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Informal Leaders: How Being One Can Boost Your Career

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“Informal leader” is a buzzword that many are using in the workplace today. Indeed.com defines it like this: “Informal leadership refers to an individual’s ability to be perceived as a leader because of their reputation, credibility, and influence in the workplace. Individuals within an organization view informal leaders as worthy of following or listening to.”

How do respiratory care managers perceive it? We asked them to weigh in.

Positive attitude

James Pittman, BSRT, RRT, is the cardiopulmonary care services manager at Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist Lexington Medical Center in Lexington, KY. To him, informal leaders are high performers, have a positive attitude, advocate for their patients, share the vision and mission of their organization, and have earned the trust of their colleagues.

“The therapist should be willing to tackle department issues that no one else is willing to do, be innovative in approaching obstacles that arise, be able to anticipate what might be needed next in any situation, and become the ‘go to’ person in the department for colleagues and formal leadership,” he said.

Patti DeJuilio, MS, RRT, RRT-ACCS, RRT-NPS, agrees informal leaders are those staff members who step up in ways that others often don’t.

“An informal leader reports issues and has thoughtful solutions, is a positive role model for the team and communicates with leadership frequently, volunteers to be on committees or to educate the team regarding new processes or medication, and is happy to serve as a super user when needed,” said the clinical director at Northwestern Medicine Central DuPage Hospital in Winfield, IL.

Jacalyn Oravec, MPA, RRT, RPSGT, RST, CPFT, neurodiagnostics manager at Conemaugh Memorial Medical Center in Johnstown, PA, believes informal leaders have an innate ability to see the “big picture.” They naturally have a calming influence on their peers and good working relationships with physicians, nurses, and other health care providers.

“Often, the informal leader doesn’t even recognize that they are a leader,” she said. Instead, they are curious by nature, making them lifelong learners and engaging as professionals. “Their career choice is not just a job,” continued Oravec.

A balancing act

As director of respiratory programs for the Sabre Healthcare Group, which operates a range of senior living facilities in seven states, Sarah Whitesel, RRT, has found that informal leaders typically will do what is needed without being asked. Furthermore, they can handle situations without much guidance and make the right decisions.

But just as they can lead staff in the right direction, there is the potential that they might lead them in the wrong direction as well. “They are the therapist who others look to and model their behaviors after,” she said. “This person has a vital role in the department, and they are an important person to keep in a positive mindset. They can make or break a department, so managing them effectively is key.”

While that can be a balancing act for managers, she says when it’s done properly, these staff members can make your team into the best team anyone could ask for.

Laura Quinn, MHA, RRT, RRT-ACCS, RRT-NPS, respiratory care services manager at Sarasota Memorial Health Care System in Sarasota, FL, says fostering informal leadership in staff can be tricky.

“Treating peers equally and not favoring particular people creates a team environment where even the weakest links feel safe to ask questions and grow,” she said. “This can be difficult, for example, with shift assignments — putting the strongest people in their favorite units might make for a smooth shift, but it causes stagnation of growth, and others see the inequity. Putting a weaker person in a manageable but more challenging assignment adds depth to the department.”

While not always possible, she believes staff can foster their informal leadership abilities by helping others in the department grow in their own practice and assisting them through new experiences. She recalls one incident from her own career that speaks to that mindset.

“I had an unofficial mentor that invited me to the OR when he was asked to add nitric oxide for a case,” she said. “I was excited to learn something new and quickly became a resource for that procedure. Without his knowledge sharing, I wouldn’t have had this opportunity, and it helped the team in the long run because another team member had this knowledge.”

Rena Laliberte, BS, RRT, clinical education specialist, and emergency room coordinator at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, MI, remembers what it was like being an informal leader too.

“Speaking from experience, acting as an informal leader causes everyone to notice you both inside and outside of your department,” she said. “You quickly become the go-to person when someone needs help with anything or a specific project. When a position becomes available, and the powers that be start meeting over potential candidates, yours will be the first face and name that will come to mind.”

Gaining respect

Laura Quinn also believes informal leaders can lend formal leaders a hand to ensure messages are getting across.

“Even the most thoughtful of communications may not be received as intended; that coupled with changes that may not initially make sense, can make for complaints and negativity,” she said. “A strength of an informal leader is to not jump on the bandwagon, but to think more insightfully about why the change may be happening, and help to share a bigger picture knowledge.”

Charlie Friderici, RRT, who currently serves as life safety and emergency preparedness coordinator at Saratoga Hospital in Saratoga Springs, NY, says informal leaders don’t have to be the smartest people on staff, but they do need to be among the most respected and often they have the most experience too.

“They’ve earned the respect of their colleagues, as well as physicians, nurses, etc.,” he said. “They make themselves available to answer questions, assist their coworkers, perhaps help mentor new therapists, and they are always learning and improving.”

According to Jeffrey Davis, BS, RRT, FAARC, director of respiratory care and pulmonary function at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles, CA, informal leaders are those staff members who have built a reputation in the department for teamwork, knowledge, and a positive attitude.

“These people are already inspiring, flexible, kind, and empathetic,” he said. “Informal leadership is a natural trait that I believe is the cornerstone of leadership . . . displaying these traits definitely boosts their chances of one day becoming a formal leader in my department.”

Scott Cerreta, BS, RRT, director of respiratory services at Yavapai Regional Medical Center in Prescott, AZ, believes anyone can be an informal leader.

“It is an attitude, not a position,” he said. “Some people just have ‘it’ and inspire others through calm facilitation and critical thinking.”

He’s seen those qualities in everyone from 20-year-old new hires to seasoned employees, and he believes managers should look for them when considering who to promote.

“Many departments bring in outside talent to fill leadership positions,” he said. “I believe the key to promotion within a department should not be a manager’s decision, but rather the decision of the team. A person who earns trust from the team in an informal role is a natural leader, and they will often succeed as a formal leader and will be respected and accepted by the team in this new role.”

A few more soundbites

We’ll wrap this up with a few more soundbites on becoming an informal leader pulled from the input provided by these managers —

In a large department, it may seem difficult to stand out above your colleagues, but seemingly small things really make a difference. The first day of your current role is the first interview for your next one. — Laura Quinn

I once heard a speaker refer to employees as “renters” and “owners.” Renters take the job for face value and don’t really invest in it. It’s a means to an end. The owner, on the other hand, takes ownership in the job and everything that goes with it. In my mind, the leaders are owners of their career/job, their workplace, and their organizations. — Jacalyn Oravec

An informal leader is noticed by colleagues and formal leaders because they have already showcased their ability to lead. It’s just like dressing for the job you want, not the one you have. In this case, it’s acting like the job you want, not the one you have. — Jim Pittman

With any leadership or educator position that opens, we look for those informal leaders that we believe have gone above and beyond, and we have already observed them leading the team in an informal manner. — Patti DeJuilo

The informal leader can have the potential to become a formal leader when it’s proven that they can model the way and handle tough situations. They can think outside of themselves and think big picture, not just “how does this affect me?” — Sarah Whitesel

Put yourself out there. Be professional, join clubs or committees within your institution, and get not only your name but your department in the spotlight. Make everyone aware of the value you add. — Rena Laliberte

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