Welcome to the Woman of the Week podcast, a weekly discussion that illuminates the unique stories of women leaders who are catalyzing change throughout the life-sciences industry. You can check out all our podcast episodes here.
This week’s WoW podcast guest, Michelle Keefe, president, commercial solutions at Syneos Health, discusses her rapid pivot in strategy during the pandemic. She and her team worked together through the difficulties to come out the other side with many client wins. She calls this, “not wasting a crisis.” From her employees to her customers, she leveraged her understanding of their needs and made sure to fill the gaps.
“You realize pretty quickly that empowering your employees to get their work done in the best way possible allows them to address their personal and professional needs and the outcome will also be good for the customer,” she says. “When employees feel supported by their organization, they produce top level work.”
Listen to the podcast or you can also read the transcript of the conversation below.
Welcome to WoW – the Woman of the Week podcast by PharmaVoice powered by Industry Dive.
In this episode, Taren Grom, Editor-in-chief Emeritus at PharmaVoice meets with Michelle Keefe, President, Commercial Solutions, Syneos Health.
Taren: Welcome to the WoW podcast, Michelle. It’s been a while since we last connected and the world has changed significantly.
Michelle: Taren, thanks so much for inviting me. I’m excited to be here. I look forward to our conversation.
Taren: I can’t believe the last time I saw you was on stage at the PharmaVoice 100 celebration when you were wearing your red jacket, but here we are almost two and a half years later. Let’s dig into what the state of affair is. First, Syneos Health is a global operation, you no doubt had to quickly pivot and redefine SOPs. How have you been managing through the pandemic?
Michelle: Taren, the fact that you said I haven’t seen you in two and a half years is like mind-boggling to me because it feels like I see you all the time. But let me answer your question. I’m excited to have this conversation today. It’s been a really interesting time. The last two years kind of navigating what’s been going on in healthcare and all the challenges that customers have had through the pandemic. So I think one of the things we’ve done is this, you know, what do they say “don’t waste a good crisis,” I think is one of the quotes I’ve heard in the past. Which is really take advantage of truly understanding what your customers need and figure out how you fill that gap. And equally important, figure out what your colleagues and your organization need to feel connected to the organization, feel connected to their work and making sure that they have everything they need to be successful.
So I do think the first thing I would say is one of the things that we did that really made a difference for us during this pandemic was, we focused on listening to our employees, understanding where they were at and that really allowed us to better understand how we can enable them to be successful. I was really absolutely in awe of how our employees galvanized and really organized themselves from a grassroots effort to support each other through the pandemic. Make sure they were covering for each other to make sure work got done for the benefits of our customers. And really, I would say delivered a very high level of performance from both the company and for our customers.
I think because we gave employees the flexibility and space to do what they needed to do, is one of the reasons why we’ve had the success that we had. And I think that’s a hard thing in a services organization when you’re really focused on delighting your customer. What you realize pretty quickly is really empowering your employees to get their work done in the best way possible, that allows them to address their personal and professional needs will delight the customer. Because they’re going to get a really great work product because they feel supported by their organization. So I think that that’s one of the things we did from the employee perspective.
I think the other thing was, we learned early on that our customers wanted to know what we were experiencing. I think sometimes we forget that what we do across so many different customers, globally between our clinical and our commercial organization and our product development focus, we have probably touched 80 to 90 percent of the assets that are being developed or being commercialized. And we really have a bird’s-eye view of kind of what’s going on in the industry. And so, sharing our insights with our customers, just proactively sharing them saying, here’s what we’re seeing is. Here’s what we’re seeing works. Here’s what we’re seeing is challenging customers right now. Here are some of the things that we think you can do to have a better relationship with your HCPs as pharma companies. The fact that we were sharing those insights real-time as we were getting them. And we were piloting a lot of things to try to figure out what was the best way to get healthcare professionals the information they needed during very challenging times.
I think because we were doing that and then sharing those results with our customers, that really was why we were able to successfully lead through the pandemic and come out an even stronger organization for our customers and for our employees.
Taren: That’s amazing. You touched on this a couple of times just there of delighting the customers. I know that’s one of your mantras and I know that is of paramount importance to you. And so, when you talk about delighting those customers, did you find yourself having to develop any new kinds of leadership skills to lead your teams, to make sure your customers were delighted?
