Making a Difference Through Leadership

Mercy Hospital welcomes new chief nurse

In one of her first days as chief nursing officer (CNO) at Cleveland Clinic Mercy Hospital, Susan Spencer, DNP, MSN, BA, RN, NE-BC, interacted with a group of professionals who gathered to discuss their current healthcare roles. One person stated that he was living the dream. Another said that someday she would find her dream job. Spencer replied, “I just found mine!” 

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And she meant it.

“I feel very fortunate to have been placed in a position where I can positively affect nursing practice as well as the patient and caregiver experience,” Spencer says.

Those entering the field of nursing frequently say they want to make a difference.

“I felt that way as a new nurse,” she says. “Caring for patients on a daily basis allowed me to visualize the positive difference that could be made for those individuals.”

With more than 30 years of experience, first as a critical care nurse and then in nursing leadership, it became evident to Spencer that nurse leaders have a tremendous opportunity to help drive results by positively affecting other leaders, nursing caregivers and, ultimately, patient outcomes.

Development will take you places

According to Spencer, the key to becoming a good leader is career and professional development. And that starts with having a strong mentor.

“As a leader, it’s imperative to be self-aware and always strive to grow and develop in your profession,” she says. “It’s important to find a strong mentor who can provide constructive criticism, listen and help guide your path.”

She says not to be afraid to ask your mentor about their career and how you can advance in yours. Spencer believes nurses should explore opportunities for growth as they come along.

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“In my career, there have been times when I was asked to accept additional responsibilities, serve on a committee, or fill an interim role,” Spencer admits. “I always said yes. Although it may have been out of my comfort zone, these experiences provided some level of growth and development.” 

According to Spencer, an important part of a nurse leader’s job is supporting the development of others. As a CNO, she feels it is important to recognize the leadership potential and interests of others.

“Whether it is serving as a mentor, allowing for opportunities through experience or committee work, or supporting continuing education, CNOs have a significant responsibility in the growth of caregivers,” Spencer explains. “By helping others grow in their current role, we can continue to positively improve outcomes for our patients and our hospitals.”

Building on past experience

Although she just started in her new position, Spencer is already bringing her past knowledge and experience to the role.

She joins Mercy from Cleveland Clinic Akron General where she most recently served as Associate Chief Nursing Officer. For three years, Spencer led nursing and patient care services, including bed management and the organization’s operations center. She was a key member of Akron General’s successful integration to Cleveland Clinic.

Mercy Hospital, acquired by Cleveland Clinic in 2021, continues its integration journey.

“Hospital integrations can sometimes take several years to fully complete,” Spencer says. “Many phases of the integration of Mercy into the health system are done, but there are more to go. I’ve been through an integration and my experience of that process helps tremendously. We have a lot of strong leaders here, both nursing and non-nursing, and I’m looking forward to how the leadership team will drive our organization forward as we continue to integrate.”

Spencer says part of her role in the remaining phases of integration will be helping Mercy’s nursing caregivers garner a better understanding of how the organization can operate as a small hospital with big health system resources.

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“One of my goals is to help people understand the how and why behind the changes as we continue to integrate,” Spencer says. “Leading through change is an important part of the job and I aim to keep people energized and upbeat about the opportunities ahead.”

Leadership visibility

In three weeks, Spencer has conducted many meet-and-greets with physicians, directors, managers and others, and has toured all the Mercy nursing floors as she becomes acquainted with her new team.

“I aim to have a presence with our bedside nurses,” Spencer says. “We talk about patient experience, outcomes, metrics, quality experience and more, but we aren’t always at a place where caregivers can walk up to a visual board and say, ‘here’s why we look at length of stay and patient falls.’ I want to take that information and help make the connections on the nursing floor so everyone can see the bigger picture.”

When Spencer talks about the bigger picture, she’s referring to the organization’s objectives and key results (OKR) methodology for strategic planning, which uses outcomes as a strategic driver. Cleveland Clinic’s OKR process for setting goals prioritizes work and measures success, guiding the health system to focus on what matters most.

“We want to make sure we are communicating constantly and providing information at the unit level so nurses can see the difference they make in the work they do,” Spencer adds.

To her, communication in leadership is vital as she says everything comes back to communication. She also says that to be a good leader you must have positivity, be open-minded and listen. Her favorite leadership book is Dare to Lead by Brené Brown.

The book highlights the aspects of empathy, connection and courage. The author suggests that leadership is born through vulnerability and that without vulnerability there is no creativity.

“We need to be brave enough to allow ourselves to be uncomfortable, which ultimately leads to growth,” says Spencer. “It is important to be a humble leader who allows for imperfection but supports continued self-development, as well as the development of others.”