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Diversity in Action: Q&A With Bob McMahon

Pharmaceutical ExecutivePharmaceutical Executive-04-01-2022
Volume 42
Issue 4
Robert McMahon

Robert McMahon

Integrating diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) into an organization is a complicated task that requires thoughtful execution. Here, Robert McMahon, former president of Merck US Human Health, shares with Barri Blauvelt, CEO of Innovara, Inc., and co-principal investigator of Health Alert 2022: Women, Diversity and Leadership in the Businesses of Healthcare1, some of the challenges leaders face when grappling with how to transform their organizations to embrace DE&I.

Blauvelt: We see from Health Alert 2022 that in developing a robust pipeline of diverse future leaders, it is critical to champion the effort from the top. Looking back on your contributions to Merck, how did you focus on elevating more women and diverse talents into management and leadership?

McMahon: In what were my last two years as president of Merck US leading to my retirement in 2018, we routinely looked at our progress toward building a diverse workforce in the US. However, when we looked at the status of how many women we had in senior positions (director level and above) and on the US executive team, I felt we were always in the back seat. We weren’t losing ground, but we weren’t gaining ground, either. On a personal level, it was something I felt a powerful need to address. I had been a senior executive in the US since 1992, and I felt accountable for not making progress over the ensuing 25 years. We were in the midst of a wave of strategic planning and restructuring, and the initiative to improve gender equity had to be a key part of what we were solving for.

It always struck me as if we were telling the organization’s men what we thought should occur but not putting them in a position where there was clear accountability for making the changes to ensure that it happened. There was this pattern of communicating from the top and somehow expecting things to happen in a democratized way vs. holding people accountable as if it were a product launch and forcing the organization tactically to operate in a different way, both in terms of how they showed up as leaders and on how they executed.

Blauvelt: What did you do differently, and what were you able to achieve?

McMahon: We started a development program for early talent, which had a significant bias toward improving gender equity. And we restructured my executive team. At the time, there were six direct reports and six members of my extended team, all but three were men. I expanded the direct reports to 10 and the total team to 16, with seven women in total. They were still in the minority, but much better represented and much more enabled in terms of how leadership of the organization functioned.

By the time I was getting ready to retire in early 2018, we’d gone from having 28% women in our executive ranks [in the US] to 42% out of a total of 150 leaders. This was the biggest shift in the history of the US market organization. I am pleased to say that the advances we made proved durable, and the US team has continued to make progress since my retirement, having reached 47% women in senior leader roles in 2021.

Blauvelt: In this process, what were some of the biggest or unanticipated hurdles you had to overcome?

McMahon: Our success had some unanticipated effects, among them were people of color in the organization saying, “You’re investing an awful lot of time in this gender thing. What about us?” We had made good progress in terms of women, but it legitimately raised the question, why can’t we apply the same energy and focus to the larger diversity challenge? I had to evolve our approach to bring both gender and diversity overall into the initiative.

Meanwhile, [we had] a shrinking organization that was being refit for our future portfolio, technology, and customer needs, so it wasn’t an optimal time to try to change the balance in terms of gender and other diversity. I had to make some difficult staffing, recruiting, and succession planning choices among men, women, and people of color who were equally talented. My conclusion was that there’s never a perfect time to do this. We’re all waiting for some bolt of lightning to come out of the blue. But through rewards, recognition, and my day-to-day involvement in personnel decisions, we changed expectations and made durable progress.

Barri Blauvelt, CEO of Innovara, Inc., a global healthcare learning and development firm, and co-principal investigator of the Health Alert 2022 study


  1. The Health Alert 2022 study is conducted by the Center for Women in Politics and Public Policy, University of Massachusetts, Boston, in collaboration with Innovara, Inc.
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