Michelle: That’s a great question. I’m always fascinated by the talent that we have here at Syneos Health. It has been one of the things that makes it just so great to come to work here every day. Honestly, the people I get to work with are amazing. I think they wanted to be empowered to really think about what was going on in their own personal journey is realizing that many of our own personal journeys are applicable to our customers. Everybody was kind of going through the same thing at the same time. And so, I think the number one thing that I really encouraged everyone to do was to listen and to listen with intense. Really try to understand what your customers telling you, ask good open-ended questions to understand where they’re at, what potentially is an opportunity that they may be don’t see or a challenge they’re trying to manage through. I think because we were really great at listening and then coming back and getting diverse teams together to say ‘okay, here’s what’s going on.’
So like I’ll give you an example. How do you really ensure that your sales representatives or your medical representatives in the field whether they’re MSLs or nurses or sales reps, what were they really going to do when everything gets shut down? So we really started listening to what customers were trying to understand about their HCPs and how to access HCPs and we’ve highlighted a lot of things. Very quickly, we realize that omnichannel-focused that was led by a rep. So that’s just one good example of something we learned through listening to our customers was that representatives who have relationships with customers had a much easier time accessing customers remotely. They were able to work their way into a physician’s telehealth. So you used to go call out a physician in person. Now, you need to work your way into that telehealth calendar, so that you can get 10 minutes of conversation with the customer. And when you got that 10 minutes with the customer saying, “what do you need right now for patients?” Although everybody was consumed with keeping people safe, there was a large concern as you know, around people not going to the doctor and people not getting diagnosed, people not taking care of themselves proactively from a prevention perspective. And so, really understanding what customers needed, meaning the HCP customer and then translating that back to our life sciences customers, I think really made a huge difference.
Honestly, a lot of the services that we’re delivering today are very different than the ones we delivered two or three years ago. Everything is omnichannel enabled now. Everything is in-person, digital, on the phone, on a video, inviting folks to educational programs. It’s all very integrated, which is something we have been talking to customers about for many, many years. But the pandemic kind of created the compelling event for people to try doing things a little differently. And I think understanding that you have to listen to your customers and then maybe be a little uncomfortable around trying new things that traditionally weren’t the things that made you successful was something you had to instill in all the leaders. Leaders had to be uncomfortable, getting things 80 percent right. And leaders had to be comfortable, not letting perfection be the enemy of good. And I think that that was the main lesson I think we learned here.
Taren: Was that something that surprised you that you had to figure, like, learn how to be comfortable with being uncomfortable?
Michelle: I don’t think it surprised me, but I do think that you realize that there’s a cadence and there’s a rhythm to how people work. They have all the things that they’ve done forever that have made them very successful. And to have to pivot like that is not easy for everyone. That’s not a natural skill that everybody just has. And making sure that they understood that they would be supported, that we were okay with failing fast. We didn’t expect everybody to be successful with every single thing that we tried in the marketplace, but that we had to recognize the things that were working and scaled them quickly. And if things weren’t working, we just needed to fail fast, and we had to be okay with that. I think you can imagine some people get very uncomfortable with that. So I think I always knew it in theory, but to see it in practice and to honestly see how these people rose to the occasion and these colleagues rising to the occasion, to delight their customers at any cost. People working at 10 o’clock at night because they’re teaching their kids in homeschool from four to six or from two to four and saying, “I’ll get to that tonight.” I was really impressed with how everybody came together and delivered excellently for our customer.
So I was surprised but I wasn’t surprised that everybody kind of rallied and got it done. Like I’ve said before, I’m very fortunate to have the people that I get to work with every day.
Taren: That’s fantastic. It’s so wonderful to see how everybody did come together and has everybody’s back because we’re all in this soup together here, so to speak. You touched on this about the omnichannel component and how COVID was almost a driving force to make this a reality. And let’s face it, omnichannel is hard and you have to do all the things you did before plus new things on top of that, make sure everything is integrated. So how did that impact your goals and priorities in terms of your area of the store? And what other things shifted?
