I am delighted to introduce Dr. Wendy Heckelman, a highly accomplished and respected leader in the field of organizational development and leadership. As we celebrate Women’s History Month, Dr. Heckelman’s extensive experience in guiding and supporting women in leadership roles makes her an ideal candidate for this interview.

[TIANNA] – It’s always a pleasure and a joy to chat with you. I know we were excited to have an open, honest, and transparent conversation about the reality of being a professional woman working in the life sciences and pharmaceutical industry. I’m really excited to chat with you a little bit about your experience as a woman as a leader in the industry, and the other women that have really shaped your experience along the way. First of all, for those who do not know, can you just briefly recap at a super high level, let’s call it the movie trailer of your career thus far?

[WENDY] – I started my career 31 years ago with a newly minted PhD out of Columbia. My first project was at Pfizer to apply some of the work that I had done in graduate school. The project was to help a division use data collection method (focus groups, interviews, and surveys) to uncover opportunities to enhance organizational effectiveness. Since that time, I’m proud to say Pfizer is still a client of mine. So are many of the companies I started working with so long ago.

When I think about being a female leader, starting 30 years ago, the world was very different. I have spent day after day, many hours, many trips, inside pharma consulting to them with a behind the curtain perspective. I also would not be where I am today without the support I received from other women early on in my career in a male-dominated industry.

My experience has allowed me the opportunity to model, coach, give back, mentor, and sponsor women throughout my career. One of the things that I take pride in is helping a lot of my female clients early in their career, or mid-career to help them become better so they can continue to change and thrive. I have said to many other women that we have worked very hard to create awareness of unconscious bias in many of the male colleagues we have worked with. It has always been critical to build more collaborative, inclusive environments. That work is still very much underway but I’m proud to have been a part of that journey.

[TIANNA] – I like that you said that work is still very much underway because even as you were explaining that and sharing that story it made me think about what you must have seen over the years and how different it must have been. We don’t have to get into the details, however, how different are things from when you first entered doing that work with Pfizer to the number of women that you have the opportunity to really mentor and advocate for today? I’m curious, where do you think there is still that opportunity for growth?

[WENDY] – Within the pharmaceutical industry and from a female perspective, it’s really about raising awareness around unconscious bias. Some people have a perspective of what it’s like to be a woman or a woman business leader. And the truth of the matter is there are many similarities across cultures, across sexes, and sometimes we come to the point that thinking about in-groups and out-groups.  There is work to be done in inclusion in every way, shape and form quite frankly.

[TIANNA] – I’m curious because I actually think you are in an amazing position to shed some light on this. As an external consultant peeking into so many different organizations across our industry. Do you find that although the number of women in the room may be much larger than it was many years ago, but are they actually hitting those different levels at this point? What’s your take on that?

[WENDY] – My take is we have a lot of work to do. The reality of the situation is there are far more women in director, senior director levels, even, vice presidents. But when you get to the very top of the house, they are far less. And I would say that we have work to do.  We just can’t let these biases continue to fester. It doesn’t do anybody any good and it doesn’t advance the equality that’s really needed at the psychological, intellectual, and emotional levels.

[TIANNA] – I love that you said that. It reminded me of when were just having a conversation and you mentioned something around how talent exists, talent is out there, specifically amongst women. However, the number of people willing to really go to bat and advocate on behalf of those women may be a part of that issue. I just had to reiterate that from our conversation earlier because I loved it.

[WENDY] – Absolutely true. You were just asking me before what women leaders were impactful in my career. I will tell you early in my career there were a lot of men around who mentored me. Sponsorship is different, right? The difference between mentorship and sponsorship is that sponsorship is advocating. However, I was really privileged in two situations. When I was in graduate school, Lynn Cannon was an HR leader at Becton Dickinson. I was doing an internship and she was fantastic. She was the epitome of a smart, intelligent, successful, strong woman. It was the first time I had really come across a woman quite like her. And then in my early days of consulting in Pfizer, I had the privilege to meet Charlene Mirette Shapiro. She was in HR and we connected on many levels. What she did for me was to advocate through introductions. It is very different than being internal, but she saw me and my firm as very competent and providing value, and she connected me all over the building at Pfizer.  This led to building out my career. To this day, I am grateful for those early experiences.

[TIANNA] – So do you think that connections are one of those lessons that you feel you didn’t know how important that was until she did that for you? What was your experience with that? Did you know going into starting the firm that you were going to have to really build out this network and that was going to be the difference between make it or break it?

[WENDY] – No, I didn’t know that early. Because I grew up believing that if you did really hard work and you did great work, that would be sufficient. What I did, with excellence, I thought would win the day. But let’s think about the environment. Traditionally, this was a male dominated industry 30 years ago, the old boys’ network is a term that was used. I would say that I learned early on that you need to be pretty strategic early in your career to build relationships. It is not just being excellent that gets you a seat at the table. It’s about making sure that you own your power and your strength. You don’t want people knocking you off because there might be some unconscious bias going on.  However, the more that you can build relationships, those relationships then garner others. I have relationships that have stood the test of 30 years and I feel very privileged. So, when I think about women today, I think it’s important to say yes, you need to be excellent, you need to be smart, you need to be a hard worker. But you should think early in your career about the power of networking, the power of finding mentors, and the power of really being advocated for and sponsored. Don’t leave it to chance. Be intentional!

[TIANNA] – As an external consultant in this industry for 30 years now, do you think that this advice still applies to the women who are looking to rise in their leadership internally within these same organizations?

[WENDY] – I think the advice is definitely solid. I think that it is easier because there’s a recognition around the issues that we’ve been talking about. If I talked about unconscious bias and how decisions were made, I think I would have been booted out the door. Let’s be honest, I think that even if you are a woman in a career, mid-career, it’s still so critical that you surround yourself with very smart people, people that can mentor you, but can also advocate for you.  It is really important that you find balance. It’s about the people, male and female that you need in your network.

[TIANNA] – Any final thoughts? Anything that you want to give the woman listening to this who feel a little bit more inspired and empowered to really, own who she is, but to ask for help, ask to get coffee, ask to connect, ask for an introduction?

[WENDY] – Yes, I think I would say it, own who you are and be confident in your competence. Make sure you also listen to learn from others because there is so much learning to be had. And build that network early and continue to shore it up. Think about that as one of the most valuable gems that you have because the power is with others and that’s how you really change and evolve and grow in organizations.

Tianna Tye

Tianna Tye provides project management support and content development for a number of large-scale projects for WLH Consulting, Inc. She often collaborates with WLH Learning Solutions to co-author tools on change management, change agility, and talent retention.

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