Her watchwords: Resonance, reverberation and relevance

September 2016   Comments

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Canadian Nurse approached Barb Shellian one month into her new role to ask her about her background, leadership style and vision for nursing. In this interview, CNA’s 47th president explains what she hopes can be accomplished during the next two years.

How did you become interested in nursing?
I grew up in a large family on a Saskatchewan farm and felt the pull from an early age to pursue nursing. My family values and expectations were grounded in service to others. I loved science in school and I thought nursing was a great combination of science and service. My aunt was a registered nurse and I garnered a very romantic notion about nursing at her graduation — the white uniforms, navy capes, red roses, white caps and the reverence, in general, the public had for the profession. That notion lasted about a minute during my first year of nursing school, but the pull to make a difference and contribute to society in a meaningful way has lasted a lifetime.

What and who have been the major influences on you and your career?
The values that were part of my family upbringing were part of the influence. My parents and grandparents always encouraged me. There have been many people who influenced me. To start to name my nursing heroes…I would worry that I might miss someone just because there are so many! But I can honestly say that from the first day of nursing school up to this very moment, every nurse, patient, family member, student, teacher and colleague who has crossed my path has shaped me as a nurse and influenced my journey. For that, I am very grateful.

You’ve said that music is very important to you. Where does it fit into your life?
Balance. I want to be an interesting person as well as a competent registered nurse. Music provides that alternate aspect for me and has opened a different world of friends and experiences. I was encouraged at an early age to play piano and sing. For those who know me, I do love to belt out a tune. Music has a predictability and pattern, and that is reassuring when you work in an environment where chaos may be the order of the day. The performance aspect of singing in a disciplined choir accompanied by an orchestra or letting loose in a musical theatre production has helped my presentation skills in my professional life.

Talk to us about your role as director of Bow Valley Community and Rural Health for Alberta Health Services, and describe a typical workday.
The best part of my work is that there is no typical workday. Every day is different. My responsibilities span different sites and cover a wide range of clinical areas — medicine, surgery, obstetrics, emergency, long-term care, urgent care, site administration and quality improvement. On any day, I may be travelling to meetings, participating in conference calls with colleagues across the province, meeting with nursing and medical staff, touching base with the interdisciplinary team and community members or handling concerns from patients and families. Nursing is a practice-based profession, and I never forget that important point. The team I work with need to know that I understand and value the clinical component of their work, and I try to be visible in the clinical area each day, talking with nurses and patients.

How would you describe your management style?
Team is important to me. Whatever I have done in my career — as a nurse, teacher, clinical nurse specialist or director — I have always thought about how I can facilitate a team approach. I get great satisfaction from seeing others succeed and I love to cheerlead and provide support from the sidelines. Don’t get me wrong; I can be decisive when the situation requires that approach and I am not a pushover by any means, but my understanding of when to be a shepherd and when to be a lone ranger has grown over the years.

You are one of the founders of the Canadian Association for Rural and Remote Nursing and a co-chair of the International Council of Nurses’ rural and remote nursing network. Can you talk about your commitment to this field?
I moved from an urban setting to a small community with a 10-bed hospital, where the nurses were expected to practise in many different clinical areas. You could be in an ED while doing a patient assignment at the beginning of your shift, then off to the delivery room before coffee and then arranging a helicopter transfer for a trauma patient. Did I mention that being the circulating nurse for an appendectomy happened in there somewhere? I knew this was for me. The variety, the rewards, the challenges: all of these satisfied my hyperactive need to immerse myself in everything that nursing had to offer. What I discovered was that this specialty — being a generalist — was not necessarily recognized or valued. Rural and remote nursing is not less than or a diluted version of real nursing. It is different and valuable, and I have spent much of my career carrying that message across the country and around the globe.

You have served twice before on CNA’s board. What did you learn while in these roles?
I was a CNA board member as the president of the College and Association of Registered Nurses of Alberta and later as an elected member of the specialty network. The responsibility of being a board member was at first overwhelming, but these experiences helped me understand the concept of what a federation of nursing groups is all about, the opportunities and the challenges, and the outcomes that can be achieved to benefit the health of Canadians. I also had the opportunity to see nursing leaders in action and make lifelong professional friendships.

