Step up to a ward sister role

Many staff nurses aspire to be a ward sister. But making a success of one of the toughest jobs in nursing requires careful preparation. 

Many staff nurses aspire to be a ward sister. But making a success of one of the toughest jobs in nursing requires careful preparation 

Stepping up to become a ward sister is a tough challenge. Image: iStock

‘It is an absolutely huge challenge,’ Mary Callaghan says about her move to become ward sister in an elderly medical ward at University College London Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust (UCLH) 18 months ago.

‘It was a huge shock to the system. It makes me a feel proud, but it is a very hard job.’

Interview practice

Ms Callaghan, who made the move after working for almost two decades in the emergency department, advises those keen to follow in her footsteps to become a deputy sister first, and to find out if there are leadership and transformation courses at the trust they can take.

‘Interview practice is essential, as the interview is tough,’ she says. ‘Think about enabling change, starting up projects, educating students. Ward sisters need to be consistently identifying what can be better on a ward.’

Making the move to ward sister or community team leader is the aspiration of many staff nurses. But those who have done it warn it can be one of the toughest jobs in nursing.

The ward sister and team community leader role have huge breadth, encompassing leadership and management, clinical practice, and education and teaching. Many nurses may not have had responsibility for areas such as appraisals, rotas and budgeting before they start the job.


Theresa Shaw, chief executive of the Foundation of Nursing Studies, a centre for nursing innovation, says that staff nurses who want to take up these posts in the future need to both develop their strengths and ruthlessly identify weaknesses, and improve them.

Important ways to do this can be shadowing more senior members of staff, taking on temporary management roles, and seeking out mentors.

‘It is a big step and it can be a difficult step,’ says Dr Shaw. ‘There are examples of people being promoted without the preparation, and they have the passion and potential, but the support has not been there before or when they take up the role.

‘As a ward sister or community team leader, so much is about support and leading staff. Talk to other people who are in the role to understand what it is really about and think about the kind of skills that they have. While there are lots of different kinds of leadership courses out there, people don’t necessarily need to go away from the workplace to learn.


‘The workplace can be a great classroom to develop skills through practice, as often people don’t retain that much from a course.’

Asking for feedback on work is important and potentially very useful, although many people are not necessarily good at giving constructive feedback, Dr Shaw warns.

Christine McKenzie, RCN professional learning and development facilitator, says nurses preparing to become ward sisters should start building a supportive network as evidence suggests this is important to build the resilience necessary for the demanding role.

Nurses should consider what elements of the role they may already be performing that could support their move to a managerial position. ‘They may be performing a link role or are a designated lead for something,’ Ms McKenzie says.

Peer support

‘Often nurses have responsibilities, so how are they are making the most of those responsibilities? It is really important to think about what you are already doing and what is transferable.’

At UCLH, there has been a recognition of the complexities of the sister role, and extra support has been in put place. Part of the motivation behind the Rising Stars scheme is to improve retention and to find those with the potential and aspiration to move into more senior roles in the future.

Sisters from UCLH and Barking, Havering and Redbridge University Hospitals NHS Trust get together once a month away from the ward environment to discuss work issues, provide peer support to each other and develop resilience to work pressures.

Developing skills

UCLH deputy chief nurse Lorraine Szeremeta is now developing a support programme for deputy ward sisters, due to start in September, so they feel prepared to become a sister.

‘The ward sister role can be incredibly difficult as you are expected to be everything to everybody,’ says Ms Szeremeta. 

‘I’ve asked our deputy sisters about what they would want on a programme and they have come up with really practical things, such as how to do a rota, how to take someone through a sickness capability programme, what if a member of staff isn’t performing in a role, and how to work within a set budget. These will be going into the programme to develop our next ward sisters.

‘Often we’re not brilliant in the NHS at preparing for people to move into new roles, so we want to help people get skills and develop them for their next job.’

How to prepare for a ward manager or community team leader role:
  • Ask for shadowing opportunities to learn more about the role
  • Ask for regular constructive feedback on your practice
  • Seek out mentors
  • Find out about learning programmes provided through work
  • Develop a network to provide support and resilience

Erin Dean is a freelance health writer

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