Nursing has undergone several changes since I first stepped into the field nearly three decades ago, parting ways with the era of white uniforms and caps. Yet, amidst these changes, the core tenets of what makes a good nurse and good leader remain steadfast.

Reflecting on my journey from aide to mentor, with various roles in between, I’m reminded of the skillsets needed by nurses at every stage, including practicing empathy, communicating clearly, and learning to work alongside different personalities and temperaments, just to name a few.

However, when a nurse reaches the level of director of nursing (DON), the perspective changes, and sometimes not in the most comfortable of ways. Suddenly, you’re not just a member of the orchestra; you’re the conductor, composing the harmony of care delivery, staff management, and organizational objectives such as regulations, audits, and surveys. It’s a unique role that demands a strong understanding of the field, a clear vision, and the ability to inspire team members at every turn.

You are being looked at as the person with the answers, but who is there to help you when you have a question?

An outside mentor can help you navigate these new waters. Here are six reasons for engaging with a mentor:

1. Addressing Staffing from a Recruitment and Retention Viewpoint.
The number one concern of DONs is staffing. Of course, there’s the pressure to be fully staffed or minimize agency usage. But there’s also the question of how to put the right people in the right roles. A mentor can offer invaluable tips and an objective perspective in this area and help identify strengths in the staff already by your side.

2. Managing the Pressure to “Know it All.”
When I was elevated to the DON role at a senior living community for the first time, I felt like I needed to have all the answers. It wasn’t that I felt I was the smartest person in the organization, but I knew that my team was counting on me. I felt constant pressure of “I should know this; I should know how to do this.”

Still, isn’t it one of the tenets of leadership to surround yourself with people who know the things that you don’t? You don’t need to know all the answers, but you need to have a handle on where to go when you simply don’t know.

Think about creating a space for a peer who has walked in the shoes of a DON role. It opens a door to someone who isn’t there to evaluate you and isn’t looking to you for answers. Rather, it provides a person to listen, bounce ideas off of, and help find solutions.

3. Staying Ahead of Regulatory Items.
For registered nurses (RNs) new to the DON role, keeping up with regulations is one of the biggest challenges. Knowing what’s changing, or what’s new, and how it impacts your community or facility is hard. Knowing how to operationalize those changes can be challenging. Initially, your mentor may provide you with the resources you need and help you implement them. Eventually, and more importantly, they will enable you to find the answers yourself.

4. Understanding How to Network and Partner.
One of the biggest shifts from an RN supervisor to a DON role is changing focus from solely leading nursing staff and overseeing patient care, to working with non-clinical areas.  Now, your focus has widened. How do you work with maintenance, culinary, life enrichment programs, and more? How do you develop networks with DONs in other organizations?  How do you network with other healthcare facilities, like area hospitals and short-term rehab providers? 

These roles and responsibilities can be cumbersome without guidance. A mentorship program helps you navigate these added responsibilities and sets you up for success.

5. Learning How to Establish Goals.
In the busy day-to-day of a DON role, the opportunity to set goals can easily get passed over.  In previous roles, goals may not have included operational aspects or areas that impacted other personnel. With increased responsibilities and oversight, those areas need to be defined and nurtured.

By working with a mentor, you will have the opportunity to make sure that goal-setting is an intentional process that helps you be successful. Questions that your mentor will help you ask include: How do I establish goals? How do I get my staff to identify their goals? What are my goals for my organization? And how do I keep those goals on track?

6. Transitioning Smoothly from Peer to Supervisor.
It’s a tricky transition from staff to supervisor. One day you’re sitting at the lunch table across from a peer, and the next you’re supervising them. This transition is one of the areas I spend the most time with my mentees. It’s important to know how to work and grow within a team you’re overseeing, especially if that team brought you up to this leadership role. Working with a mentor can help make this transition smoother. A mentor can provide you with a neutral sounding board to identify, discuss, and address strategies to make that step to supervisor and leader.

Finding a Mentorship Program

Donna StarliperHaving walked in these shoes, I recognize the immense pressure that DONs face. I also know there’s a better path than doing it alone.

Find a mentorship program in your state or industry and take advantage of the support systems around you. It is important that your mentor is a good match for you. Not only will you benefit, but those in your care and those that you supervise will as well.

Donna Starliper, RN, CNDLTC, NHA, RAC-CT, brings nearly three decades of operational and nursing experience in the healthcare industry. She previously served as the director of nursing (DON) at a continuing care retirement community in Pennsylvania. Currently, she runs a DON mentorship program at Friends Services Alliance, in Blue Bell, Pennsylvania, which provides services to more than 115 nonprofit organizations in 16 states predominantly in the aging services sector.