These experiences added to my perspective about things that worked and things that didn’t work. As a board, we need to be mindful of the here and now and make our choices balanced by the present and using the past as a guide and reference point.

What were the issues on the minds of nurses you met during your term as president-elect?
I had the incredible opportunity to meet registered nurses in every province and territory over the past two years. I count that as such a privilege. Of course, there are regional differences on many things, but the themes that emerged in every area are scope of practice, value of the registered nurse and sustainability of the health system.

I see these themes as priorities that are embedded in the work CNA is doing and will be doing in the coming years. CNA is aligned with what is on the minds of Canadian registered nurses.

What expectations do you have of CNA members?
My expectations are simple: that they stand alongside me as we continue the journey to advance the nursing profession and improve the health system and the health of Canadians. Also, that they respect each other, let me know their ideas and keep me accountable.

In your inaugural speech, you focused on the words resonance, reverberation and relevance. What do those words mean to you?
I got the idea for the three Rs somewhere over northern Ontario on a flight home from Ottawa. I wanted a reference point that would be easy to remember and would have meaning for nurses.

Resonance is a quality that makes something personally meaningful or important. Registered nurses from coast to coast to coast need to be able to see themselves in CNA and become the faces of CNA because it has meaning for them. CNA needs to connect with individual nurses and with groups — associations, colleges and regulatory bodies, locally, nationally and internationally — for a common goal. This is the space for CNA; this is the space to create resonance. Margaret Wheatley has said that one of the tasks of leadership is to create a future worth wanting and a future that gives hope and possibility to us all. To me, that is part of the work of CNA — to create that future that is worth wanting, to create that connection across the country, to resonate.

Reverberation is a result of a deliberate strategy, a change in the character and quality that is different from noise. CNA’s work to reverberate the concept of primary health care involves generating enthusiasm, suggesting solutions and giving the concept legs through briefs, meetings and advocacy work. The work includes connections with the federal government and national nursing groups to move strategies forward in seniors care, home care, community health centres, nurse-run clinics and support for Indigenous nurses. Primary health care is our platform to reverberate, to change the characteristics and quality of health care in our country. We can do it. We can change it up. We can reverberate.

Relevance is to know why something matters or how it is important. Relevance is being deliberate and targeted and knowing when to let go. Knowing what battles should be left for others is a sign of leadership. Knowing when to push, who to talk with, what door to open to get results — not for personal attention but for a common good — and resisting being distracted by issues that are not our space will ensure CNA continues to be relevant. Relevance means being a strong advocate for support for all nurses and recognizing the value, importance and contribution of registered nurses working to optimal scope in all domains and settings at all times. Taking a collaborative approach to move nursing forward in the interest of Canadians is what will make the difference.

Describe your vision for a Canadian nursing catalyst summit, another idea you mentioned. What would its purpose be?
My dream is to see groups of nurses respectfully and purposefully working together to create that future worth wanting. At such a summit, the focus would be objectives for advancement of the profession, safe nursing care, sustainability of the health system and improved health for all Canadians. Wouldn’t it be incredible to see a gathering of nursing unions, regulators, professional associations, students, educators and researchers having authentic, respectful discussions that recognize and respect the overlapping scopes and mandates — with everyone working together on common areas of concern?

What can CNA do to “ignite contagious commitment” to the determinants of health?
I think the profession’s commitment is there, but many influences have dampened enthusiasm to move ahead on priorities related to the determinants of health. The rallying cry to ignite contagious commitment has to be “Primary Health Care!” It is where nurses can stand together to say, “This is where I make my difference.” All nursing work contributes to the determinants of health. It is not exclusive to one clinical setting or location.

What do you hope to accomplish in the next two years, and what do you believe CNA’s priorities should be during this time?
My accomplishments in the next two years will be intertwined with the priorities set by the board. We will work as a team to get the job done. Most certainly I will be using the three Rs to guide our work, but I will also be counting on the expertise and counsel of CNA staff to guide the process. We will carry on with CNA’s strategic plan, with its focus on primary health care, and address issues as they arise.

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