is easy to put on a mask during the honeymoon period of interviews and during the first six months of practice, however, it is difficult to put a mask on when you are in comfortable settings. We take the potential new associate out for dinner, and if they have children, we ask them to bring them along. We want to see how they interact with their family, and how they handle stressful situations, like their three-year-old throwing food across the dining table at mommy’s potential new boss. It’s great stuff because those moments bring the best or worst out in people.

We like to informally interview the spouse and find out their hopes and dreams. If the spouse communicates that he or she expects the new doctor to be home by 5 pm every night, this may be a potential red flag as we know that kind of schedule isn’t possible in our office.

First Contract with Associate for One Year

The first contract between an associate and our practice is always for just one year. After a year we will part waysor sign the associate for a longer period of time that commits usboth to a longer relationship.

After hiring, we recommend meeting with the new associate every one to two weeks. We have found that associate ODs do not need reviews; they need mentoring. We see this mentoring as similar to how a new back-up quarterback in the NFL watches and learns from the experienced starting quarterback. The need for mentoring in no way indicates that the new associate is less clinically prepared to care for patients; it indicates that we care and want to be there when they have questions. I still have questions myself today about cases and managing staff effectively, which as a practice owner, I sometimes consult with more experienced owners about.

Optometry demands lifelong learning. We want an associate who is going to be receptive to learning and growing in a team environment. It becomes evident the new associate is a good fit when the new associate OD buys into mentoring and growing. Successful associates usually end up as a mentor later on.

Chad Fleming, OD, FAAO, is a partner with Wichita Optometry, P. A. in Wichita, Kan. To contact:

To Top
Subscribe Today for Free...
And join more than 35,000 optometric colleagues who have made Review of Optometric Business their daily business advisor.