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‘Be flexible and be teachable,’ and other advice from VCU grads who’ve become chief nursing officers

Nine graduates of VCU health sciences programs share advice for nurses who want to become leaders.

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More than 35 Virginia Commonwealth University School of Nursing alums have risen through the ranks to become chief nursing officers (CNO), a top-level administrative role that involves leading teams of nurses within a health care environment. Although they do not provide direct care to patients, CNOs are responsible for ensuring overall clinical and patient care standards.

In recognition of National Nurses Week, several CNO alums of the School of Nursing and College of Health Professions from across Virginia and the nation share what led them to move from the bedside to leadership and what advice they would offer to nurses seeking leadership positions, especially in today’s complex health care environment.

“Nurse leaders should develop their active listening skills.” – Jeniece Roane (B.S.'93/N; M.S.'07/N), interim CNO and vice president of patient care services at VCU Health and a Ph.D. student at the VCU School of Nursing

Jeniece Roane
Jeniece Roane

As a young nurse who began her career in pediatrics and pediatric critical care, Jeniece Roane didn’t imagine a future in leadership.

“I thought I would remain at the bedside for the duration of my nursing career,” she said.

But she is grateful that she was encouraged by her own leaders to pursue a different path.

Even as she has advanced as a leader, she has sustained a focus on children’s and women’s health, and she said that what continues to inspire her today is what inspired her as a young nurse.

“I love being able to make a difference for our patients and our team members,” she said. “I see my job as serving the team so that the team is able to serve the patients and families for whom we have the honor to provide care.” 

Roane said that “financial savvy” is an important skill for nurse leaders, as is “the ability to build a good and diverse team.” The most important skill, however, is to be a good listener.

“Now more than ever, we must connect with our team members and hear them,” she said. “We must hear what frustrates them and we must hear what brings them joy. It’s only through listening and partnering with our teams that we will be able to create healthy work environments.”

“Nurse leaders should always remain students.” – Chadi Awad (M.S.'11/N; M.B.A.'14), CNO at Metropolitan Methodist Hospital in San Antonio, Texas

Chadi Awad
Chadi Awad

A family medical crisis turned Chadi Awad’s path toward nursing. When his mother was admitted to the ICU during his second semester at university, the days and nights he spent at her bedside were “my crash course in what nurses do,” he said. “The nurses at that hospital inspired me, and every day at work I feel I pay them back.”

Awad is currently serving as president of the South Central Texas Organization of Nurse Executives and is board certified as a nursing executive.

On the choice to pursue a leadership role, Awad said, “There comes a time when you feel the desire to multiply the impact at a larger scale” through helping “to develop new leaders and see them excel in nursing.”

Nurse leaders, he said, need to always remain open to learning new skills. In addition, they should “allow their hearts to lead, challenge processes around them and focus on the strength within their team members,” and, he adds, “hire smart people.”

“The hardest but truly essential skill is to allow team members to try and make errors,” he said. “Learning only happens by trying.”

“Make sure to focus on the positive.” – Susanne Colligon (M.S.’08/N), CNO at Encompass Health Rehabilitation Hospital in Fredericksburg, Virginia

Susanne Colligon
Susanne Colligon

When then-12-year-old Susanne Colligon saw nurses’ attentive care while visiting a friend recovering from surgery at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, she realized, “I can really make a difference by doing this.” Eventually Colligon would return to Children’s as a nurse herself. Since then, she has worked in transplant and oncology as well as palliative care in a variety of settings; currently, she manages a team of some 100 nurses and nursing assistants in an acute-care rehabilitation hospital.

Colligon was drawn to leadership out of a desire to make sure that nurses had a voice at the administrative level.

“I felt that I could represent them at the table and give a realistic perspective on what was happening at the bedside, and that I could make positive changes,” she said. “I know what they do every day, and I wouldn’t ask them to do what I wouldn’t do.” 

Colligon said “resilience” is the essential skill for nurses at any stage in their career.

