From Great Staff Nurse to Great Leader: 3 Keys to Success

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As a staff nurse in my unit for 11 years I was considered a clinically competent nurse. I loved working in surgical services and felt like I found my niche. After the nurse manager of 26 years retired we went through two more nurse managers in two years. The director of the surgical service line came to me and asked if I would consider applying for the nurse manager role. “The manager position?” I asked. Why me? Although they had an external candidate with experience, the director thought I would be a better fit – me – without leadership experience. And for whatever reason, I said yes.

I can remember the first day I switched from staff nurse to manager like it was yesterday. I closed the door of “my” office, turned on “my” computer, and said to myself, “Now what do I do?” For a few days, I was paralyzed with fear, wondering if I had made the right decision. When staff started knocking on my door on a daily basis complaining about their coworkers and sharing with me who they thought the “problem children” were, I thought, “Oh no!! I truly did not make the right decision.”

Do you remember your first day as a new leader?

If you have ever felt like this, I want to reassure you that you are not alone. So many of us went from staff nurse to manager in a Nano second and were probably selected because we were great clinicians! However, just like becoming competent in IV insertions or managing chest tubes, you can become just as competent in being a great leader.

Where do you begin?

In its 2001 report, Crossing the Quality Chasm, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) noted that improving our healthcare systems largely depends on trust among the healthcare team.  Becoming a great leader who can build a great team starts with trust.

If you’re a new leader or perhaps you’ve been a leader for many years but feel as though you need a reboot, here are 3 ways to become a great leader by building trust with your team.

  1. Be vulnerable

As leaders the most important thing for us to do is to role model trust by admitting that we’re not perfect and that we don’t have all of the answers.  Leaders make mistakes too. Then we can coach our staff on respectful ways to hold each other accountable. We need to ask for honest feedback, because if we can’t accept feedback as part of our growth, how can we expect them to.

Say to your team, “if I ever do or say something that you perceive as disrespectful or in poor practice, please come to me, and I promise I will listen, I won’t be defensive, and I will do the same for you.”

Being vulnerable is how you build trust.

  1. Be kind

When I say kind, I don’t just mean the “warm and fuzzy” kindness, although that type of kindness does matter. I mean kind in the sense that we are respectfully honest and clear with our peers regarding our expectations. In the book Dare to Lead, by Brene Brown, Brown states, “Not getting clear with a colleague about your expectations because it’s too hard and you’re afraid to talk to them, yet you hold them accountable or blame them for not delivering is unkind. Talking about people rather than to them is unkind. Clear is kind, unclear is unkind.” I love this philosophy and I have been very intentional in trying to live by these words and coaching my staff in how they hold their peers accountable in this same manner.

  1. Be Compassionate

Not only do patients want to be treated with courtesy and compassion, they want to see compassion among their healthcare team too.

Press Ganey helps healthcare organizations improve safety, quality and experience through analytics (surveys) and strategic solutions.  The scores we receive as organizations reflect, in part, what patients and families think of their healthcare providers. Many of us have a love-hate relationship with these surveys and spend a lot of our time trying to improve our scores. However, great leaders recognize that it’s the meaning behind the scores – not just the numbers that matters.

In a recent keynote address, Christy Dempsey, CNO of Press Ganey, explained that compassion and caring are not the “fluffy” stuff of healthcare. It should be the way we go about our work each and every day. Patients who perceive a reliably better experience have decreased lengths of stay, lower readmission rates, lower incidence of hospital-acquired infections, and overall report higher safety scores.

As Dr. Renee Thompson frequently says, “The way we treat each other is just as important as the care we provide.”

The Journey

This journey in leadership is filled with turns and twists, and many bumps in the road. You will make mistakes, I certainly did. When I made mistakes, I apologized to my staff, and guess what, they forgave me and said, “Diane, we know, you are human too.”

I’m about to enter a turning point in my career as I embark on a new leadership role in my organization. I’m hoping now that I have experience under my belt, I won’t sit at my desk on my first day and say, as I did the first time, “now what do I do?” Because as they say, leadership is a journey – not a destination. There will still be many new things to learn, and I’m excited to embrace this next journey with an open mind, an open heart, and a recommitment to being vulnerable, kind, and compassionate.

Whether you are a new leader starting on your journey or you’re an experienced leader, there is hope for becoming a trusted, kind, competent, and compassionate nurse leader. It takes a commitment to continuous learning coupled with a desire to serve your patients, by serving those you lead.

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6 thoughts on “From Great Staff Nurse to Great Leader: 3 Keys to Success”

  1. Diane, you give us excellent words to live by as nursing leaders. With you wisdom and experience, you will soar in your new leadership and you will ‘grow’ new leaders along side of you as you model the way with the philosophy shared in this blog. Being vulnerable is key–those we serve want us to be human!

  2. Diane, you nailed the 3 keys to success as a leader and as a person. It’s not about technical skills or knowledge. It reminded me of the Maya Angelou quote….”I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Best wishes on the next leg of your journey. You will do a great job.

    1. Thanks for taking the time to comment Kris! Love, love that quote. It says is all…especially in nursing.

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