Women in Pharmacy Leadership: It Takes Grit

AUGUST 31, 2018
Gina Kokosky, Assistant Editor
If it’s not immediately obvious to you what leadership skills female pharmacists share with Apache helicopter pilots, you probably haven’t been working in pharmacy for very long. At the recent Women in Pharmacy Leadership Forum at Cardinal Health Retail Business Conference 2018 Meeting in San Diego, former pilot Shannon Huffman Polson shed some light on the similarities between the 2, noting that both military and pharmacy careers often involve small teams with a specific mission who deal with balancing competing priorities in an ever-changing environment.

Despite graduating flight school with honors, Polson’s flying skills were overlooked because women were not allowed to fly combat aircraft until 1993. To keep fighting for a position she deserved, Polson needed to discover her purpose. After questioning why she felt such a strong desire to fly, she finally came to her conclusion: to serve the United States. Once you find your own purpose, you find grit within yourself to do what it takes to achieve that purpose, she explained.

“Grit is something innate to every single one of us, and I like to think of grit as the intersection between your purpose and your passion. Once you’ve done the work, and it is work, to drill down to that core purpose deep inside yourself, then you can find that grit that you need to get through the toughest times, the things that tell you to keep going past the closed doors, until you get to that window,” said Polson.

When asked by the audience, Polson said she did not find her purpose until she applied to ROTC in college.

“I ended up really liking the sense of purpose and mission in something bigger than myself,” she explained.

Finding her purpose and her grit, in 1995, Polson became one of the first women to fly Apache helicopters in the US armed forces. She went on to serve in Bosnia and Herzegovina and South Korea; she led 2 flight platoons and a line company before transitioning into a corporate management career at Microsoft. She now writes about her journey and guides other women into harnessing their own leadership skills.

Discussing women and leadership, Polson said that communication is key. “A leader knows that her communications have to be strategic. They need to understand the audience, who the audience is, what the audience needs, and be sure that the audience can actually receive that communication,” she said.

Another characteristic of a strong leader is caring about the people you’re leading and getting to know them, according to Polson. “If I was to fulfill that sacred trust of leadership, the only way that I could do that was to know who those people were.”

She also urged attendees to stay focused on core purpose, despite what may feel like constant changes and distractions within the environment. To do this, she said, pharmacists may need to ignore distractions and focus on the mission. She shared an experience from her deployment in Bosnia and Herzegovina, when the most hostile anti-aircraft system in the world had tracked her and interfered with her radio. While overcome with fear, she made the split-second decision to turn the volume down, ignore the trackers, and return to the base.

“There are times, where in order to stay focused on that core pur- pose, you have to be willing to turn down the noise,” she said.

When asked by an audience member to discuss her frustration at being overlooked initially for positions, Polson noted that determination is key.

“I think you have to just keep getting out of bed, smiling, and doing your job—and it’s hard,” said Polson. “Most women in these situations know they have to be better than a lot of men to be considered even at the same level. You have to have the determination that you’re going to do that, and they’re not going to hold you down.” 

Polson also noted that acknowledging failures and remaining open to ways to improve are both key to good leadership. She also urged those in attendance to be ready to face resistance.

“Anytime you face resistance, whether it’s your own, it’s inter- nal, or it’s external, you turn the nose directly toward it and you fly straight through it,” she concluded.
 
October 12 is National Women in Pharmacy Day, and Cardinal Health is a proud supporter of the day's events. Click here to learn more about Women in Pharmacy Day. 
 

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