Michelle: Thanks for that question Taren, because I do think that’s one of the great things that I’ve had the privilege of leading here, is what we call Kinetic, which is our omnichannel offerings. But it was really built to address business critical challenges with greater precision, efficiency, and effectiveness. We’re trying to deploy advanced targeting and analytics. We try to use the latest technologies to make fully integrated omnichannel solutions accessible to healthcare organizations. And we have been trying to do that prior to the pandemic. We were seeing many smaller customers buy into it early on because of their controlled budgets. When you’re a small biotech startup, you’re much more cost efficient in how you go to market and digital can be a very cost effective way to communicate with customers.
But the real thing that I found that really made a difference was the connectedness of the sales force with the omnichannel strategy. One connected integrated strategy, where the customer is receiving information that is coordinated and integrated. So it does feel like they’re having one conversation with the customer. They don’t feel like, as a pharma company is, the marketing team is sending me these things. The sales team is saying this and then medical is inviting me to a program. Like, they didn’t feel that it was not connected and we built Kinetic because it is connected. It’s all connected through the CRM and we’re taking insights and the activities and the way we’re communicating with customers and the way customers like to be communicated to. Evaluating that data through our data science teams and then seeing what is the content and what is the information and the channel that the customer wants to receive the information in. What is really working for that customer? How do we be much more HCP-driven and HCP-focused? And then design our solutions for customers and using the channels that they most feel achieve the goals that they’re looking for as an individual customer.
And that really accelerated like very quickly through the pandemic. I think you even start with HCPs When you look at HCP data less than 20 percent of healthcare professionals were doing telehealth pre-pandemic, and now it’s up around 60 percent of HCPs have incorporated telehealth into the way they’re managing your patients. It’s becoming much more standard of care than it was just two years ago. And so, I think what was going on in the industry and the fact that we had made those investments and has been talking to customers about the value of omnichannel, has allowed us to accelerate that and add that in very quickly. That I think is one of the things that allowed us to have the success that we’ve had.
I think the other thing that is unique for Syneos Health and one of the things I’m very proud of my team is that it’s marrying those behavioral insights and what they know behaviorally about customers with the data and analytics to give the best insight possible to customers around the information that they need, to make sure their patients are getting best-in-class treatments. And so, I do think that’s probably the…if you ask me what was the Aha moment or the thing that I felt really accelerated our performance through the pandemic, it was that integration between in-person and omnichannel in an integrated fashion.
Taren: It’s fantastic work that you all did and it’s really about that user experience, right? Because if I’m an HCP, it doesn’t matter to me what you all are doing on the back, I want it to be seamless. I want to have what I need when I need it, correct?
Taren: It’s all about again, delighting that customer, but making that user experience manageable, efficient, and easily adapted to. So kudos to you. Let’s talk about some of the things that you’re talking about with your clients. What are some of those trends you’re currently tracking in terms of commercial solutions? What do you see on the horizon? If we’ve got onmichannel now, what’s the next big thing coming down the pike?
Michelle: Well that’s a great question. I think everybody wants to get to the point where you know so much. Here we’ve collected so much information around HCP preferences that you actually have an individual physician strategy. That you know exactly what a physician is interested in and the type of information they’re interested in and your serving up information to them that you know is the things that they want to hear about. I think that that’s ultimately like get to an individual person level, I think is what the whole industry is striving to get to. And I do think that that will come. I think the smarter we get around predictive analytics, using AI, I do think that, that is something that will be available to us in the future. Obviously, you have to do it with a focus on data privacy and making sure that you’re being very focused on doing it the right way and that’s very important.
Cybersecurity and data privacy is key right now and healthcare specifically. It is kind of a whole other level of compliance around that. But I do think that we’ll get to a much better customer experience because we have all this technology, these insights and the data. So I do think that is going to continue to be probably a journey that the whole industry is frankly going to be on. So I think that we’re excited to be part of that. I think, you know, Taren that we do our health trends report every year. I think, you know that about us. We published health trends every year through some really significant interviews with customers, with healthcare professionals, with health plans, with hospital systems, pretty much the whole health ecosystem, we do a pretty deep dive and multiple, multiple interviews and we’re excited. We’re about to launch our 2022 health trends report and we’re kind of seeing some key trends. So we’re seeing that what we would call appropriate acceleration of clinical trials and decentralized trials as something that is absolutely a trend for that we’re going to see continue to accelerate and evolve over the next couple of years. We think it’s going to be fueled by digital transformation and technology enabled insights, whether it’s through clinical or through commercial.
