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Building on early achievements as a research scientist and drug inventor, Rod MacKenzie, today the leader of global product development at Pfizer—and latest HBA Honorable Mentor—has devoted much of his career to helping others succeed, including advancing efforts to break down gender barriers in pharma.
When Rod MacKenzie, PhD, joined Pfizer as a medicinal chemist 35 years ago, his career goal was to invent a new medicine. That was borne out of his love for organic chemistry and his studies at the University of Glasgow, where he learned how molecules react with each other and could design elegant constructs to invent new compounds.
“It was very satisfying to work with your own hands in a laboratory and get the right crystallization or a beautiful product at the end,” recalls MacKenzie. “When I realized that the things you invent can save lives, well, there wasn’t anything else I wanted to do with my life.”
MacKenzie was able to realize his dream at Pfizer fairly early in his career, when he co-invented darifenacin (Enablex), indicated for the treatment of overactive bladder with symptoms of urge urinary incontinence, urgency, and frequency in adults. “And then for the rest of my career, I’ve been spending my time trying to help other people do similar things,” he adds.
This is a humble understatement, as MacKenzie has spent that career taking on increasing levels of responsibilities, highlighted by a series of research leadership positions, including head of worldwide research, head of pharmatherapeutics research and development, and site director of the Groton, Conn., laboratories, Pfizer’s largest global R&D facility. Today, as chief development officer and executive vice president, he is a member of Pfizer’s executive leadership team and an officer of the company.
Recognizing the potential of molecules and processes to invent new life-changing products and excelling at leadership are but two of the many skills Mac-Kenzie has in his repertoire. His skill for mentorship has been showcased by his recognition by the Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association (HBA) as the Honorable Mentor 2020/2021. The HBA has bestowed the Honorable Mentor award for the past 20 years to men who demonstrate long-term commitment to advancing women in the workforce, are dedicated to developing, mentoring, and promoting women in the industry, and are supportive of the HBA’s mission. MacKenzie was selected for being known as a committed mentor, positively influencing and impacting the careers of numerous women and men. He also shares his time and expertise with the greater industry as an executive champion of the HBA’s Gender Parity Collaborative.
“The honor was completely unexpected. I had no idea that I had been nominated,” says MacKenzie. “And I would have almost certainly tried to undermine the nomination, which is why they probably didn’t tell me.”
When he received the news of the actual honor, MacKenzie was doubly surprised.
“We were sitting in my office in Pfizer headquarters in New York and just about to start a session with our CEO, Albert Bourla, who was going to be interviewed by Laurie Cooke (president and CEO of the HBA),” he recounts. “She asked for a few minutes of my time and it took me a moment to catch on to what she was saying. I had been to several of the Woman of the Year luncheons, and I was amazed by them, as well as the Honorable Mentors, and the work that they did.”
The emotions of the moment then set in, MacKenzie says. “I cried. It’s still emotional to me to this day,” he shares. “I was just floored by it. I was speechless. But it was also very humbling.”
Living a career in corporate pharma, MacKenzie believes the issue of gender parity is one the industry has been far too slow to address.“It’s very frustrating because there are no other business goals or targets that we would take on where that small a rate of progress would have been acceptable,” he says. MacKenzie acknowledges that for a long period of time, in all industries, the issue wasn’t even on the table, and then when it began, progress was slow.
He believes gender parity has only recently made more significant strides under a more holistic cultural spotlight. However, MacKenzie sees the pace of change picking up and is more optimistic than ever before about its direction. For pharma, he credits organizations like the HBA to bring industry together, provide a forum to focus, and, most importantly, make public commitments to change it.
Looking back over his career, MacKenzie has memories of female colleagues not getting equal treatment or fair recognition. “A long time ago, I interviewed a woman who was PhD chemist for an entry-level PhD scientist [position] at one of our laboratories,” he remembers. “At the end of the interview, she told me she hadn’t met a single other woman doing a job like hers. That was the first time it really struck me. It was difficult for women for many, many years even to break in. And then if they did, there was no one around who understood their experience at all.”
Other examples he has observed include women who didn’t receive the recognition or promotion they deserved or had to wait longer for it than their male counterparts.
