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December 19, 2016

How nurses can become CEOs: Advice from a woman who's done it

Daily Briefing

Over the course of her career, Leah Carpenter advanced from frontline nurse to CEO of Florida's Memorial Hospital West (MHW)—and she has some words of wisdom for nurses who want to follow her path, Jennifer Thew reports for HealthLeaders Media.

When Carpenter started her career as a frontline nurse 30 years ago, she never imagined she would end up in administration.  "I had no desire to be a suit whatsoever," she said, adding that at the start of her career, "I really didn't have a great deal of respect for or want anything to do with a leadership."

She was called 'just a nurse'—again. But this time, she pushed back.

But then life intervened, and Carpenter started losing her hearing in one ear, interfering with her ability to care for patients. "I had to make a decision whether I wanted to go into management or education, because that's pretty much the two paths that a nurse can take if she's not going to be at the bedside," she explained.

Lessons from the top

Carpenter said that because of her clinical background, she has a deep understanding of what it takes to deliver "safe, quality care that is service-oriented." Her time as a nurse has also helped her earn the respect of frontline staff and understand the challenges they face, she said.

But, she said, earning respect "as a businesswoman" was more difficult, and it's a challenge that might not be a great fit for some nurses. "Not every nurse leader or CNO can transition from the clinical world into the administrative world," Carpenter explained. "There's a completely different skill set that you have to master in order to be a CEO."

Yale New Haven CEO's journey from unit secretary to the C-suite

According to Carpenter, the CEO role requires a different perspective. "You're everyone's voice and you represent everyone—the clinical side, the dietary side, the environmental side, the construction side, the legal side," she said. "There's a whole scope of skills and negotiation abilities that you need to have to balance all of that."

Advice for aspiring leaders

Carpenter offered three pieces of advice for nurses who aspire to be CEOs.

First, young nurses who want to climb to the CEO role need a clear sense of what drives them, Carpenter said. "It shouldn't be about the title or about the money. It needs to be about the impact," she explained. "For me, the end product was having an impact on safety, quality, and service."                    

Nurses with their sights on the CEO role should also make sure to get the right type of education. She said prospective nurse CEOs should "look at a business or administration-type master's degree," as opposed to a graduate degree in nursing. Carpenter also stressed the importance of mentors. "You have to find people who are really good at this, attach yourself to their hip, and learn everything you can from them," she said (Thew, Health Leaders Media, 12/13).

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