For years, business leaders have relied on the guidance and support of career coaches to help them advance in their professions and to achieve clear personal goals as well. But nurses traditionally haven’t used coaches in the same way. All that is changing as nurse coaches are becoming more common and helping nurses achieve success.

As with other types of coaching, nurse coaching appeals to and works for nurses who are looking for vastly different things. Some nurses feel stagnant in their jobs and want someone to help them get unstuck. Other nurses are unhappy with their current situation and might even be questioning an entire career change. Still, others are nearing retirement and want to stay involved in nursing, just without the demanding physical tasks and long hours—they wonder if a new career as a nurse coach might suit them.

Career coaching is nothing new in the larger world of business, but nursing lags behind, says Linda Yoder, PhD, MBA, RN, AOCN, FAAN, president of the Academy of Medical-Surgical Nurses and an associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin School of Nursing.

However, the nursing profession is gaining a better understanding of coaching, adds Yoder. In some organizations, coaching takes on a negative connotation because they view it as something to help only poor performers. Coaching is for everyone and serves to enhance personal as well as team performance.

Nurses have particular difficulty reaching out to coaches, says Phyllis Quinlan, PhD, RN-BC, who sees many nurses in her nurse coaching and consulting practice, MFW Consulting.

“Professional caregivers are very reluctant to receive help,” says Quinlan. So by the time some of them arrive at a coaching session, they feel like their backs are up against a wall and they need some stability. They might be experiencing compassion fatigue or have been on the receiving end of bullying. They think a coach can help, but they aren’t sure how.

So, how can a coach help you? Nurse coaches are especially valuable because they understand the complex industry of nursing. They get the professional side of what a nurse trains for and a nurse’s myriad responsibilities. But nurse coaches also understand how the nursing profession is also a way of life. They get that there’s no punching the clock and leaving your job behind when your shift is over.

Is It Coaching or Mentoring?

When Margaret Erickson, PhD, RN, CNS, APHN-BC, executive director of the American Holistic Nurses Credentialing Corporation (AHNCC), thinks of coaching, she thinks of the whole profession. “The role of coaching allows nurses to reconnect with each other and it has value in society,” she says.

Nurses find they have resources to help themselves, but coaching just helps reveal those resources and show nurses how to use them. Often, Quinlan says, nurses are able to reignite their initial passion for becoming a nurse in the first place. They can remember why they took this on as a career and are invigorated by the boost.

Coaches guide, but never tell someone what to do. “Part of coaching is asking powerful questions,” says nurse coach Keith Carlson, RN, BSN, NC-BC, also known as Nurse Keith. “Coaches are there to offer guidance and objectivity and to inspire people.”

Not everyone understands what coaching is, what it does, and what role each person plays in a coaching relationship. “People lump it into mentoring, and that’s a huge mistake,” argues Yoder, who presents nationally about nurse coaching. Nurse coaching helps nurses with their growth and development, which serves to increase their confidence.

How are coaching and mentoring different? Although coaching and mentoring both aim for a similar goal—to make the nurse the best nurse he or she can be—there are differences in the approach. “Managerial coaching, technically, is really a boss/employee relationship,” explains Yoder. “Mentoring is an exclusive relationship that plays a role in succession planning.”

Does that mean your boss will always be a great career coach? No. But a good boss will motivate you, show you how to do a good job, and let you know the educational, professional, and personal steps that will help you advance.

So while your boss should coach you on how to fill out a unit shift report, she might be less likely to take you under her wing and shape you into her replacement. Your coach can instruct and guide you on the subtle ways of your organization so you advance in your job, but coaches don’t share what Yoder refers to as “state secrets”—those nuggets of insider professional information that are often exchanged in the fundamentally different trust and power levels of a mentor/mentee.

And Carlson reminds nurses that coaching isn’t psychotherapy, either. There might be introspection and lots of questions to be answered, but a coach is going to rely on you to figure out some of the answers based on what your own motivations are.

Nurse Coaching Takes Hold

When Donna Cardillo, RN, CSP, known as The Inspiration Nurse, started coaching 20 years ago, hardly anyone else was in the field of coaching nurses. “Even personal coaches couldn’t effectively coach a nurse because they didn’t understand what nurses were capable of or the job market,” she says. With more nurses acting as coaches now, she says they are using a body of experience, skills, and knowledge to help other nurses with problem solving, identifying strengths and weaknesses, and following through on goal setting.

With nurses under increasing job stress and the pressure to earn higher degrees, burnout is rampant. If your job is causing you so much stress as to affect your physical and emotional well-being, start thinking of ways to make it better, says Erickson.

“Coaches know the game,” says Yoder, comparing nurse coaching to the job of a sports coach. “They know the big picture, how the game is played, every single player, and what position each player plays best in. The coach has to understand the game better than anyone else.” Coaches get to know their players and know how each works so they are able to best motivate them and make the entire nursing unit operate more effectively.

