Who’s Your Mentor?

Carrie Vaughan, for HealthLeaders Media, June 18, 2008

Nurses aren't trained to be managers. They're trained to be clinicians. So how can your hospital ensure that it is providing the additional training and leadership development needed to create the next generation of chief nursing officers? The first step is identifying which nurses have the personality traits to be effective managers—and just because a nurse is a great clinician doesn't mean she'll be a great leader.

Recently, I spoke with M. T. Meadows, director of professional practice at the American Organization of Nurse Executives in Chicago, about the different skill sets that nurse executives need in smaller community hospitals versus larger health systems. She said that nurses in rural or critical-access hospitals have numerous responsibilities; for example, they may be in charge of the nursing units plus housekeeping and pharmacy. "They need to be able to identify with the groups of people that they are leading. They may have a nursing and a non-nursing department, and the needs of those departments are going to be different, so they have to wear more hats and work on their objectivity in dealing with multiple departments," she says.

I have heard that hospitals should be looking for nurses who don't intimidate easily, are confident and compassionate, exhibit objective and independent thinking, have the ability to see the big picture, and embrace change as an opportunity for growth. But identifying potential leaders is just the first step. Next is establishing an in-house training program—which may be difficult for mid-sized or smaller hospitals because they often lack the infrastructure and resources required to establish such programs. One training tool that is fairly easy to implement whether you're a small or large hospital, however, is a mentoring program. Mentors can help groom new nurse executives by helping nurses identify what their learning needs are and directing them to that information. They can also help nurses transition into a new role by acting as a sounding board for new nurse leaders' questions or problems.

While it is beneficial for the mentor to have knowledge of the nurse executive's role, is it absolutely necessary to have only nurse managers mentoring other nurse managers? I wonder if smaller hospitals should establish a mentoring program in which non-nursing executives are partnered with new nurse leaders—especially since nurses in these facilities assume multiple responsibilities. Why not have the chief financial officer or chief operating officer mentor the new nurse executive? The CFO or COO could help get the nurse leader up to speed on the financial elements of the job—an area frequently requiring additional training—or the operational elements of the organization.

In addition, this type of mentoring program could give smaller organizations the opportunity to pick truly great mentors—people who have good communication skills and understand how adults learn—rather than choosing mentors based solely on their job. The bottom line is that the organization needs to foster an environment that supports learning. Staff members need to feel comfortable sitting down with a colleague and saying, “Tell me what I need to know about this spreadsheet.”

If you have a unique approach to mentoring or training new nurse executives, I would love to hear about it. Please drop me a line at cvaughan@healthleadersmedia.com.

Carrie Vaughan is editor of HealthLeaders Media Community and Rural Hospital Weekly. She can be reached at cvaughan@healthleadersmedia.com.
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