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Leading ladies: The rise of the female pharmacy executive has begun

Drug Store News spotlights top women in pharmacy and retail chains, and their ascent in their respective fields.

Vice president and chief pharmacy officer. Chief operating officer. Senior vice president of pharmacy. Senior vice president of operations. President of health.

These top brass positions, and many similar prestigious titles, currently belong to women who are not only breaking the glass ceiling, but who are shattering it.  

Yet, what does it take for women to secure a senior-level job in pharmacy and retail health operations?  Women executives who have climbed the corporate ladder in pharmacy and retail chains concur that the corporate culture, particular personality traits, the availability of mentoring and leadership training, as well as expertise in myriad areas contribute to womens’ ascent in the industry.  

[Read more: 2021 Top Women panelists discuss bringing gender equity to the industry]

Many female pharmacy executives agree that a supportive corporate culture is an essential ingredient for success.  

Micaila Ruiz, Amber Specialty Pharmacy
Micaila Ruiz, chief operating officer and chief pharmacy officer, Amber Specialty Pharmacy

Micaila Ruiz is the chief operating officer and chief pharmacy officer at Amber Specialty Pharmacy, a subsidiary of Hy-Vee. She has been with the company for 10 years, but she decided to go back to school for a master’s degree in public health last year. Ruiz credits the encouragement she received from company leaders, including a senior executive who advised her that “anyone who wants to enrich their education also enriches the company.”    

Angie Nelson, Hy-Vee’s senior vice president of pharmacy, also has experienced a supportive culture. 

“There’s a huge interest from women wanting to do more,” Nelson said. “Our executive team recognizes and appreciates the value that women bring to our company in leadership positions.”

No ‘I’ in Team
Aside from having a supportive culture, female executives contend that success depends on teamwork.

Colleen Lindholz, president of Kroger Health, said that collaboration and partnerships are key to success in leadership roles. 

“At Kroger Health, we’re on a journey to change the way health care is delivered in this country, which cannot be done alone,” Lindholz said. “We understand that we uniquely sit at one of the most critical intersections of health and wellness — pharmacy and clinical services combined with fresh food. Our partnerships within the company and beyond our four walls are crucial to our success and living our vision of helping people live healthier lives.”

Nancy Lyons, vice president and chief pharmacy officer of Health Mart, concurred. Lyons, who has been with Health Mart for five years, said that from the onset of her career, which has included stints at Albertsons and SuperValu, people who were promoted to higher positions were encouraged to collaborate. 

“You have to be agile and pivot very quickly and react because you often don’t get a lot of lead time.” — Micaila Ruiz, chief operating officer and chief pharmacy officer, Amber Specialty Pharmacy
Angie Nelson, senior vice president of pharmacy, Hy-Vee
Angie Nelson, senior vice president of pharmacy, Hy-Vee

“Rather than climbing the corporate ladder, the culture stressed encouraging teams to work together and [to] recognize the contributions of all,” Lyons said. “With that you were propelled by all the good that was around you. At Health Mart, leaders also are genuinely excited and invested in developing your skills and abilities. The leaders are focused on finding your hidden talents and exploiting them in a good way so that they can move the company’s business goals forward while supporting an individual’s growth and development.” 

Lisa Badgley, Walgreens’ senior vice president of operations, has been with the retailer for 30 years and gives credit to “a lot of great people who were willing to share their expertise and time in teaching and training. When you get to a level like this and have a scope that is this broad, it’s important to have a high-performing team that works with you.”

Breaking the Glass Ceiling
The desire to propel their female colleagues to top positions is yet another hallmark of a successful woman leader.

Jacquetta “Shea” Manigo, vice president of HealthHUB growth and strategy at CVS Health, said that leaders have to be passionate about developing talent and empowering their people. “Give them the tools and resources they need and then get out of their way,” she said. “There’s nothing more empowering than transferring authority.”

[Read more: How will women shape the future of pharmacy?]

Lindholz credits part of her success to Women’s Edge, a Kroger resource group that brings women together from across the company to provide an environment that enables women to grow from a personal and professional standpoint. She led that group from 2014 to 2015. “This group of talented women and men were an inspiration and a catalyst for me as I took on new roles and responsibilities within the company,” Lindholz said.   

