From Union Activist to Manager
Lessons for leadership in unit-based teams
What happens when things change in your job and you have to rethink what’s always worked in the past?
For me, that moment came two years ago when I moved into a management role. I had spent 24 years as a frontline nurse, union steward and labor partner to hospital administration before my job transition.
Frankly, I wasn’t sure what to expect going in, but having been a steward and a labor partner helped me become a better manager. Kaiser Permanente has given me opportunities to grow as a leader that I don’t believe I would have had elsewhere. Along the way I learned six lessons that I think can help others lead in a collaborative team environment:
- Speak well and connect. As a labor partner, I developed my speaking and presentation skills—skills that most don’t learn in nursing school. My confidence grew with each presentation and I now feel a connection with my colleagues that helps us all gain value from our conversations.
- Give and get respect. As a nurse, I was respected at the bedside by physicians, managers and other nurses. I don’t think I would have been as respected as a manager if I hadn’t been respected at the bedside first. My clinical experience helped give me credibility.
- Understand operations. As a labor partner I learned valuable lessons about hospital operations. That allowed me to build on my experience as a caregiver and begin to see the bigger picture—how things are intertwined and why certain decisions are made.
- Listen and hear. You have to be a great listener and actually hear what people are saying. You have to be able to take things in and think about how to respond. As a steward, I always mulled things over before reacting, and I try to do that still.
- Know your contract. Most union leaders know their contract inside out—certainly I did when I was president of the RN bargaining unit. Managers should, too. The National Agreement gives us many tools that can help both sides stay on track.
- Stay flexible, be practical. Nurses are very solution-oriented. The solution to a problem has to make sense. I learned over the years that different people might get to the same outcome, but there are many ways to approach the problem. You need to be willing to try a different route to get to the solution so that everyone feels they have a voice in the process.
As a labor leader, I learned to believe in people and know that there’s always another side to any story. My staff understands they can come to me any time. And our unit-based team helps us draw on everyone’s knowledge and allows everyone to be heard.
In the end, it wasn’t that hard to make the transition from labor leader to manager. In both roles you have to consider diverse points of view, and sometimes you have to step back and ask, “Does it make sense?” You’re not always popular, but I’m OK with that.
We may not always agree. But there is no “we” or “them,” we are all one—because we always put our patients first.