“Nurses are expected to do many tasks at one time, even more so than when I started nursing,” she said. Finding positive things in each day makes it possible for nurses “to refresh themselves and come back the next day or the next hour ready for that next patient.”

Leadership, she added, plays an essential role in fostering that resilience. “Give constructive feedback and focus on the positive.”

“One person truly can make an impact and change the world.” – Tara Baker (B.S.'16/N; M.S.'19/N), CNO at VCU Health Tappahannock in Tappahannock, Virginia, and a DNP student at the VCU School of Nursing

Tara Baker
Tara Baker

Working as a patient care technician in an emergency department when she first started nursing school drew Tara Baker to the practice of emergency medicine.

“You didn’t have a choice but to work as a well-oiled machine,” she said.

She valued the wealth of experience among her colleagues and the sense of camaraderie and the commitment to teamwork in the face of “not knowing what was coming in the door next.” 

A “transformational leader” at that same hospital “who inspired us all to work beyond what we thought was possible” helped Baker to see the potential of pursuing leadership to “help my colleagues and our patients in a bigger sense,” she said. And in a career that has included work in both ICU and emergency department settings as well as in the Office of the Attorney General of Virginia, where she served as a nurse investigator, Baker has continued to believe in the power of a single person to create change in the world.

Baker advises that “never saying no to any opportunity” opens doors.

“There are so many opportunities even in your own hospital to be proactive and seek out areas you are not familiar with to make yourself a more well-rounded leader.” As a leader, “your role is making sure that your nurses at the bedside have a voice,” she said, “and never being in a position that is too high that you can’t still get in the trenches, really doing the work to lead by example.”

“Have a true passion and resiliency for the work.” – Kathy Baker (M.S.'94/N; Ph.D.'11/N), CNO at UVA Health in Charlottesville, Virginia

Kathy Baker, Ph.D.
Kathy Baker, Ph.D.

Before assuming her role at UVA Health, Kathy Baker served more than two decades with VCU Health, most recently as associate chief nurse and associate vice president of nursing. As a researcher, she has an extensive publication history with a focus on work environments, patient safety and workplace satisfaction. As a leader, she has worked to recruit, retain and mentor an outstanding nursing workforce while also emphasizing patient safety and quality improvements.

Baker pursued a Ph.D. “to help give voice, through research, to the frontline nurses and the challenges they face,” she said. That same commitment, and the desire “to help influence decisions that enhance the role of the frontline nurse,” led her to leadership, and the skills she developed while working on her Ph.D. “prepared me to elevate the voice of the frontline nurse in my role as a nurse leader.”

To take on the role of leadership in nursing, Baker said, it is essential to bring both passion and resiliency to the work.

“With the multiple complexities and challenges that exist in today’s health care environment,” she said, “a leader must be well prepared to stay the course and ensure the role of the frontline nurse is always represented at the health care decision-making tables.” 

“Be flexible and teachable.” – Tonja Thigpen (B.S.'08/N), CNO at Methodist Hospital Atascosa in Jourdanton, Texas

Tonja Thigpen
Tonja Thigpen

Just before Tonja Thigpen’s 15th birthday, her grandmother suffered a fatal brain aneurysm. Wanting to understand how this “hard-working, loving woman” had died in her 50s drew Thigpen to nursing, along with a profound desire to help people. With a doctorate in health care administration, she has held leadership positions in hospitals in Virginia and Texas. She also served for nine years with the U.S. Army.

Thigpen said that while her leadership abilities were recognized and encouraged, at first she was reluctant to step away from her bedside role.

“I really just wanted to be a nurse,” she said. “I didn’t want to be in charge because there is a lot to go along with that title.”

But she came to recognize that she could be a role model for embracing change that others sometimes feared.

“I had a knack for influencing others and building relationships to enhance and better a healthy working environment,” Thigpen said.