I think the other trend that we’re seeing in the industry is people want connected solutions. They really don’t want to buy different things from different vendors. They’re much more interested in having a partner that kind of goes on the product development journey with them and understands frankly all the interdependencies of the work and what needs to be infused in your clinical trial protocols early on. And really, what is the unmet medical need and what is the economic benefit of some of these assets early on, and making sure that you have the right commercial strategy being infused into your clinical trial. So that you know, what is the data that you’re going to need to be able to get these medicines in the hands of patients ultimately.
I think you’re also seeing the empowered patient and patient power design of clinical trials. You’re starting to see patients much more in the center of what’s really going on in their disease journey and them wanting a say, in the types of experiences they want to have in the healthcare system. And so, I think you’re starting to see that as well.
So those are really, I think the top trends that we’re seeing in the industry and as you can imagine, as a product development company we’re very focused on providing solutions to address those trends.
Taren: Well, thank you so much for giving us a preview of what’s going to be released in a couple of weeks. I appreciate that. I have to play devil’s advocate with you for just one second.
Taren: Going back to that one-on-one communication with HCPs, just because we have the technology and the analytics to do it, should we be doing that? Does it feel a little bit big brother-y? Is it too much personalization?
Michelle: I think that’s a great debate that’s going on in the industry right now. But you know, when you survey healthcare professionals and we have our own survey that we do. We have an offering called Answer Suite, which basically we survey, panel the physician every single month to get their insight into what they’re interested in. And they all say the same thing – we want information that allows us to enhance our practice of medicine and ensure that our patients are getting the best care possible and understand all the services, the wraparound services to support themselves and their caregivers. We hear that consistently. That’s a consistent drum beat that we hear from healthcare professionals and we want to be able to access that information and the way that’s easiest for us. So like, if I’m really attached to my iPad and my whole life is on, if I worked everybody’s electronic health records and I’m working on my iPad, I want to be able to access anything off of my iPad. Even scheduling an appointment to talk to a sales representative or schedule an appointment to talk to an MSL, because I want to have a conversation about a phase 3 asset that you have that’s currently in clinical development and it has to be a medical conversation.
You’re hearing that, that’s what the customer wants. And so I would say, we should do everything we possibly can to meet that customers need. But to your point, people have to opt in and want that. I don’t think every HCP wants that, but I do think a lot of the majority of HCPs want that. I think that’s why the opt-in portion is so important, that if HCPs opt-in and they want that level of specificity that the industry can give it to them. And I think, if they’re not interested in that, I think that ourselves at Syneos Health and other pharmaceutical company have to continue to challenge ourselves to figure out how do we make our information easy for customers to access so they can get the information they need to treat patients in the most effective way possible. What clinical trials can they join? All that in a way that is very seamless for customers to proactively access it themselves.
So I do think it’s going to be a balance, which I think is a very good point you’re making Taren, absolutely. But I do think there is a group of customers that want that level of specificity and if they opt-in for it, we should give it to them.
Taren: Excellent. Thank you so much. And do you see that there’s a trend in terms of the demographics of those healthcare professionals? Are you seeing maybe younger doctors opting in more frequently than the more seasoned physicians in your cohort?
Michelle: You know, that’s a good question. I don’t think I’ve ever looked at it demographically, but I do know that the demographics are vast by age, by gender, by diversity. We work really hard to make sure that we have a nice diverse population of physicians that are providing us feedback, but I do not know if we’ve ever cut it by age group like, right out of medical school versus I’ve been in practice for 20 years. I don’t think we’ve ever cut it that way. I should look at that. That’s a good suggestion, Taren.
Taren: Well, you’re welcome, Michelle. I would be curious because digital has been part of the millennial generation for their whole lives. So it would be the easy, seamless transition for them, I can see that. And they want everything personal to them and they wanted on demand when they want it and how they want it. Whereas, folks that are far older like me might feel like, “hmm, how do they really know that about me and do I really want them to know that about me?”
