Opportunities took her a long way. Planning is taking her even further!

Beth Cusatis Phillips |

Exploring an academic administrator role for a Sigma academy project challenged the author to acquire new skills and attributes.

Beth Cusatis PhillipsMy induction into Sigma Theta Tau International Honor Society of Nursing (Sigma) back in 1989 as a new BSN graduate gave me just an inkling of the amazing leadership opportunities that were in store for me in the future. From the outside looking in on my career trajectory in nursing, it looks like I orchestrated and structured it quite purposefully step by step. In reality, opportunities paved the way for my career path.

In 2016, I had the good fortune to be accepted into Sigma’s Emerging Educational Administrator Institute (EEAI). This leadership development program, designed for new or aspiring nursing academic administrators, consisted of online coursework, a face-to-face workshop, and completion of a leadership project.

The application included a series of nine questions that asked about my previous leadership roles, experience as a nurse educator, and goals in educational leadership, among other topics. These questions took me back along my nursing career journey and forward to my goals and aspirations for my future in leadership.

What I didn’t see
As a young nurse, I was engaged with bedside care as I had hoped and expected—fully involved with patients and families. I envisioned a long and satisfying career at the bedside. However, my nurse manager saw something in me I had yet to see in myself. She saw natural leadership attributes as a team player, passionate communicator, and strong role model for others.

I am not sure if it was my adolescent experience as a Girl Scout, my status as the middle child of five (always having to justify my independent perspective), my time as a Spanish-speaking traveler in high school, or my term as president of our nursing student ethics club. At any rate, that nurse manager encouraged me to apply for my first formal leadership role as an assistant nurse manager. I got the job and absolutely loved it!

I was provided with several leadership courses on communication, conflict management, and change, which were extremely helpful. I learned so much and grew as a leader. One of the most important lessons I learned was that building relationships with people is far better than using one’s authority or position to elicit cooperation and bring about change.

Yes, I can teach!
After a couple of years, I decided to pursue my master’s degree as a clinical nurse specialist in critical care. This led to leadership opportunities on a larger scale—first supervising nursing and ancillary staff from multiple intensive care units filled with very sick patients and then being a clinical instructor for a group of senior nursing students. Although the imposter syndrome crept in on numerous occasions, making me question my abilities and competency to teach, I found my earlier experiences provided me with tools and strategies to excel in these new positions.

My work as a clinical instructor was so fulfilling and stimulating. This led to a full-time faculty position in a community college. I loved working with nursing students and learned so much about nursing education. I was active in the statewide faculty organization and participated in annual conferences, always learning about current best practices for teaching.

I was again presented with a leadership opportunity when the program director position suddenly became available, and I was asked to step in. I called on many of the skills I had gained to guide my thinking, leadership style, and decision making. I was instrumental in growing nursing programs, hiring excellent staff, and ensuring a solid, successful nursing program for several years.

Once more, the experiences I had in that job—such as hiring and firing personnel, making accreditation visits, and introducing curricular changes—paved the way for my next position in a new school: teaching in the accelerated BSN program of a highly competitive university. Leadership opportunities surfaced quickly after I began there. With a change in governance structure, I became the first elected leader of the undergraduate nursing program. For the last 14 years, I have been actively involved with curriculum, administrative committee work, and faculty and clinical instructor development.

Emerging Educational Administrator Institute!
All of this leads me back to Sigma and the EEAI. With the support and guidance of an incredible Mentor and a terrific Faculty Advisor, I explored the strengths and areas I needed to work on, learned about fiscal management, and developed a career timeline and plan for my future as an educational administrator.

EEAI triadFor my project, I examined the roles and responsibilities of associate deans of academic affairs (ADAA), a position I was interested in. They vary significantly, depending upon the institution. I developed a qualitative interview process to explore the role and interview people in the ADAA position across the country. My Mentor and Faculty Advisor reinforced my learning with their wealth of knowledge, experience, and networking prowess. That made such a difference in my search for schools with ADAAs. It was also helpful to hear about the paths they had taken in nursing education and leadership.

This program enabled me to develop at a different level, learn about the role of university administrators, and, once again, challenge myself to grow and acquire new skills and attributes for the future. My path reminds me of a favorite Stephen Covey quote: “Personal leadership is not a singular experience. … It is, rather, the ongoing process of keeping your vision and values before you and aligning your life to be congruent with those most important things.” RNL

Beth Cusatis Phillips, PhD, RN, CNE, CHSE, is an associate professor and director of the Institute of Educational Excellence at Duke University School of Nursing in Durham, North Carolina, USA. 

No matter your career stage or focus area, Sigma has an academy for you! Our mentored experiences are designed to ensure that nurse scholars receive the support needed to help them develop as leaders and as nurses.

Find the academy that’s best for you and apply today at SigmaNursing.org/Academies.

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  • Opportunities took her a long way. Planning is taking her even further.