2 chief pharmacy officers on the skills they wish they had learned sooner

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The pharmacy department is uniquely positioned to help hospitals and health systems improve patient outcomes, safety and financial performance, making pharmacists and pharmacy leaders well-equipped to help the organization succeed. 

However, leading the pharmacy department in the chief pharmacy officer role requires a different set of skills and experiences than leading the clinical-facing side.

During a session at the Becker's Virtual Pharmacy Event Sept. 22, a panel of pharmacy executives discussed some of the skills, accomplishments and learning experiences that helped them succeed and the skills they wish they had learned earlier in their careers. Panelists were:

  • Don Mabe, chief pharmacy officer of Atrium Health (Charlotte, N.C.)
  • LeeAnn Miller, vice president and chief pharmacy officer of Yale New Haven (Conn.) Health

Here are two excerpts from the conversation, lightly edited for clarity. To view the full session on-demand, click here.

Question: What are some skills you wish you had developed earlier in your career to help you succeed in the chief pharmacy officer role?

LeeAnn Miller: I did a really good job in my clinical realm of developing networks with the right stakeholders, but I didn't go much beyond that to the business or finance folks. I had been in the organization a long time and had plenty of opportunity to network with them. I underestimated the power of networks, especially now, when I have strategies that I want to make sure are prioritized at the top of the list for our health system. One way to do this is identifying mentors. They have been critical to my success. I had the fortune of going through a strategic agility and innovation program through the Yale School of Management, which was just phenomenal. The instructors were phenomenal, the course was phenomenal, but part of that, we got assigned a senior leader as a mentor. And before that, I had actually reached out to two different people and ask them to mentor me. So I now have three, and you got to be a little careful with managing those relationships and the time commitment. But boy, it was so powerful. Stepping into a new leadership role, I suffered from imposter syndrome, which I know a lot of people experience, but it's so helpful to hear somebody that's been in that same position.

Don Mabe:  I wish I would have learned earlier, before becoming a CPO … that leadership is a team sport. Early on in my career, I was much more focused on how much I could move the ball, putting it on my back because I was a person who wanted to move. I wanted that activity and the action of moving it. But the strength of the team would only be as strong as I was. That's a very important lesson to learn early in your career. I could have learned that quicker if I would have been much more mindful of that process.

Other than that, some of the things I wished I would have learned or had focused on sooner would be to expand my knowledge because pharmacy is not just one thing. It's not just hospital [pharmacy] or specialty [pharmacy]. It's truly all of those areas. So I'd say becoming even more focused on broadening your understanding and having a more complete understanding of those areas. No one walks into any of these positions with a full understanding of all aspects. That's true of any job. But I would say if I would have continued that focus even more or earlier, I think that that would be a better thing for me to make the learning curve easier. 

Q: Can you share one final takeaway for our audience today about leadership and the chief pharmacy officer role?

LM: I'm going to talk to those who maybe aren't thinking they can do it or questioning, "Should I try leadership? I really love to be a clinician." I would say, please just step out of your comfort zone. More often than not, you're going to see that you're capable of so much more. Get a mentor. It helps tremendously because you can see that sometimes your own insecurities, others have shared this before, and there's ways around that. So please take that chance. Pharmacists and pharmacy leaders are so well-skilled to take senior leadership roles, and pharmacy is a key driver of quality, safety and financial performance. So there's just so much opportunity to align our strategies with the health system strategies. And now really more than ever, they need us, and they need you. So reach out to somebody in your organization, or even an external, and see how you can do that and take the next step. I encourage you.

DM: Focus on your team. Leadership is team-driven. I feel like I stand on the shoulders of giants. It's not how good I am. I have great people, and I feel like that they're the ones who really make you look good. It's not a matter of just saying those words, it's really believing that and empowering them. Broadly, see the role for what it can be, pursue that with the team and give direction. Leadership is directional. My grandfather was a minister. He used to say, "Without a vision, the people perish." And I think that that's something I would say I learned from him and I've also applied it [in my role]. You've got to provide the direction for where you would like to go, or people will perish along the way without a clear vision. So I think that it's very important that we provide that direction and then step out of the way and let the team be successful.


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