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The Path to Leadership: Four Nurse Leaders Share Their Story

(l-r) Sasha DuBois, Dr. Leonora Muhammad, Kimberly Scott, Dr. Edwidge Thomas

When it came to nursing, Sasha DuBois felt called to serve. She came from a family of health providers and frontline staff, and she was happiest herself when she was helping someone. “I knew I wanted to be the first and last person by the patient’s bedside,” she recalls.

Sasha is one of 26 Black nurse leaders selected to participate in the Nursing Leaders Program at the Aresty Institute of Executive Education at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. This five-day leadership development program in December 2020 was offered for the first time online in collaboration with the National Black Nurses Association and the Johnson & Johnson Foundation.

It’s important that Black nurses are visible and involved in healthcare management and leadership because their leadership can help improve health outcomes for Black patients. Given Black Americans continue to be three times more likely than white Americans to contract COVID-19, representation in the health workforce is especially critical during and through the pandemic.

The Wharton Executive Education Nurse Leadership program is designed to do just thatequip Black nursing leaders to succeed as frontline advocates and voices for their patients, and as decision-makers who affect systems change and improve health outcomes for whole communities.

Due to the significant public health challenges caused by COVID-19, Kathy Pearson, the Wharton instructor who has facilitated and led the Wharton Nursing Leaders Program for the past 16 years, knew that this week-long program could help participants through this unprecedented crisis.

“The world has changed,” she says, “and while the nuts and bolts of the program curriculum remained the same, topics like innovation now mean something different. There is a new entrepreneurial spirit and positive energy. The participants all had major stress, having to motivate and retain burned-out staff and handle the emotional toll of the pandemic. But they were excited to be with one another. Seeing that was inspirational for me and for the other faculty.”

In a session led by Dr. Regina Cunningham, CEO of the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania (a nurse herself), she stressed the importance of professional development, noting that the already disrupted industry would be transformed post-COVID, and nursing “has to have a seat at the table. They must be prepared to help shape the future of healthcare.”

We spoke with Sasha and three of her peers about their experience with the program. Below, they share their ongoing journey from the bedside to the boardroom, and the lessons they will take away from the Wharton Nursing Leaders Program.

Sasha DuBois: Diversity is Strength

Sasha has worked at Brigham & Women’s Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts, for nearly two decades. For Sasha, leadership is often about mentorship. In fact, she got her start at the hospital by participating in Brigham and Women’s Student Success Jobs Program as a senior in high school.

She credits the mentors she gained across the hospital as catalysts to her career and aims to mentor as many young nurses as possible herself. Today, as a Nurse Director, Sasha oversees more than 150 specialized nurses and certified nursing assistants who report to one central unit and support other practice groups throughout the hospital. Many of her CNA staff are nursing students and first-generation Americans or do not speak English as their first language.

Sasha came to the Wharton Nursing Leaders Program with one big question in mind: How could she better equip the nurses in her unit to thrive in their interdisciplinary role and connect their individual purpose with something bigger?

The part of the program she found particularly insightful were the exercises in which she and the other participants had to work together to respond to series of radical scenarios, such as a computer simulation of a mining expedition to Mars. Although these simulations were not healthcare specific, she immediately saw the real-life implications for her team. “It reminded me of how hospitals had to respond to COVID-19,” she recalls. “You had to work with people you hadn’t before and push for a truly collaborative, inclusive practice. You had to have diversity of thought and experience.”

Diversity and inclusion remain strong themes for Sasha as she returns to Brigham and Women’s. She oversees a scholarship program for certified nursing assistants hoping to make the jump into nursing, and she educates her fellow employees on the importance of vaccine equity. “I want to make sure people have an open door and fewer barriers when it comes to healthcare access and education.”

Dr. Leonora Muhammad: Collaboration and Communication for Complex Challenges

“Like many organizations, we had an influenza plan, not a COVID-19 plan.”

While the pandemic stretched health systems and staff worldwide, it had an outsized impact on correctional facilities. For leaders like Dr. Leonora Muhammad, addressing the pandemic within this environment required an agile approach, collaboration and a clear cadence of communications.

As Leonora took on a new executive leadership role in the midst of COVID-19, as Associate Vice President of Patient Care Services at Corizon Health, she knew that this interdisciplinary, holistic approach would be more important than ever before. She had a lot of questions—and fears—about how to best approach her daunting new responsibilities.

For Leonora, the Wharton Nursing Leaders Program could not have come at a better time. Participating in the program helped her realize how many of her peers shared her concerns and insecurities and were going through similar challenges at their own organizations. She walked away with a fresh lens to better understand and lead her teams and was equipped with new tools to help her whole organization improve nursing care for prison populations.

Kimberly Scott: Tools to Make the Career Jump

Six years into her role as an emergency room nurse at Kaiser Permanente, Kimberly Scott was asked if she wanted to be an assistant manager. “I never wanted to be a manager,” she recalls. “I just wanted to be a nurse.”

But she decided to give the role a shot, and it led her to go back to school to get her double Masters of Science in Nursing and Business Administration. She has served as a Service Unit Manager in a Kaiser Permanente outpatient unit for the last several years.

Today, Kimberly is ready to make the next big jump in her career — from Manager to Director. She hoped that the Nursing Leaders Program would equip her with the knowledge and insight to get there, but she wasn’t sure if she would be selected for the program in the first place. “I was nervous,” she recalls. “The program was for directors and higher. When I saw the email, I considered not even applying.”

When Kimberly got to the program, though, she thrived. She jumped in to facilitate breakout sessions and lead her groups through their presentations. She found herself immersed in the program, and newfound confidence as she navigated the next step in her career. In fact, in a recent job interview, Kimberly found herself using her new negotiation skills. “The experience was exactly what I needed to prepare for my next role.”

Dr. Edwidge Thomas: Challenging Convention and Defying Tradition

“When you think you really know, you’d be surprised by how much you don’t.”

Dr. Edwidge Thomas had originally hoped to find a less senior colleague of hers to take advantage of the scholarship to attend the program, but looking back, she’s glad she wasn’t able to.

A pioneer in the nursing profession, Edwidge had led an all-nursing practitioner practice at Columbia University in the late 1990s. “I’ve always been in what people would consider non-traditional roles,” she says.

Now, she leads Mt. Sinai’s Performing Provider System (MSPPS) for Delivery System Reform Incentive Payment (DSRIP) program and is one of few nurse leaders represented among the 25 provider networks across New York State selected for the program.

Edwidge credits her background as a nurse for equipping her for this role. As a nurse, Edwidge had been trained to see patients beyond their disease or ailment and to deliver holistic care. So when it came to grappling with the challenges she faced in her current role, such as helping patients feel part of the experience of their own care, she found the answers came naturally.

For Edwidge, the Wharton Nursing Leaders Program was rich with insights from management and leadership experts like Eric Max and Kathy Pearson who she otherwise wouldn’t have had access to. Now back at Mt. Sinai, she finds herself constantly coming back to an acronym that Kathy referenced in the program: VUCA, which stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. “When I’m stuck, I remember this. It helps me remember that we are living in difficult times, and then helps me focus and sort out the strategy to the problem I’m solving.”

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While few had heard of the program before participating, many completed the program with invaluable takeaways from this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. For Kimberly, in particular, the partnership spoke volumes about Johnson & Johnson’s commitment to health access and equity. “It wasn’t just a flag or a sticker,” she explains. “It was an intentional commitment and a serious partnership to make sure everyone had an opportunity to be at the table. I’m grateful to have been able to participate with my group from the National Black Nurses Association.”