Michelle: Yeah, I hear you completely Taren, I totally hear you, but it is interesting. I mean globally, it is the different markets are different, whether you’re in Asia Pac or in Europe or the US, but I mean, what you’re finding in the US and this isn’t surprise you at all, is that most physician are now practicing for a health system, for an integrated delivery network. There’s very few private, truly private practices out there anymore. And a lot of these health systems are managing their physician population through their electronic health records and through technology. So I do think, regardless of the age group that you’re in, you are getting more comfortable with technology. But your second point whether or not you wanted to know everything about it or not, that is questionable for sure.
Taren: Got you. Let’s switch tacks here a little bit. I want to talk to you about how you go about building high-performing teams. You’ve had a lot of experience. You’ve had a lot of success. So what are some of those keys? What are some of your best practices that you employ when you are building high-performing teams?
Michelle: Well, thanks for this question because I think you know I’m very passionate about this. I was very fortunate early in my career that I had some really great leaders that develop me in a very young age. I started at Pfizer, I had some really amazing leaders at Pfizer, who really taught me a lot about how to build high-performance. And I’ve tried to carry that throughout my whole career. So I will say, the first thing I learned early on is that diversity is key. You really have to challenge yourself, to surround yourself with people who think differently than you do. And as you know, that’s not always easy to do because it puts you in an uncomfortable position sometimes. But it does feel a new thinking, it does bring new perspectives to the table and it does create a great foundation for success.
And so, the first thing I say is you really want to focus on building a team with different skill sets because they’ll complement each other and build on each other’s ideas, and you’ll get you a much better outcome. I think that that’s very, very important.
The other thing, if you think about just diversity of gender or diversity of race, I think that’s critically important. As you know, I’m very passionate about that. I’m on the Global Board of the HBA. I also am the executive sponsor of Syneos Health DE&I Council. And I do that for many reasons and the main reason I do it is, I truly believe building diverse teams not just get you better thinking and high-performance. I also think you’re going to do a better job ultimately for the patient because you have a group of people who have different experiences. And therefore, those people who have different experiences can help a much more diverse patient population. And in healthcare, that’s critically important. We know that different populations respond differently to different products and different drugs or their healthcare system journey is very different.
And so, I think in healthcare specifically that diversity, it matters globally. Socially, it’s critically important but it is a business imperative. Having a diverse team will drive better results for patients worldwide and healthcare. I do think that’s really, really important. So I would say that that would be my key thing.
I think the other thing that scares people honestly, when building teams is everybody builds teams, hiring, they want people with like, the best experience and they have the best resume and they look beautiful on a piece of paper. And sometimes, I think you got to really challenge yourself to hire for potential, not just about experience. I think you need both on your team, but I think people always over rotate on trying to get the most experienced person. I do think you need people like that on your team, but I think sometimes hiring for potential actually gets you farther. And I say that because they’re more open-minded to thinking about a problem differently. I always tell the story that when I first joined Syneos, I hired my head of omnichannel from a digital shop up in Boston and they were not a healthcare shop. I hired the head of digital strategy for commercial, that had no healthcare experience and people thought I was crazy. Because they’re like, “if he doesn’t have any experience in healthcare, how is he going to help us evolve our model?” And he was the brains behind Kinetic, our omnichannel solution. And he now manages a much broader enterprise team beyond just the commercial digital transformation folks. So I always say that he pushed us to think differently about what we could do because he didn’t have the lens of only looking through healthcare. So he challenged our thinking and sometimes the idea is that he had just weren’t going to work in a highly regulated environment where a healthcare is. But many times, he made us think about things differently and I do think our products are performing at a much higher level because we have him on our team. And so, I think that that’s critically important.
And then the last thing is, if you’re going to hire all these amazing diverse people, make sure you listen to them. Because listening to them helps you learn. And I think there’s that old African proverb that says, if you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far go together. And I think if you want to go far, you go together with a diverse team. And when you do that, you do get high performance. So that’s my thoughts on that subject.
