“As nurses, we can underestimate just how versatile and transferable our skills are and how much we know about the healthcare system,” says Kathryn Riddell, Chief Nursing Officer at St Vincent’s Hospital Melbourne.
“You’ve got to be open to new opportunities and committed to continue to learn both formally and informally. When I talk to many nurses, they’re waiting for everything to line up perfectly for them before they put themselves forward for opportunities. The reality is it’s never going to line up perfectly and sometimes it’s just a matter of having a go.”
Kathryn began her career at Alfred Health and spent most of her clinical career working in critical care nursing.
“I was attracted to learning more, and complex patients, but also being part of a cohesive multidisciplinary team that worked together closely and was very reliant on and respectful of each other, this contributed so positively to patient care and outcomes, that’s probably what kept me in the speciality for as long as it did.”
During this period, Kathryn’s interest in education grew, leading to teaching roles in the ICU setting and more broadly. Ever since, education and a love or learning has shaped and strengthened her career.
She undertook a variety of roles at Eastern Health as she climbed the nursing career ladder, including; project work investigating nursing models of care; redesigning learning methodologies and managing nursing education.
In 2010, Kathryn was appointed the inaugural Director of Practice Development for nursing and midwifery, a role leading nursing education across a number of different campuses.
From there, Kathryn rose to become Eastern Health’s Deputy Chief Nursing Officer, then the Executive Director for Learning and Teaching combined with the Chief Nursing Midwifery Officer. In 2019, she became the Chief Nursing Officer at St Vincent’s.
Kathryn suggests it wasn’t a deliberate decision to work her way up to senior management roles, but instead, happened organically and was influenced by a belief she could help improve the system.
As she progressed, she became mindful of the need to continue adding formal qualifications to her CV in order to build her knowledge and skills.
Early on, when she was teaching in ICU, Kathryn completed a Bachelor of Education. Later, she added a Masters of Nursing to enhance her research capabilities, and then added a Graduate Diploma in Health Management. Currently, she is about to complete a Masters in Leadership.
While moving into management has afforded Kathryn the opportunity to influence broader system improvements, she concedes making the decision step away from working clinically can be difficult for many nurses.
“There’s a bit of tension initially, because you’re so committed to patient care and I drew so much value and joy from being close to my patients”.
“On a daily basis, you can directly see the impact and the value you’re having for patients or their families or both. Whereas in management roles, it can at times be much harder to see the tangible good that you’re doing and it takes longer. However, the span of your influence and the ability to make system change is the point of difference, you’re not going to be able to do that unless at some point you are prepared to take that leap.”
At St Vincent’s, Kathryn’s aim is to lead and support the nursing workforce to deliver high quality excellence in clinical care. She wants to build nursing leaders by providing the workforce with the right opportunities as they progress throughout their careers.
“We need nurses to be speaking up, to not just be at the table, but influencing and driving healthcare reform and innovation,” she says.
Reflecting on her own journey, Kathryn says the best piece of advice she received was to “just believe in yourself” and have the courage to have a go.
“You do have to take leaps of faith and just jump in. Be prepared to fail.”
Nevertheless, she stresses not all nurses are suited to management roles. Finding out if you are can be difficult, but stepping into acting positions or taking on a secondment can often be good ways of ‘trying before you buy’.
“You need resilience,” she says of the key attributes required.
“It’s not easy and it’s often hard to see how you’re progressing. It’s the long race, not necessarily the short race.
“Beyond that, it’s predominantly about your interpersonal skills and having a high degree of emotional intelligence, being able to really actively listen and walk in other people’s shoes, being collaborative and building relationships, so when you engage with others they will actually come with you when you start to present new ideas or challenge the status quo.”
Kathryn shared her top 5 tips for climbing the nursing career ladder with the ANMJ.
Adopt a lifelong learning commitment
Kathryn says it’s important to be curious and prepared to broaden your knowledge and skills if you aspire to progress into management roles.
“That involves both informal and formal learning. You’ve got to gather more qualifications as you go along, and that’s irrespective of whether that’s management, clinical, research or education.”
Kathryn says nurses do not always recognise the knowledge and expertise they hold and how transferrable it is. She encourages nurses to have self-belief, be proactive and grab opportunities when they present.
Always have a role model
Kathryn has had many role models throughout her career journey, including clinical nurses during her early career, such as Assistant Nurse Unit Managers and educators.
In recent years, when she first joined Eastern Health, Chief Nurse Penny Newsome provided great wisdom and counsel.
“It’s important to have a sounding board to be able to check in with someone you trust, to explore what might be challenging you or to discuss future opportunities and how to position yourself to be ready to step up”.
Choose work environments that align with your core values
Kathryn says it’s important nurses stay true to their core values and particularly if heading into management, nurses need to align and believe in their employer’s ideals and ensure they are not sitting at odds with the organisation’s overarching direction.
“It’s really hard if you find yourself in a situation where you’re swimming against the tide. You are not going to be nurtured to grow or be given opportunities. It’s going to make it hard on a daily basis just to do your job.”
Look after yourself
Kathryn admits she has had to learn to prioritise self-care and find a work-life balance.
“Physically, I just have to engage in exercise and everything that is healthy living,” she says.
“Mentally, for me it’s been making sure that I stay connected to my family and friends and take breaks and holidays and get that debrief. At times, that has involved seeing a formal coach to help unpack things that can be challenging. It’s about being in touch with yourself and recognising the signs that I need to step away or just take a break?”