By Phyllis Post, Vice President and CIO, Global Human Health IT, Merck & Co.
When I talk to young women about their careers, the number-one piece of advice I have for them is this: Know what you want, and make those desires known.
It’s unlikely that you’ll follow a straight path in reaching your goals; twists and turns are to be expected—and in many cases even welcome. But being clear about your aspirations—with yourself and with people who can help make them a reality—will enable you to realize them. No one is going to read your mind, and if you don’t speak up for yourself, you may be passed over when opportunities come along.
As I moved through the business ranks, my goal was to take on roles that allowed me to work directly with customers while also having an impact on strategy. Letting others know of this objective helped me to achieve it.
Over the years, though, another goal became clear to me: I also wanted to use my skills and experience to improve people’s lives. And this turned out to be an extension of, rather than a detour from, my chosen career path.
When the Business Outcome Has a Face
I started my career in a relatively analog business – the printing industry before the introduction of digital typesetting. I was fortunate to be there during a period of dramatic change and consolidation, and that experience has served me well in my career as an IT leader. When I started in the industry, as an operations manager in the 1980s, I was working with cold type. By the time I left the business in the late 1990s, I was managing a different business – digital typesetting & publishing services. It was business disruption up-close and personal, and having a front row seat for that kind of transformation proved invaluable in my career.
After 13 years in the printing industry, I was ready to move to a sector with better long-term growth and professional development prospects. But it couldn’t be just any industry. I wanted to work in a business where I could make a real difference in people’s lives. That desire led me to Merck and its IT organization—a place where, I discovered, my capabilities could have the greatest impact.
I was hired as an infrastructure planner, based on my project management experience in the typesetting business working with clients and overseeing production and customer service. Although my position at Merck as part of the information technology function was new territory for me, it was a natural transition from a capabilities standpoint.
But I admit that I was also a little concerned about moving into IT. In my prior experience, IT had been perceived as only a back-office or support role. The people weren’t generally perceived as the types who would be directly business-facing and in relationship management roles, which is where I think my strengths are. Although I’d enjoyed dabbling in technology and getting involved in web and digital tools as they were introduced in the publishing industry, I’d really focused more on the business side, and I didn’t want to get away from that. I wanted to continue to work directly with customers and have an impact on strategy. As it turned out, though, that was exactly what I’ve been able to do in IT at Merck for the last eighteen years.
Learning to Love IT
Despite my concerns—not to mention some misgivings about working in a giant corporation, where I feared initiatives might get tangled up in bureaucratic red tape—I was excited by the chance to be part of a new mission. In the typesetting industry, I helped produce college and other educational textbooks, financial reports, and medical journals. But at a pharmaceutical company, my work could actually improve patients’ lives.
Infrastructure planning was a good entry point. I was working in a program management capacity that straddled the business and IT environments. In the beginning, I supported Merck’s research labs, then took a corporate role enabling new document management capabilities.
I later moved back to R&D and much closer to nuts-and-bolts technology. We developed web applications, such as Merck’s first intranet portal. I was able to leverage the skills I had acquired in the printing industry, moving a legacy business into the digital age. After that, I took on an enterprise architecture role, establishing standardized processes, frameworks, and strategies. Then I returned to Corporate, running business management operations and enabling a new framework to support IT portfolio and program management. This opportunity allowed me to begin to integrate a “business orientation” to running IT.
After Merck’s merger with Schering-Plough, I was again partnered with R&D, but with an increasing focus on enterprise orientation in support of the business – an initiative that would later become part of an integrated enterprise IT group. Here, we took many of the elements that had previously been successful in enabling the company—like collaboration, portfolio, and program management capabilities—and integrated them in a way that would be leverageable beyond divisional borders. The increasing success of enabling this “enterprise IT,” as part of a larger IT transformation, was a validation of the strategies I had worked on up to that time.
As our IT transformation program continued to evolve and we began to execute on establishment of a three-hub model, I continued to play an active role in driving our transformation. I was able to take the small IT center that we had previously established in Singapore and develop the strategy, operating model, and execution plan to turn it into a global, IT innovation center.
