How 2 RNs moved from the bedside to the C-suite

Many nurses enter the profession because they have a passion for caring for other people — and that passion can be a driving force in moving nurses from the frontline to the executive suite.

For instance, it was a passion for caring for patients who had chronic conditions that eventually spurred Amy Cotton, RN, MSN, at the time a staff registered nurse, to make moves into administration.

"I discovered within myself that I was 'that' staff nurse who always asked the 'why' questions," says Ms. Cotton, who, after a series of job changes and achievements, is now the vice president of patient engagement and CXO of EMHS in Brewer, Maine. Ms. Cotton is also an Executive Nurse Fellow with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. "I decided to do something about it."

Similarly, Michelle Conley, BSN, RN, CEN, started as a staff nurse and eventually became CNO of Aria Health in Philadelphia. "I felt very passionately about the work nurses do every day," she says, and felt she could help others in healthcare realize what an asset nurses are if she had a seat at the executives' table.

Both Ms. Cotton and Ms. Conley made the leap from the bedside to the C-suite. Here, they share four tips for other nurses looking to do the same.

Find the right mentors — and keep in mind that the right mentor is likely not a nurse. "Look beyond the field of nursing or traditional healthcare," says Ms. Cotton. "We have a lot to learn from other industries in the area of leadership." She recalls two mentors — both from outside the industry — who taught her valuable lessons about business skills and leadership skills development. "It was because of those individuals that I had a self-awareness that I could go to the next level…in my professional career."

It is also imperative to be intentional about reaching out to potential mentors who embody and possess desirable qualities of a leader. "If you see someone being very effective and [has an] influence on a wide variety of people, they can help develop the next generation of leaders," Ms. Cotton says.

Speak up. Ms. Conley says, "If what you want to do is move into an administrative position, do what you need to do and reach out to people who can help you. Nurses should not feel shy about asking for what they want to people in their organization. "Make your aspirations known, she says"

Ms. Conley says she did just that, and people in her organization took notice — they have helped her and given her opportunities which eventually led to her becoming Aria Health's CNO.

Obtain further education, if necessary. Sometimes, having a BSN and years of experience won't be enough to rise through the ranks and be an effective leader. If that's the case, RNs may need to seek further education to achieve their dreams and move up the ladder. For instance, Ms. Conley earned the designation of Certified in Executive Nursing Practice in addition to an MBA and her nursing degree.

Ms. Cotton is currently pursuing a doctoral degree. "I wish I had done it much earlier," she says, encouraging nurses who are pondering getting a master's or doctoral degree to do so sooner rather than later. Those who do "will probably have more choices in their career," she says.

Maintain positive thinking. It can be difficult for clinicians to accept that making mistakes will likely happen as a leader, especially since their career focus is to help and not harm people. "It's completely OK to not be perfect," Ms. Cotton says.

Nurses moving into new roles should do the following, according to Ms. Cotton: "Forgive themselves and not hang onto things, as that will be a real career stopper."

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