Additionally, in 2020, Kroger launched Framework for Action for diversity, equity and inclusion. “It includes 10 actions our company is taking to transform our culture and our communities,” she said. One of the 10 actions is to establish a new mentorship and advocacy program for the future development of diverse talent.

Furthermore, Kroger participates in “Break the ceiling, touch the sky,” which is a cross-industry learning and collaboration effort between Kroger and leading companies, including Coca-Cola and P&G. “It’s a fast-growing platform for women in leadership roles and male champions of diversity,” Lindholz said.

The group’s mission is to grow the number of women CEOs from 14 to 70 by 2029. “The platform enables organizations like Kroger to learn and share best practices for leadership, success in recruiting and retaining top talent, and to highlight gender diversity,” Lindholz said.

Jennifer Zilka, president of Good Neighbor Pharmacy, said the company is committed to providing female pharmacists with the critical support and resources needed to help them continue to grow and to seize the opportunities that are available. “Within AmerisourceBergen, we’re keenly focused on bringing more women into leadership roles,” Zilka said. 

“A genuine desire to develop others is important because nobody will be successful if they climb over each other to get there.” — Nancy Lyons, vice president and chief pharmacy officer, Health Mart
Colleen Lindholz, Kroger Health
Colleen Lindholz, president, Kroger Health

Nelson shared that Hy-Vee is always looking for ways to advance individuals at the pharmacy and store level. To that end, when a pharmacy manager or pharmacist asks for advice on how they can advance their career, Nelson is responsive and encourages her colleagues to do the same. “This allows them the opportunity to learn from what we’ve learned throughout the years,” Nelson said. 

Lyons took Nelson’s thoughts one step further. “A genuine desire to develop others is important because nobody will be successful if they climb over each other to get there,” Lyons said. “It’s only when that wealth of success is shared that one is truly a leader.” 

Top Traits
What are the key personality traits that contribute to leadership success? 

“A top trait in my opinion is authenticity,” Lindholz said. “When you’re leading people, they need to know you’re real and the things you’re trying to push and get done are truly what you believe in and are coming from the heart,” she said, noting that resiliency and aspiration are equally important. 

[Read more: Pharmacist shortages are affecting the pharmacy industry]

Badgley agreed, pointing out that authenticity is a key trait in Walgreens’ leaders. She recalled the advice of a senior vice president when she was promoted to vice president in 2005: “Don’t forget where you came from.” 

Zilka said she believes that the best way to inspire others is to be passionate about the work you do, lead by example and believe in the path forward. “As I’ve grown in my career, I’ve learned that having confidence in who you are and being yourself is the best strategy,” Zilka said. “You will earn people’s respect and trust as a leader if you’re genuine and have a true passion for the work you’re doing.”

Lyons, who started her career at Health Mart as a senior manager in a pharmacy operation role, still remembers the excitement she felt during the interview process for her current role as she learned of the vision the manager had for the position and how she could make a meaningful impact to achieve it. 

“Anybody who is going to excel to a higher level needs to be as passionate about the direction the people and places that the company is impacting to be able to make a sustainable difference,” Lyons said. 

Meaningful Mentorship
Female pharmacy industry leaders also contend that finding a mentor, whether through a formal or informal mentorship at any stage of one’s career, is helpful in navigating the way to the top.  

Lyons, who credited at least three key individuals who she still turns to today for “a quick gut check about something that is going on in my professional career,” also works with a mentee in a program dubbed “Own It,” which identifies women who want to network or develop certain skills.

CVS Health is not standing on the sidelines when it comes to mentorships. The company has a formal mentoring program, which is an enterprise-wide effort to connect and build networks for professional development and career mobility. 

“I’ve seen mentorships and sponsorships as an opportunity for us to be advocates and brokers for career progression,” Manigo said. “This year I connected with an enterprise mentee, and that person shared something they hadn’t shared with anyone. Another mentee was going through something personally, impacting them at work. Having the opportunity to connect with the individual and understand their thinking and build trust is a very rewarding part of my job.”

