Sarah S. Harrison
From Chemist to VP: Sarah S. Harrison,
2002 HBA Woman of the Year
Robin Madell, Consultant
With each year that passes,the bar becomes higher for the women we recognize for the HBA's top honor. It's a great thing that women now crowd the industry's corridors at the senior level, from directors through vice presidents, inching ever closer to those elusive top spots. Yet with so many high-flyers to choose from, the HBA's "Woman of the Year" (WOTY) must be a superwoman among an ever-growing pool of leaders. Sarah S. Harrison, 2002 HBA Woman of the Year, fits the bill to a tee. The flood of nominations from her colleagues, her higher-ups, her customers, and her community members paint a picture of someone who goes above and beyond in all arenas - a model for our industry and our time.
As VP of Customer Strategy Integration at AstraZeneca (US business headquarters in Wilmington, DE) - the company she has been with for 25 years - you might think that Harrison had started her career on the track to upper management. Not so. Her early aspiration was to become a physician, and she got a degree in chemistry as a back-up plan in case she didn't have time to finish medical school. It was a good plan. After a short run at Gulf Oil as a chemist, Harrison opted to take a similar post at Zeneca (then ICI), in agricultural chemicals, which gave her a chance to be involved on a start-up team that was beginning to build a new plant in the US. The local plant manager and the Director of Operations there became her first mentors, encouraging her to move into the business side and accept a job in the home office. Despite her initial trepidation - she now had a husband and three children to factor into her decision-making - she took his advice. She signed on as National Production Coordinator and began her corporate climb, first on the manufacturing end of the business.
A pull towards pharma
In the meantime, Harrison leveraged her newly acquired MBA (which she obtained by taking night classes) and began to think about how she might parlay her business acumen to the healthcare side of the business - the source of her true passion. She had been offered a promotion in Zeneca's agriculture business, but her heart wasn't in it, and to her surprise, she learned she was being sought out by management to be considered for the pharmaceutical division. Despite her lack of experience in the area, the fact that she had been a star performer in each of her moves did not go unnoticed. In 1989, she joined the pharmaceutical side of Zeneca as Manager of Bids and Contracts. Shortly afterwards, at the advent of managed care, she was offered the chance to take over healthcare contract management for hospitals and managed care. These she did without the standard district manager background. "When people asked where I had been in the field, I would say, `In soybeans!'" she laughs. In less than 10 years, Harrison had climbed all the way to Vice President of Managed Healthcare and National Accounts, having risen through traditional product management and market strategy/contract operations.
Harrison was offered and accepted the position of Vice President for the Pain, Anesthesia and Infection Therapeutic Area for the newly merged AstraZeneca. In this capacity, she had profit and loss accountability for clinical development, commercialization and life cycle management of the products. Harrison has been in her current role, in which she is charged with delivering an integrated customer strategy across the US business with specific focus on the public sector, both at the federal and state levels, since last August. The changing US healthcare environment driven by government reform has significant implications for the pharmaceutical industry. She says it comes at the most challenging time yet for the industry. "I've never seen it move this fast with so much complexity and uncertainty. We have to understand what role we play on every level," she says. Her daily mission involves mobilizing and leading a cross-functional team that includes the heads of many of AZ's businesses to ensure optimum commercialization of existing and new products in this uncertain healthcare environment.
A management style that defines success
Her management style is perceived by many to be very demanding and direct, and Harrison admits this is true - but adds that she is also much more. "I like to help my team set and achieve aggressive goals, think out of the box, get out of their comfort zones, beat the competition, and strive for performance `par excellence.' I am accessible to help my team achieve results and deliver beyond their own expectations. I am a coach and co-worker at the same time, willing to roll up my sleeves whenever needed," she says. Another hallmark of her style is a genuine sensitivity and concern for her staff's wellbeing. When a director in the research group lost her husband, Harrison showed up at her home with a huge home-cooked meal, which she and two AZ team members then served to the houseful of mourners. And countless employees, men and women alike, credit Harrison with providing opportunities for one-on-one mentorship. Says one of her team members: "She has coached me to become the best leader that I can be, and for that I am grateful. Sarah leads not only with words, but by example." She firmly believes in routinely recognizing and celebrating successes (small and big).
Leading by example extends beyond the walls of AstraZeneca into the larger community. Among her many civic commitments, Harrison plays an active role in the National Coalition of 100 Black Women, Girls. Inc., and the YWCA. She explains that the passion she has for community service comes from a sense of responsibility; an obligation to serve and give back in order to make a difference, which was instilled by her mother early on. "My motto is, `If I can help someone along life's way, then my life will be worth the living.'" Another credo she lives by is, "To those who are given much, much is expected." Therefore, she is selective in what she chooses to work for and support - they must be causes aligned with her passion to help empower others who are in need. When asked how she juggles all of this, as well as being there for her husband and four children (including her adopted niece), she calmly replies, "Supporting these organizations and others requires more than balance; it requires a certain amount of personal sacrifice."
Industry changes demand new skills
In honor of the HBA's 25th Anniversary theme, "Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow," we asked Harrison what skills and qualities she believes were most important for women in the industry when she entered the workplace, versus what is important today and for the future. She suggests that while communication skills, management style, interpersonal skills, ability to learn, analytical and thinking skills, and organizational skills were yesterday's requirements, and are still necessary, today's success skills stretch even farther. These include the ability to lead, be an effective team player in matrix operating models, adaptability to change, a willingness to help others (and therefore your company) succeed, strategic thinking and ROI driven execution, strong presentation and influencing skills, setting and meeting ambitious - and measurable - goals, and a strong customer focus.
In five years, Harrison predicts these attributes will become crucial: the ability to lead and participate in virtual teams; a global mindset; continuous collaboration and partnering; efficiency in leading multicultural/diverse groups; being able to motivate and leverage the interests and capabilities of Generations X and Y, and the ability to think through and integrate increasingly complex developments in science, R&D, and the environment.
Among her many victories in life so far, Harrison counts receiving the HBA's Woman of the Year Award among her finest moments: "This award is very significant to me and probably the most prestigious recognition I've received because it acknowledges both my professional and personal accomplishments," she says. "It's also gratifying and humbling to know that, in large part, this comes from my peers and colleagues in the industry." Regarding community service, she says "I do these things as part of my interest in `giving back' and because it's who I am. It's what makes me tick!"
Robin Madell has spent over a decade as a writer and consultant on business and public interest issues. She has interviewed over 150 thought leaders around the globe. Robin spent the past year on Wall Street as Director of Communications for Catalyst, Inc., a nonprofit research organization that works to advance women in business. She divides her time between New York and San Francisco and is currently a communications consultant for groups including Shahnaz Taplin and Associates, Women's Initiative for Self Employment, and Women in Community Service.