Deborah Keller is a dynamic woman who gives off an immediate sense of warmth and humor. The moment she joined our video chat, she began sharing stories about her life in lockdown, admitting to feeling so cooped up that she painted her laundry room at 9 pm the night before. However, underneath her easy-going exterior is a sense of steely determination and a thirst for knowledge, which is unsurprising considering her impressive resume.
During the last 27 years, Deborah climbed her way up the career ladder at Covance– a renowned global drug development organization, serving the biopharmaceutical industry. Starting as a Chemist, she moved upwards and sideways across numerous medical and marketing roles before rising through the ranks to CEO.
Since retiring from Covance, Deborah has taken on several new challenges. Most recently, she became Chair of Fishawack Health, where she will be tackling the monumental task of guiding the organization through a mammoth period of growth.
In less than 12 months, Fishawack Health has acquired three new companies – market access consultancy Skysis, and creative agencies The Hive Health Group and StoneArch. It also relaunched as a global commercialization partner for the life science industry and reorganized to become a leading partner for life science clients, offering a fully agile and integrated suite of services across Medical Communications, Commercial, and Consulting.
Deborah’s latest challenge is to leverage every learning from her time running a $4 billion global company with 15,000 employees, across 60 countries, and calling on these lessons to lead Fishawack Health through its next phase of growth. Here she shares her views on organizational change, why it pays to be a down-to-earth leader, and her advice on International Women’s Day.
What are your goals as Chair of Fishawack Health?
The thing that stood out to me about Fishawack Health is the talent and expertise of the employees. I feel honored and excited to be a part of the team. My goal is to ensure we continue to develop that talent because nurturing and growing talent along with succession planning is one of the top concerns that investors and shareholders have regarding human capital. We can never take our eyes off our employees, nor can we take our eyes off satisfying the customers.
My role is to be a sounding board, ensuring we’re all working together to achieve our goals in the most efficient and effective way as we continue to develop. Growing a business is hard – it’s a lot harder than people think. It’s like you’re building the plane while you’re flying it. Growth is challenging. Growth is exciting. Growth is never dull. It can be difficult on all our stakeholders – employees and clients, so I want to ensure we take people with us on this exciting journey.
You started as a chemist and rose through the ranks to become CEO. How did you get to where you are today?
I get asked this question a lot. Everyone assumes career progression is a straight line, but it’s a tangled web you weave. Looking back, I followed a few criteria, but I never set career goals. For example, I never said I wanted to be a Vice President. I just wanted to do something in the healthcare and scientific fields that helped people, and I wanted to work with bright and interesting people – often, I joke that some were bright, some were interesting, and a few were both! I also wanted to have an impact and a voice, and last but not least, I need to be intellectually stimulated.
Every time I got the opportunity to take on a new role that fitted those criteria, I just jumped in. I knew the worst thing I could do is fail, but what if I didn’t? I probably took more career risks than the average person, purely because I enjoyed learning new things.
Interestingly enough, I didn’t get promoted for the first 8 years of my career. But when a promotion came up, I had gained so much knowledge I was uniquely qualified for the role. So, my advice is don’t be afraid of taking risks – but take calculated risks. I’m glad I made those decisions because, in each role, I learned more about the science and of the business.
It’s International Women’s Day, and the theme this year is choosing to challenge gender bias and inequality. Were you ever treated differently because of your gender and, if so, how did you respond?
I never want to be defined but my gender, nor do I want to generalize, but I have found that female leaders are often consensus builders. We use an armory of styles, including warmth, strength, humor, and collective knowledge to achieve our corporate goals.
For example, I once had a new boss with a fierce reputation. After one meeting, he asked me to go to his office in a very gruff voice. I did, and oh, boy – I instantly felt that panic that I’d done something wrong.