“Give them the tools and resources they need and then get out of their way. There’s nothing more empowering than transferring authority.” — Jacquetta “Shea” Manigo, vice president of HealthHUB growth and strategy, CVS Health
Nancy Lyons, Health Mart
Nancy Lyons, vice president and chief pharmacy officer, Health Mart

Manigo also chairs CVS Health’s diversity management leadership council, a council of vice presidents and other high-level executives. “We have all committed to being enterprise mentors,” she said. “While I’m extremely proud of that achievement, to me that is still not enough. Our next journey is to be sponsors.”

At Hy-Vee, informal mentorships abound. “It’s about developing relationships with others,” Nelson said. “It’s very rewarding to be able to mentor others and that is part of our overall culture. You see that across all departments at all levels.”

To foster high-performing talent, Walgreens’ business resource group, Women of WBA, offers coaching, mentorship programs and other initiatives that support women leaders. “Women from all of the different countries where we operate share information to increase leadership opportunities for women and women of color,” Badgley said. “They focus on professional development, building your personal brand and networking.”

In 2019, the group launched its Executive Mentor program, which partners the vice president-level females and executives with director- and senior director-level women in the organization. The program, which has hundreds of female employees, was so successful that Walgreens expanded it to all levels of the organization in 2020.

Good Neighbor Pharmacy hosts a “Women in Pharmacy” panel at ThoughtSpot, its annual conference and trade show. “We bring in leading women in the industry to offer guidance, inspiration and networking opportunities for our female pharmacy customers,” Zilka said. “Our goal is to help women in pharmacy amass a support system that they can carry back into their daily lives.” 

Mix It Up
Beyond mentoring, women executives agree that it is very beneficial to have had varied roles to ensure success in the C-suite. 

Lindholz, who currently leads 2,260 pharmacies, 224 clinics, nine specialty pharmacies and a health-and-wellness strategy dubbed Food as Medicine, also has had various roles at Kroger. These include working as a pharmacist in one of the highest-volume Kroger pharmacies, where she became familiar with the operational side of the business, working in HR recruiting pharmacists and leading the Cincinnati division of 102 pharmacies.

Lindholz also said her experience as president and CEO of the Little Clinic and the decision to sidestep into a management training program in 2009 were contributing factors to her success. 

[Read more: 2021 Top Women event roundup]

“I took a step back and learned the rest of the store,” she said. “I was able to understand the operations of the total store. I learned about our customers and the inner workings of all of the grocery, produce, meat and OTC departments. This experience gave me a solid foundation, which evolved into the health-and-wellness strategy that I am leading today.”

Lisa Badgley, senior vice president of operations, Walgreens
Lisa Badgley, senior vice president of operations, Walgreens

Badgley said that the majority of the roles she has had at Walgreens lasted three years, and she also moved around geographically in “field” roles. “Walgreens continues to move you into different roles so you grow and get unique experiences,” she said.  

Badgley’s varied roles also included special assignments where she represented operations in some of Walgreens’ restructuring programs and when the company announced its intention to buy Rite Aid.

“I had the opportunity to work on mergers and acquisitions when I supported the operational aspects of that integration,” Badgley said. “In my current role, I have responsibility for all of retail and non-retail operations, which includes all of our stores, centralized services facilities and operations administration, which is our support center, and operations support team. Beginning in March, I also will have responsibility for our property team and asset protection team.”

Nelson also assumed different roles. She began her career with Hy-Vee in 2002 as a pharmacist, and shortly thereafter she was promoted to pharmacy manager and then store director, where she learned about the business side of pharmacy. “I did that for eight years, and then I came back to the office and started as a pharmacy supervisor,” she said. “Since then, I’ve taken on various roles within Hy-Vee that have led to my current role.” Nelson oversees the operations of over 270 retail pharmacy locations.

In addition to her stints at pharmacy chains, Lyons worked at other companies and did some digital work. “With each role, I came back with new experiences,” she said, pointing out that she felt well prepared when McKesson and Health Mart decided to more fully expand patient care programs for community pharmacies and needed a leader to move it forward. 

Manigo’s career experiences tell a similar story. She started her career in 2007 with Target as a pharmacist and was quickly promoted to pharmacy supervisor, where she ran the district in parts of South Carolina, Georgia and North Carolina. She relocated to Texas in 2015 to run a region of approximately 200 stores. Manigo came to CVS in 2015 through its acquisition of Target Pharmacies. 

