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IHI's Patricia McGaffigan shares tips for nurses interested in pursuing leadership roles in health care.
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Dear IHI: What Advice Would You Give to a Nurse Who Wants to Be in a Leadership Position?

By Patricia McGaffigan | Thursday, May 10, 2018
What Advice Would You Give to a Nurse Who Wants to Be in a Leadership Position

Dear IHI —

What advice would you give to a nurse who wants to be in a leadership position? HIGH HOPES


So, you want to be in a leadership position? I believe that leadership is far more that a formal leadership role or title, but I’ll focus my advice on your vision of serving in a formal leadership position. No blog post can cover it all, of course, so I’ll share three pieces of advice that I know have been critical for me and several of my colleagues.

  1. First, focus on you. And by focusing on you, I mean focusing on optimizing your physical and emotional health and resiliency. There’s clear evidence that if we are not healthy, we are unable to bring our best to any job. Better health is associated with our ability to be more fully present — both physically and psychologically — and is the foundation for optimizing our productivity.

    Another important way to focus on you: Examine your performance evaluations and feedback from peers to identify your bright spots with respect to your leadership traits — and areas where you might want to especially focus on development. Your experience and skills gained at the bedside may offer valuable frontline expertise that will be vital to your credibility and relatability as a leader. And you’ve probably gained leadership, problem solving skills, and conflict resolution skills that will be foundational to your future as a leader.
  1. Second, review your network of nursing and non-nursing colleagues to scout out leaders who are mission-driven and making a difference in creating organizational climates that are healthy. Leaders who place a core value on creating and sustaining cultures of safety, regardless of profession, are leaders who understand that our most important assets are our employees. They enable individuals, teams, and organizations to thrive and professionally flourish. They recognize that there is no “on-off switch” for creating cultures of safety, and they are consistently assessing and improving their focus on culture. They continuously evaluate and reflect upon their weekly or daily work, identify examples of how they’ve been a “culture carrier” (or a “culture barrier”), and have continuous learning and improvement plans about their own development. Find these colleagues and take them to coffee for 15 minutes to talk and learn from them about their own paths to success, including their speedbumps and how they navigated them.
  1. Third, map out a game plan for your leadership development. To make this feel more manageable, “chunk it down” into smaller pieces that won’t become overwhelming. Three small pieces I’d suggest: Step up and seek out opportunities to join teams and initiatives that provide experience working with teams in your current role. Network, network, network to broaden your relationships with leaders. And seek out a mentor who can guide you on your journey.

    Additionally, advanced education may be vital to your ability to progress as a nurse leader. Nursing programs offer ample opportunities for advancement as a leader. And non-nursing programs, such as business administration, leadership, and public health, also provide great pathways to strengthen and diversify your leadership skills.

    Be sure that your game plan also identifies professional associations that offer leadership development opportunities. Include in your plan ways to gain organizational support to attend meetings where leadership development tracks are a focus. Evaluate the many options for certification opportunities that may be aligned with the type of leadership role to which you are aspiring. For example, many nurses are in key leadership roles related to safety, such as patient safety officers, and hold the Certified Professional in Patient Safety (CPPS) credential, which has become highly valued for candidates who are seeking to become safety leaders.

Nurses are serving in the highest of leadership roles in health care organizations, including in executive roles and governance roles on boards of directors across the health care industry. Nurse leaders are inextricably essential, and we bring immeasurable value, ideas, and energy to ensuring safe and quality person- and family-centered care. I hope to see you on your journey toward success!

Patricia A. McGaffigan, RN, MS, CPPS, is Vice President, Patient Safety Programs, at the Institute for Healthcare Improvement.

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