Q I'm an early-career nurse leader who works in an organization with long-tenured managers and senior nurse leaders. I don't see much opportunity for growth unless someone retires or leaves, and I want to have a long leadership career in the organization. What advice do you have for growing into future leadership opportunities?
This is a very common challenge for early-career leaders in many organizations. It can be both frustrating and discouraging to think that the only option you'll have to grow is to leave the organization and, sadly, that's what happens more times than not. As a nurse executive, I find this particularly troubling as it's generally the highest performers with the most potential who end up leaving for other opportunities. So, what do we do about it?
You're in charge of your career and your career goals. As an active owner of your own destiny, you need to ensure that decision-makers are clear about your desire to move up in the organization. Too many times, I learn about someone leaving the organization for a promotion or larger leadership role and I had no idea that they were even looking for something different. You should be open and honest about your goals and aspirations. That being said, the best way to be ready for the next big thing is to be a top performer and contributor in your current role. There's a necessary balance that requires you to deliver results while you spend time developing yourself.
Always make sure that you have the right tools in the toolbox. I was once a finalist for a big promotion that I really wanted. One of the preferred requirements was a doctorate, which I didn't have at the time. I made it all the way to the final interview only to be told that I was no longer being considered because I lacked the degree. I enrolled in a DNP program the next week. You should always be thinking about what you may need in your next role—specialty certifications, an advanced degree, or certain experience—and be working to get these added to your curriculum vitae.
Don't forget the basics: Presentation skills, finance acumen, and complex human resources management are all expectations as your role grows and expands, so spend time continuously developing these attributes. In addition, constantly work on your executive presence. How are you showing up every day? Are you positive and motivated? Are you someone who's always looking for solutions instead of excuses? These are the behaviors that people are watching for when they evaluate you for future leadership opportunities. Don't underestimate the power of your positive presence at work.
Growing “in place” is the most underutilized leadership development strategy. Sometimes the best way to learn and the most promising opportunity to show you're serious about growth is to expand the scope and responsibilities of your current role. There may not always be more money or a new title, but taking on interim roles, special projects, or new units is always a great way to demonstrate your commitment to the organization and your own growth. Again, this is a desire that you should be communicating to decision-makers so they're aware of your interest and willingness.
Finding a mentor who isn't the decision-maker in your career progression is also an excellent idea regardless of your career plans. I've found that having a professional sounding board who isn't in my chain of command and frequently not even in my organization has been invaluable as I've navigated my career. The best mentors aren't going to tell you how great you are all the time; however, they'll give you open, honest, and direct feedback to help find your blind spots, develop your career path and toolkits, and navigate complicated organizational politics. This should naturally be balanced with positive feedback and reinforcement, but it's in the harder-to-hear feedback where we find the most opportunity to grow and stretch ourselves.
Although you may feel like an opportunity may not be on the horizon, using these strategies will certainly put you in the right frame of mind, with actionable steps to have you ready to fill the next challenge—whatever that may be.