"As a woman, I never once thought I couldn't achieve something," said Gail Miller, RN, MS, CPHQ, and Mount Nittany Health System's vice president for quality. "My family always supported everything I did and told me that I could achieve whatever I worked toward." Starting at Mount Nittany in 1976 as a medical-clinical nurse, Miller had advanced in her career to a leadership position by 2007.
Miller is not the only woman on Mount Nittany's executive leadership team. It includes four women: Miller; Janet Schachtner, RN, MSN, senior vice president of patient care services; Linda Kuhlman, RN, MSN, vice president of professional and clinical services; and Patty Watson, RN, MSN, vice president of nursing and chief nursing officer.
In today's society, women in powerful positions may not seem like standard bearers, but their representation in the executive officer rank has remained mired in recent years at only about 14 percent, according to figures from the research agency Catalyst. By contrast, women make up nearly 40 percent of Mount Nittany's leadership team.
"I have always been willing to take on new projects and initiatives during my career," said Miller, who completed her bachelor's and master's degrees in nursing at The Pennsylvania State University, University Park, Pa. "You don't have to take big risks, but you can do little things to help put yourself in a good position and build your career. 'Little stretches' can really help you grow in the future."
Describing herself as caring and ambitious, the Lancaster, Pa. native has held seven positions at Mount Nittany. With every new position, Miller learned new skills that helped her to achieve her current position. Today, she leads Mount Nittany's continuous efforts to improve the quality of care provided to patients.
"In addition to taking risks, you benefit and learn from taking on new roles," said Kuhlman, who joined Mount Nittany's executive team in April 2011.
Kuhlman began her nursing career at Mount Nittany in 1974, the day after graduating from Mercy Hospital School of Nursing in Altoona, Pa. She completed her bachelor's degree in nursing at the Pennsylvania State University, earned her master's degree in nursing from Loyola University, New Orleans, and is board-certified as a nurse executive through the American Nurses Credentialing Center. After 17 years as a registered nurse, Kuhlman transferred to a position as a clinical educator and later worked as director of the Med-Surg-Orthopedic Department, where she helped Mount Nittany achieve regional distinction as a center of excellence in orthopedics in 1998. Self-described as fun-loving, she even served a stint as chair of the fun committee at Mount Nittany. Kuhlman's current role allows her to focus on the development of systems and processes that improve the patient experience.
"Mount Nittany fosters growth by helping employees create a clinical ladder to build their career," said Kuhlman, who grew up in Pleasant Gap, Pa. "We are a family at Mount Nittany and support each other's growth by mentoring one another. All of the women on Mount Nittany's leadership team have mentored me at some point - and still mentor me."
Schachtner agrees with Kuhlman and urges everyone to find a mentor to aid in their professional development.
"While at the Home Nursing Agency in the 80s, I had the opportunity to be mentored by Sylvia Schraff, the executive director of the Agency," said Schachtner. "She was an exceptional leader and helped me to develop my management skills."
With a bachelor's degree in nursing from Mount Aloysius College, Cresson, Pa., and a master's degree in nursing administration from Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Indiana, Pa., Schachtner has held many positions prior to coming to Mount Nittany six years ago. Keeping an open and visionary attitude, she said, helped her with some of her previous jobs, which include serving as an obstetrics nurse at Altoona Hospital, directing various women's health clinics at Altoona Regional Health Services and working as the director of surgical services at Altoona Regional Health Services - all of which have honed her leadership skills.
"You have to be willing to embrace change and be willing to explore new opportunities to grow as a leader," said Schachtner.
Watson concurs, adding, "If you want to do something, you have to find a way to do it."
Watson describes herself as driven, focused, truthful and balanced, which are all attributes she feels have helped her advance during her career. As the vice president of nursing and chief nursing officer at Mount Nittany, Watson directly supervises nursing leadership, nursing support personnel and other clinical support services to ensure safe nursing care is provided to all patients. She was named to this position in 2010. A native and current resident of Bellefonte, Pa., Watson earned her associate's degree in nursing from Mount Aloysius College and her bachelor's and master's degree in nursing from The Pennsylvania State University.
Each of the women earned advanced degrees while maintaining careers, so they also had to find time for their families. All four are mothers; they learned to balance work and family life with the help of flexible schedules that included working night shifts, weekends or even part-time.
"You just learn what you have to do in order to excel in your position and be active in your children's lives. You are a role model for your children forever," said Kuhlman. "It took me seven years to complete my bachelor's degree, but I did it. I found ways to juggle everything - I took books to my children's sporting games and other events."
Being a role model for their children was and is still very important to all of the women.
Not only have they had the opportunity to help their children - these women have been able to guide their colleagues as well as students in the community. Mount Nittany allows both classes and individual students to come in on a one-on-one basis to be mentored.
"By working at Mount Nittany, we are also able to touch the lives of those who will be the next generation of healthcare providers," said Miller. "I think it really shows how Mount Nittany supports mentorship and overall leadership."
With their personal drive and the support they get from Mount Nittany, each of these women continues to grow.
"I haven't lived a perfect life, but the only regrets I have are from times when I didn't try to do something I wanted. With ambition, all you can do is try," said Watson. "I have been fortunate in how much Mount Nittany encourages its women employees, and all of its employees, to achieve their goals."