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Nurses are the perfect MBA candidates

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By: Marion Leary and Ilana Springer Borkenstein

Understanding the business side of innovation is crucial to successfully implementing, maintaining, and sustaining a new system, process, product, or technology. Whether you’re looking to turn your idea into a business endeavor (entrepreneur) or scale up your idea at your institution (intrapreneur), success requires being familiar with business terms, concepts, and processes. Combining a nursing degree with a business degree provides that underlying magic for some nurse innovators. One of our Penn Nursing alums, Ilana Springer Borkenstein, discusses why she believes more nurses should pursue a master of business administration (MBA) degree.

Why nurses need a business lens

Nurses are the lifeblood of the American healthcare system. We’re doers who implement complex care plans, we liaise between patients and care teams, and we represent the largest sector of the healthcare workforce. Most importantly, we’re the final touchpoint between a multitrillion-dollar healthcare system and a patient in need. We have the last chance to change course and firsthand insight into whether the series of decisions made by dozens of parties within the healthcare ecosystem ultimately coalesce to serve the system’s most important stakeholder: the patient.

From our vantage point, we can identify what’s working well and where opportunities for improvement exist. But that perspective is only as valuable as our ability to enact change. The healthcare system needs more nurses who can navigate the complex bureaucracy that healthcare organizations have become. We must be prepared to develop business cases to justify our gut feelings, effectively garner support from and negotiate with key stakeholders, and implement our innovations and entrepreneurial ideas. Ultimately, we need the capabilities to operationalize and measure the impact of changes we know our hospitals and communities need.

Why we’re ready for an MBA

Nurses are prepared to do so much more than care for patients. A strong set of foundational leadership skills are a byproduct of having made it through our nursing education and clinical positions. These capabilities set us up well to thrive in an MBA classroom and beyond.

We’re comfortable thinking fast on our feet and making high-stakes decisions with imperfect information. Regardless of a patient’s ability to communicate their needs, we’re skilled at quickly identifying actions to mitigate their risk, prioritizing those actions, and activating disparate resources to achieve an optimal outcome. In a business school classroom, real-life business cases are presented, and students are put in the shoes of a leader facing a critical decision. Without full context, MBA students are expected to take a point of view, share a prioritized action plan, and debate their proposed course of action with other students. Nurses are ready to engage in this discussion because we already have these skills. We practice thinking methodically and identifying the critical information needed to make go-forward decisions under pressure. These capabilities enable us to contribute meaningfully to those MBA class discussions.

Most MBA curricula teach business fundamentals within various industries, so naturally, students rely on their classmates to bring industry-specific insight and expertise to the classroom. Not only can we speak to the healthcare industry, but we represent the voice of frontline employees—a perspective frequently underrepresented or misrepresented in business school classes and, subsequently, in executive-level discussions.

Nurses also know the importance of effective teamwork. We understand how crucial it is to elicit support from various members of an interprofessional team to optimize patient outcomes. Few early-in-career professionals have the same breadth of experience working in diverse teams as nurses. We’ve operated in diverse teams across experience/tenure, age, educational background, specialty area, gender, ethnicity, and more. Teamwork is a fundamental component of the business school experience. Most courses include group projects, team field projects, or team-based final exams. Business schools choose this format to prepare students for executive-level leadership, which requires cross-functional collaboration with team members of various levels. Nurses come to an MBA program ahead of the game from this perspective due to the collaborative nature of healthcare.

All of the skills mentioned above are prerequisites for the nursing profession, but they’re transferable across jobs and industries. We have the building blocks needed to lead organizations and enact widespread change but frequently lack the financial proficiency, cross-industry perspective, network, and credibility to gain a seat at the table where the highest-level strategic decisions are made. This is where an MBA comes in handy.

