‘Our Workforce is My Anchor’: Dr. Dennis P. McKenna on His First Year as President and CEO

On December 14, 2020, Albany Medical Center administered the first doses of the Covid-19 vaccine in the region

Dennis P. McKenna, MD, ’92, assumed his role as president and CEO a year ago today at the stroke of midnight. He was standing in the critical care unit during one of the harrowing early days of the pandemic. It was April. The coronavirus, still largely mysterious to health care professionals and the public alike, was infecting tens of thousands of people downstate, and Albany Medical Center had just accepted 14 transfer patients from two beleaguered hospitals in Queens—the first institution locally to do so. “I watched our workforce welcome them with open arms,” Dr. McKenna said, “and I was so moved.”

The following day, he recalled the moment in what was then a daily video update for staff and the public, saying, “I thought if this is how I spend my first minute on the job then I’ve landed the best job I could have, because I was so proud of the team.”

One commenter wrote, “Sir you walked into a firestorm.”

Dr. McKenna respectfully disagrees. “Yes, there were many unknowns in those early days of Covid,” he said, “and things were changing very rapidly, but I never once had any misgivings about my role. I consider this job the opportunity of a lifetime. It’s important to remember that leadership is a privilege, not a burden.”

There is no denying, of course, that much of what Dr. McKenna has faced over the past year has been as eventful as his very first moment on the job: a worldwide pandemic that has required Albany Medical Center to constantly readjust its operations and approach to patient care, a painful nurses’ strike, and a welcome yet weighty responsibility to help roll out the Covid-19 vaccine to more than one million people as the coordinator for the Capital Region Vaccine Network.

“The way I deal with complicated situations is to try to create order out of chaos,” Dr. McKenna said. “I learned that in the Emergency Department. Our goal in the early days of Covid was to very quickly organize ourselves so we could process information quickly, make the best decisions available to us, and remain open to taking new positions when they were necessary.”

Was he ever rattled?

“Any anxiety I may have felt was moderated when I looked around at our workforce in action,” he said. “Their presence and their hard work constantly reassure me. They are my anchor.”

Dr. McKenna said he also draws inspiration from a principle laid out by General James Mattis, Brilliance in the Basics, which asserts that mastering the fundamentals of a job—making them a hardwired habit—helps ensure larger success. "A Message to Garcia," an essay about the importance of individual initiative, is another touchstone for him. “I saw its message play out just recently,” he said, “when we were tapped to be the hub coordinator for vaccine distribution and we needed volunteers. Once again, our employees stepped up. Nobody said, ‘That’s not my job.’ They said, ‘How can I help?’ It was wonderful.”

As he embarks on his second year at the helm, Dr. McKenna said his top priorities remain the workforce, the Medical Center’s financial stability, and the maturation and acceleration of the Albany Med Health System. “I also want to keep on identifying people across the institution who will help lead us in the future. We have so much talent here.

“And I want to make clear,” he added, “that when I talk about our workforce I mean everybody. We are a team that includes people who serve in many different roles, but all of them are critical and all of them are necessary to carry out our mission. Everybody at Albany Medical Center is essential. And I can tell you that for me, personally—especially this year—every one of them has been essential to me.”