A former nurse practitioner, Valerie Kading’s path to becoming the CEO of California-based Sierra By The Sea and Sunrise Ranch behavioral health facilities spans five degrees, a few careers and numerous lessons learned. Kading’s story offers five lessons you can apply to further your career aspirations and success.

1. Experience can be just as important as what you learn in the classroom.

In 1996, Valerie Kading graduated from the University of Arizona with a degree in psychology. She wanted to be a lawyer. But as she prepped for law school, she started working as a case manager for Tucson’s seriously mentally ill. And she changed her mind.

“I decided I didn’t want to be a lawyer anymore. I wanted to go back to school to be a nurse practitioner,” Kading says. A bachelor’s and master’s in nursing later — both from The University of Arizona — Kading started her career as an NP.

2. Advanced degrees and training will help you be competitive.

Working at the Southern Arizona Mental Health Center, Kading reconnected with some of the same patients she had as a case manager in her early 20s. All the while, she taught undergraduate psychology nursing at Grand Canyon University and ran a private practice.

Eight years later, she’d be back in the classroom — this time, for a doctorate of nursing practice (DNP) at New Mexico State University. “The nursing world was changing,” she says, explaining that the DNP degree was phasing out of master’s programs. And while she’d be grandfathered in, she wanted to ensure she had competitive credentials for her field. “I didn’t want to be left behind. In health care, you have to constantly grow and learn. That just never stops.”

3. Stepping into leadership can energize your career.

While in an administrative role at Tucson’s CODAC Health Recovery & Wellness, Kading found unexpected joy in leadership. She thrived working with nurses and staff, but realized she was missing the business and financial knowledge. So, she turned to books — and, eventually, to Arizona’s Eller Evening MBA program.

4. Challenging experiences can lead to meaningful career growth.

Despite being Kading’s fifth degree, the MBA was a totally novel experience.

In her previous education experiences, she was either in school full-time or working part-time. Now, she was COO of Sierra Tucson, a 500-person organization. And while her other degrees built upon each other, MBA classes in finance and accounting were new, difficult subject areas.

“The MBA was completely out of my scope of practice,” she says. “It was uncomfortable, it was challenging. It was the most meaningful degree I got.”

Kading graduated with her MBA in December 2019, and was promoted to CEO of Sierra Tucson’s Sierra By The Sea and Sunrise Ranch facilities.

Kading cites her countless experiences — every patient, every case, every class — as crucial to her success.

“I had to find my own path, and I have a greater appreciation for it. Everything I learned along the way in my career really helped with what I brought to school and what I’m able to share with the other people around me,” she says.

5. If you’re not learning, you’re not growing.

Are you thinking about continuing your education? Kading’s advice: You’re never too old to go back to school.

“If you’re not learning, you’re not growing and your career will be stagnant,” she says. Continue to fuel your professional growth by connecting with accomplished alumni like Kading on the Bear Down Network, a professional networking platform for University of Arizona alumni.