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So You Want to Be a Sterile Processing Manager: How to Get There and What to Expect

How do you grow from a brand new technician to running the entire sterile processing department as a manager? What steps can you take to grow your résumé and prepare yourself for that big opportunity? While there is no silver bullet to SPD career growth or magic formula for getting a promotion, there are a number of things that you can and should be doing today that can increase your chances of landing that coveted office in the corner of the department. Grab a notepad and let’s get down to the business of leadership.

Every day is an interview
If there’s one point where far too many new sterile processing professionals fail, it is realizing that every single day is an interview. You may think that because everyone else is doing it or because that’s how your trainer told you to do it, then it’s okay to engage in bad habits or related behaviors, but here’s the deal: nobody else is going to be the manager either if they are not acting like a leader today. People are watching you and remembering, even if you don’t think they are. These impressions are difficult to forget when they end up being on your interview panel for a potential promotion three years later.

You should use your early days in sterile processing to set a tone for the rest of your career. Be an eager learner. Be humble, willing to ask questions, take responsibility for your mistakes, and always assume you don’t know everything. Even after you get certified and are no longer the new guy or gal in the department, don’t let that experience go to your head. Leadership is not about knowing all the answers or going along with peer pressure—it’s about being able to find the right answers and do the right thing every day. The most powerful résumé you will ever have is your reputation, and you start creating it on your very first day of work all the way until you walk in the door to interview for a manager role.

Heavy is the head that wears the crown
Whether you are working toward your first promotion or trying to keep your head above water in your first leadership gig, the challenges of department leadership are difficult to overstate. The classic mantra “the buck stops here” becomes a reality for you, whether you want it to or not. Unlike technicians, managers have no one else to hide behind, no one else to blame when something doesn’t work, and no one else to have the difficult conversations that inevitably arise in any department filled with people from different backgrounds, ages, and preferences.

One common experience of new leaders is to feel a certain amount of isolation, as department relationships naturally transition from peer-to-peer coworkers to employee-manager perspectives. You often become the person being complained about in the break room and the scapegoat for any ongoing challenges in the department.

This experience can sometimes be overwhelming for certain individuals who need affirmation to feel confident in their job performance. Depending on cultural dynamics in the department, some of these people problems can take up the vast majority of a manager’s time, even if you’d rather be focusing on process improvement and department growth. These things should not dissuade you from following your dream to become a sterile processing manager, but they should be considered as you emotionally prepare yourself for the role.

Leading in a world of opportunity
The good news is that sterile processing leadership is not all doom and gloom. There are all kinds of truly rewarding aspects of managing a team of technicians whose daily mission is to ensure the life-saving tools of surgery are sterile, functional, and available—every patient, every time. Here are a few of the awesome opportunities that a typical manager can expect.

  • Giving the same opportunity for growth to others:Whether it is succession planning for yourself, promotion of your staff into other leadership roles, or finding opportunities for them outside of the department, managers have the ability to open doors for their team in a way that only managers can do. Few things gave me more pride as a manager than to see my people grow in their careers.
  • Improving processes:We have all had that moment in our departments when we ask ourselves, “Why do they do it this way?” Well, as a manager, you have the prerogative to change it—hopefully for the better. While any process change carries risks, you have the freedom to improve your processes in line with industry standards and best practices to build a better workflow and safer team.
  • Instilling self-confidence and pride:In an industry that has been ignored and beaten down for decades, sterile processing managers have the unique opportunity to flip the script and build up the self-confidence and pride of their frontline technicians in ways that really matter. Few experiences can compare with seeing the transformation of an employee who doesn’t believe in himself or herself, into one who can confidently stand upon industry guidelines to professionally communicate to customers and coworkers on behalf of patient safety.
  • Defending your team and keeping the focus:One of the most important things a leader gets to do is be the shield for the team, whether that’s against external pressures from angry customers or frustrated impatience from hospital administrators. Improvement and growth does not happen overnight, and there will be stumbles along the way. Leaders get to advocate for their team and reorient the ultimate focus of their departments every day, ensuring their frontline employees can focus on their jobs and ignore any political drama happening around them.

The question we didn’t answer
Why didn’t this article talk about credentials and interview skills? Well, it’s not because those things aren’t important for your career growth. Those things do matter; however, just because someone can interview their way into a manager’s title doesn’t mean they actually have the head or the heart to do the job well. If you really desire to manage a sterile processing team, you need to deal honestly with yourself and the reasons you want the job. There are other ways to make more money and other jobs where you can boss people around, but the world of opportunity that awaits a sterile processing manager is as weighty as it is wonderful.

Do you have what it takes to work today in order to earn that opportunity tomorrow?

Prove it.

Feature articles exclusively for Ultra Clean Systems by Weston “Hank” Balch, BS, MDiv, CRCST, CER, CIS, CHL

Weapon of Mass Microbial Destruction * Professional Clean Freak * Podcast Host * Safety Addict * CS/SPD Consultant

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