Mentoring your nursing staff helps create future leaders

ED nurse managers must always be on the lookout for future leaders, urges Colleen Bock-Laudenslager, RN, MS, a Redlands, CA-based consultant. "It is your professional responsibility to facilitate the employee’s leadership skills and advanced professional skills," she says.

Mentoring others improves the likelihood that your accomplishments will continue to thrive, says Bock-Laudenslager. "When an exemplar manager leaves the department, the transition is potentially smoother, more fluid," she notes. "It is your opportunity to leave a legacy by nurturing potential leaders who could move into your leadership position."

Some managers may avoid mentoring, fearing they will be replaced. "The current financial health care climate is not conducive to mentoring, as it can foster job insecurity," says Bock-Laudenslager. "Having people waiting in the wings who could step into one’s position may be threatening, but the leader’s most unselfish act is to mentor those within their line of authority."

However, when employees reporting to you are consistently chosen for leadership positions, it validates your leadership capability, Bock-Laudenslager says. "You feel a sense of accomplishment when your employees tend to receive recognition and promotion, because it clearly demonstrates the outcome of your mentoring ability," she explains.

Mentoring can promote retention of qualified nurses and minimize burnout, says Bock-Laudenslager. "Most individuals reach a learning plateau where they may benefit from a manager challenging them to pursue other avenues of their career, especially those who have peaked clinically," she adds.

Nurses managers in the ED need to cultivate leaders from within, stresses Liz Jazwiec, RN, a Crestwood-IL-based consultant. "The ED is so different from other nursing units that it is hard for new leaders to learn from other department heads," she says. "We need to grow our own leaders, so that they might be successful in the future."

Many ED nurses will find themselves challenged to take leadership roles in the near future, predicts Jazwiec. "The challenges of healthcare will dictate that many individuals within a department will need to take on leadership roles in one way or another," she says. "You become a much stronger, effective manager if you have several leaders’ amongst your staff."

In many EDs, the traditional roles of assistant nurse manager or supervisor are no longer in place, so future leaders need to be identified and mentored, Jazwiec explains. "Every good leader should have two or three possible candidates for her position should she get promoted or decide to leave," she recommends.

Here are some effective ways to mentor nurses:

Make mentoring part of your job description. "In every institution, there needs to be a clearly defined written standard where mentoring is part of a manager’s job function," says Bock-Laudenslager. "Leaders must be accountable for the mentoring role. Not only is it prudent to do so, but it is a JCAHO requirement that leadership within the organization encourage staff to become better leaders."

Not only does the job standard need to be clearly defined, but managers need to be evaluated against it, argues Boch-Laudenslager. "Some hospitals are now sending evaluations to their staff which include rating their immediate supervisor in terms of their ability to mentor others," she says.

Likewise, the job descriptions of staff nurses should also have a professional component. "Include a job standard that measures leadership development, including professionalism and the ability to problem solve," says Bock-Laudenslager.

Maintain your own clinical and leadership skills. "You can’t teach others what you don’t know yourself," says Bock-Laudenslager. "Effective management bridges the gap between art and science, theory and practice, [and] the manager’s office and the trenches."

Maintain continuing education. "Managers need to be formally trained in mentoring others," says Bock-Laudenslager. "Often, nurses are promoted through the ranks without any consideration of their management training." Nurse managers should attend ongoing leadership courses that address mentoring, she recommends.

Express enthusiasm about leadership. "Through observing managers, nurses will find a leadership position either desirable or undesirable. Seeing your enthusiasm will affect their interest in pursuing leadership/managerial positions," says Bock-Laudenslager. "If every time they ask you about your job, you’re rolling your eyes and expressing frustration, they won’t be encouraged."

Recognize leadership potential in nurses. "If you observe an employee demonstrating exemplary leadership skills, such as handling a confrontation with a family member or solving a challenging clinical problem, tell them you admire how they approached the situation," says Bock-Laudenslager.

In addition, give written recognition in their annual performance appraisal. "This may encourage them to pursue expanded nursing roles," Bock-Laudenslager suggests.