He said to me: “You have really good things to say, but people can’t hear you. You need to project your voice more. I’m going to give you these marine drills to build your voice up, and if we have to, we’ll get you a voice coach.” I was stunned. I went home that night, and it was one of the few times I felt angry about work. I went back the next morning, and I said; “You know, I thought about all of this, and I have to give you a different view. I’m one of the few women in that room. I was a flautist at college, so I know how to project my voice and I know how to raise my voice. But, if I’m in that room and I’m shouting, it is different to you shouting – it would not be perceived the same way coming from a woman. It’s just not my style. You can do that because you’re a man, but I can’t.”
I could have changed to fit in with what my boss wanted, but that would have been a mistake. At the time, I worked with teams of esteemed scientists. I knew I wasn’t the smartest person in the room. I could have tried to be more dictatorial and act like I knew more than them because I was their boss. Instead, I chose to listen to them because they were the experts in their field. In turn, they realized I had strengths they didn’t have; we became a powerful combination.
It is important for a leader to be credible and the best way to achieve this is by being true to who you are as a person. Utilize your strengths and develop your gaps.
That example will speak to many women who feel they need to adjust their leadership styles in a corporate world. What other leadership lessons can you share?
This will sound a bit trite, but it’s true, even when it’s not about the people, it’s always about the people. Surround yourself with good people – people who have skills you lack and have a diversity of experiences. Listen. Learn. Seek to understand. Set the expectations, occasionally inspect what you expect, and set them free to do their jobs.
For most of my career, I was a single mother. When I retired, I received a note from a colleague who referenced a day when she was having a challenging time with her children – the usual trials of being a working mom.
She ran into me in the hall, and I was chatting and asking her about her day. She said something like: “You asked about my children, and you really seemed to care. And all of a sudden, I thought, well, if you could do it, I could do it.”
I never knew she felt like that. It’s just one example showing you never know how you impact somebody as a leader – both good and bad – and that’s the biggest lesson I’ve learned.
Lastly, leadership is about influence, not authority. My philosophy is people are adults, so you have to give them hope but, at the same time, you have to be direct, unambiguous, and honest. People are not going to always agree with the decisions you make, but if they understand the data you use or your reasoning, at least they’ll know you didn’t pick a solution out of thin air.
What is the one piece of strategic advice you would give everyone at Fishawack Health?
Being strategic is often about what you don’t do as well as what you do commit to, and it’s about staying focused and being clear on your destination.
In a complex service business like Fishawack Health, people are the differentiator because our relationships determine our clients’ experiences. If you take care of clients, and their customers, the business will take care of itself.
Ultimately, clients are looking for consistent, high-quality, and innovative project delivery, from quality-driven, high-performing teams that they trust. They are looking for long-term stable partners, who deliver on excellence and understand and can meet evolving needs.
As a business, we need to ‘package up’ the advantages of being larger and offering deeper and more meaningful expertise that delivers benefits for our customers and business. For the leadership team, this also means that when we’re looking at new acquisitions, we stay focused on the part they can play in the bigger healthcare puzzle of helping to take care of and meet our client needs.
What do you do in your spare time?
When I retired from Covance, I took a year off to figure out my next move. I decided to split the last trimester of my life into three buckets. One was philanthropic and giving back, the second was to use my business skills to help patients receive better medicines, and the third was adventure and travel.
On top of my role as Fishawack Health Chair, I’m a Trustee of Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF) – one of the top three tech transfer organizations in the country, which helps fund research at the University of Wisconsin. I’m a Trustee at the Morgridge Institute for Research (MRI). I’m also on the Chair of WiCell, a non-profit which operates out of WARF and provides stem cells, lines, and characterization to the university and other academic institutions.
Aside from that, I’m trying to stay positive through the pandemic. I have been taking piano lessons, and I enjoy spending time with my partner, kids, and pandemic puppy, and two cats. I also love the outdoors. I live on a 20-acre tree farm in the driftless region of Wisconsin – I hike, kayak, and cycle, and I enjoy reading. As I mentioned before, I love adventure travel – this time last year I was in Antarctica. I’m looking forward to traveling the world again once life returns to normal.
To find out more about Fishawack Health and our expertise in Medical Communications, Consulting, and Commercial, contact us.
Image credit: WARF