Practical tips for aspiring leaders and organizations to ensure success
By Tracey Clare
April 19, 2022
As I sat in the boardroom with other leaders listening to a nursing student present her final leadership project, the quiver in her voice, trembling hands and frequent checking of her notes made me feel uncomfortable. In fact, I sensed everyone in the room felt that way. Interestingly enough, the content was thorough and directed toward a technology tool most of us were interested in knowing more about. But seeing her read directly from the slides did not show us the depth of her research. Only when the audience started asking questions did we see a glimmer of confidence and the knowledge we knew she had.
Two intertwining questions arose from this event. First, how does a beginning nurse develop their skills and qualities to prepare for leadership opportunities? Second, how do organizations engage and support leaders?
“How can I prepare so I can be a candidate to get that job?” is a question leaders frequently hear. Defining “leadership” in a job description is difficult, but terms such as “responsible for,” “operational management,” “staffing” and “quality improvement” are often used. Organizations should consider using terms such as “guidance,” “coach,” “mentor,” “influencer,” “time and emotional commitment,” “motivator” and “enabler,” as they would contribute to a practical and helpful definition for aspiring leaders.
Many aspects of leadership take time to develop, and when you first step into a leadership role, there are many unknowns. Formal nursing curriculums and the scope of post-basic nursing education related to leadership content vary. In the time gap between general nursing education and entering a leadership role, you must seek the opportunities to expand your knowledge in this area.
Leaders must learn to navigate different staff personalities, perspectives and personal objectives.
Have you ever wanted to be a clinical nurse educator, clinical nurse specialist or nurse practitioner? In these positions, you will be presenting or teaching in front of a group. Maybe you aspire to be a manager or a director. These roles require tremendous organizational skills, resourcefulness and decision-making skills. Leadership is leading; this could include chairing, teaching, presenting, organizing, delegating, reporting, mediating, coaching, mentoring or guiding, as well as other tasks. Research and understand the role requirements before you apply.
Opportunities for nurse leaders
Currently, health-care systems are in various stages of restructuring or reacting to environmental pressures and fiscal and political mandates. Organizations look to slim their workforce as much as possible while promoting sustainability and engagement. As this happens, leadership opportunities open up for nurses.
Suppose that you are applying for a newly created position. You could be in for quite an adventure, meaning that the role has not been fully determined and support is sparse. So expect a puzzle; you must put all the right people and framework pieces together to define the role. As people move on or retire from already existing positions, they take a wealth of valuable knowledge, experience and history with them. Ask about succession planning and information sharing so that knowledge and workplace momentum can be maintained.
Leadership skills and qualities
What are the qualities that are important to leadership? Does clinical experience outweigh education level and/or leadership qualities? An optimum candidate for the job has all of the necessary attributes. But a job description has required qualifications — the “must have’s” — and asset qualifications — the “hope you have’s.” Realize that the must-have qualities generally do not change. If a position requires you to teach, you will have to present what you are teaching. For some people, this skill comes naturally. For others, it is terrifying.
Seeking opportunities for skills beforehand may give you some insight into the career direction you want to take. In this digital age, technical skills are essential. If you want to organize, track or pull statistics, you will probably use Excel spreadsheets, databases or reporting systems. For time-saving and organizational capacity, become fluent with computer programs such as Excel, Word and PowerPoint. Here are a few introductory online training courses: Word for Windows training, Basics tasks in Excel, PowerPoint for Windows training.
Most leadership positions require some form of human resource management. This means hiring, motivating and engaging staff; conducting performance evaluations; performing HR duties such as onboarding, mediation, staffing, scheduling, and payroll; and taking part in wellness and socialization activities. Leaders must also learn to navigate different staff personalities, perspectives and personal objectives. For support, look for a mentor or mentorship program. The roles of mentors are to encourage, support, guide and coach as you grow professionally; they are not preceptors, so do not expect them to orient you or ensure your competency.
Resourcefulness and resilience
Other leadership qualities are resourcefulness and resilience. You should be well versed in valuable resources such as union agreements, organizational standards, and provincial/territorial and federal regulations. Regularly scanning internal and external environments for trends, opportunities and potential impacts will also boost your resourcefulness, particularly your planning and development skills. Many organizations recognize that resilience is one of the most needed skills and offer courses to build your confidence and strength in conflict management, coaching, personality assessments and having difficult conversations.
Ability to take advantage of organizational support
Organizational support and guidance are critical to successful adjustment to a leadership position. Organizations should develop or invest in high-quality, concise leadership training and education. They should also ensure that a formal leadership orientation program, including pathways to promote historical information sharing and network building, is in place. Taking advantage of all that is available to you will not only save time but also prevent a lot of frustration.
Ability to have an open mind and ask questions
Future leaders should value their own experience, but also have an open mind and listen to their colleagues. Ask questions and seek support. If you want a leadership job, you will have to collaborate with others, so invest time in developing those qualities. When you have these skills, be sure to let them shine on your resumé.
Good organizations allow leaders to ask for help when they need it. As one business leader has said, “Chaos means cash,” meaning that leadership without clarity and support leads to dissatisfaction, frustration and a waste of time and money. Let’s prevent this and let our future leaders shine.
Tracey Clare, RN, CVAA(c) AHS, is a lead for clinical learning with Covenant Health in Alberta.