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Leadership Journey: Cheri Johnson on Seizing Opportunities

It hasn’t been an easy year for nurses. One of the first lines of defense against COVID-19, nurses across the nation are showing up as examples of leadership and resiliency in the face of a complex and ever-changing threat. We were privileged to talk with Cheri Johnson, Chief Nursing Officer and Senior Vice President of Patient Care at Woman’s Hospital, about her experience leading these healthcare heroes – and her advice for others who are leaping feet-first into a fast-paced and rewarding career.

Her work gave her opportunity early on to learn the value of mentorship, when she was abruptly moved to a manager role following leadership changes as a young nurse at Baton Rouge General. Jumping straight into the deep end and needing to seek out the tools to be successful, Cheri began to network with managers in other departments – just asking questions about scheduling, evaluations, and other daily practices. She found that not being shy about asking questions eventually builds the kind of close relationships where you can have multi-faceted, long-range mentoring discussions. Be sure to look outside of your bubble for these relationship connections – Cheri recommends seeking out multiple mentors, “because everyone brings something different to the table. Seek out people who can help you be more well-rounded, and don’t just focus on one area.”

  • Cheri’s Leadership Tip #1: Look to others for examples of good “manager moments,” such as how to navigate tough conversations with reports.

Leading During COVID-19

The relationships and skills Cheri built up early on provided support while her career gradually grew more complex and strategic, taking on Director and VP roles at BR General and Woman’s Hospital. And her openness to questions, to relationship building, and to constant communication has stood her in good stead for the biggest challenge of all: facing a global pandemic, one year into her tenure as CNO.

“It hit us like a storm. One day it’s not here, the next day it is. The recommendations changed daily as we got new information. Communicating clearly with 900 nurses was tough. You have to be accurate, manage all the changes, and educate patients and their families. We ended up just saying the same messages in different ways over and over again: everything we’re doing is to try to keep everyone safe.”

Cheri emphasizes the role of catalysts in facing and managing through changes. You can never just expect change to happen without explaining the WHY behind it – what was the catalyst that forced this change? In healthcare, the catalyst is typically related to improving patient outcomes. As a leader, it’s up to you to find the framing and clearly articulate the catalyst for your reports, stakeholders and customers.

  • Cheri’s Leadership Tip #2: Communicate very, very often and be very, very visible during times of change and adversity. This allows you to answer questions as they arise, explain the context of changes, and state clearly that you’re all in it together.

Any moment of change is also an opportunity to cultivate resiliency in yourself and your staff. Cheri finds that resiliency is built through finding meaning and value in your work- especially when you are purposeful about recognizing and celebrating the difference that you made. “It can be hard to take the time out to say ‘great job,’ or just to look at the data- and see that yes, the work was worthwhile, I did make a difference. Take the time to celebrate making it through when you can- even if it’s just a cookie and a ‘thank you.’”

Baton Rouge has rallied around its healthcare workers during this crisis, and that support has made a huge difference for Cheri and her team. Being taken care of during the pandemic – they’ve received countless meals and other messages of thanks from the Baton Rouge community – has helped to cultivate resiliency and an even stronger will to go on during a difficult time. She spoke about a recent CNO Round Table, where everyone present talked about how proud they are to be a nurse and to be looked at by the community as leaders. In return, they feel an even greater sense of responsibility to share accurate information and cultivate the best practices they can.

  • Cheri’s Leadership Tip #3: Celebrate your wins! You can cultivate more resiliency under crisis conditions if you take the time to recognize that your work is making a real difference.

“If an opportunity comes, don’t be afraid to take it.”

Early on in her career, Cheri recognized the value of taking every opportunity offered – even when she wasn’t sure if she had all the skills. “We can talk ourselves out of anything. You need to have confidence that you’re not going to fail.”

If you’re just starting out in your own journey, be brave. Know that you can figure out most things – or you can ask questions of people who have already figured it out. Looked at another way, Cheri is open about “stealing shamelessly.”

  • Cheri’s Leadership Tip #4: Take ‘Manager Moments’ one step further. “I take the best of what I see in others and try to mimic it. This habit has really helped me in my career. Even some of the worst leaders, I’ve learned from them what not to do.”

Ultimately, Cheri credits that energy of openness, not being afraid to get out there, and of finding value and pride in your work with forming her leadership journey. It has helped her manage one of the most difficult years on record for healthcare workers, and we want to join the rest of the community in thanking her and her team for their tireless efforts. To all nurses and future nurses: we are so proud of you, and know that you’ll make a HUGE difference with your careers!

Success Labs is a leadership development and management consulting firm in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. For more than 25 years, our expert team of consultants has worked with hundreds of companies to grow leaders, build teams and drive results through great people strategy. Contact us to get proactive about expanding your company’s potential.

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