Aspiring Nurse Leaders: Reach for the Future!

May 7, 2014, 9:00 AM

Jeannine Rivet, MPH, BSN, FAAN, is executive vice president of UnitedHealth Group.

“When you hold on to the past, your hands aren’t free to reach for the future.

-- Anonymous

I like to share that quote as a way to encourage the people I mentor to grow professionally.

I hope my fellow nurses, in particular, are listening.

I’m grateful for the life-saving work that nurses do at the bedside. Every day, no matter the task, they are helping people live healthier, happier, more productive lives. I started out my career more than four decades ago as a registered nurse (RN) in Rhode Island. I knew then, and I know now, that all nurses are leaders, regardless of their title, because of the skills they use to get their jobs done.  

As a leader and mentor at UnitedHealth Group, I encourage all the people I work with, including nurses, to be the best professionals that they can be, and do the most that they can do with their careers. All nurses are leaders, sometimes without titles, in whatever they choose to do.

We need more nurses in the upper echelons of business. Nurses are vastly underrepresented in these kinds of roles in our health care system, and we could all—patients, caregivers, and providers—benefit from nurse executive leadership. I’m often the only nurse, and sometimes the only woman, at key decision-making tables at my own organization and on the many boards on which I serve. 

We need more nurses participating in those important conversations. Nurses spend more time with patients than other providers and have unique insights into patient care—a critical perspective as we all work to improve the quality and safety of care and reduce costs in a reformed health care landscape. Nurses value compassion, trust, and accountability—all values we need to ensure our health care system succeeds in its mission to provide high-quality, accessible, and affordable care to all of our people.

I know that nurses make great leaders, but sometimes nurses themselves don’t think so. Nurses need to appreciate that the critical thinking, problem-solving and relationship-building skills they learned in nursing school apply far beyond the bedside; they are valuable—and urgently needed—in health care and in other sectors, up and down our organizational hierarchies.

When I got my nursing diploma in 1968, I certainly didn’t see myself as a leader in health care. I saw myself as a nurse and possibly, someday, as a nurse administrator at a regional hospital.

Over time, I came to realize that I wanted to have a broader impact in health care.

I began to take on supervisory and management positions in a variety of health care organizations while getting my bachelor’s degree in nursing, and then a master’s degree in public health.

I joined UnitedHealth Group in 1990, and over the last quarter century, have risen through the ranks to become its executive vice president. Along the way, I’ve been CEO of several of our businesses and served on a number of corporate, academic, and philanthropic boards of directors, and was recognized by Fortune magazine as one of the 50 most powerful women in American business for three consecutive years.

I’m very glad I started my career out as a nurse; I loved my work in pediatrics, and the skills I learned are still useful today. But if I had held on too tightly to my past as an RN in a hospital, I never would have been able to reach for my future as a leader in health care.

We certainly need nurses at the bedside, but we need nurses in the boardroom too. I urge all nurses who aspire to be leaders to reach for the future too.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF Human Capital Blog. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors.