“We should focus on what’s good and look for ways to expand on that.” with Jennifer Zilka and Akemi Sue Fisher

If we’re always looking for what’s wrong, we don’t get to see what’s right. And, we miss out on having fun. I’ve had people on multiple occasions ask me: “Don’t you hate traveling? Don’t you hate getting on a plane at night?” Well, I wouldn’t do it if it wasn’t meaningful, if I didn’t have […]

If we’re always looking for what’s wrong, we don’t get to see what’s right. And, we miss out on having fun. I’ve had people on multiple occasions ask me: “Don’t you hate traveling? Don’t you hate getting on a plane at night?” Well, I wouldn’t do it if it wasn’t meaningful, if I didn’t have some fun along the way and if I didn’t have the right squad at home to back me up. I would never leave my husband and kids if I didn’t believe I was truly making a difference. At times, it is difficult because my kids don’t really understand what I do because I do it all remotely but I have no doubt they know that I am passionate about it and find joy in helping others. Hopefully, when they get older they will do the same. Life is not always going to be happy, but it’s also not always going to be a problem. It’s important to focus on the experience and not always look for the issue. We should focus on what’s good and look for ways to expand on that.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Jennifer Zilka, Group Vice President, Good Neighbor Pharmacy Field Programs and Services. As Group Vice President of Good Neighbor Pharmacy Field Programs and Services, Jennifer Zilka leads an experienced team committed to helping community pharmacies simplify their business operations, amplify their brand and protect their independence. She leverages more than 20 years of pharmacy experience as she oversees an extensive roster of programs and services designed to enhance Good Neighbor Pharmacy members’ in-store experience, marketing and business performance. Prior to her current role, Ms. Zilka served as the Vice President of Good Neighbor Pharmacy Business Coaching and Pharmacy Ownership Services, where she managed 18 business coaches nationwide who worked with more than 640 customers to maximize their profitability. Ms. Zilka began her career in generics sales, working with alternate care facilities and health systems, and was also a pharmacy business manager at Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota before joining AmerisourceBergen.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I was 100% certain I would become a pharmacist when I entered college and began working on a degree in biology. As I was about to graduate, I had a realization that there might be a better career path for me. My parents suggested I take a personality test, which ultimately revealed a propensity for business and that led me to pursue an additional degree in health care administration management.

My career path took a similar direction as my educational journey. I began working for Good Neighbor Pharmacy, a national independent pharmacy network offered through AmerisourceBergen, as a part of the sales team. I really enjoyed my role and had the unique opportunity to travel and support health systems across the United States, and I did that job for about 10 years. However, after having my daughter, I thought I needed a position that required less travel, so I accepted a job offer at the Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota as pharmacy business manager. Within the first year of settling into my new role at the Children’s Hospital, a former Good Neighbor Pharmacy colleague asked me to come back and help launch a Business Coaching Program for community pharmacists.

At first, I couldn’t imagine leaving my newborn baby and toddler at home every week to travel across one quarter of the US, visiting pharmacies. But, I was passionate about the organization’s mission and whole-heartedly believed in what we had set out to accomplish. I was excited to be one of the four business coaches that would help these small pharmacy businesses grow and thrive in a fast-changing health care landscape. Meeting amazing customers and having an impact on their businesses made the whole experience worthwhile. Our team spent the first few years gaining the trust of our pharmacists, while utilizing their data system and insights customers provided to develop employee and marketing solutions to help them succeed managing their businesses as efficiently as possible.

Since launching the Business Coaching Program in 2008, we have grown to support over 1,600 pharmacy owners nationwide. Every day, we help them navigate owning and managing multi-million-dollar businesses. Today, our team of 30+ travel to independent pharmacies all throughout the U.S. to help pharmacists gain a better understanding of what they need to evolve their businesses in the ever-changing health care industry. From there, our team works to develop and implement solutions that help pharmacy owners optimize their business operations and maximize profitability, which in turn helps them devote more time to patient care.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

When we first started building Good Neighbor Pharmacy’s Business Coaching Program, I anticipated that the program would have a lifespan of a couple of years at most. At the time, we were only known by our parent company — AmerisourceBergen, the pharmacists’ wholesaler. They didn’t think of us beyond being a wholesaler, let alone their business advisor. I was not sure whether pharmacy owners would trust and come to us for counsel. Even as we built the Good Neighbor Pharmacy network and program as part of AmerisourceBergen’s services, it felt like we hadn’t yet proven ourselves or that we’d developed the right offering to address these pharmacists’ specific needs. It was a lot to ask pharmacists to entrust us with the businesses they built with their own blood, sweat and tears, but there was a lot of potential benefit if we could deliver what we were promising.

