Navigating a role transition: How to use your nursing leadership skills in a new career chapter : Nursing Management

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Department: Performance Potential

Navigating a role transition

How to use your nursing leadership skills in a new career chapter

Kiper, Valerie DNP, MSN, RN, NE-BC

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Nursing Management (Springhouse): September 2019 - Volume 50 - Issue 9 - p 49-52
doi: 10.1097/
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You've worked long hours with resolve and intent, forging a career path to become a valued nurse leader in your organization. You've stayed focused on achieving higher education, obtaining advanced leadership training, and succeeding in each role, attaining success at every step. However, in today's changing healthcare environment, you may find yourself faced with a new challenge: changing your career course. You may be in a situation where you're asked to prematurely retire on a timeline different than you planned or you may wish to make a career switch because of life changes. As you consider a career transition from your current leadership position, many questions, uncertainties, and personal dilemmas may arise. This article highlights some of the major considerations that nurse leaders at any level may face during a change in roles, as well as strategies to help navigate a career transition. (See Strategies to consider.)

Organizational impact

The nursing leadership role has evolved over the years into a demanding position that requires not only multifaceted nursing and business skills, but also a significant amount of energy, resiliency, and personal dedication. Being well-organized and detail-oriented is only a small portion of the skill set required of the present-day nurse leader. Increased workload demands, unhealthy work environments, and high patient acuity (overload) are among the challenges currently facing most RNs.1,2 Today's nurse leader must think differently to remove barriers to delivering high-quality care in the midst of a continued nursing shortage, budget concerns, and complex new technologies.

As a result of our turbulent healthcare environment, unexpected leadership career transitions seem to be occurring with greater frequency.3,4 Unplanned career changes may occur due to mergers, executive realignment, or other circumstances. Because the organization's intellectual capital can quickly be lost with an exodus of talented leaders, you'll want to ensure that you've mentored and fostered well-prepared nurse leaders who can step into your leadership role at any time. Talent management in succession planning involves identifying, developing, and managing emerging leaders with high potential. As part of the organization's strategic plan, succession planning supports emerging leaders by providing sufficient leadership preparation through training, education, and practical experience.5,6 A succession plan will ensure the continuity and strength of the organization, but what about how a career transition will impact you?

Personal impact

A major transition affects four aspects of your life: your role, relationships, routine, and assumptions.7 When you leave your position, you may be leaving a role that's been a significant part of your life. Most of your professional relationships may be within the organization, and some of those relationships may not continue after you leave, which can create feelings of isolation and loss initially. Your work and personal routines may also be completely disrupted. Although your job has been a significant part of who you are, remember that you aren't defined by your professional role and title.

You'll begin to deliberate on questions such as, “Who am I?” and “What do I really want to do?” The invaluable lessons learned from previous work experiences and past challenges contribute in unique ways, laying the framework for future success. Bringing key pieces of knowledge and expertise into future work is critical in finding a “fit” as an individual, team member, and leader. Portions of past work may create opportunities to innovate, and new opportunities may emerge. Or maybe you have professional aspirations that you haven't accomplished yet that may translate into future career options. You may desire a change in industries, work culture, or organizational size or type while continuing with a similar function.8

Various other industries and business sectors often welcome and value the leadership skills and clinical expertise of nurses, such as insurance/managed care, pharmaceutical sales, governmental and regulatory/accreditation agencies, information technology entities, research and consulting firms, law firms, and professional associations. When contemplating career alternatives, consider your knowledge and skills that are transferable to other industries or another area of focus within healthcare. You may also benefit from retraining or new training, professional development, or advanced education if you choose to move in a totally different career direction.

For accomplished leaders, there are many opportunities to combine part-time positions in practice, education/professional development, research, quality and patient safety, management, professional writing, consulting, and leadership into a robust portfolio. A combination of various types of work may be the perfect personal and professional match. After exploring the options, you'll be able to match organizational mission and values with your individual values and preferences in a way that utilizes your key talents.

Remaining involved professionally is vital to continuing established relationships and creating new ones. Don't underestimate the power of your network of colleagues and friends. Several platforms are available to provide professional connections, including professional organizations, conferences, webinars, and informal networking meetings. Many healthcare and community organizations welcome nurse leaders to serve in a volunteer capacity, ranging from hands-on work to service at the board level.

Work-life balance is another major consideration. Given an opportunity to rebalance, you need to be honest about what's ideal for you to maintain an optimum level of self-care to enhance your future performance and boost resilience. Setting boundaries to promote balance between the time you spend at work and with family members and friends is important.9 As a nurse leader, you're probably able to juggle many things and serve a variety of needs; however, during the transition phase, you should choose the issues important to you and those that will move you toward your desired future state. Remember, “You aren't just investing your time or your career—you're investing your life.”10 Be certain that the type of work you choose is what you want to do so your authentic leadership can shine through.

A positive change

The rewarding benefit of a career transition is that it often allows us to reflect on our past contributions to the profession and consider other options that can turn out to be life-changing. During my own leadership journey, I often hoped my next career change would be teaching future generations of nurses. The transition from CNO to nursing professor completed my journey as I stepped into a new realm where I can share the knowledge I gained over the past 4 decades as a nurse leader. Whatever career change you do choose, don't forget to enjoy the ride!

Strategies to consider

Think ahead

  • Develop a transition plan with objectives and timelines.
  • Make a list of key personal/professional experiences.
  • Update your résumé.
  • Have a script ready to explain your transition plans.

Stay connected

  • Reach out to your personal and professional network.
  • Seek opportunities to meet new contacts who may offer unique and different perspectives.
  • Remain involved in professional organizations.

Work-life balance

  • Define your work-life balance goals and adjust this balance to achieve your desired collective life goals.
  • Choose future positions and professional commitments that support your desired equilibrium.
  • Make time for self-care, such as regular exercise, proper sleep, and good nutrition.


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