Five months later, I was asked to become the CIO for Global Human Health, the division responsible for global commercial sales and marketing. Because I had been clear to myself and my managers about where I wanted my career to go during my 18 years at Merck, I had the opportunity to be considered for this divisional CIO role. And because I had been open to opportunities to move and learn, I had amassed a broad array of experiences that would prepare me for this role. These experiences included not only building traditional IT professional skills, but also gaining a strong and unwavering focus on business outcomes and customer engagement.
My group oversees the technology to support a global business organization that operates in 120 countries – 70 of which are places where we have an internal IT footprint. When I took the role, IT was still largely viewed as a service provider, rather than a partner. My goal was to transform that relationship and bring the value to the business that I knew IT could deliver. This would require not only building the right relationship with our business colleagues but enabling a true business orientation across our global IT team.
The organization was also still working to get a seat at the strategy table in many of the markets and regions. This meant that IT did not have full visibility into what was going on with the business in some areas and where we could best add value. It also meant that IT was limited in its ability to optimize capabilities and services across the globe in a way that would enable true differentiation. To earn that seat at the table, we focused on three tasks that would further business goals: 1) ensuring that the “basics” were working, and that we were working with our users to improve the experience; 2) proactively partnering with our business users to define, design, and deliver new and innovative solutions that would enable improved business differentiation; and 3) changing the discussion from a technology-oriented dialog to one that focused on outcomes, customer experience, and data-driven insights that led to the “right” solutions.
This focus enabled us to recognize the importance of quickly enabling integrated and digitized customer engagement capabilities that would facilitate an engaging, frictionless experience for customers moving from offline to online. The business environment is incredibly competitive—in terms of access, impact, and customer value. It’s no longer enough to just have products that have proven clinical and scientific value; we have to meet and exceed customer expectations. Truly impactful and integrated customer engagement is critical, and it offers a big opportunity for differentiation in the market. As such, our goal has been to accelerate capabilities in this area so that we can get the right data and capabilities to the right people at the right time.
My business-results oriented IT background has helped me to proactively engage with our business partners and to understand both the business users’—and the customers’—needs. As a result, my team and I have been able to build a good relationship and partnership with the business and implement enhanced capabilities to support business goals and strategy.
My original career goal of working in strategic, customer-facing roles had taken me to a function that I hadn’t anticipated. But by being clear about my aspirations, I have been able to both realize my goals and extend them to encompass a business mission of bettering people’s lives. And that has made my career not only professionally satisfying but also emotionally gratifying.
The Push and Pull of Leadership
Over the years I’ve learned how to execute large, complex change programs. I’ve learned how to identify, design and build a strategy, get people excited about the transformation, and then execute it – whether it be moving a typesetting business from cold type to digital or introducing innovative new systems to support our global sales professionals in the field.
Ultimately, leadership is a choice. You have to step into the role and understand that you’re not just pulling things through, but enabling and supporting the larger organization to achieve its goals. You can’t be a dictator. Yet you can’t just sit back and expect change to happen on its own. You have to serve as coach, as mentor, and sometimes even as parent to the members of your team in order to get the best out of them.
Preparing for leadership at this level was something that had to be developed and nurtured with intent. Earlier in my career, I was much more impatient and probably didn’t see the criticality of being an active coach or mentor. But over time I have evolved and matured to see how all of these aspects are crucial to not only my success but more importantly to that of the team and organization.
I’ve also learned that authenticity is critical. If you can operate honestly and transparently, you’ll get the most out of your organization and achieve your mutual goals and objectives. In parallel, authenticity enables you to build the kind of trust and credibility with your business partners that is required to push into new areas and enable new strategies.
When starting out in your career, decide what your long-term goals are and let people know about them—especially people in a position to help you reach those goals.
By staying the course and taking on jobs that further your career intentions, you not only collect a range of experiences but also a range of business relationships that will help you continue to grow.
Leadership is a choice, aimed at supporting the larger organization to achieve its goals. But you can’t do it alone; you have to coach and mentor your people so that they are able to carry out that mission.