Being flexible, and still teachable even as a leader, are essential skills, Thigpen said. You also have to be willing to be a risk-taker even while keeping your focus on taking care of people. It’s also important, she said, to be “multilingual” as a leader: speak the language and understand the challenges and expectations both of nurses and of administration, and be able to explain and interpret each to the other.

“Be unafraid to share information.” – Rachel Provau (M.S.'97/CHP), CNO at Virginia Department of Corrections

Rachel Provau
Rachel Provau

For Provau, nursing “always felt like a calling” from the time she was a child. Today in her role as chief nursing officer for the Department of Corrections, she oversees 42 medical facilities throughout the state, caring for some 29,000 incarcerated patients each year. For some, it’s the first time in their lives they have received any health care, she said. “We serve a population that has been underserved for many years.”

Provau credits her interest in leadership both to the valuable experience she gained and the mentoring she received during her “formative years” in nursing, when she worked at then-MCV in the medical respiratory ICU. She saw the important role nurse leaders play in providing a voice for what nurses need to deliver the best care at the bedside, and she recognized her own potential for that role.

“I was a good advocate,” she said. “I was able to communicate well. I could understand other people’s positions but bring forward what nursing needed to succeed.”

Provau recommends that any nurse considering moving into leadership should seek out mentors, who don’t necessarily have to be people in a higher-level position.

“There are some folks out there who are excellent subject-matter experts,” she said, and they are people to find and learn from. It’s also important as a leader to communicate, share information and — just as important — share credit, she said. “There is no power in leadership if you keep it all to yourself.”

“Be adaptable, because so many things around us are changing.” – Michelle Dodd (M.S.'09/N; Ph.D.'11/N), CNO at Portsmouth Regional Hospital in Portsmouth, New Hampshire

Michelle Dodd, Ph.D.
Michelle Dodd, Ph.D.

Michelle Dodd came to nursing by an unusual route. She had worked in animal medicine when she joined a rescue squad along with a friend who was contemplating a nursing career and wanted to gain some experience first. “I loved it and she hated it,” Dodd said, and a new career path was born.

Dodd practiced in adult critical care both in the ER and ICU before moving into informatics during the transition to electronic health records and, from there, into leadership. She was inspired by the role models of leaders she had worked with who challenged her, she said, “to push myself to the next level” and demonstrated “how you could have impact at a more global level and help drive change beyond the bedside.” As a leader now herself, she emphasizes the importance of helping lead a team “to be their best selves and to perform at a much higher level at the bedside.”

The pandemic, Dodd said, has precipitated significant change and transition in health care, “and nobody knows what the end result will be.” She stressed the need for nurses and nurse leaders to maintain resilience and dedication to their roles, to remain adaptable in the face of so much change, and to always “remember your ‘why,’” she said. “Remember what made you become a nurse in the first place.”

“I always try to ask myself what is best for the patient.” – Brett Neville (B.S.'08/N; M.S.'14/N), associate CNO and associate vice president of patient care services at VCU Health

Brett Neville
Brett Neville

Brett Neville was “always a science person,” who originally imagined he would become a physician. But inspired by his mother, who practiced nursing for 47 years, he found that he valued the relationship-building and “the caring and nurturing that nursing is known for.” His career has included practice in cardiology nursing, cardiac surgery ICU and transplant medicine and critical care, and he has earned a Doctor of Nursing Practice in executive nursing leadership.

It was in the cardiac surgery ICU, caring for acutely ill patients, “where I really learned what being a good nurse is,” Neville said. He also found that he enjoyed teaching and mentoring younger nurses just beginning their careers. “Helping others see opportunities for themselves and helping to shape their careers was very rewarding.”

Though a leadership role means having less direct impact on individual patients, Neville said that if you do your role well you have the opportunity to benefit many patients. To that end, he said that consistency, resilience and commitment are essential skills for nurse leaders, along with the ability to find reward in small steps toward larger goals.

“It is absolutely critical for the stability of the workforce, because there are days when honestly we ask ourselves, ‘What am I doing, and how can I actually help?’” But by remaining committed, he said, “we begin to see the necessary change happen.”