Passing the torch: how nurse leaders can support the next generation

October 25, 2019

Allison Terry remembers it like it was yesterday.

She was a brand new nurse in cardiology working the evening shift from 3 to 11 p.m. She felt overwhelmed, intimidated, and needed reassurance that she made the right decision to become a nurse. Fortunately, there was an experienced nurse who took Terry under her wing and provided the kind, patient mentoring she needed.

That was 32 years ago. Looking back, Terry, PhD, MSN, RN, a faculty member with Capella University, says that experience proved to be one of the reasons she stayed in nursing for the next three decades.

Not every nurse is so fortunate, however.

 “You can get people to go into nursing, but it can be difficult to get them to stay and become nurse leaders,” Terry says.

Terry sees a solution in today’s nurse leaders, who have so much to offer in supporting and encouraging the next generation of nurses and nurse leaders.

Start early

Identifying and cultivating future nurse leaders shouldn’t happen when they are on the cusp of taking on a managerial role. Rather, Terry says it needs to start immediately, as soon as employee orientation for new nurses. She advocates that it is never too soon to begin pinpointing those key skills and qualities that are needed in nursing leaders, including time management, communication, accountability, respect for diversity and inclusion, and a healthy aptitude for technology.

“Look for those qualities, but more importantly let it be known loud and clear to those new nurses that you believe in them and feel they have what it takes to go places in their careers,” Terry says. “This needs to be a responsibility for every nurse leader. Whether you manage 100 nurses or one, we all can play a role in identifying and supporting the next generation of nurse leaders.”

Build camaraderie

Starting as a new nurse can be hard. Beyond the complexity of the direct care skills required, the stress and emotional magnitude of the job can take a toll. Nurses may seem like superheroes, but they are humans just like the rest of us, Terry says. They need a shoulder to cry on and they need someone to tell them they are doing a good job. They need a fellow nurse to assure them that they’ll get through it and that they are making a real difference.

“If new nurses feel welcome and that they are not alone in what they are feeling, they will most likely stick around and be successful,” Terry says. “Newer nurses are simply more likely to stay when they are immersed in a culture of camaraderie and collaboration. Nurse leaders need to build those cultures, and more importantly embody that approachable, compassionate leadership style that new nurses crave.”

Raise your hand as a mentor

Mentoring can be a powerful way to develop future nurse leaders. However, too often, the onus is on the young, inexperienced nurse to seek out a mentor and make the ask. Terry believes that has to change.

“Nurse leaders really need to take ownership of finding younger nurses to mentor,” Terry says. “Don’t wait for them to come to you. It’s a hard thing to ask. Make it easier on them and offer up your time. Mentorship has to be a two-way street. We simply must look for opportunities to mentor younger nurses.”

Encourage big-picture thinking

For the up-and-coming nurses who show potential as future nurse leaders, expand their realm of responsibilities sooner than later, Terry advises. Look beyond the direct care aspect of what they do for opportunities to provide more strategic thinking. Give them a chance to share their ideas on how nursing and health care more broadly can better serve the public.

“Bring them to the table and give them a voice in developing a vision for your hospital, clinic, or community,” Terry recommends. “Perhaps it’s a steering committee developing a 5-year plan to tackle the opioid crisis. Whatever the topic, we need those younger, fresher voices to be heard as they will be the ones leading us into the future. Not to mention, being involved with this sort of bigger-picture strategic visioning can be very exciting and inspiring for a young nurse.”

Have their backs

Last but not least, have their backs. Defend them when things get heated. Let them know your door is always open and that you will come to their aid when push comes to shove.

“Even just your physical presence as a more senior nurse during a confrontational moment can mean the world to a newer nurse,” Terry concludes. “Never let there be a doubt that they have someone in their corner. When you lead by example like that, they will be much more likely to pay it forward one day and do the same.”

Become the nurse leader of tomorrow with a Master of Science in Nursing degree from Capella University.

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