October 2012 | 

Custom Program for Nursing Deans Focuses on Leadership Essentials


Dr. Pamela Watson, dean of the University of Texas Medical Branch School of Nursing, recently traveled to Philadelphia for a four-day Executive Leadership Program, and had only one regret: "I wish I had come to a program like this sooner. I've been in deanships for 21 years, and this was the first time I attended a leadership development program. I always felt I was too busy to go. But it was well worth my time; my strategic and visionary decisions will benefit now and would have benefited earlier."

Designed specifically for nursing school deans, the program was the product of a partnership between Wharton and the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN). The association’s Board of Directors was instrumental in shaping this unique and sophisticated leadership development opportunity for member deans. AACN was supported in this work by the Jonas Center for Nursing Excellence, which provided generous financial support to this program through the Jonas Family Fund.

“AACN was thrilled to partner with Wharton, whose long history in building leadership and executive expertise is exactly what our members need today,” said Dr. Polly Bednash, CEO and executive director of AACN. “The program gives them another set of skills, knowledge, and experiences that will help them move into a new way of operating. That's what we wanted them to get from this experience at Wharton, to be able to bring their issues to the table as an important part of the conversation around health care."

Dr. Watson stressed that the program addressed many of the challenges she faces in her role — some of which she thought were unique to academia. "Many of us came in thinking that nursing is different, and that the leadership required is different. But the faculty pushed back on that reasoning; they showed us that the factors that bring success in the business of academia are the same as those in any industry."

Learning director Kathy Pearson wasn't surprised by the participants' initial reaction. "Whether I'm consulting with bankers or pharmaceutical executives, I often hear, ‘but our industry is unique,' and the AACN participants were no different. I agree that these participants have major, very distinct challenges — balancing faculty versus administrative concerns is one. But there's a danger in focusing too closely on your uniqueness — you could dismiss best practices that could help you, brushing them aside as not relevant. It can be an excuse to keep from learning and changing. When you see how much you have in common with a senior manager at IBM or an executive at Merck, you're open to finding real solutions that have worked for others and that can work for you too."

In addition to program sessions designed to build core leadership competencies; including leading change, influence and persuasion, stakeholder management, and building strategic partnerships; the group heard from Joan Hendricks, dean of the University of Pennsylvania's School of Veterinary Medicine, on issues more specific to academic leadership. Dr. Dorrie Fontaine, dean of the University of Virginia School of Nursing, appreciated Dean Hendrick's session. "She was very open and willing to share her experiences. She has come out on the other side after a few tough years. Getting practical advice from someone who understands my situation was really valuable."

Wharton's program director, Pearl Sumathi, notes that the custom leadership program is a blend of world-class thought leaders, industry experts, and the client. "Wharton considers itself as a partner, collaborating with clients like AACN to deliver the kind of expertise and experience that benefits both AACN and the participants." Wharton is also a partner with the University of Pennsylvania's School of Nursing, whose top-ranked program provides cutting-edge research and thought leadership to a new generation of nurses.

AACN President Dr. Jane Kirschling agrees. "In the health care industry today, we are dealing with tremendous conflicts and competing interests. Wharton is the place to bring our leaders in academic nursing so they can build skills for negotiation, for collaboration, for cooperation, and for entrepreneurial behavior. This program is going to help them become the leaders who can move us into the future."