A Leader’s Foundation

Former health care CEO’s career began in the Rutgers–Camden nursing program

By Anna Lockhart GSC’16

When Adrienne Kirby looks back on her 40-year career as a leader in regional hospitals—including serving as CEO for the hospital in which she was born—she values her first choice of professions. “As I moved through my career and gained increasing levels of responsibility, I always thought back to how important my nursing experience was to me,” said Kirby, who earned a degree in nursing from Rutgers University–Camden in 1979.

Kirby, who in addition to her Rutgers–Camden degree earned a master’s in nursing and a Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania, retired from her role as president and CEO of Cooper University Health Care in 2019. She has compiled a long list of accolades, including the Alumni Nursing Pioneer Award from the Rutgers School of Nursing–Camden and the Philadelphia Business Journal’s Woman of Distinction and Most Admired CEO awards.

Kirby’s Camden connections run deep: Her grandparents immigrated from Europe and settled in Camden, and her mother’s first job was at Cooper Hospital, where Kirby was born. “I’m a native of Camden, and lived in the city until I was four years old,” she said.

After graduating from Haddon Heights High School, Kirby enrolled in the then-new Rutgers–Camden nursing program. Upon finishing her undergraduate degree, Kirby began her career at the University of Pennsylvania Medical Center as a staff nurse in a busy obstetrics unit. While observing managers in high-stress situations, she made the choice to develop a collaborative style. “If you can build relationships and get everyone to feel valued, it makes a huge difference,” she said.

As she moved up into higher management positions, she continued to focus on team building. “My leadership style is like that of an orchestra conductor,” she said. “I can’t play all the instruments, but my job is to set the tempo and timing and make sure that everybody is operating at their best and highest potential.”

Her collaborative approach helped Kirby with some of her most significant achievements: early in her career at Virtua Health, she worked to petition the state of New Jersey to expand disease screening for newborns. She also was a leader in driving changes in postpartum depression screening.

Later in her career she oversaw implementation of Cooper University Hospital’s partnership with the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. The partnership overhauled Cooper’s cancer program, improving access to clinical trials, implementing interdisciplinary care models, and growing the cancer treatment volume by 80 percent. “We transformed care,” she said.

Today, Kirby serves as an independent board director for three private equity companies and provides strategic advice for other companies. Lessons she learned in nursing continue to inform her leadership. “Having had that clinical nursing experience and understanding what was going on between the patient and provider has enabled me make better decisions in regards to health care leadership,” Kirby said.

Anna Lockhart is an editor and freelance writer who holds an M.A. in English from Rutgers–Camden.

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