Now in its 12th year, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Executive Nurse Fellows Program has developed a new and innovative tool for working with nurses in executive leadership roles who aspire to help lead and shape health care in the United States.
Directed by the Center for the Health Professions at the University of California San Francisco, the program aims to inspire experienced nurses to continue the journey toward achieving the highest levels of leadership in the 21st century health care system. The program named its 12th class of Fellows this summer, and is on track to “graduate” its 202nd Fellow in 2011.
In that time, program staff members have provided seminars tightly focused on leadership development, offered mentoring opportunities, provided funding for leadership development and worked closely with Fellows as they devised and implemented projects in their communities. With the 2008 class of Executive Nurse Fellows, the program found a new way to connect incoming participants to alumni of the program.
“It’s always amazed me how, when a cohort of Fellows leaves the program, about 90 percent of them write and ask what they can do to stay connected,” says Mary T. Dickow, M.P.A., deputy director of the program. The new “pod advisor” model connects a small group of alumni with each class of Fellows.
The current class has 20 participants, divided into four “pods” of five Fellows. Each pod is assigned a pod advisor, who works with the Fellows throughout their three years in the program, advising them individually and as a group; serving as a sounding board as their development plans advance; and, as needs arise, connecting them to other alumni of the program, or to current Fellows, advisory committee members, or other professionals in the field.
The pods and their advisors meet monthly by telephone, and one-on-one—in person or by phone—whenever a conversation is warranted.
The pod advisor model is an important refinement for the program. Before alumni took on the role of advisor, the pods were convened regularly by program faculty.
That approach worked well, but Dickow says the alumni bring a unique perspective. “They are the best people to advise the current Fellows,” she explains. “As graduates, they know what it’s like to go through the program. They get it—and on every level. They get the assignments, they have lived through it, and they understand the process... The pod advisors also help us stay in touch with the Fellows, and on top of what is happening with them. Because they’re in the field, they have a real finger on the pulse of what is going on out there, and who’s doing what. That’s very helpful as they work with the Fellows to vet projects, and connect them to the right people.”
“Overall, the Executive Nurse Fellows program is the best professional gift I’ve received in my career,” says pod advisor Wanda Montalvo, R.N., M.S.N., A.N.P., clinical director of the New York State Diabetes Campaign. “The program really focuses on helping you become the best leader possible. They take all your smooth edges and polish them, and they take all your rough edges and grind them down!”
“To get the most out of the program,” Montalvo continues, “you have to be willing to dig really deep into yourself—to look at your own development as a leader, and figure out where it is you want to reach and make a difference in our health care system as executive nurse leaders…. The experience really is exceptional, and I think it creates a commitment to give back.”
Participating as an advisor in the new Fellows’ first orientation session, Montalvo says, “You relive your own experience, and understand where they are, what their anxieties are about all the things being asked of them. They were full of questions and wanted to talk to someone who’d been through it. And over the course of their fellowships, you get to see them go through a metamorphosis. You see their anxieties, and the areas where they’re not as confident. And as they embrace the opportunities in the fellowship, you begin to see the transitions occurring, as they face issues through a totally different lens.”
Montalvo notes that the economic recession has made the work the Fellows are doing—with the program and in their jobs—all the more vital. “One thing is very clear to me,” she says, “they are all facing enormous economic challenges and cutbacks. And they really have to step up to a leadership role. Their ability to tap into the program and to each other, and get help from each other on how to address these issues—that’s given them really valuable help with their leadership skills, and it’s made a huge impact in how their staff view them as executive nurse leaders.”
The experience is also helpful to the pod advisors themselves. Says Montalvo, “Some of the Fellows in my pod are close enough that I visit, so I see their world, and it really helps me to understand their challenges. Because their environments are so different, I’m stretched to figure out how to navigate those waters as a leader. It’s just very helpful to me to be in their world.”