RWJF Executive Nurse Fellows are Using Their Leadership Skills to Transform Nursing and Improve Health and Health Care

Several alumni of the esteemed nursing leadership program are supporting innovative Partners Investing in Nursing's Future projects in their home states.

    • January 29, 2012

Claudia Beverly, PhD, RN, FAAN, credits the leadership skills she learned more than a decade ago as a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Executive Nurse Fellow (ENF) with helping her in her current work to advance geriatric nursing in Arkansas. It was as a member of the inaugural ENF cohort in 1998 that she learned how to take risks, communicate effectively and build coalitions with diverse partners—skills she is using now to advance nurse education in her home state of Arkansas. In short, she learned how to lead, and she’s been using those skills ever since.

Beverly is spearheading a project to help associate and diploma degree nurses in long-term care earn baccalaureate and higher-level degrees to better meet the needs of an aging population with increasingly complex health needs. The current effort builds on an earlier project she led that helped certified nursing assistants (CNAs) and licensed practical nurses (LPNs) become registered nurses.

“I can definitely relate the skills I am using to oversee these projects to my ENF training,” she said.

Both projects were supported by Partners Investing in Nursing’s Future (PIN), a partnership of the Northwest Health Foundation and RWJF to support the capacity, involvement and leadership of local foundations to advance the nursing profession in their own communities. PIN projects rely on philanthropy and nurse leaders to create innovative and collaborative solutions to the long-term challenge of ensuring a competent and experienced workforce—and Executive Nurse Fellows are the kind of nurse leaders often sought out by local PIN partnerships.

Indeed, Beverly is one of several Executive Nurse Fellows alumni who have gone on to co-lead PIN projects. The heavy presence of ENF alumni in the PIN program comes as no surprise to Beverly. “Executive Nurse Fellows are no shrinking violets,” she said. “They are the kind of nurses who seize the moment and move the agenda forward.”

That is precisely what ENF alumni have done in the PIN program—and it is what they were trained to do as fellows. The three-year ENF program aims to create nurses who will play key roles in improving health and health care by transforming the nursing profession. It provides up to 20 highly qualified nurses a year an educational opportunity that prepares them to lead and shape health care locally and nationally. These ENFs carry these skills back to their home states to make positive change.

Paula Lucey, MSN, RN, for example, was an Executive Nurse Fellow from 1999 to 2001. Now, she is leading a team of community, nursing and philanthropic partners in the Milwaukee area who are working to rebuild the area’s supply of public health and mental health nurses. In 2008, Lucey teamed up with colleagues at the Faye McBeath Foundation to create a unique program that exposed students to the field of public health nursing and helped them learn about ways to land hard-to-find jobs in the field. The three-year project was supported by PIN. In 2010, the same team was able to get a second PIN grant to look at the mental health nursing workforce.

In North Dakota, meanwhile, Loretta Heuer, PhD, RN, FAAN, an Executive Nurse Fellow from 2002 to 2005 is co-leading a local PIN program that is developing a state model to incorporate gerontology in nursing education. The program will facilitate communication among nursing schools and help attract high school students to the nursing profession.

In Wyoming, Mary Burman, PhD, RN, an Executive Nurse Fellow from 2007 to 2009, is helping a PIN program expand opportunities for nurses to develop leadership skills and to create a common nurse curriculum in the state to provide for seamless transitions from associate-degree to baccalaureate programs. This PIN project builds on an earlier one through which she helped create a nursing workforce center that provides information and support for statewide efforts to improve nursing retention, recruitment and educational capacity in nursing schools and to build consensus on statewide nursing issues.

All three women said their experience as Executive Nurse Fellows helped them become effective nurse leaders in their respective states. “There are a lot of balls in the air during a PIN project, and you need to be a seasoned and skillful leader to keep everyone working together,” Lucey said. “The ENF program taught me how to do that.”

During the program, fellows strengthen their leadership capacity and improve their abilities to lead teams and organizations in improving health and health care. The program targets 20 leadership competencies focused on leading self, leading others, leading the organization and leading in health care. A key curriculum goal is to help fellows apply the knowledge and skills they obtain to the leadership challenges and opportunities they face in their work.

“Program leaders always brought us back to those core leadership competencies,” Heuer said. “That gave me a baseline set of skills that I have used ever since to take on additional leadership roles.”

“I’m not by nature a real risk taker,” added Burman. “The program helped me get comfortable with risk, especially when it came to big projects like the PIN project I’m currently directing.”

Numerous PIN projects are better off because of the involvement of RWJF Executive Nurse Fellow alumni, said Judith Woodruff, JD, director of workforce development at the Northwest Health Foundation and program director for PIN. “The partnerships created at the local level bring nurse leaders together with local funders, business and health leaders, and others to address serious nursing workforce challenges facing states and communities. We see the influence of the Executive Nurse Fellows across the country.”

The RWJF Executive Nurse Fellows program also has helped create a vast network of nurse leaders who help the fellows succeed in their work. Executive Nurse Fellow alumnae say they shared projects and ideas—and bonded over coffee breaks—at the 2011 PIN Annual Meeting last October in Santa Ana, New Mexico.

The ENF alumni network “is a powerhouse of knowledge, strategists, and change agents,” said Wanda Montalvo, MSN, ANP, RN, an ENF program alumna (2004 to 2007) and a member of PIN’s National Advisory Committee. “I have no qualms about reaching out to my colleagues across the country when I need help.” Another ENF program alumna, Mary Lou de Leon Siantz, PhD, RN, FAAN, a professor at the Betty Irene Moore School of Nursing in the University of California Davis Health System, also sits on the PIN National Advisory Committee.

The Executive Nurse Fellows program is a unique program that helps build the kind of nurse leaders who are needed to help redesign the nation’s health care system, according to a report on the future of nursing released in 2010 by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) and supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The report—The Future of Nursing: Leading Change, Advancing Health—calls on nurses to become full partners in—and leaders of—the development, design and the delivery of health care.

Nurses are the largest group of health care professionals in the nation and have unique insights into the health care system. Yet they are often left out of discussions about how to improve health and health care in the United States. More nurses in leadership positions could change that reality and improve the delivery of care and patient outcomes, according to the IOM report.

By supporting the Executive Nurse Fellows and collaborating on the Partners Investing in Nursing’s Future programs, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is working to create more opportunities for nurses to take leadership roles and succeed in them when they do. The Foundation is also supporting The Future of Nursing: Campaign for Action, an initiative to advance comprehensive health care change that is based on recommendations made in the IOM report. It is coordinated through the Center to Champion Nursing in America (CCNA), an initiative of AARP, the AARP Foundation and RWJF.

“There is wonderful synergy in the Foundation’s nursing work,” said Maryjoan Ladden, PhD, RN, FAAN, RWJF senior program officer and an Executive Nurse Fellow alumna herself. “Graduates from our programs are transforming the landscape and strengthening the nursing workforce all over the country, through programs and initiatives we support and in other ways. In doing so, they are improving patient care every single day.”

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