CNA to COO: Chamberlain Student Rises to the C-Suite

Ask Kelly R. Kelley, BSN, RN, LNHA, C-NE, RAC-CT, for her advice to aspiring nurse leaders, and she answers without hesitation.

“Lead by example," she says. "And never lose sight of what it’s like to be in the staff's shoes when you do become a manager."

As the Chief Operating Officer at Extended Care Clinical, she manages the operation of 14 skilled nursing facilities and two intermediate nursing facilities in the Chicago area and northern Michigan.

Many of the employees at those facilities are not registered nurses, but certified nursing assistants (CNAs) — a fact that puts Kelley in a prime position to put her advice into practice. That’s because she began her own career as a CNA.

“Employees always want to throw out their obstacles and their barriers,” she said. “It’s up to the leader to understand those obstacles and barriers, and guide the team to work together and figure out how to overcome them.”

The journey to professional leader has led Kelley through several different roles and a number of struggles. It’s taken a combination of experience, education and sheer determination.

After observing the nurses she worked with as a CNA, Kelley decided to become an LPN. Then, she went back to school on to earn her RN license while juggling work, school and family obligations.

“When I went for my RN, I already had my first child. I was working the evening shift, so I would wake up at the crack of dawn and take my daughter to day care. I would go to school, taking my uniform with me to class and going straight from school to work, changing in the bathroom, working all night. It was challenging to say the least.”

In the end, these sacrifices let her give life to her dream of becoming a nurse leader.

“When I was a nurse on the floor, I was always very conscientious of my patients, and I always wanted to do things right,” said Kelley. “I had several patients tell me that I was a natural leader and I should move on to bigger and better things. I thought about it and decided that I do want bigger and better things – and I just did it.”

Her first leadership role was as a charge nurse on the evening shift in the Medicare unit of a skilled nursing facility. She moved to the day shift, on to another charge nurse position and then up to director of nursing. From there, it’s been a steady progression of more and more advanced roles in the field of caring for the elderly.

As Kelley advanced her career, furthering her education became more important, but also more challenging.

“Any time you’re in an executive role, it’s never 9 to 5, 40 hours a week, ever,” she said. “Once I got into one of those roles, there was no way, even as director of nursing, to promise someone that I would be at class every Tuesday and Thursday at 7:00. It would be impossible – because if public health walks in your building for a survey or on a complaint, or something happens in your facility, you need to stay there to make sure all the T’s are crossed.”

Still, she had a goal of completing her BSN and earning a master’s degree. Chamberlain’s online environment, with flexible login requirements, is how she made it possible.

“Once I realized the credibility was there with the online environment, it opened the door for me and I set my mind to it. I knew I wasn’t going to stop until I got my master’s.”

Kelley completed the RN to BSN Option in December 2011, and is nearing completion of her MSN degree at Chamberlain, where she is enrolled in the executive specialty track.

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