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Get to the C-Suite with these Strategies from a Nurse CEO

Sky Ridge Medical Center July 10, 2015

Get to the C-Suite with these Strategies from a Nurse CEO

Written by Heather Punke, Becker's Hospital Review

Most career ladders don’t follow a straight line, but instead take twists and turns that give you the opportunity to develop a diverse range of skills and experiences. If you want to reach a role as a hospital C-Suite executive, seek out twists and turns in your own career ladder to diversify your skills and experience from any project or professional opportunity you come across, advises Susan Hicks MN, RN, CEO of HCA’s HealthONE Sky Ridge Medical Center.


Hicks says her path to CEO wasn’t necessarily strategic, but she does have an entrepreneurial spirit, has consistently strived to learn and grow in every nursing role and sought out new challenges. She shares several strategies that have helped her move from a PACU nurse to hospital CEO:


Stay Open to New Opportunities
“When opportunity knocks, open the door and embrace the prospect of learning something new, even if it’s a project no one else wants, it’s outside your comfort zone or a new job outside of the hospital setting,” Hicks suggests. “Take risks and try some different things; it always stretches you and makes you grow.”

After establishing herself early in her career as a PACU nurse and then an OR Manager at HealthONE Rose Medical Center in Denver’s first ambulatory surgical center, Hicks took four years away from the hospital setting to work as a consultant with a private company, providing surgeon and nurse education to help hospitals across the country build surgical volume. During this time she also earned her master’s in nursing and hospital administration. This consulting position helped her build business skills she later put to good use when she returned to OR nursing at Rose Medical Center. She worked her way up to the hospital’s director of surgical services and then CNO before being recruited as the COO at the new Sky Ridge Medical Center, which opened in 2003. She was named to the CEO position at Sky Ridge last year.

Brave the Tough Projects
Along her career path Hicks has taken on tough projects others shied away from, such as opening a new surgical eye center at Rose Medical Center. This project helped her understand the financial and clinical steps necessary to successfully launch and sustain a specialty surgical center. “Sometimes it’s the toughest projects that you learn the most from,” Hicks acknowledges. She has used the skills gained from that project to launch five destination surgical service lines at Sky Ridge Medical Center, including three Joint Commission-certified surgical service lines (for spine, total hip replacements and total knee replacements) and certified service lines for breast surgery and bariatric surgery.

Find Strong Mentors
“When you start off in new role you put a lot of pressure on yourself to know everything—you don’t need to know all the answers, you just need to know where to find the answers,” Hicks says. To do this, seek out people you respect and admire who have been in the role you are just starting. Meet with them and ask if they would be interested in mentoring you. “Find colleagues who really enjoy mentoring, talk to them often and ask for honest feedback. This feedback will be key to your success,” Hicks explains.

When she stepped into the CNO role, Hicks quickly built her network of mentors working in CNO positions at other medical centers. “When I was asked a question or tasked with work I was unsure of, I asked these mentors for their thoughts on how I might approach the situation and presented my proposed solutions,” she explains.


“Sometimes mentors work in positions that complement your role or add depth to a new role you are assuming,” Hicks adds. For example, at Sky Ridge the medical center’s director of marketing and PR has broadened Hicks’ perspective on building effective community and civic partnerships that are necessary to succeed in the CEO role.

Acknowledge Your Learning Curve
“Be willing to learn from your mistakes,” Hicks advises. “If you don’t have an answer, be honest about what you don’t know and be consistent with seeking out and following up with answers.” She says it’s Ok to be vulnerable in a new role and ask for help. It’s also important to acknowledge your weaker skills and hire colleagues who excel in these areas, so you can surround yourself by team members who complement your skills.

Sell Your Strengths
Hicks says her experience working on the frontline and in leadership positions in a variety of OR settings helps her understand what care providers are experiencing and what they need to succeed. “My frontline experience gives me credibility with nurses and physicians and helps me build a level of trust with my staff—they know I know what it means to put the patient first,” Hicks says. With this focus on the patient and staff experience, Hicks has been able to engage her teams in creating a vision and realizing success in building a destination surgical center.

“Surgical services is the financial engine of any successful hospital,” Hicks stresses. “I understand what this engine needs to continue moving full steam ahead and that is an invaluable component I bring to the table as CEO.”

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