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Early-career nurses find pathways to leadership

It’s important for nurses to develop leadership skills at the start of their careers; here, two at the forefront share their journeys – and showcase the unique skill set of young leaders.

Laurie Bickhoff was still at university when she first realised what leadership meant to her. She had long been involved in voicing issues to the “powers that be” but had never considered herself a leader.

“I have long held the belief that the right to complain comes with the responsibility to try and find solutions and as such I became involved in a number of small projects,” Bickhoff says. “When students complained that a particular major assignment was too difficult to understand, I worked with the nursing faculty to create a step-by-step guide and FAQ sheet.

“When I saw first-year students going through the same struggles I did adjusting to study, I helped create a student survival guide. When I felt broader student issues were not being addressed, I joined the nursing student representative committee. These were small projects, but they made an immediate difference.”

She was surprised when one of her university lecturers – who was also her nursing mentor – suggested she apply for the ACN Emerging Nurse Leader program back in 2012. It was not until she rethought what defined a leader that Bickhoff decided to apply.

“I never saw myself as a leader,” she says. “[However, my lecturer] made me realise that leadership is not about the grand gestures, the big roles or even recognition. It was about motivating and inspiring others, being passionate and prepared to work for the change you wanted to see, and being willing to speak up when others couldn’t.”

Bickhoff now wants to be involved in shaping the future of the nursing profession.

“I am planning on being a nurse for many, many years to come, and so I think it is important for us new nurses to be proactive, to speak up and let those who are determining policy and practice know what we think, what we need and what we would like to see change.

“I believe young nurse leaders bring a unique perspective. We can see a situation with a fresh pair of eyes and approach situations from different angles. We are passionate about making a difference, from a local to an international level, and are very vocal, inspiring others to join our teams.

“We are continually searching for fresh, innovative ways to make healthcare better, for both the patients and those who work within it. We have embraced technology like no other generation, and use it to seek answers, to connect with each other and the world, and to improve our practice.”

Bickhoff, who successfully gained a position with the 2012 ACN Emerging Nurse Leaders, is now completing a transition to specialty practice program in cardiology. She is also enrolled in a nursing honours program to be completed in 2015.

She has represented ACN at a national level and will soon take part in an Australian Commission on Safety and Quality in Health Care roundtable discussion on the National Safety and Quality Health Care Standards, presenting the view of early-career nurses.

Along with many other scheduled presentations at national events, Bickhoff also runs the blog Defining Nursing (definingnursing.com), created as a means to reflect and process the complex world of nursing she has entered.

“I [have come] across a number of issues that I [have] felt unprepared for as an early-career nurse,” she says. “It was reassuring to me, after sharing my story, to have other nurses tell me they had been through the same thing. This inspired me to keep writing, to keep sharing my journey so that hopefully nursing students who read my blog may be better prepared than I was.”

Whilst Bickhoff didn’t necessarily think of herself as a leader straight away, Karen Clark-Burg was quick to adopt the mindset.

Clark-Burg, the acting dean of the School of Nursing and Midwifery at the University of Notre Dame, was a young early-career nurse when she first stepped up into a leadership role.

At only age 24, she was the clinical nurse manager in charge of the perioperative unit at a major metropolitan hospital. This position made Clark-Burg responsible for the operating theatre, day surgery unit and sterilising.

She then discovered her love for teaching after undertaking postgraduate studies through scholarships for development as an emerging nurse leader in the health department.

She hasn’t looked back. Clark-Burg has held both clinical and education positions ever since, giving up the clinical area only recently to focus on the leadership position at Notre Dame.

“[Right from the start], I have always thought that I could change nursing in a positive way and – being young – in a contemporary way,” she says. “I saw a profession with a lot of heritage and culture and I just wanted to have a little bit to say about it.”

Clark-Burg labels insight into this generation, energy and enthusiasm as key attributes young leaders bring to the table. Still in her 30s, she now sits with senior national nursing leaders in major forums, which she describes as a fantastic opportunity to help shape the future of nursing.

“Nursing has a fantastic background and culture but we now have to move with the times,” she says. “We now have different and new challenges and I think now having young leaders up the top would certainly help us get there.”

So what advice do Bickhoff and Clark-Burg have for early-career nurses on what it takes to be a leader?

Find the area or specialty you love: Leadership and management positions in every field often involve a lot of hours, hard work and dedication. Loving what you do will inspire you to excel and give you the drive to succeed.

Clark-Burg found her passion – perioperative nursing. It was something she immensely enjoyed and she says it was this passion that drove her to want to do well.

“You need a lot of dedication and commitment to your job, you need to have a good work ethic and be willing to do things outside work hours,” she says. “This could be further study, professional development, talking to mentors and so on.

“So young nurses looking to pursue management and leadership positions need to find what they love, so they can love what they do.”

Find a good mentor: Both Bickhoff and Clark-Burg attribute early success in their careers to people who were involved in teaching, supporting, advising and steering them in the right direction.

Bickhoff says finding people you respect as leaders, who are willing to work with you to develop your leadership skills is an important first step. Seek people who are willing to seek out feedback; then it’s important to appreciate constructive criticism.

Make sure you include a non-nursing mentor, she says, who can provide perspectives from different life experiences.

“I’ve certainly found my different mentors – from the nursing academic, clinical nursing and business worlds – have provided me with a wealth of knowledge and are a great resource I often turn to.”

Clark-Burg agrees – her role models were always her inspiration to succeed.

“I used to look at the nurse managers [where I originally started working] and aspire to become like them,” she says. “However, in order to do that you had to get to the top. So it was the good role models and wonderful mentors who shaped me to become what I am now.”

Identify your core values: Knowing your own core values and beliefs and how they align with the organisation you are working for or applying to join is essential, Bickhoff says.

“If they don’t align, I personally feel it is better to pass on an opportunity, than commit to something that would [force you] to compromise your values,” she says. “The opportunities you turn down say as much about you as the ones you accept, and will help build your reputation as a leader with integrity.”

Clark-Burg says there will be humps and bumps along the way, so stay positive. “Have a clear goal and vision,” she says. “You will need to have broad shoulders to work towards what you want.”

Avoid complacency; master tact and diplomacy: “So you love what you do and you do it well,” Clark-Burg says. “You should still look to others who can inspire you in any way.

“You also need to have an understanding of and commitment to lifelong learning. Being always aware that you don’t know it all and you have to commit to knowing it.”

Bickhoff’s last bit of advice may be the most important: “Don’t be afraid to have a voice. You need to be willing to speak up and be heard; however, diplomacy and tact are essential.”

Listen to an extended interview with Laurie Bickhoff below:

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