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A mentor can open up opportunities you didn’t know existed

A BME nurse leader explains how her mentors guided her through daunting career challenges

A BME nurse leader explains how her mentors guided her through daunting career challenges


H Michelle Johnson: ‘My mentors inspired me to think more broadly about opportunities.’

Understanding how best to prepare for career progression can be challenging for many nurses. The good news is that having a mentor can help demystify many issues that make it difficult to see the way forward. 

I enjoyed my role as a clinical nurse specialist (CNS) in gynaecological cancer genetics, but after eight years I wanted a change. I just wasn’t sure what that change should be or how to go about it.

An inspirational meeting 


Joan Myers. Picture: David Gee

Then I met consultant nurse Joan Myers. Dynamic, influential and very easy to talk to, she blew me away. ‘You have potential, and you need to actively release that potential,’ she told me. 

Joan invited me to the Mary Seacole Leadership Awards, where I listened to award-winning nurses talk about their amazing projects. She then opened the door for me to join the chief nursing officer’s (CNO) black and minority ethnic (BME) advisory group.

At the first meeting, I found myself in a room with a host of nursing heavyweights, some of whom I had read about in nursing journals, online or in newspapers. These inspirational professionals had furthered their careers clinically, in academia and in management.

Joan encouraged me to take bold steps towards becoming the best I could be and introduced me to her coach, Lynette Philips. By advising me to focus on the strengths and skills I had gathered during my clinical experience, Lynette helped me to figure out the change I needed.

‘Being mentored helped widen my outlook beyond the single service in which I worked’

The part of my CNS role I loved most was communicating complex information to patients in a way they could understand. Decision-making is critical in managing a high risk of developing cancer, and equipping patients and families with information that clearly sets out the issues empowers them to do what is right for them.


Lynette Philips. Picture: Tim George

I also loved being a patient advocate. As the sole nurse on a multidisciplinary team that included a geneticist, gynaeoncologists, senior academics, a consultant psychologist and pathologist, I spoke up for patients, bringing their concerns and needs to the table. 

My vision was to achieve the best outcomes for patients and families.  

A new perspective for a new landscape

Being mentored helped widen my outlook beyond the single service in which I worked. Attending the CNO BME advisory group stimulated my interest in the broader context of the NHS, opening my eyes to the diversity of nurse leadership at regional, national and international levels. 

So when a patient and public involvement manager role came up at a clinical commissioning group (CCG), I decided to take the leap – and got the job.

My new role was scary and I felt a bit like an imposter. The environment was different to anything I had previously experienced and I felt overwhelmed, unsure how to apply my skills to this new landscape. 

‘Drawing on my mentor’s knowledge helped me learn how to carry out my job to a high standard. It was much quicker than if I had tried to work things out by myself’

My knowledge of the strategic picture of the NHS was virtually non-existent. How could I communicate to patients what I didn’t know or fully understand?  

‘It took courage to make the change you wanted Michelle,’ Lynette reminded me. ‘You’ll soon find your feet. Just keep going.’


Frances Newell.

A good mentor can save you time

Luckily, my new manager at the CCG, Frances Newell, seemed very approachable. She was working three months’ notice before taking up a new job with NHS England, so I took the bold step of asking if she would mentor me to help me find my feet.

I was thrilled when she agreed. Frances has been a brilliant mentor, supporting me and enabling me to develop my practice in communications and engagement.

A good mentor can save you a lot of time when you are learning to navigate a new world. I was now operating in a field where I had nominal experience, with the added pressure of the expectation that I was an expert adviser in communications and engagement.

Drawing on my mentor’s knowledge and experience helped me learn how to carry out my job to a high standard. It was much quicker than if I had tried to work things out by myself.  

Clinical commissioning is a different world to a provider unit, and being a manager is very different to a strictly clinical role. Frances saved me from making mistakes that could have limited my future in this area, and exposed me to people and opportunities that accelerated my growth and confidence. I will always be indebted to her for walking alongside a complete novice and enabling me to flourish.

Today I’m doing what I love to do

Six years on, I am head of communications and engagement at a CCG and am doing exactly what I love to do: communicating complex information in a way that patients and other stakeholders can understand and respond to.

I work closely with a range of people, including politicians, community groups, voluntary organisations and GPs, to communicate the complexity of NHS national and local priorities to patients, carers and the public.

I also work with front-line nurses and those who are directors of quality, commissioning managers and on governing bodies, and gather views and feedback to help influence and improve services through commissioning plans.

‘Great mentors tell you what you need to hear, not what you want to hear. They are more concerned with your growth than your comfort zone’

Having access to a mentor made the difference I needed at specific times in my career. It enabled me to improve skills I already had, learn new skills and apply those skills more effectively. 

My mentors also opened doors and provided me with access to experiences and other professionals that I would not have had otherwise. They inspired me to think more broadly about possibilities and opportunities I did not know existed. They guided me with their knowledge, experience and insight into the professional landscape.

Now the cycle continues

Mentors like Joan and Frances empower and enable you to release your potential and become the best you can be. They strengthen you for the task ahead and connect you to the vision you carry because they have walked the same road.

Great mentors tell you what you need to hear, not what you want to hear, to make you better at what you do. They are more concerned with your growth than your comfort zone.

‘When the student is ready, the teacher will appear’ is a popular quote. It means that a student, or mentee, must be ready to be mentored; hungry for more and willing to learn from someone more experienced.

One of the biggest joys of my career progression is that I am now being sought out as a mentor. I am doing for others what Joan and Frances did for me, and so the cycle continues.


H Michelle Johnson is head of communications and engagement at Brent Clinical Commissioning Group

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