A Passion for Leadership: UArizona Nursing Alumna Valerie Kading’s Path to Success

Sept. 9, 2020

When Valerie Kading, DNP, MBA, MSN, PMHNP-BC, earned her Bachelor’s in psychology from the University of Arizona, she had no idea that her academic and career trajectory was about to shift to an entirely different direction. 

At the time, Dr. Kading thought her next step would be to attend law school. But while she waited for her acceptance, a job as a behavior health case manager working at a local community out-patient mental health facility opened her eyes to a new passion: nursing. “During my time there, UArizona nursing students were doing their psychiatric nurse preceptorship at the facility,” Dr. Kading says. She interacted with nursing students and instructors and gained a deeper understanding of the nursing field. “It really resonated with me. I wanted to continue on in the behavioral health field, working with patients and those with mental health issues. I decided that the next step I wanted to take was to go to nursing school to become a nurse practitioner.”

"I believe that once you address systemic problems, you make work environments better and make employees happier. That always trickles down to better patient care," ~ Valerie Kading, DNP, MBA, MSN, PMHNP-BC

Since Dr. Kading was already a UArizona alumna, the UArizona College of Nursing was a natural choice to pursue her new career goals. “It was really my home and my family,” she says. “I can’t understate that.” As a student in the College’s Bachelor of Science in Nursing program, and then its Master of Science in Nursing program, she found an academic atmosphere marked by academic rigor, a holistic approach to interacting with the Tucson community, committed mentors, a close-knit group of students and a robust support structure.

Dr. Kading’s faculty mentors, including Terry Badger, PhD, Chair, Division of Community and Systems Health Science, encouraged her to excel. “They were also very supportive when it came to taking on extra projects or extra opportunities to continue to learn and grow,” Dr. Kading says. “There were so many opportunities that were afforded to us in terms of being involved in the community.” She was active in community service opportunities and gained valuable experience as a research assistant. “A lot of attention given to every student and there was a lot of pride in what we did and who we are.”

UArizona Nursing’s emphasis on holistic care soon became her focus and passion. Her degree in psychology already informed her understanding of the importance of mental health issues and the unfortunate stigmas that can prohibit patients from getting the treatments they wanted and needed. “I felt there was so much that the world did not understand about what mental health looked like or how significant one’s mental state and emotions had an impact on their lives,” she says. “I knew that there was a huge impact on one’s overall health if their mental health issues were not addressed.” This knowledge inspired Dr. Kading to focus on the entire wellness of an individual, an interest she is passionate about to this day.

While earning her Doctor of Nursing Practice degree from New Mexico State University, she was awakened to the possibilities that lay in pursuing leadership positions in the nursing field. “I saw the health care landscape in a very different way,” she explains. “I was already a nurse practitioner, so my studies were not about anything clinical. It was about nursing theory, it was about leadership skills, it was about how to become that instrumental heath care change agent. It was so fascinating and it just turned my world upside down in a great way.”

Concurrent with her DNP studies, a position supervising a small nursing team caused her to realize how much she enjoyed implementing processes and seeing the positive results, and encouraging and empowering her team, which led to improved morale and better patient care. Those skills served Dr. Kading well, as she navigated her way through a series of leadership roles that positioned her to make concrete changes in the health care field that would improve the lives of not only patients but the nurses who cared for them.

Soon after, Dr. Kading was offered a leadership position at Sierra Tucson, a top-rated addiction and mental health treatment center with a holistic focus. As Associate Director of Medical Operations, she grew her management skills exponentially. A systems thinker, she loved being involved with process improvement. “I believe that once you address systemic problems, you make work environments better and make employees happier,” she says. “That always trickles down to better patient care.” Various Sierra Tucson departments – including medical, nursing, psychology, integrative medicine, and pharmacy – reported to Dr. Kading, allowing her to work closely with this diverse group of individuals and leaders across all teams.

Dr. Kading was subsequently promoted to Director of Medical Operations, Chief Medical Operations Officer, and Chief Operations Officer. Those led to a stint as CEO of two newly acquired facilities in California, executing the rebranding and restructuring of the operations to become part of the Sierra Tucson family. That led to her most recent position: Group CEO of Sierra Tucson, which puts her in charge of the Tucson operation as well as both California facilities. “I honestly would have never thought that I would be here,” she says, crediting her success to the mentors and support network she surrounded herself with. “It’s very humbling and also exciting at the same time.”

In her new role, Dr. Kading has more opportunity than ever to be a change agent for good.  One exciting initiative is a budding partnering with UArizona Nursing to make Sierra Tucson a training site for the College’s Nurse Practitioner students. The culmination of talks between Dr. Kading, Dr. Terry Badger and Allen Prettyman, PhD, the partnership will allow students to learn not just learn about prescribing medications and psychiatric care, but to give them firsthand knowledge of what an integrated team providing holistic care looks like.

“Dr. Kading demonstrated her clinical and leadership abilities from the very start of her nursing career,” says Dr. Badger.  “From those early days in the BSN program, faculty knew she would go on to be leader in health care.  She is an outstanding alumna and we are fortunate she choose UArizona nursing. I am delighted to form a partnership with Dr. Kading to establish Sierra Tucson as a training site for our psychiatric mental health advanced practice nurse practitioner students. Dr. Kading will be an excellent role model for our students showcasing systems thinking for better patient care.”

“They’ll be able to explore other measures of wellness besides the medications that are used for mood disorders,” Dr. Kading says, emphasizing the nursing philosophy that it’s necessary to meet the patient where they are in treatment, treat them as an individual, and provide interventions to support them holistically. “We’ll be able to train DNP students to think in a more holistic way, and that’s what I’m very excited to be able to help train the next generation of nurse practitioners.”