At the executive level, I need to balance short-term goals and priorities with long-term strategy and vision. It involves an eye for anticipation to handle the day-to-day but also what the company may want to achieve five or ten years from now. I also help to prepare the company for challenges and opportunities and ensure that the company is poised to meet them. Largely, it’s having a more birdseye view of the company.
As a part of our series about strong women leaders, we had the pleasure of interviewing Neena Patil Senior Vice President and General Counsel at Jazz Pharmaceuticals. Her mission is to help provide the best care to patients while also working towards addressing systemic inequalities surrounding cost, access, and quality of care. Surrounded by a family in the healthcare field, Neena received her legal education at the University of Michigan before holding a number of positions in the biopharmaceutical industry.
Thank you Neena for joining us in this interview series. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
As the daughter of two physicians, I knew early on that I wanted to work in the healthcare space. My parents’ careers were very much motivated by the personal relationships with their patients, and that level of care didn’t go unnoticed. From the beginning of my career, I felt compelled to try to and make an impact at the patient level. As I developed my interests in law and policy, I spent a lot of time thinking about what a healthcare system that focused solely on improving the patient experience would be like. By starting from a personal place, I create work that holds a deeper meaning to me. This was inspired by my family and my parents, in particular.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
What brought me initially to Jazz Pharmaceuticals was the company’s mission to improve patients’ lives. The more I became familiar with the company, I realized I was capable of my best work there because of their strong culture of collaboration and inclusivity. They allow people to shine as individuals while contributing to a common goal. When I first started as General Counsel, our CEO, Bruce Cozadd, encouraged me to introduce myself to the company at a New Year kick-off meeting. With that level of trust, I delved into the experiences I’ve had throughout my career, the opportunities I’ve pursued, and the obstacles I’ve faced as a working mom and woman of color. I think that my ability to be vulnerable, honest, and authentic while addressing our team has been part of sparking an evolution for the company, as we reflect on how we are doing to create an inclusive culture and how we can do better. By being in an environment that honors my experiences as an individual, I can bring my most authentic self to my work. It gave me a chance to connect with our employees in a meaningful way. Knowing that diversity and inclusion are valued, I can continue to challenge us on how we foster a positive environment for others at the company as well.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
As a leader, I’ve learned the hard way about when to sign off for the weekend. On a Friday night, I was well into my weekend routine when I received a call from someone on our West Coast team. Exhausted, but eager, I took the call. When he asked me a question, I gave a thorough and lengthy reply only to realize I’d entirely misinterpreted what he was asking. While I can laugh about it now, it was pretty embarrassing at the moment. From that experience, I’ve learned when to draw the line and let myself rest! Sometimes you just have to let calls go to voicemail.
Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are?
A key to authenticity is recognizing that I did not achieve success alone. You never know when you will be lucky enough to meet a special person or develop a meaningful relationship. At my previous company I was introduced to and began working with a partner at the law firm of Faegre Drinker, Mary Devlin Capizzi. Mary, as a role model, has supported me and dared me to dream. When I pursued my goal of General Counsel for a company, her support was integral in my preparation to step into that role. She aided me by helping me evaluate which opportunities were best suited for me, managing stepping into an executive-level role for the first time, and how to balance work and personal life — Mary and her husband are the parents of six wonderful children. Her support and friendship have been invaluable.
As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision?
In my role as chief lawyer, I am often asked to be involved in a lot of key strategic decisions for the company on a variety of topics. This can mean going from a meeting where we are negotiating with a business collaborator, to one where we need to decide how to respond to an emerging legal matter, to a discussion about how we create more engagement among our employees. My number one stress-reliever is to make sure I’m properly prepared. Beyond that, I reflect on meetings and decisions that went well. It helps to remind myself just how capable I can be under pressure.
As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. Why is it so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
Fundamentally, companies that are successful have a deep understanding of their customers. In particular in healthcare, I also believe that there is a responsibility to ensure we represent all patients with unmet needs. In the case of our field, women are the most influential consumers of healthcare, with the majority making healthcare decisions not only for themselves but the people around them. Almost 90% of the healthcare professionals are women. It seems natural then that women should hold executive power in healthcare companies, as it tunes into the demographic that is making those decisions. Our ongoing societal struggle with racial inequality has been amplified in the last several months with the disproportionate negative impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Black and Brown communities from a health and economic perspective.