Reinforce leadership skills in staff educational programs. "Leadership skills are an integral part of clinical expertise. Even if you are educating staff on clinical issues, leadership principles can be integrated into your teaching programs," says Bock-Laudenslager. "In doing so, you are preparing them for more challenging leadership roles."

Encourage nurses at the grassroots level to develop leadership skills, advises Bock-Laudenslager. "Your education department can develop programs for nurses that will augment their leadership potential, such as charge nurse classes, preceptor classes, resume writing, or writing for publication," she suggests.

A small minority of nurses may be future ED leaders, so emphasize other leadership possibilities. "Of the 3-5% of nurses who would be good leaders, there may only be 1% who be really good administrators," notes Jazwiec. "It may not be their forte to direct and manage other people, or they may not be organized enough to manage many things at once, but an educator role may be a perfect fit."

Inform nurses about available leadership positions. "Inform nurses about available positions, both internally or externally, through a department newsletter, bulletin board, or word of mouth," Bock-Laudenslager advises. "Encourage nurses to interview for positions, even if they are not the most qualified applicant. The interview experience in itself is a learning process."

Delegate tasks that require leadership skills. "Develop their potential by asking them to implement department projects," says Bock-Laudenslager. "It can be as simple as asking their opinion on something, such as It looks like the physicians are frustrated with this work space, how do you think we could improve it?"’

Asking nurses to serve on hospital committees such as disaster management or a JCAHO task force is another way to enhance their skills. "Employees at the grassroots level often complain that the individuals making the decisions are the ones furthest from the bedside," Bock-Laudenslager notes. "By asking staff nurses to represent the ED on certain committees, not only are you promoting leadership potential, the committee benefits from having the most qualified people facilitating the decision."

Create a professional learning environment. A department library with Internet access, periodicals and videos sends a positive message. "It’s the manager’s responsibility to create an environment whereby the staff are motivated to stay current on topics that could impact their clinical practice," says Bock-Laudenslager.

Determine what nurses excel in. "You might have someone that can take the lead in finance just because of natural ability or interest," says Jazwiec. "You do not have to put someone in charge or give them the whole ball of wax.’"

Ask nurses what they are interested in and find tasks that match their interests, Jazwiec suggests. "There might be someone truly interested in doing the schedule, and there might be a progression from there," she says.

Keep it simple. "Mentoring is most often overlooked because, like so many things in healthcare, we tend to make it too complicated, that is, try to get a official position approved," says Jazwiec. "Not every situation calls for someone learning the manager’s job in its entirety, but we often have the all or nothing approach."

Instead of trying to find the time to cover everything, do what you can, says Jazwiec. "Better to teach 10 people 10% of the role of manager, than trying to teach one person 100%," she says. "Then out of the ten, cultivate the ones with leadership promise."

Share personal stories. "Reviewing and sharing personal failures and what you have learned from them helps to show that the road is not always smooth, but you get up and keep trying, says Barbara Pierce, RN, MN, divisional director of emergency services at Children’s Hospital in Birmingham, AL. "Mentoring is about teaching the power of the positive attitudes and overcoming discouragement. No one wants or needs a negative, burned out mentor."

Take a personal interest. "Mentoring is seeing that someone achieves more than they ever thought possible because someone was always there pushing and encouraging, not taking no for an answer. It takes someone truly believing in the nurse’s leadership potential and making it happen, says Pierce.

Present opportunities such as delegating projects and encouraging nurses to give speaking presentations, Jazwiec recommends. "Success leads to more success. Start with small things and work up to big programs or projects when delegating," she says. "Always give lots of feedback."

Provide information. Give articles and videotapes to nurses for review, Pierce recommends. "I try to send articles about topics I know they are looking for answers to or are interested in, or topics I know will help them to grow and understand the big picture better," she says.

Send positive reinforcement. Getting and giving positive feedback is very motivating for both parties, says Pierce. "You perform your best when you feel good about yourself and what you are doing. Positive feedback is a real energy boost," she notes. "Send encouragement throughout difficult projects or times, at the completion of successful and even not so successful projects,"

Mark time out on your calendar and take a few minutes at the end of every work day to send out positive messages, says Pierce. "School supply stores have cute little notes that are given to grade school children but work just as well for adults," she says. "Or you can make your own recognition certificates on computer software programs."