Taren: Well, they are considerable thoughts and I thank you for sharing them. And I love that to hire for potential not always for experience. And that does lend itself to that diversity piece that you talked about diversity of thought, as well as diversity of experience. So excellent advice. You touched on the fact that you joined the Global Board of Directors for that HBA and that you’re heading up the DE&I initiative at Syneos. Why make these things a priority in your schedule? You’re very busy. You’re running multiple, multiple like enterprise solution groups. Why carve out the time?
Michelle: That’s a great question. And it’s funny, one of the things I said on my interview for the HBA Global Board, when I interviewed with the nominating committee for that, I said, “you know, now is the time that I want to do this because I feel like I have enough experience to bring, to pay it forward.” I’m very focused on wanting to create an environment where women get a seat at the decision-making table that gender equality for all roles within an organization happens. I think there’s some amazing pharmaceutical and life sciences companies that have made you strives and diversifying their leadership teams from a diversity perspective and from a gender perspective. From a gender perspective specifically, the stat is out there that women make most of this healthcare decisions for their families. And so, when you think about the fact that you can almost call most women are the CEOs of their households from a decision-making perspective about healthcare, it just makes good business sense to have more women weighing in on healthcare solutions for patients. Women understand what’s going on in the family. They’re making those decisions, anyway, personally. So bringing that experience to business to be able to really think about how do we evolve healthcare delivery and how do we evolve, how we bring great new medicines to patients in a way that truly meets the needs of these families, I think is really important.
And so, I do think from the perspective of healthcare, I truly believe those diverse teams are going to get better outcomes for patients, ultimately.
Taren: Fantastic and thank you for taking on that mantle of responsibility. It is so important to have voices like yours at that table. Tell me, what is some of the best leadership advice you’ve ever received? I know you said it’s important to listen. I know you said it’s important to have a diverse team. But is there one thing that sticks out in your mind as you’ve gone through your career, a piece of advice you rely on?
Michelle: That’s a great question because I’ve gotten so much great advice over the year. I think it comes down to, I miss my channel of cliché, so I don’t want to sound cliché. But if you perform at a high level, if you focus on driving performance and whatever that measurement is in your job, it’s very hard to ignore you. So if you’re in sales or marketing or medical, whatever the KPIs are for the job or whatever the capabilities are that you demonstrate for the job, if you focus on doing an amazing job in the role you’re in it, (1) it gets you recognized, and (2) gives you the platform to have the conversation about what’s the next thing you want to do?
And so, I’ve always felt that, that was the number one thing I tell people – do a great job, get recognized as a star performer and then use that platform to create the opportunities for yourself, to say no, this is what I want to do next. What do I need to do to get that next role? If you’re trying to get into management, what is it going to take for me to be taken seriously in a leadership role. I think that that to me, is the advice I got early on in my career that nobody can ignore a high level of performance.
I think the other thing that I think you get recognized for high performance in once you become in a leadership role, whether it’s the first line leader or whether you’re leading large groups of people.
The second thing I think you get recognized for and you’re able to move up pretty quickly in your career is if you’re known for developing top talent. And so, really focusing on helping your teams achieve their personal and professional goals and kind of developing a reputation as – I want to work for this person because they have so many people that have been in their team that I see in a leadership position across the industry. I think that’s the second piece of advice that I got early on was, you’ll be known more for the people you developed that what you did yourself and before you know it, everybody is recognizing you as being able to build high performance not just in yourself, but in other people.
And ultimately, if you really want to run a business, isn’t that what it’s all about, it’s about getting the highest-performing people on your team focused on a goal and that they’re all working together to achieve that goal.
And so, that’s the advice I got early on, do those two things and you will have tons of opportunities for yourself to evaluate for your own career. And so, that’s the advice I got early and I’ve been sticking to it and so far, it seems to be working okay.
Taren: I would say it is working okay. That’s awesome advice. Obviously, you are a role model in the industry. I have heard that people want to work for Michelle. What is this mantle of responsibility mean to you? You’re carrying a backpack there.
Michelle: Yeah and it’s one that I love to carry I have to tell you. I just love it. It goes back to my comment about paying it forward. I work really hard to do all the things that I want everybody else to do as well. And that doesn’t mean doing people’s jobs for them. I mean, demonstrating for my own actions what I believe is important. Because if I’m not doing it, then why would anybody else think it was important? So every single time we have any kind of formal mentoring program at Syneos Health, I volunteer as a mentor.