Companies need to understand their industry’s history of internal and market-related practices continue to hold current structures in place, and what can change to take an anti-racist approach and allow for improved access and outcomes for underserved populations. Integrating diversity and inclusion in the hiring process of employees at all levels, acknowledging and embracing different backgrounds, cultures, goals, and learning styles is now vital to a company’s success. When employees feel welcome, accepted, and empowered, the workplace is primed to be a safe and comfortable environment where issues of bias can be discussed honestly. Getting underneath these challenges, including the barriers created by the cost of healthcare, accessing care, and trusting the care that is being provided is imperative to begin to solve these challenges. A diverse team in the C-suite, and in particular, increasing the membership of Black and Brown leaders, is a critical step in enabling organizations to take these important steps.
As a business leader, can you share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society?
At the individual level, it starts with acknowledgment and understanding of the issues. Knowing where each of us holds bias and acknowledging the need for changes. This is not about blame, but about understanding. Beyond that, we should involve employees and other stakeholders in the conversation to find solutions. We shouldn’t approach employees, communities, and partners with solutions already in mind. Instead let’s seek to collaborate with partners in a way to enhance trust and ensure all parties can benefit. Second, I always acknowledge that this is a journey where we continuously gather feedback and refine. We can do this by ensuring we have a diverse set of voices around the table, using data to guide us, and committing to the work that lies ahead.
Most people think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
At the executive level, I need to balance short-term goals and priorities with long-term strategy and vision. It involves an eye for anticipation to handle the day-to-day but also what the company may want to achieve five or ten years from now. I also help to prepare the company for challenges and opportunities and ensure that the company is poised to meet them. Largely, it’s having a more birdseye view of the company. While operational leaders may be more actively involved in certain day-to-day functions, as an executive, you are equally focused on the direction of the enterprise as a whole.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive?
There are a few misconceptions about executives and the role that can be debunked. It can be hard to find peers to get unfiltered advice or perspective from because there are just fewer of us in these roles. A lot of time is spent working and thinking on your own, even when you have an all-star team for support. Traveling for business, which was more prevalent in the pre-pandemic world, isn’t always as exciting as it looks. While I always love to explore new places and meet my colleagues and customers in person, the physical strain, and time away from my family can also be hard.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
The number of female executives is continuing to grow. But as some women are still the first to step into these roles at certain companies, the vision for leadership may still be a male-dominated vision. How a woman leads, communicates, and presents herself comes under a lot more scrutiny than it does for her male counterparts. While men are applauded for being assertive and challenging the status quo, many people are uncomfortable around strong and direct women who exhibit the same behavior. In an environment where diverse points of view, creativity and collaboration are being stifled, there is no success. There isn’t as much room in the current culture for women who are different since many women may feel the need to rely on stereotypes of what leadership looks like in order to be successful. As we increase the number of women in the C-suite and the Board Room, this is changing.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
Especially during times of great change and transformation, the role of an executive shifts as well. Many people believe that executives set the strategy and are merely presented with decisions from time to time. But, when organizations are evolving, like mine is, the role is a bit different. We are getting involved in problem-solving on high value initiatives, making quick decisions when barriers appear, and staying on top of the results. Personally, I enjoy change. While some may be surprised, coming from a General Counsel, I do enjoy those messy moments where the greatest innovation and creativity happens!
In your opinion, what specific traits do successful executives embody?
The best leader recognizes that they don’t have all the answers and don’t always have to be right. Especially these days, we live in an uncertain and dynamic world and there will never be total certainty. Strong executives rely on good information, and strong debate around them to make informed decisions. They invest in learning about all colleagues and building relationships with those with diverse points of view. This leads to a foundation of trust and respect and a deeper form of collaboration and innovation. Our most important role is to empower our teams to lead and do their jobs well.
For other women who have their eye on someday being in an executive role, to me, it all comes back to authenticity. There is not one path or one way to do a job. Spend the time to really know who you are and be confident in that. There are many times as an executive when that confidence will be challenged. Own that, learn from it, and then shake it off!
Thank you for these great insights.