Sunday, March 09, 2008

Look up: Could that new leader be you?

Look up: Could that new leader be you?

Katherine Vestal, RN, PhD, FAAN, FACHE 1,

Have you ever watched a leader that you admire and wondered if you could ever be successful in that job? Or conversely, have you watched someone and said to yourself that you could never, or would never, do that job? Or have you assessed a leader and determined that you think you could do a better job than they do? Probably all of us have experienced these moments more than once and found that they either motivate us to explore opportunities or confirm that we should just stay the course with our present role.

Given the current and increasing leadership shortage in nursing, these thoughts will inevitably lead to a lot of soul searching as pressures mount to have talented nurses in leadership roles. Nursing leadership roles are naturally evolving to meet myriad organizational challenges, so there will be ample opportunities for those who aspire to fill them. While all leadership roles do not necessarily involve upward promotion, at some point in a career that will likely be the case. So look up. What do you see in the hierarchy in the way of leadership roles? Do any of them look challenging or attractive to you? Do you aspire to fill a specific role?

Many of us are reluctant to have discussions about our leadership career aspirations or potential pathways. Are we afraid to offend the people currently in the roles? Or are we afraid to commit to a pathway and do the work to make it happen for fear of failure or disappointment? Often, we assume that because we are doing a good job in our current role that that will be recognized and we will be sought out for new opportunities. So there is usually some mix of fear of the unknown, reluctance to clarify our career intents, and belief that if we work hard enough the opportunities will come to us.

While this may work for some, more than likely it will slow advancement or in some cases derail upward mobility. Both of these are antithetical to what we need in nursing. So how can we begin to look up, clarify what we want, and set a course to achieve career goals?

Assess the changes that are underway in your organization
Many of these changes will create opportunities that you might pursue. For instance, if there are leadership changes underway and new leaders are coming into the organization or internal leaders moving around in the organization, vacancies will be created that will probably need to be filled. Give a lot of thought to pursing selected opportunities by assessing your interest in the work of that role, determining how selection will be made, and doing a self assessment of what you would bring to the role. If you can then envision yourself in the role it is helpful to talk with others to get information and feedback.

Make it known that you are interested in the job or a job with increased responsibility
In busy complex healthcare organizations it is easy to be overlooked, so have a conversation with other leaders and express your interest in advancing your career. Make it clear that you are ready to tackle assignments where you can learn and grow, that you are actively pursuing knowledge and skill building, and that you have the energy to invest in new initiatives. Whether this leads to a new role, a committee leadership assignment, or a special project is less important than the fact that you are now in a more visible position and can continue to pursue your goals.

Gather information on your experiences and accomplishments into a portfolio that you can review and also share with others
Over the years we tend to forget a lot of the detail of what we have accomplished, so it is important to periodically take stock of our careers to date. In objectively reviewing your accomplishments and holding them up to the career plan that you design, it will become clear where your strengths are and the areas that you will need to develop. In discussing your career portfolio with leaders who can advise you, you will get valuable insight into how the organization views your preparation for advancement.

Getting up to speed quickly will fast track your advancement
None of us ever has a full portfolio of skills and knowledge needed by the organization. But some have more than others. Establish a plan to enable you to gain expertise quickly so you are ready for the opportunities as they arise. For instance, if you determine that you need more expertise in fi-nance, or human resources, or patient safety, look around you and find people who can teach or mentor you and implement a plan to learn what you need to know. These resources can be inside or outside of the organization and in many cases can be learned through continuing education programs or the internet.

Demonstrate that you are flexible, focused, and dependable in meeting goals and metrics
With the increased pressure to meet targets and goals in healthcare organizations, it will not go unnoticed that you are able to deliver results. In the process you show that you are creative, innovative and able to find new and better ways of doing things. It is important that you share your findings with others, not only to better the organization, but also to create a platform for your own career pursuits. It is easy to think that the things you ac-complish will be highly visible and credited to you, but in reality that does not happen by chance.

Being scared can be a good thing as it will motivate you to quickly find an answer
Most leaders will tell you that they had a fair amount of fear when they began new jobs and that they felt that they had a lot at stake to succeed. From the outside, they exuded confidence so it was hard to see that they were scared, but they were. Often it is that same fear that keeps capable people from pursuing new jobs and the opportunity to grow and advance is lost. For all nurse leaders, there will be so many opportunities to advance that we must understand that the fear we feel should be the driver for learning and advancement. It is not necessary when considering a new role, to overemphasize your needs. Just acknowledge that there are things to be learned and you will have a plan to accomplish that.

Look for opportunities to try a role on an interim basis
With all of the organizational challenges there are always opportunities to fill a function or role on a short-term basis. That might be just the chance to try out a role and see if it interests you while also getting visibility from other leaders. Interim roles always have unique challenges so you will need a sense of adventure as you assume the responsibilities. Be sure when agreeing to assume an interim leadership role that you have clarity about what must be accomplished within a defined time frame. This will help you determine how you can pace change and meet expectations. Be prepared to track your results closely and stay in close touch with the leader the role reports to.

In many ways advancing in leadership and moving to the top is as much of an art as a science. Of course, you will need to have substantial knowledge and skills as you assume increasing responsibility, but you will also have to keep looking up and determine what you will need to learn next. Perhaps the greatest challenge is to be able to visualize yourself in that role and make a personal career commitment to get there.
So be sure and look around at the leaders you admire, look up at the leaders you aspire to be, and then look inside yourself and instill the drive to get there. We need so many new leaders, and you can make sure you are one of them.

Footnotes1. Katherine Vestal, RN, PhD, FAAN, FACHE, is president of Work Innovations, Inc., in Lake Leelanau, Mich.

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