nursing leadership lessons

Throughout her career, nurse leader Connie Curran, EdD, RN, FAAN, watched the most talented and effective nurses advance to the role of nurse managers. Whether it was because they had missed out on business courses, or they lacked nurse role models who had climbed higher, it was in these positions where the career progression of high-achieving nurses often stagnated.

“I realized we needed to raise the bar as nurses and aspire to be leaders,” said Curran, CEO of Best on Board and a member of Chamberlain’s Board of Trustees. “I wanted to showcase nurses, who in many ways seem ordinary, doing extraordinary jobs extremely successfully.”

Curran began interviewing nurses in senior leadership roles, such as Rhonda Anderson, CEO of Cardon Children’s Medical Center, and Roy Simpson, vice president of nursing informatics at Cerner Corporation. The insights these executives provided on nursing leadership skills are detailed in Curran’s new book, “Claiming the Corner Office: Executive Leadership Lessons for Nurses.”

With a deep knowledge of patient care and dedication to the nursing process, nurses bring a powerful perspective to the table in executive roles, Curran says.

Connie Curran -- Nursing leadership skills

Connie Curran serves as the chair of DeVry’s Board of Directors.

“Nurses bring a disciplined process around solving problems,” she said. “Nurses bring extraordinary communication skills. We learn how to communicate both verbally and in writing under highly stressful situations. Nurses also bring compassion and we tend to be good team players. And most nurses work very, very hard. At the end of the day, important jobs require all of these skills.”

In the book, published by the Honor Society of Nursing, Sigma Theta Tau International (STTI), Curran and co-author Therese Fitzpatrick, PhD, RN, provide nurses with a roadmap to leadership success. Curran recently shared  six of these nursing leadership lessons:

1. Influence the Numbers 

At every level, understanding the numbers is essential. As a beginning staff nurse, nurses need to understand the patient’s numbers, from lab values to blood pressures. As you progress to a management or executive role, Curran suggests nurses go back to school and take courses on subjects including finance and accounting.

“Every hospital and clinic in the country today is being confronted with the question of how to give better care and keep costs under control,” she said. “Whenever you can do anything to influence the numbers— either bring down the cost or drive up the quality— you will be a hero. The numbers are crucial. No money, no mission.”

2. Get a Mentor… and then a Coach 

During your early to mid-career, finding a mentor to help enhance your skills and problem-solving abilities is essential, Curran says.

“Find people in your life and work experiences who do things well and try to form a relationship with them,” she said. “You don’t have one mentor who teaches you everything. If you see someone who does a great job of patient education, ask to spend some time with them. If you see someone who deals well with hostile doctors, ask them for some advice on how to do that. Seize the opportunity to learn.”

Great companies often find coaches for top talent in the mid-to-upper levels of their career to help further develop skills.

“Oftentimes, employees don’t get constructive feedback unless they have significant performance problems,” Curran said. “If your employer offers coaching, that’s great. If they don’t, go out and find a career coach. Just like you would invest in a tennis or golf game, invest in your career.”

3. Picture the Worst-Case Scenario 

Nurses often work really, really hard and then wait for the right people to notice — something that rarely happens, says Curran.

“If you don’t take some risk, put yourself out there and volunteer to try new things, you probably won’t get many new opportunities,” Curran said. “Volunteer for a committee, volunteer to float to another unit, volunteer to get some new experiences. Raise your hand and do something else above and beyond your everyday job.”

To help her assess and take risks in her own career, Curran pictures the worst-care scenario for every situation. Often the worst-case scenario is not too bad – feeling embarrassed, for instance — and rarely does it come to pass. If you can tolerate the consequences from a worst-case scenario, you can feel comfortable taking the risk.

“Once a day, I do something that’s new and different for me, where I’m putting myself out there a little bit,” she said. “I learn, learn, learn and then the thing I was once uncomfortable with, I’m now comfortable with.”

4. Build Relationships Across the Organization

During her time as a dean at the Medical College of Wisconsin, Curran spent time speaking with a marketing team member at their medical center on the important role nurses play in healthcare. From that interaction, the team member provided Curran access to an opportunity to do a nightly spot on the 5 o’clock news in Milwaukee about healthcare. She became the only nurse in the country on a nightly news show and found a new outlet to boost the profile of the nursing profession.

“What nurses tend to do is go to lunch and sit together,” Curran said. “We go to the same meetings, we form all our relationships with each other and don’t get to know anyone in the lab, or in marketing. It’s important to really form relationships across the board.”

Those relationships might lead to an invitation on a taskforce or committee. You might be asked to be on a budgeting committee, where you can provide input on how to do things better at the patient level.

“Building relationships with employees in other departments is an important thing to do and an easy thing to do, and yet it often doesn’t happen with nurses in hospitals,” she said. 

5. Learn All You Can

Curran was only six months out of nursing school when it became clear to her that she needed to learn more. She went back to school one night a week. Eventually, she would go on to earn a Master’s and a doctorate degree.

“There are just so many exciting advances happening in healthcare, you’ve just got to keep learning. Keep taking courses, going to seminars, reading and investing in your careers and yourselves.” 

6. Keep Your Perspective

Curran found that each leader she interviewed had entered the field of nursing because they saw it as a way to better the lives of people. Once they started clinical practice, they saw opportunities to do things better and moved to roles away from the bedside.

“Of course, once you got to be the nurse manager, you could see that if you ran the division, you could get better staffing, better quality or make things better for the nurses,” she said. “All of us saw these leadership opportunities as a way of actualizing our original mission, which was to make things better for patients.”

At the end of the day, it’s important to keep in mind why you entered the field of nursing and appreciate the miraculous work nurses do, Curran says.

“This job is about adding to the quantity and quality of human life. Don’t get stuck in petty, little issues or unit politics. Keep your perspective about this wonderful career and the difference you’re making in people’s lives, your own life and in your family’s life.”

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