“As I’ve grown in my career, I’ve learned that having confidence in who you are and being yourself is the best strategy.” — Jennifer Zilka, president, Good Neighbor Pharmacy
Shea Manigo, HealthHUB
Jacquetta “Shea” Manigo, vice president of HealthHUB growth and strategy, CVS Health

“Since then, I have had several roles including a pharmacy region director, where I was focused on leading our pharmacies, our chains and our businesses within our Target stores, and then I had the opportunity to step into a region director role that was transformative for my career,” Manigo said. “It was the first time I led a business that I didn’t previously work in. I had the opportunity to learn merchandising, vendor relationships, real estate and how to lead our front store businesses.” 

Manigo also served as a division vice president in Dallas, where she Ied more than 1,400 CVS stores across 13 states in the mid-South, including pharmacies in Target and Schnucks grocery stores. 

Today, in her role as vice president of HealthHUB’s strategy, her responsibilities include project management and format evolution, as well as adoption and execution of HealthHUB initiatives.

The Art of Pivoting
Besides gaining expertise from serving in different roles, aspiring leaders also need to be able to lead their teams in a healthcare environment that is undergoing changes at an accelerated pace. 

Manigo pointed out that consumers want more flexibility in how they engage with their providers. “Their shift has focused, ours has to shift too, with a focus on improving access and adding convenience,” she said. “Health care is personal. It requires us to not just have strong business acumen, agility and drive, but also to be connected, authentic and to be able to hear what our consumers are telling us.”

Badgley shared the same outlook. “It’s about the ability to adapt to change, to move quickly, and you have to innovate, especially when you look at how pharmacies are evolving to become a central part of community health care,” she said.   

[Read more: Taking stock: Industry insiders share optimism on the future of retail pharmacy]

“You have to be agile and pivot very quickly and react because you often don’t get a lot of lead time,” Ruiz noted. “We have to make sure that we are always providing top-level care of all of our patients. For me that covers everything from our call center, our clinical teams, the fulfillment sites and shipping. I oversee all of these aspects and I have to be very in tune with what’s going on across all of our 21 locations.”

The Support Squad

In addition to training and leadership courses, female leaders concur that it is more crucial than ever for aspiring leaders to lean on experts.

Zilka said that having a strong support system personally and professionally has become even more critical over the last few years. “My greatest advice is to find your support squad and lean on them in times of need,” she said. 

Ruiz chimed in, “We can’t be experts in everything, but you surround yourself with a great team that complements you and recognizes that everyone has a role to play,” she said.

“When granted the privilege of leading people, it’s important to understand the value of emotional intelligence.” — Colleen Lindholz, president, Kroger Health
Jennifer Zilka, Good Neighbor Pharmacy
Jennifer Zilka, president, Good Neighbor Pharmacy

What advice do women leaders have for women who want to follow in their footsteps? 

Lyons said she believes individuals will need to develop solid business skills and an understanding of public health needs in order to be successful. 

Badgley recommended female leaders must be extremely proactive in communication to help employees understand that when changes occur, they are part of the process. “Planning and preparation for upcoming events also is extremely important,” she said. “With all of the video communication today, you also need to be present and in tune with the conversations we’re having.” 

Ruiz said that pharmacy leaders have to think about how things are evolving for patients today, including how HSA plans and high-deductible insurance plans impact patients, as well as the latest trends in drug development and changes in treatment protocols.  

Manigo said that future leaders should remain open to opportunities. “Take a chance on yourself,” she said, noting that’s what she did when she relocated to Texas. “It may not be moving across the country. It could be transitioning to a new role within your enterprise to pursue professional growth.” 

[Read more: Looking forward: Executives size up the state of retail pharmacy in 2022]

She also encourages new leaders who are starting out to be brave and courageous. “Don’t be afraid to make the call,” she said. “Our teams are looking for leaders who will step up and lead.” 

Future female leaders also should learn how to set boundaries and find balance. “There were times I was killing it at work and not at home, and vice versa,” Manigo said. “Set boundaries and give yourself grace as you’re navigating the multidimensional parts of your leadership and of your personal life.”

Finally, future leaders may want to heed this advice from Lindholz: “When granted the privilege of leading people, it’s important to understand the value of emotional intelligence. It is the single-biggest predictor of performance in the workplace and a strong driver of leadership and personal excellence.”  

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