The Importance of Nurse Manager Succession Planning

Twenty percent of nurse managers are considering leaving the profession, and amid unprecedented burnout and turnover among nurses at all levels, there’s increased urgency for healthcare organizations to develop a formal nurse manager succession plan

Nurse managers play an essential role in uniting exceptional patient care with a healthcare organization’s mission and operational goals. They serve in key administrative roles overseeing daily operations, hiring and retaining staff, conducting ongoing training, assuring quality outcomes are achieved, creating and maintaining departmental budgets, and promoting financial stewardship. In addition to these ongoing responsibilities, nurse managers create healthy work environments, provide emotional support for teams, and are a major component in addressing fatigue and burnout throughout the industry.

However, 20% of nurse managers are considering leaving the profession, and amid unprecedented burnout and turnover among nurses at all levels, there’s increased urgency for healthcare organizations to develop a formal nurse manager succession plan. Today, fewer than 7%of healthcare organizations have a formal leadership succession plan in place for nurse manager positions.

When vacancies arise at the nurse leadership level and a succession plan isn’t in place, there can be immediate and detrimental effects on the broader workforce, as well as the quality and safety of patient care. The most successful healthcare organizations will be those that integrate nurse manager succession planning into their workforce management strategy.

Defining a Framework
Without effective nurse leaders, organizations may have trouble finding and keeping enough nurses, and without enough nurses on staff, it’s virtually impossible for a hospital to provide high-quality patient care and meet their operational goals. Organizations need nurse managers tomake tough, compassionate, data-driven staffing decisionsand stay on top of workforce developments to always ensure adequate staffing.

Nurse manager succession planning is not the same as replacement hiring – rather, it’s a proactive and deliberate process in which an organization forecasts staffing needs before a vacancy causes a leadership crisis. Succession planning involves developing a talent pipeline, identifying potential future nurse leaders, and equipping those nurses with the leadership competencies to transition into nurse manager roles when a vacancy occurs.

When healthcare organizations have a nurse manager succession plan in place, they can better weather operational changes and prevent disruption. Strategic planning also supports leadership and cultural continuity by demonstrating a strong organizational commitment to internal human resources.

Here are sixsteps healthcare organizations can take to develop an effective nurse manager succession plan:

1. Document current nurse manager competencies and responsibilities.
Beyond basic leadership skills, identifying a nurse manager’s primary responsibilities is a foundational step in creating an effective succession plan. This ensures that hospitals will seek the right person whose skillset best aligns with the job description and organizational culture.

Recruiting and retaining nursing staff is an essential part of nurse managers’ responsibilities, but there are several other areas where nurse managers provide equal value. For example, establishing goals for their unit and ensuring these goals are met, implementing evidence-based practices, creating healthy work environments, and overseeing unit-based finances are just a few examples of the multi-faceted roles nurse managers play. As such, ideal nurse manager competencies should include areas such as financial management, human resources management, performance improvement, strategic planning, and clinical practice knowledge, among others.

When thinking about nurse manager succession planning, it is essential to identify future leaders who have the potential to deliver on these diverse responsibilities based on how your specific organization prioritizes them.

2. Assess current talent to identify potential future leaders.
Effective nurse manager succession planning depends on leveraging your organization’s talent pool. This requires the use of objective, performance-based measures to help capture and identify high-performing, high-potential nurse manager talent. Organizations must assess an individual’s current performance and their level of potential as a future leader.

Considering the difficulty of the position, the talent pool of nurses who want to be nurse managers is not large. Watching your manager work long hours with minimal recognition is a deterrent to many people considering the position. Succession planning also involves spotting nurses with potential and engaging in dialogue to explain how they can be extremely influential and impactful in the nurse manager position.

3. Develop infrastructure for internal training and mentorship opportunities.
Once a potential nurse manager is identified, curriculum content for leadership development should be centered around concepts of strategic planning, business and finance management, human resources, informatics, quality improvement, team building, communication, and conflict resolution skills. However, we have learned with the pandemic that formal mentoring has become difficult and informal mentoring serves as an effective alternative. Training infrastructure must include the leading practices of informal mentoring as a centerpiece of the project.

4. Implement individual development plans.
These plans should be prepared for each identified successor based on their unique current capabilities and expected competencies for the targeted role. The specific characteristics and skills sought likely will need to be tailored to the organization and its culture.

5. Leverage data to evaluate results.
Examples of data-driven outcomes for your nurse manager succession plan might include retention and time taken to fill vacancies, as well as nurse manager empowerment, engagement, and achievement of role competencies within four months post-intervention. Note that an organization’s Magnet re-designation is dependent on having a formal nurse manager succession program with empirical outcomes.

6. Integration with retention efforts

While succession planning is strategically important, retention of workforce talent is equally critical. Succession plans that don’t address root causes of turnover are not effective and are merely reacting to the revolving door. Organizations can strengthen retention by integrating appropriate technology that identifies high turnover risk employees and creating effective interventions to reduce turnover.

Equipping nurses with the leadership competencies to transition into nurse manager roles is essential as the industry faces lingering challenges from the pandemic, as well as a host of other staffing and workforce challenges. When nurse manager vacancies arise, a formal succession plan ensures that there are internal procedures in place to accommodate changes in employment. This not only benefits patient care but can also reduce recruitment and replacement costs. Ultimately, nurse manager succession planning is a part of a successful workforce management strategy that prepares healthcare organizations for critical and time-sensitive transitions with as little interruption as possible.

Karlene Kerfoot, PhD, RN, FAAN, is Chief Nursing Officer at symplr. As CNO, Karlene is responsible for integrating the science of patient care, staffing, and clinical informatics into symplr solutions. Prior to joining symplr in 2011, she was the Corporate Chief Nursing and Patient Care Officer at three of the largest US healthcare systems