Embrace the Unexpected to Embrace a Rewarding Career

Chief Caregiver Officer mines her experience for helpful insights

Kelly Hancock career lessons

By K. Kelly Hancock, DNP, RN, NE-BC, FAAN, Chief Caregiver Officer


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Those who choose a healthcare career have endless opportunities to challenge themselves, hone their skills, find their true passion and carve their own path. There’s an opportunity for every aspiration.

Throughout my nearly 30 years in healthcare, I have led a diverse and fulfilling career. I started out as a nurse associate (a student nurse position) and, after earning my degree and RN license, I spent three years as a staff nurse. I held roles as a clinical coordinator, nurse manager and nursing director. I progressed into executive leadership and served as chief nursing officer, executive chief nursing officer (ECNO) and now Chief Caregiver Officer.

A few key things have helped me get where I am today, including hands-on experience, support from those who believed in me and a commitment to hard work. Above all, my willingness to take advantage of opportunities had the greatest impact on my journey. To make the most of your healthcare career, embrace opportunities that come your way.

Go for the job

Not all job opportunities are expected. Some are planned or follow a natural progression, but others are circumstantial.

When my first leadership opportunity arose, I was a happy, hard-working staff nurse in the cardiothoracic step-down unit at Cleveland Clinic main campus. I was consistent and level-headed. I received recognition for my work, and I liked my shift. A position for a clinical coordinator (assistant nurse manager) became available, and although I didn’t intend to apply, I was encouraged to consider it. I got the job and I liked it.

Eighteen months later, after some leadership restructuring, a nurse manager position opened. Once again, colleagues encouraged me to apply. Although I was still unsure if leadership was the path for me, I went for it. It turned out to be a good fit.

There may be times in your career when you aren’t able to see your own potential, but others who are more experienced can. Pay attention to their insights. While you are ultimately in charge of your own career, it will serve you well to consider others’ perspectives alongside your self-perceptions while making career choices.


Build relationships with mentors

Mentors shine a bright light on career possibilities. Some of the most unexpected opportunities can come from a mentor’s guidance, advice or recommendations.

Seek out those who specialize in the areas you are interested in or want to learn more about. If you’re in finance and want to learn about hospital operations, find a mentor who specializes in operations. If you’re a nurse considering advanced practice nursing, connect with a nurse practitioner. If you’re a physician’s assistant and think project management skills will help you in your daily work, look for a mentor who specializes in those skills.

Grab every chance you can to be mentored, and aim to have at least one mentor at any given time. I’ve had mentors throughout every phase of my career, and I still have them today. I’ve also served as a mentor for many years, helping healthcare professionals explore career options they hadn’t previously considered and connect with resources offering added knowledge and insight.

Choose to grow and develop

Never shy away from professional growth and development opportunities. The intellectual reward will always be worth it.

Sign up for growth and development courses, educational conferences and any other learning opportunity that comes your way. Some of the best career-enhancing actions I took were stretch assignments and job shadowing experiences.

Shadowing experiences and coaching sessions are an ideal way to garner a first-hand look at a specific area of practice. Jumping on opportunities like these shows initiative and helps you realize your own potential. Career ladders are also a great tool for helping develop your future career path.

Never stop learning

Authentic experiences, observations and knowledge drive success in healthcare. Push yourself to continually learn. Take the course, specialize, earn the certification or advanced degree. Be dedicated and serious about your work. Very few careers offer ongoing learning opportunities like those in healthcare. Take advantage of them and you will enhance your skills, advance your career and become an even more valuable asset for your organization.


In some of my busiest years, I earned higher education degrees. I obtained my master’s degree while I was nursing director for Cleveland Clinic’s top-ranking Heart, Vascular and Thoracic Institute, and I earned my doctorate of nursing practice while leading the health system’s nursing organization as ECNO.

Embrace challenges

Opportunities are often found where you least expect them — like in change and challenge. While your instinct may be to shy away from the things that are hard, embracing them can enhance your career in surprising ways.

When I was a new nurse, the structure of traditional healthcare teams lacked interdisciplinary communication and collaboration, often between nurses and physicians. I began exploring ways to advocate for the nursing profession and the imperative role of the nurse in delivering safe, high-quality healthcare. I offered suggestions for nurses to communicate with our care team colleagues in ways that were considered out of the box at the time. Nurses began speaking up and sharing ideas, thoughts and opinions on what they felt was best for patients and families. Interdisciplinary team communication improved. I also uncovered vital relationship-building skills, such as two-way communication, that would become imperative as I continued forward in my career.

In healthcare, the world is your oyster. Having an open mind and a willing and ready attitude will ensure you capitalize on opportunities that will allow you to make the most of your career.

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