“It’s extremely frustrating to watch when you aren’t the decision-maker. And when you see that, the only response is to speak up and call it out,” says MacKenzie. “It is usually the work of unconscious bias, rarely rank sexism, but I think some people don’t like when you speak up. Quite honestly, it’s shocking to think that we could still be dealing with this in 2021.”
Pfizer is taking many actions around minimizing unconscious bias—from leadership training to gender-blind resume reviews. MacKenzie points to the group Men as Allies (see sidebar on facing page) as being very helpful in this area. The group educates and engages with the issues in an environment where men can learn and take the time to listen to what women have to deal with, historically, and even today, in organizations. As men still hold most of the power and decision-making positions, MacKenzie says, “[they] often engage strongly with the issues and want to know how they can help. We’re also focusing much of our leadership and development work on minorities and women, making sure that people get the same opportunities across the board to grow and develop in their careers.”
Ultimately, according to MacKenzie, the goal is that male executives become sponsors.
“Sponsorship means a personal commitment to the talented women that are all around us,” he says. “It means taking an active role in their careers and promoting women to the positions they deserve. Men in senior positions have an accountability to be active sponsors.”
He believes the time is now to be on the right side of history and correct something that’s fundamentally unfair. “We need to speed up this journey and get it out of the way,” says MacKenzie. “It should be completely a non-issue at this point in history.”
Pfizer has many other programs propelling more diverse leadership. MacKenzie believes the key is to publicly commit to a course or belief, and then tell the world. Equity is one of Pfizer’s four core values, he notes. “We believe everyone has a right to be heard, to be seen, and to feel included in the work that we do,” says MacKenzie. “For example, we’ve publicly stated our goal to have the top positions, vice president and above, reflect the gender mix across the entire company by 2025.” Pfizer is making good progress toward reaching that goal, behind specific actions such as formal accountability from hiring managers to form gender-diverse interview and hiring panels.
The pharma giant has been a supporter of the HBA from its establishment over 40 years ago; one of the women founders, Ruth Smith, MD, was a Pfizer employee. When the gender parity work started, Pfizer was a founding member of that collaborative. The company’s own advancements in gender parity also come through its support of the HBA. The Pfizer Women’s Resource Group, (PWR), of which MacKenzie is the executive sponsor, offers workshops where the open sharing of successes, solutions, and ideas to implement is helpful to all companies in the collaborative.
“I think mentors are very important to everyone. They come in so many different shapes and sizes, and times of your life,” says MacKenzie. “Personally, it includes people that probably didn’t realize they were mentoring me. Because I have tried to observe people all my life and learn something from all of them—even maybe what not to do or what doesn’t work. But fundamentally, I think mentorship means helping someone figure out what’s really important to them, helping them to be completely honest with themselves about their ambitions and aspirations.”
To that end, MacKenzie describes the role as being a mirror to the mentee’s true motivations and their tensions, such as the choices between family and career, and how they view themselves in context to the people around them.
“At the heart of mentorship is a trust-based relationship, where the person being mentored can explore their own strategies and tactics, and the mentor can use their experience to stimulate ideas and also be a very confidential sounding board,” says MacKenzie. “Most of the time in mentoring, you’re really listening to someone work it out for themselves.” Another potentially inherent unconscious bias can be self-limiting thinking or behaviors. MacKenzie says all people tend toward self-limitations and a key to mentoring is to stop that.
“Be very sensitive to self-limiting thinking,” he advises. “Sometimes I’ll start the conversation with, ‘why not be a CEO?’
These people have all the potential to do that. It’s amazing how almost nobody tells you that that’s possible for them. And so I find that expanding the thinking early on is important in being a good mentor.”
MacKenzie has never counted the number of people he has mentored; however, his impact is clear.
He says the process of reading the more than 30 letters provided to the HBA through his nomination process was “extremely moving.” MacKenzie believes the work of the mentor is teasing out what already exists within the person being mentored.
“It takes some thinking and imagination on the part of the mentor,” he notes. “But you definitely have to take joy in seeing people fulfill their potential.”
Lisa Henderson is Pharm Exec’s Editor-in-Chief. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.