Leverage Your Runway

Maya is a skilled nurse leader with a substantial role in a hospital that is part of a large mul­tistate health system. She is also a young mother with 2 children under the age of 10. Maya’s hus­band has a high-powered job that occasionally requires him to travel. Her position also involves some overnight travel, although Maya tries to keep it to a minimum.

Maya’s supervisor Dennis sees a great deal of potential in Maya. In addition to supporting her participation in coaching and mentoring pro­grams, he sponsors her efforts to obtain addi­tional credentials and training in written and oral presentation.

Dennis regularly encourages Maya to move into a position with more responsibility. He is not prone to the use of superlatives, but Dennis has said he considers Maya’s potential leadership tra­jectory to be “unlimited.”

For her part, Maya is ambitious and compet­itive, and she says that leadership challenges and opportunities energize her. However, she also says that “realistically, this is not the season [of my life] to pursue a senior leadership position.” She is referring to her commitment to be fully present and engaged with her family as her children grow up.

Maya values Dennis’ support, and she also appreciates his lenience and understanding of her commitment to her home life. This has allowed Maya to excel in the role she has, while maintaining enough flexibility to tend to her family’s needs.

But recently, Maya’s professional situation changed when Dennis announced his plan to retire in the coming year.This created an opening that would either be filled by someone else, or Maya if she wanted to pursue moving ahead sooner rather than later. Dennis’ colleagues on the senior team think highly of Maya, and she could be a strong contender for Dennis’ job.

So, Maya had a decision to make—did she want to put her hat in the ring for Dennis’ job or not? In fact, it didn’t take Maya long to weigh the pros and cons of this choice; she quickly concluded that her children are still small, so it is still “too soon.”

Although that’s a significant statement, this column is inspired by something else—that is, what Maya said next.Alluding to Dennis’ system-level leadership role, Maya said that she didn’t want all the responsibility of Dennis’ job.Then, she went further, saying “I don’t want my job to define me. I admire Dennis, but he has no life and he travels all the time.Although I am somewhat driven, I can’t imagine doing that—ever. So, I know I will never want a job like Dennis’.”

This firm statement about Maya’s future sounded alarm bells for me. Of course, I under­stood that her feelings were prompted by seeing Dennis have little to no personal time, and I could empathize with her air-tight conclusion that she does not want that kind of existence.

But there was a problem.Although being clear is usually an asset, being so decisive now may not be wise for Maya.Why? Because she is needlessly restricting her professional options for many years to come. Being that certain about her ambitions that far into the future could, and probably would, blind Maya to fresh, invigorating chances to upgrade her leadership experience and skills. These don’t have to be “traditional progressively responsible positions.”They could be less formal ventures that don’t have to take a lot of time or be done alone. Such opportunities are often spotted by those who show initiative and demonstrate their willingness to address organizational issues— whether they are part of their formal job descrip­tions or not.

There is another consideration, too.Tempting as it is, Maya does not need to exclude higher level positions solely based on how others act in those roles. In fact, doing that would be unneces­sary and career limiting.Although Dennis’ lifestyle is not attractive to Maya, that lifestyle is—to some extent—the way Dennis has chosen to perform his job. Dennis’ approach to his role is not the only way to manage it, and we make a serious mistake if we assume that it is.Although there are givens in any job, there are also areas in which negotiation and customization are both possible and advisable.

Dennis has rightly observed that Maya has a “long runway.” He is referring to her relatively young age and the many chances to experiment and learn that are in front of her. So, as Maya reflected on the circumstances of Dennis’ depar­ture, she took his comment to heart. She decided to leverage that “long runway” to her advantage, and she pulled back on her declaration that she would “never” be interested in holding a job like Dennis’. Instead, she considered different ways to practice and enrich her leadership skills while keeping an open mind about her future career choices.

Maya vowed to:

  1. Seize the initiative when there is an unaddressed need that requires ingenuity and resourcefulness. Such a need might constitute a special initiative or simply a one-time endeavor. Maya wants to “experi­ment” with activities like this so she can make a difference while learning whether she enjoys that kind of work.
  2.  When Maya sees these openings, she will do her homework—that is, she will learn the important facts, talk with the relevant stakeholders, and gain permission before taking action. Maya wants to be sure there is a case to be made and support for expending the time and resources these efforts might require.
  3. Maya will also volunteer to lead in different situations, so she can learn more about what she is good at and what she likes to do. Doing this will also give her the chance to see where she has shortcomings and become more skillful.

Maya’s journey offers a valuable lesson to those with a “long runway” ahead. Even if it looks like the next job open to you is one you don’t want or feel you are ready for, you can still grow and experi­ence new ways of leading and learning. You can achieve these goals by being alert for opportunities, and by asking yourself what else you can do to nurture and prepare for a meaningful leadership future – that is, the one that you want to define and create for yourself.

* This article was originally published in Nurse Leader.

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