What Does it REALLY Take to Become a Director of Nursing?

Director of Nursing

Being a nurse has a lot of perks: an above-average paycheck, a rewarding career and flexible work schedule, to name a few. However, you’re not quite sure it’s your last stop on the ladder to success. You’re looking for the next rung up—new challenges and more responsibility—which is why you’re curious about becoming a director of nursing (DON).

You’ve mastered the basics of nursing, and you’re ready to put your experience and leadership skills to the test. You may have an idea of some of the next steps to get you there, but before you make any sudden moves, you want to be sure you know what it really takes to become a director of nursing.

Keep reading to gain valuable insight from the experts so you can determine if this could be the next step in your nursing career.

What does a director of nursing do?

“A director of nursing’s responsibilities vary greatly by type and size of the facility,” says Kim Farber, Director of Nursing at St. Crispin Living Community. She cites leadership as being essential for this position and goes on to list some other key responsibilities, including conflict management, compliancy regulations, infection control and communication.

“Depending on the type of facility, you may be involved with interviewing and hiring,” she adds. “In larger facilities, such as hospitals, human resources takes care of that.”

Other common tasks include:

  • Overseeing staff operations, business planning and budget development
  • Ensuring the facility follows professionally set standards, including state and federal regulatory requirements
  • Planning and directing the nursing program
  • Maintaining relationships with patients and families
  • Overseeing inventory, order processing and distribution of products and services

What are some important qualities of a director of nursing?

As you consider becoming a director of nursing, you want to be sure you have the qualities employers are looking for and the acumen to excel in your career. Take a moment to look through some of the qualities that were identified as important for the role.

Professionalism: Above all else, you must be able to do your job professionally, and not let the frustrations or complaints of team members or patients cause you to falter.

Farber puts it like this: “The ability to leave yourself ‘at the door,’ and give yourself 100 percent to the ‘work.’ The work is every patient that come into your facility and their families.”

Compassion: Having compassion for your patients and their families is a part of any nursing position. But as a director of nursing, you’ll need to have compassion for your team of RNs as well—remembering the pressures and rigors they’re dealing with while being nurses.

Good communication: Communicating clearly and effectively is how any team has unity, direction and remains effective.

Flexibility: It’s no surprise that several employers listed this as a quality they’re seeking. Flexible leaders help create an environment and team that can change whenever the need arises.

What skills does a director of nursing need?

“Skills that are needed to excel in most careers include being an excellent communicator, having critical thinking skills, being able to delegate tasks or projects, and having knowledge across the lifespan and diversity management to name a few,” says Farber.

Some additional skills for directors of nursing include the following:

  • Critical care
  • Operations management
  • Budget management
  • Surgery

We used real-time job analysis software to examine nearly 25,000 director of nursing job posting from the past year.* The data helped us identify the most desirable skills according to employers. Here’s what we found:

  • Supervisory skills
  • Long-term care
  • Scheduling
  • Staff management
  • Legal compliance
  • Nurse management
  • Staff development
  • Treatment planning

What education and experience is needed to become a director of nursing?

If you are not currently an RN, that’s where you should begin. According to Farber, having your RN credential is essential, with a BSN preferred. In fact, of all the director of nursing job openings posted in the past year, 77 percent of openings preferred a Bachelor’s degree or higher.* Farber goes on to say that a hospital setting will likely require a Master’s of Science in Nursing (MSN). But education isn’t the only thing that matters.

Many DON openings preferred or even required nurses who not only had nursing experience, but leadership experience as well.  So if you’ve dabbled in management roles or have been in the nursing field for quite some time, that experience could play a significant role in achieving your future nursing goals.

“Some of our older RNs make excellent directors of nursing because of their life and career experience,” says Farber. “To be successful, you should have five to ten years of ‘growing in your nurse’s skin’ experience.”

She says this field experience is crucial because you will be responsible for a lot of things that you do not necessarily learn in college. That existing on-the-job education will have you better prepared for the role of a DON.

A recipe for success

No matter where you are in your nursing career, a director of nursing role will require both education and experience.  A nursing program that incorporates leadership courses can allow you to rise to the occasion and even stand out from the pack.

If you have your sights set on becoming a director of nursing and you’re ready to take the next step in developing your leadership skills, check out our Nursing Leadership and Administration Specialization degree page to learn more about how Rasmussen College can help.


*Burning-Glass.com (Analysis of 24,806 director of nursing job postings from June 1, 2016–May 31, 2017).

Megan Ruesink

Megan is a freelance writer for Collegis education who writes student-focused articles on behalf of Rasmussen College. She hopes to engage and intrigue current and potential students.


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