Michelle Dearborn, a nurse manager at Beverly Hospital, felt her career was stalled until she read about a new pilot program at the MGH Institute last spring. 

Designed for nurse leaders like Dearborn who want to grow their leadership practice, “Raising Your Leadership Impact” sounded like something that could get her out of a career rut. “The program really spoke to me,” she said. “The content was laser-focused to what I needed to become a more effective nurse leader.” 

It wasn’t just the content that made the program so appealing to Dearborn, however: it also was the promise of camaraderie, leadership, and support of fellow students, faculty, and executive coaches that made the program exceptional: “I saw it as being participatory, engaging, and a type of learning I thought would really make a difference in my job. I mean, who wouldn’t like a program like this?”   

Yet just days after the program began in March 2020, it was a victim of a statewide COVID-19 shutdown. Most of the nurses who registered were now on the front lines of the pandemic. “They went right back into the hospitals and became focused on the pandemic,” said Elizabeth Cox, the IHP’s associate director of Continuing and Professional Development.     

betsy cox wears a teal colored v neck sweater and has short brown hair
Elizabeth Cox, the IHP's associate director of Continuing and Professional Development

Cox and her team of five trained executive coaches, who spent months designing the program, hoped to salvage the class by moving it online. “There were questions about keeping it going because participants and staff didn’t know if they would have time to attend the classes because of all the unknowns about the virus,” she recalled. “But then we asked ourselves, ‘If this isn’t the time we need leadership, when is?’”

It was that can-do attitude that got the program back on track and put Dearborn and 27 other nurse leaders from 14 different hospitals in the newly created virtual classroom.

The program’s framework is simple. It considers self, team, and systems as interrelated dimensions of leading. Self-assessment tests helped to determine the values, goals, and conflict styles of each participant which allowed them to then build a personal action plan. Using readings, group discussions, lectures, and working with assigned personal coaches, participants learned about their strengths, areas of growth, and resilience, all while developing their own goals and pathways to accomplish those goals along with ways to monitor their success.

One of the coaches was Debra Doroni, an adjunct professor at the Institute and a four-year executive coach with 30 years of health care experience. “What I think is amazing about this program is that it really looks at leadership from a person-centered and system-centered viewpoint,” she said, explaining that the program brings out participants’ leadership abilities while, at the same time, recognizing the need for health care systems to develop ways to take care of themselves so they can lead more effectively. 

Pamela Poulin, the executive director of critical care services at Wentworth-Douglass Hospital, noted that recognizing her strengths through the assessments and executive coaching allowed her to reframe her leadership and do to the “outside-of-the-box thinking” necessary during the pandemic.

By the end of the course, participants “know what makes a successful leader and what things they need to work on to become the best possible leader they can be,” said Nancy Schmidt, a leadership coach who spent 20 years at Spaulding Rehabilitation Network, including as a senior vice president. The key, she said, is developing the self-awareness to become a strong leader who can tap into the strengths of all team members.

For Dearborn, that meant a deep dive into her psyche to identify what she could do to push her leadership abilities beyond their existing boundaries. “I read every article, participated in every exercise, and really took it to heart,” she said. “I took it seriously because I really wanted to hold up a mirror to my leadership and say ‘Where are my weaknesses? Where is my growth?”’

For example, she learned how to better recognize her staff’s pros and cons to ensure they are in positions to succeed. What she also discovered was a need for more balance in her life. “I learned so much about myself as a leader and I’ve taken that and used it every day since,” Dearborn said, noting that the class taught her to seek help when needed, rely on the talents of others, and — most of all —take care of herself. 

And that’s important.

“I think a lot of the lessons learned re-enforced their confidence as leaders and about how to express their unique leadership style,” Cox said, adding the course also helped participants hone their communication and relationship building skills in navigating challenging conversations and in engaging staff. “It helped them be more confident in stepping up into a new position or taking on a new initiative. And most importantly, it reminded them of the importance of building their own resilience as a leader.”

There also was a personal component to the program, from Doroni’s perspective: “Participants walk away with more clarity, more confidence, and more empathy for themselves and others and I think they walk away with a lot more joy, too.”

Registration for “Raising Your Leadership Impact” is open.

Executive coaches (l-r) Debra Doroni and Nancy Schmidt
Executive coaches (l-r) Debra Doroni and Nancy Schmidt