I think really understanding diverse populations of colleagues is really critical for the success of any organization. So one of the things I just did was we put in place a reverse mentoring program. So I have members of our different ERG groups here at Syneos Health, mentoring my whole leadership team. So that they can learn from these different ERG groups what’s the experience they want to have as colleagues at Syneos Health. What do I need to hear from you as the head of a business or you as the leader of a division? What are the kinds of things I want to see you focus on? So to learn from that, that generation. So whether it’s our black ERG or ERG which is focused on colleagues with disabilities or whether it’s our LGBTQIA plus ERG. Those folks are mentoring my team and telling us what it is that will make this a great place to work and help us design the best solution possible for customers.
And so I think, don’t forget that eyes are on you all the time. I never forget that and I take that responsibility very seriously, and I tried to emulate the behavior I want to see in all leaders. And that I am a truly authentic leader and that I’m available. I think that’s the other thing. You have to be available. I mean, when you have 10,000 people, you can’t be available to 10,000 people one-on-one, but you can create opportunities for people to have conversations with you. You have to have 2-way dialogue and 2-way conversation with teams. You have to talk with folks beside your direct report. And I think when you do that, you are highly successful because people say, “okay, she’s real. She gets it. She gets what I do every single day and she understands the opportunities and challenges that I have as an individual.” I just think that people come to work wanting to do their best work when they’re in that kind of environment. So I take that responsibility very seriously and it’s one of the things that I think, I try to instill in my team as well.
Taren: That’s fantastic advice in there. Thank you so much for sharing that. You talked about being a mentor and I’m going to ask you, did you have a mentor or mentors throughout your career? And before we get to your wow moment, you want to share some of those highlights with me too about some of the things you’ve done?
Michelle: Sure. I’ve had mentors over the years, formal mentors and informal mentors. And it’s interesting, we don’t want anybody know how old I am, Taren, but as you can imagine coming up the ranks, they were mostly men who mentored me. There weren’t a lot of women that were in leadership position when I was young in the pharmaceutical industry. And so, I was really fortunate that I had a handful of mentors that saw my potential and helped me develop the skills that I need to develop to get to where I ultimately am today. And so, I definitely have been mentored over the years. So I feel that that definitely supported my development, no two ways about it.
And you had a second part of your question, Taren. I forgot what it was.
Taren: So the second part was talking about that mentor relationship but as well as, what are some of the career highlights because you’ve had a very diverse career, you talked about some of your time at Pfizer. Are there any special projects that stick out to you aside from your wow moment?
Michelle: Yeah. Okay. So I think that’s a great question. Thank you for giving me more clarity on that. I think a couple things. I did things over the years that made me uncomfortable. I took on roles that made me uncomfortable. So I can think about, when I was a publicist, I was working closely with Rick Keefer and Nick Colucci at the time, trying to get more experience outside of the traditional CSO experience that I had. Having been head of sales at Pfizer for a long time, I really understood that business inside and out. And Nick gave me a lot of new challenges. He said, ‘okay, want to more; how about you run global business development.’ Well global business development for Publicis Health was heavily, heavily, heavily agency-related, and I really didn’t know the agency business that well. So learning that and really understanding what it took to really do global business development for a holding company that was heavily agency-related, that made me uncomfortable. And I think that that’s some of the things that you need to do if you want to continue to move up in an organization. Because taking the safe route is okay if that’s what works for you. But if you really want to go far, I think you have to do some things that will make you uncomfortable. And I probably skinned my knees a couple of times. I think if you asked Nick now, he’d probably say, ‘well, she didn’t do this so great and I had to kind of shove her in this direction early on.’ But you know, I really started to master it and then after I mastered it, he started giving me more responsibility of leading some of the smaller agencies. I think that experience helped me tremendously.
