During the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, pharmacists have been forced to face challenges to their practice that have required not only adaptation and flexibility, but also moments of empathy and vulnerability. These types of soft skills have historically been more easily overlooked in relation to their value in mentorship and leadership roles in the field. However, these skills have become a necessary component of supporting staff and mentees as the world attempts to manage the dynamics and requirements of work during the COVID-19 pandemic.

During a session on mentorship, leading, and well-being at the DHX Virtual conference in October, Melissa Murer Corrigan, FAPhA, FASHP, founding executive director and CEO of the Pharmacy Technician Certification Board (PTCB), and Nancy A. Alvarez, PharmD, BCPS, FAPhA, the associate dean for academic and professional affairs at the University of Arizona College of Pharmacy–Phoenix Campus, discussed how approaches to mentorship and leadership have been affected by the chaos and change that has become endemic during this time.

“I’ve been thinking a lot about the things that we’ve had to give up. At first, it was ‘We’ll miss a meeting here,’ and then it was ‘Oh, I won’t see you for a year,’ and then it just cascaded,” Alvarez said. “I think what it’s required is additional effort to reach out to people, to be engaged with people. Even if it’s sending a note and reaching out and asking, ‘Hi, how are you.”

Alvarez explained that early on, the pandemic seemed temporary. Over time, it became clear that the pandemic would last far longer than first expected, requiring a new approach to stay connected.

“I think that finding ways to connect to people has been important. One of the things I’ve resorted to is taking time to write a note, with a piece of paper and a pen, putting a stamp on it and putting it in the mail,” Alvarez said. “But really taking the time to spend a little extra minute gave me the chance to pause and reach out to people that I might not have thought about.”

Alvarez explained that during the COVID-19 pandemic, she continued to teach a coaching certification program. When she would reach out to her students to discuss how they were doing with the changes that were affecting not only the course but also their day-to-day lives, she found that they were far more willing to have a deeper connection than may have been possible before the pandemic.

“What makes it rewarding is that we haven’t spent time on the small talk, the superficial things. But we’ve actually been able to connect in a more meaningful way. We talk about what’s important to them, what their values are, how they’re spending their time, and what they are noticing about themselves for the purposes of understanding what’s going on at a deeper level,” Alvarez said.

Alvarez explained that these meaningful moments of connection bring value to the purpose of the course, but still take effort to facilitate on her part.

“It’s required intention to set up appointments to actually make the time for people, and it certainly has been well worth it,” Alvarez said.

Corrigan explained that reaching out to staff and mentees and connecting this year has been critical to also allow them to express all that they are managing. In those moments of creating space for vulnerability, staff and mentees have been able to make clear whether they may also need some extra support in light of the challenges they are facing during the pandemic.

“One thing that I’ve been struck by is the vulnerability that I think people are exhibiting, because there are so many things, so many balls in the air that people are juggling,” Corrigan said.

Corrigan explained that thinking about the vulnerability of others has helped her work to express that in her leadership style.

“I’ve tried to be more vulnerable with people that I’ve mentored and also even when talking with my mentors,” Corrigan said.

Such moments of reaching out to allow for personal connection with staff have often historically been a role that women have helped to facilitate in office environments, as discussed in the panel webcast that celebrated Women Pharmacist Day, hosted by Pharmacy Times® in partnership with the Pharmacist Moms Group, on October 12.

“Why is it that women are predominantly the ones who plan the birthday parties, who plan the baby showers, who are planning all the events at work, but that's not part of their performance evaluation? They're helping to change and bring everyone together at the workplace, but nobody's really giving credit per se for that,” said Suzanne Soliman, PharmD, BCMAS, founder of the Pharmacist Moms Group during the discussion.

Such company culture gaps in the acknowledgment of the importance of these soft skills have historically demonstrated to staff that these skills that support moments of personal connection are less valued in leadership roles.

“There are many things that people are doing today that if they really thought about what is the desired outcome of doing this—is it just to send people birthday cards or is the desired outcome you're sending this birthday card because you care and value that person and their contribution to the organization, and you want to make sure that they stay connected and engaged,” said Alexandra Broadus, PharmD, director of patient outcomes performance for Walgreens, during the Women Pharmacist Day panel discussion. “That's a leadership skill.”

Broadus explained further that acknowledgement of the importance and purpose of the effort it takes to organize these types of moments of connection could be remedied by including it within performance reviews.

“I think often times, particularly with women—I’ve seen it in my own personal development as well as those of my team—we often times minimize everything that we bring to the table because we're so used to caring and supporting others,” Broadus said. “In fact, we should be maximizing the value of those attributes because that's the type of leadership that our profession and the world needs right now. It’s that caring, emotive, and collaborative style of leadership that many female leaders do bring to the table today. We're very fortunate with that regard.”

Meredith Mead, PharmD, a pharmacist at CVS in Pennsylvania who was recently awarded Best Pharmacy Mentor by SingleCare, exemplifies such styles of leadership in how she was worked to support her mentees. At the CVS where she has worked for many years, there were things that she missed in her own start in the pharmacy field that she worked to make sure her mentees have been able to have to better support their development.

“I think it’s because when I first started working for CVS and for a retail chain in general, they didn’t really have the strong internship program that they have today,” Mead said. “How I went through it and felt like, ‘Here’s what I learned, but here’s what I really wish I learned,’ and I kind of implemented that on my own in the future. Then CVS grew with it, and now they have such a really great intern program that they use. But before that was all happening, I took what I thought was missing and implemented it into my own practice.”

Mead also expressed the importance of having diverse voices in the field of pharmacy in order to support empathy and other soft skills that are incredibly valuable for those pursuing both mentorship and leadership roles.

“I think that just having any sampling of diverse voices will impact you in so many different ways. It makes you more empathetic, it makes you think really about who you’re making this impact on, and what route you want to take. Also, looking into things that they feel are valuable to them and trying to work in that direction can help you to give them the quality of care and attention that they need,” Mead said.

Mead noted that diversity in the field of pharmacy is also valuable in light of the diverse opportunities available as career paths in the field.

“Right now, there are so many different job avenues out there that if somebody is interested in one aspect of pharmacy, there’s really nothing stopping them. I’m in one little niche of pharmacy, community retail, but there are so many other avenues that you can take,” Mead said. “Becoming a pharmacist doesn’t mean you’re just going to be doing a 9 to 5 job filling pills and putting them into a bottle. We have people that are writers, people that work for drug companies, people that work in academia, and so forth. There are just so many things that you can really carve out your own niche out there.”

REFERENCE
Alvarez NA, Corrigan MM. Mentorship, Leading, Well-being. Presented at: DHX Virtual; Virtual: October 2, 2020.