Why an MBA

An MBA offers training in traditional business concepts, including finance, accounting, strategy, management, marketing, and more. These fundamental courses level the playing field for nurses. An MBA credential keeps us from being excluded from decisions, discussions, or roles due to the subject matter extending beyond the scope of nursing practice. An MBA will ensure we know enough to be dangerous in a board room—we’ll be prepared to ask smart questions about financially driven decisions. When nurses become proficient in nonclinical verticals, we empathize with stakeholders who have conflicting incentives and can collaborate more effectively. For example, when a hospital’s finance department is determining headcount requirements for the next fiscal year, nurse leaders who understand the financial implications of nonproductive vs. productive nursing hours, the expense associated with employee benefits, and how those expenses translate to nursing staff budgets are better able to advocate for the needs of their team.

MBA programs are well known for intensive management training. Considering healthcare is a service industry driven by human capital, leaders should be trained in management best practices to foster and sustain high-performing teams. This is especially important for nurses, who manage large groups of employees. A 2020 whitepaper by Laudio found that, on average, nurse managers have 85 direct reports (with some managers overseeing more than 200 employees). This is in stark contrast to typical ratios in corporate America, where, according to Myatt, the average number of direct reports for Fortune 500 chief executive officers is 7.4.

Although the nature of the work varies significantly between corporate America and patient-facing clinical positions, the science of managing, motivating, and rewarding employees is consistent across environments. MBA programs teach students how to recruit and screen for high-quality talent, manage performance reviews, measure employee engagement, and align culture with desired outcomes. Nurses who aspire to be leaders—in a clinical setting, in corporate America, or as an entrepreneur—will have to surround themselves with people who have complementary skill sets. MBA programs offer deliberate training and simulated experiences for students to start flexing their people-management muscles.

An MBA offers formal training that nurses need to translate their innovative ideas to reality and bring them to market. Training gets tactical and equips students with tools to evaluate the viability of a prospective business. MBA students are taught how to determine market size (how much value—or dollars—can be captured), articulate how an idea is different from competitors in the space, and run lightweight tests to evaluate product-market fit (a common term used to describe demonstrated demand and positive unit economics). Nurses are well positioned to innovate—to become entrepreneurs or intrapreneurs by building new products, services, or technologies to strengthen healthcare. MBA courses help students decide whether to invest time and money in building and scaling their innovation.

MBA programs also teach nurses how to develop a compelling pitch involving storytelling, describing the problem being solved, determining how much funding is needed to bring the product to market, detailing how it differs from existing solutions, and developing supporting material. Students learn about funding sources available to entrepreneurs—from venture capital to grants, debt, family offices, and more—and what makes an entrepreneurial idea attractive (or less attractive) to different kinds of investors.

Finally, one of the most valuable aspects of an MBA is the network and community that it creates for students. Beyond the didactic components of an MBA, students talk, debate, and socialize with peers of different personal and professional backgrounds. This environment expands students’ thinking and pushes MBA nurses to reconsider how things have traditionally been done within our health systems. It also gives us a community of subject matter experts—who become lifelong friends—we can reach out to for support and advice for the rest of our careers.

These skills and experiences will strengthen nurses’ ability to lead teams effectively, move up the ranks of healthcare organizations, and successfully bring innovative solutions to the market.

Why now

Nurses can foresee how new ways of working impact patient care in ways that others simply can’t. We are, therefore, uniquely positioned to translate learnings and insights from an MBA program into action within our healthcare organizations. In the wake of COVID and amidst a record nursing shortage, there has never been a more fitting time for nurses to lead. With more nurse MBAs, we’ll be better equipped to enact the change our healthcare workforce, patients, and communities desperately need.

References

Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. National health expenditure data. December 1, 2021. cms.gov/Research-Statistics-Data-and-Systems/Statistics-Trends-and-Reports/NationalHealthExpendData

Laudio. Solutions for the modern nurse manager. laudio.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/White-Paper-Laudio-Solutions-for-the-Modern-Nurse-Manager.pdf

Myatt M. Span of control—5 things every leader should know. Forbes. November 5, 2012. forbes.com/sites/mikemyatt/2012/11/05/span-of-control-5-things-every-leader-should-know/?sh=4980f73028c8

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