The second thing I think that really stretched my thinking about leadership and really leading businesses, I then came to Syneos Health and we’re a publicly traded company and I’m now talking to investors – a very different thing than I’ve ever done before. Really talking about the business through the lens of the financial and helping them understand what we’re really doing here at Syneos Health that makes us a really great company, not just to our customers but to investors. Ultimately, since we’re a publicly traded company you’re trying to attract the investor population. So that was the thing that clearly didn’t make me comfortable because I don’t have a finance background but was an expectation of the role. I think that that really stretched me tremendously to really go deep on understanding the financials of a business and by no way, could I ever be a CFO but I know a lot more about it than I did four years ago.
So both things that made me very uncomfortable, but just said I’m going to do this and I’m going to figure it out, and that’s where mentors come in sometimes too. Like I identified people in both of those situations that had some real success in those areas and asked them to coach me and support me and they were kind of my go-to for advice. And I think they helped me accelerate that development very quickly. So those would be just two examples.
Taren: Those are two great examples. Thank you so much for sharing and you may have skinned your knees. But if you didn’t, then you aren’t really, I can see you, and you were really were trying because I know how you are, you go full in. It’s to be expected to stumble every now and then and I think that’s probably shows your intuitiveness and your desire and passion. So since this is our WoW podcast, can you identify an accomplishment or moment in your career that either shaped your career or change the trajectory of your career?
Michelle: I’ve been lucky. I’ve had some just a really, really amazing experiences for sure. But you know it’s funny, I’m going to give you one that people would not have pegged as a wow moment where people would normally say, you know some great assignment that I got when I was working at Pfizer (and I got many great assignments when I was working at Pfizer) or something significant again on the services side. But I’m going to take you back to the Visiting Nurse Service of New York. And I think running their market development and working with all the big hospital systems in New York City to help them think through how they evolve the model.
I was there during the time when there was a lot of CMS demonstration projects. Hospitals were starting to get financial penalties for their length of stay for things like heart failure and for MI and their rates of pneumonia and their rehospitalization rates. And I was there at a very interesting time because healthcare was really transforming. It was probably the best thing I did because I learned at the Visiting Nurse Service of New York what really went on in the delivery of healthcare, full stop.
I had spent my career working with fantastic R&D-driven pharmaceutical companies like Pfizer at the time and was in that industry for 22 years and learned a lot about the difference medicines can make. I was there during the Lipitor days and just amazing, amazing breakthroughs for patients that were unbelievable. From a pharmaceutical development perspective, I got to see some of the best R&D colleagues do amazing work. I got to see some of the best marketers and… just amazing. But until you actually see how healthcare is delivered full circle and all the touch points that patients go through, whether it’s being hospitalized, being discharged to a nursing home, being discharged to home, what makes them show back up in the ER, the vicious cycle that healthcare can be and then when you take on marginalized populations, it’s even worse. And when you see that and you understand that journey that patients really go through, I think it just makes you a better healthcare leader because you’re so empathetic to what patients actually go through. And when you know you’re working on a product that gets researched and developed and then you know that you can get access to that medicine for any patient and you can think through what are the support services that that patient and those caregivers need to make sure those patients get the optimal outcomes, you realize it really takes a village. And having that full view of what actually goes on in healthcare delivery, I think has made me a better leader.
And so, I would say that’s probably my wow moment, having seen what really goes on in the delivery of healthcare and what it really takes to make sure patients get everything they need to have a better quality or quantity of life. I think that that experience, I will never forget and I use it. I have to tell you, I use those experiences all the time as I’m thinking through solutions in my current role. So I would say that’s my wow moment.
Taren: That is a wow moment, Michelle. I think you’ve touched on something. I think every healthcare leader should have to go through a rotation that you did just to see that entire journey because, oftentimes, we’re stuck in silos and we don’t understand what’s next or where it came from, whatever that solution may be. But to understand it from the patient perspective is truly unique. So thank you so much for sharing that. You’re onto something there, my friend.
Taren: I want to thank you for your time today. Thank you so much for your tremendous insights. And I look forward to speaking with you again in the future and keep up the great work and congratulations on your success.
Michelle: Well, Taren thank you so much. I always enjoyed speaking with you and I appreciate the invitation. This is a great conversation and like I said, I always enjoyed speaking with you, so thank you.
Thanks for listening to this episode of WoW – The Woman of the Week podcast. For more WoW episodes visit pharmavoice.com.