Leading Through Example
In her role as lead nurse at Cleveland Clinic Euclid Hospital, Shannon Kunberger wants to empower every caregiver to be a leader.
When Shannon Kunberger, MSN RN, NEA-BC was new to nursing, a startling interaction with an ICU supervisor made such an impact that it influences her thinking to this day. One of her key values as a leader: “Be an advocate for your team until you have all the facts.”
Kunberger was recently appointed Chief Nursing Officer of Cleveland Clinic Euclid Hospital. She leads 327 nursing caregivers, oversees regulatory and accreditation standards and is responsible for aligning the nursing strategic plan for patient care with Cleveland Clinic standards.
A veteran former flight nurse and ER and critical care nurse at healthcare facilities in Indiana and Illinois, Kunberger was still new to nursing when she experienced a public scolding that she hadn’t earned.
“I had a patient who had been in a motor vehicle accident and still required full spinal immobilization,” Kunberger says. “I had been off the unit, and when I returned, the physician and my manager were having a serious discussion. My patient’s spinal collar had been removed. My leader was yelling at me in the middle of the nurses’ station.”
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The manager had not made time to learn the facts (the patient had removed the collar), but instead simply dived into blaming Kunberger, who felt crushed and humiliated.
“To be successful as a new grad in the ICU, you have to have a sense of self-confidence. At that moment, I had none,” she says. “But I knew from that experience what type of person I wanted to be. I vowed that if I were ever a leader, I would never treat anyone with such criticism in a public setting.”
Kunberger values teamwork, empathy and integrity — leadership qualities that are embraced across the Cleveland Clinic enterprise, says Meredith Foxx, MSN, MBA, APRN, NEA-BC, PCNS-BC, PPCNP-BC, CPON, Executive Chief Nursing Officer.
“When we talk about quality and safety, and being a team of teams, our caregivers know that we are very sincere about it. They understand that we emphasize the importance of a speak-up culture because it helps us ensure the best patient experience,” Foxx says. “Shannon shares these core values, as well as an understanding of the importance of Euclid Hospital to our surrounding community.”
Before joining Cleveland Clinic, Kunberger was Executive Director of Network Nursing at Community Health Network in Indianapolis, where her responsibilities included operations and services and oversight of acute care and ambulatory services. She also was responsible for two key COVID-19 initiatives: staffing for the entire system, from shutting down ambulatory sites to organizing roles reassignments, and setting up four regional COVID testing centers for caregivers, pre-surgical and ambulatory patients.
While the pandemic has been devastating, Kunberger says she is glad to have been able to employ her experience with emergency preparedness.
“I always say, it isn’t a question of ‘Can we get it done?’ It’s ‘How are we going to get it done?’ For COVID, within two weeks, I had 100 college students preparing for careers in healthcare hired as COVID testers. This was in October, and we had all these students around who were suddenly doing school online or had no job during their school holiday break. This opportunity turned into a whole new internship program, which led to a new nursing pipeline strategy.”
She also served as Emergency Department Manager and Clinical Operations Manager at IU Health, and Program Director and Regional Manager of Clinical Services at PHI Air Medical, in Indiana, Michigan and Tennessee.
“Most of my clinical background has been in critical care,” she says. “While I was on the ground, it was intensive care and emergency services. In the skies of pre-hospital EMS services, your knowledge basis is from high-risk obstetrics to trauma care. The autonomy to make decisions and care for those patients had such an impact because time matters, but I also knew that I loved change management and process improvement. I love to mentor people, I love project improvement and emergency preparedness and operations.”
In her new role, her focus will include nurse recruitment and retention and empowering nursing caregivers at all levels.
“Not everyone has to go into leadership in a formal structure with people reporting to you. We need leaders at the bedside,” she says. “What does professional growth mean for those who want to continue to be directly involved with patient care? Being part of the decision-making process between staff and management to develop changes for patient care delivery is leadership. I try to empower the frontline caregiver’s voice because they are the ones doing the work.”
Helping nurses achieve their career goals is, like Kunberger’s leadership lessons, born of personal experience. There was a time, after all, when she seemed an unlikely candidate for the nursing profession.
“I am diagnosed with attention deficit disorder and dyslexia. I originally went to college on a ballet scholarship,” Kunberger says.” I got a part time job in a hospital to make ends meet as a registration clerk in an emergency department. After I started that role, I was inspired to be a nurse.”
When Kunberger took the nursing program entrance exam, she earned only average scores, and wasn’t among the 40 students initially selected to join the program. That didn’t stop her, however.
“I contacted the dean of the school to better understand what steps I could take to eventually get into the program,” Kunberger says.” She shared with me on the phone something that ended up being the words that created my internal drive. ‘Not everyone is made to be a nurse. You may want to try something else like a tech program.’”
But Kunberger got a chance to prove herself in the program when other students declined their place in line. She ended up being the American Nursing Association student body president.
“At the time, I believed I had something to prove,” she says. “Later, I recognized that everyone learns differently and leads differently. As a leader, I try to mentor those who have high hopes and dreams. Anything is possible if you have faith in yourself and support from others.”