Coaches also are focused on the present. Erickson’s work is guided by the  Modeling and Role Modeling holistic nursing theory, which was developed by Helen C. Erickson, Evelyn M. Tomlin, and Mary Ann P. Swain. According to Erickson, using theory rather than policies and procedures to assist others helps coaches become intentional and thoughtful in their approach to each nurse or client.

Sorting It All Out

A nurse coach helps you tweak the complex intertwined aspects of your personal and professional life to bring you more career satisfaction and help you set and reach your goals. “A coach focuses on what are your goals and what are you going to accomplish this year,” says Yoder.

For instance, coaches will get you thinking about if you want to go back to school this year or if you want to take a certification exam. Should you join a professional nursing organization, and how can you make the best out of that experience?

Kamron Keep, RN, BSN, NC-BC, says coaching helped her focus on what she really wanted. “I felt like there was a missing piece, personally and professionally,” says the Idaho-based Keep, who is now a nurse coach herself. With her coach, Keep says she uncovered her motivations and identified what was holding her back. “Working with a coach held me more accountable,” she says. “Coaching helps someone take the step forward. It helped me live the life I wanted.”

Linda Bark, PhD, RN, MCC, NC-BC, Keep’s coach and the founder of Wisdom of the Whole Coaching Academy, says she asks clients to think about their options and will even have them assess how they feel physically when thinking about each option. It’s that kind of holistic approach that shows nurses how the corners of a career, personal life, and spiritual life are all connected. “The wisdom of the whole is about taking in all that information,” says Bark.

When’s the Time to See a Coach?

Carlson says he sees several categories of nurses who come to him for coaching advice. Most of the nurses he sees want something else, but they just don’t know how to define or identify what they want or how to take the steps to get it.

Novice nurses, he says, are trying to find out what makes them tick as a nurse. Maybe they went into nursing with a specific path in mind but now want to branch out, but have no idea where to start. With so many opportunities and choices, they are bewildered.

Then, he says, mid-career nurses come with very different ideas. They have years of experience, but nursing has lost its luster. Or now they want to do something different, but stay within the nursing industry. These nurses typically want to find out about nurse entrepreneurship.

Older nurses are looking for someone who understands the profession, says Carlson, and who can help the nurse figure out the next step. They often want to stay in nursing but are looking to shed the long hours or the physically demanding tasks. “For seasoned nurses, it’s often trying to find the heart of why they became a nurse in the first place,” he says. “Sometimes they need redirection, and sometimes they need a major change.”

Is One Coach Enough?

Throughout your life, you’ll have several coaches. Some coaching relationships will be less involved—one might simply be a unit educator who coaches bedside nurses. A charge nurse might be the coach for practice kinds of issues, says Yoder, to let nurses know how they can most effectively work with different families.

If you aren’t getting the feedback you need at work or if your boss is unwilling to act in a coaching role, there are other options. A growing industry is, of course, nurse coaches you hire. These nurse coaches are certified after passing the AHNCC’s certification exam and aim to give nurses a sounding board and guide them to the best choices for their own specific lives and goals.

And although coaches won’t be holding your hand and guiding you on a specific path, says Carlson, they are listening closely to everything you say and probably seeing patterns or wishes you may not even see. You’ll likely have homework to do, something that helps you feel empowered about the choices and decisions on the horizon.

“Sometimes, it’s just about the act of being truly heard and having those experiences reflected back toward them,” says Carlson. “Being listened to is incredibly powerful.”

Many nurses find that being heard by a coach is so empowering they turn the table at work and use the same method with their patients. “Coaching enhanced my nursing practice,” says Keep. “A lot of that is a listening presence and reflecting back to the patient to validate what they say.”

Quinlan agrees. “Coaching very gently raises the ability of a client to reach out and touch their own innate knowing,” she says. Successful coaching helps clients understand their true feelings and motivations so they can peel away the layers of confusion and help remove some of the barriers for nurses to move ahead. Coaches offer a toolbox of skills nurses can use to move forward in the direction that’s best for them.

As nurses become more comfortable with coaching, Quinlan says coaches are becoming more prevalent and many older nurses are considering a career shift to become certified coaches. In particular, she says, nurses approaching retirement who have decades of experience and a wealth of knowledge are perfectly positioned to take on nurse coaching roles, either on their own or within their workplace as a designated coach on staff.

“Coaching can help you if in your head you know what you need, but in your heart you don’t know how to get there,” says Quinlan. “Coaching helps you untie the knot.”

Julia Quinn-Szcesuil

Julia Quinn-Szcesuil

Julia Quinn-Szcesuil is a freelance writer based in Bolton, Massachusetts.
Julia Quinn-Szcesuil
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