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Can a CEO Mentor a Nurse?

Carrie Vaughan, for HealthLeaders Media, August 29, 2008

Sometimes you have to get out of your comfort zone to be a better leader. Inviting a patient to speak at a board meeting and share how a medical error has affected his or her life can be an uncomfortable situation for board members and senior executives. But it can also have a lasting impact on how those leaders evaluate processes and look at quality data because those numbers now have a face.

Similarly, having a CEO mentor an ICU nurse manager may cause both of them some anxiety—at least initially. But that relationship can also provide the CEO a vantage point from which he can better appreciate the daily challenges his clinical staff encounters. For instance, the CEO may glean more information on patient flow or barriers to quality improvement from an ICU tour led by his mentee than he can gain through his own rounding efforts.

Mentoring programs offer senior leaders an opportunity to break down silos and foster a team atmosphere across the organization. And often these relationships benefit the mentor as much as the mentee. "It's a win for the participant just to have that opportunity in on-the-job training, and it is a fabulous opportunity for the senior people to see what it's like walking in the moccasins of the manager," says Betty Noyes, a former hospital CEO who is now the president of the consulting firm Noyes & Associates Ltd.

Before you pair up your CFO with an IT director, here are a few pointers to help your mentoring program succeed.

Choosing the right mentor. There isn't one right answer when it comes to matching mentors and mentees. For example, Trinity Health has a mentoring component to its leadership development programs, and its hospitals vary widely in how they pair people together, says D'Anne Carpenter, the 44-hospital system's executive director of organization learning and development. Some hospitals are more structured in their approach, she says, and ask the participants to submit names of people that they would like to be mentored by and the director of the program reviews the submissions and approaches the mentors first. In other facilities, the participants ask the person directly if he or she would like to be their mentor. Carpenter's advice is that mentors shouldn't be assigned. "It is essential to find people who want to be mentors and let it occur more naturally than making a forced assignment."

If you're taking a more structured approach, it's also helpful to ask the participants what they want to learn more about and who they respect. Likewise, ask the mentors what skills they have to offer and whether or not they really want to be a mentor. "Mentors really need to make the commitment to volunteer the time, and they need to be rewarded and recognized for that effort," says Noyes. You may also want to avoid partnering an employee with their direct boss. The mentee may not feel comfortable asking questions and their boss may revert to telling them what to do rather than listening.

Teaching mentors. Not all executives have the skills required to be a good mentor, so make sure you offer them some guidance. For instance, they'll need to learn how to ask curious questions rather than providing answers. You want to challenge the mentee and really make them think. This can be an adjustment for many administrators whose first impulse is often to solve the problem. Mentors are encouraged, however, to share their expertise in navigating the system, such as, "I've found that X works well, or in this culture Y is effective," says Carpenter.

Mentor toolkit. Nothing is worse than having a newly paired mentor and mentee staring at each other during their first meeting and both wondering, "Now what?" Noyes advises giving mentors a reference guide with some conversation drivers and scripted questions to ask. This can be an invaluable resource to the mentor—especially if they are having a really hectic day and haven't had time to focus on the meeting beforehand.

Skills reinforcement. As part of their leadership development programs, Trinity Health gives each participant a project to complete. It has to be strategically aligned, important to the organization, measurable, and something that the participants can control, so that they can finish it during the program. "We push them to get results," says Carpenter. "We want them to take a baseline measurement, make a change, and take a post measurement to prove that they made a difference—it can be negative. But how do you tell? We have a lot of trouble with that in healthcare," she says.

This type of project creates another opportunity for the mentor to engage the mentee from a higher organizational level than they are accustomed to. The relationships established can also last long after the program ends and help align your employees around the goals of the organization.

Do you have an innovative approach to engaging staff members, or building an organizationwide culture? I'd like to hear about it. Drop me a line at the below e-mail address.


Carrie Vaughan is leadership editor with HealthLeaders magazine. She can be reached at cvaughan@healthleadersmedia.com.
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