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Nurse on Board

How nurses can prepare to serve on healthcare boards

In an era when nursing and clinical experience are highly valued, many nurse leaders are pursuing opportunities on healthcare governing boards. For some, it's a way to sharpen skills and contribute in a new and different way to the industry. They gain valuable leadership experience which can benefit their careers and increase their levels of career satisfaction.

With the understanding that not all nurses and nursing executives know the best path to a board seat, what follows are some tips and best practices: 

  • Identify your competencies. Spend time really thinking about your skills. Nurses, in general, have many transferable competencies that are attractive and beneficial to boards. These are strengths that often don't show up on resumes. In the excellent Nurse on Board: Planning Your Path to the Boardroom, Connie Curran outlined the competencies required in governance. (It is not hard to make the connection to behaviors exhibited by nurses.) These include:
    • A holistic view - the ability to "recognize the implications of decisions on others"
    • Compatibility - working across teams and disciplines
    • Accountability
    • Ethics and integrity - the "cornerstone of nursing"
    • An understanding of risk management
  • Research boards. Conversely, know the core competencies and skills boards are looking for - an understanding of quality of care for example, or budgeting and finance, or clinical information technology. Come to the table with the competencies required checked off. Otherwise, you might not be the best fit for that particular board seat. Nurses must ask themselves, "How do I build my resume to be on a board that I'm attractive to and one that I would like to serve on?"

meeting tableWhen deciding whether a hospital, health system, or other organization board is desirable, critical decision points include respecting and trusting the CEO and ensuring the mission is well-articulated.

  • Develop your board resume. Nurses should identify those elements from their CV that address board competencies and mesh with the target organization. When they are ready to write the resume, nurses should remember to keep it short - one page in length; highlighting experience and customizing it to the organization's needs and focus; don't make it more complicated than needed. A few more points:
    • Include a brief overview of clinical expertise, education, and any board experience.
    • Note themes in skill sets throughout the resume/CV that reinforce areas of strength.
    • Express skills confidently, with neither understatement nor overstatement of experience.
  • Start small. When a nurse is deciding what type of organization he or she would like to help govern, consider the differences in pressure and commitment between a corporate board, a start-up organization and a non-profit. Find out about the organization's mission, values, goals and board needs. In healthcare a few boards pay their trustees, but this is unusual and should not be expected to start. If this is the first experience serving on a board, it is wise to start small. Nurses should look for voluntary board roles at nonprofit organizations, or with board associations related to their subspecialty. A few possibilities include: hospitals; home care organizations; school boards; colleges and universities; cancer, heart, and lung associations; and nursing associations. Community boards, such as a rotary club or chamber of commerce board, may also be helpful in preparing a nurse to serve on a hospital or health system board. This will help to understand what governance means and what your role is.
  • Consider time commitments. Serving on a board is a big personal undertaking, and new board members have to be willing to learn the ropes, attend the meetings, and contribute fully. Being a trustee is a lot of work. Again, the most important issue is the time commitment. Some things to expect: 
    • Seats are usually 3-4 year terms, and often extend for multiple terms
    • More boards are open to candidates who only want to serve 1-2 terms, which can be discussed during the interview process
    • Expect to serve not just on the board but committees and subcommittees as well.
  • Find a place to serve. Once interested nurses have done their homework, it is time for them to find an open board seat. They should talk to colleagues at work, at training seminars, and at professional association meetings. Build a  network of contacts and express interest in working on a board. Get in touch with executive recruiters, who often conduct searches for larger organizations, both for-profit and non-profit. 

The rewards of board service depend on the effort put in. The organization will benefit from a nurse's expertise and passion, and a nurse will gain valuable skills and relationships that will serve him or her throughout their career.

 Rachel Polhemus is a senior partner with the executive search firm Witt/Kieffer.




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