As we traveled across the country and started working with pharmacy owners face-to-face, I found that they welcomed our advice, consultation and support with open arms and were willing to share their experiences with us once we demonstrated that we were trustworthy and had their best interest at heart. Forming those genuine, deep relationships with customers was the most rewarding part of all of this work. We had to gain their confidence before they would disclose information about their needs. We also had to prove to AmerisourceBergen and Good Neighbor Pharmacy that we were dependable partners to receive the latitude and resources we needed to develop solutions for our pharmacists. It wasn’t always easy, but it was exciting to chart a new course that was bringing value to both our customers and the company.

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?

Very early on in my career at Good Neighbor Pharmacy, I was offered the opportunity to fly to Colorado and call on our federal accounts, which included hospitals and prisons. I was tasked with switching out a computer at a maximum-security prison. At that time, each component of the computer was very heavy and cumbersome. After I completed the computer swap, I carried the large box containing the computer out of the prison and set it on one of the boulders just outside the door. I went to retrieve my rental car and forgot to come back for the computer. As I was driving away, I looked in my rearview mirror and saw police cars with their lights on and wondered what had happened. As the police pulled over behind me, I realized pretty quickly that I had left the “suspicious package” in front of a federal prison. I also had to explain to the police that as a recent college graduate, I did not have a credit or debit card so one of my dear friends who lived in Colorado had rented the car for me. This experience taught me a bit about traveling and to always be hyper-aware of my surroundings. I also learned a few basic life skills, like the importance of having a checking account and credit card. As I look back, I realize that my boss at that time took a chance on me by trusting me to take on that large responsibility. He definitely wasn’t the last to take a chance on me.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Our Business Coaching Program helps pharmacists build on their own strengths — rather than forcing them to fit into an industry standard — and focuses on what they identify as challenges to help them stay ahead of the ever-evolving health care landscape. Tackling these challenges and creating new opportunities requires a combination of listening, responding, testing and keeping an eye on the future of the industry.

We use real-time pharmacists’ feedback to evolve Good Neighbor Pharmacy’s existing offerings and frequently build and test new solutions that fit their business needs. For example, after we identified adherence as a significant factor for how insurance companies reimburse and evaluate pharmacies, we quickly built multiple tools to help our customers reduce script abandonment among their patients.

Here’s a great story that has always stuck with me over the years: I coached a Michigan pharmacist at the very beginning of the coaching program roll-out. I walked him through inventory options, opportunities to free up cash flow and recommended that we hold a staff meeting to ensure his team was properly trained. My customer instantly shared that he wasn’t comfortable speaking in front of the staff and wasn’t sure how to put together the meeting content so it would be compelling. His concerns were all I needed to hear to roll up my sleeves and help him get the job done. So, with his specific initiatives in mind, I ran his very first staff meeting and taught him how to effectively have those difficult conversations with his team. This led me to quickly realize the great need for Human Resource training amongst pharmacists who had to take on many HR-heavy tasks. As a result, we used this experience to create a comprehensive employee development module that guided pharmacists through staff meetings, customer service training and everything else that goes along with managing people on a day-to-day basis.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

We’ve noticed that the retail industry is experiencing significant changes, and both patients and consumers are going through a fundamental shift in their values. Consumers and patients desire an authentic, personalized, community-based experience, which our independent community pharmacies already offer so beautifully. We conducted extensive research on what pharmacists need to continue being successful as the retail environment evolves and, as a result, streamlined our programs to make it easier for our customers to access and navigate them. Our overarching goal is to help community pharmacies expand their role and provide significant value in today’s health care ecosystem.

We strategically organized our offerings into four value centers to simplify pharmacists’ business operations, amplify their brands and protect their independence. Those value centers are 1) In-store Experience, 2) Marketing, 3) Managed Care, and 4) Business Performance.

· Through in-store experience, we help simplify our members’ retail operations by providing tools and guidance that will help enhance how the retail customer and patient experience the pharmacy.

· With the support of our marketing offerings, we amplify our customers’ brands by delivering customized marketing strategies to showcase their individuality and extend their reach within their own communities. For example, we are working on bringing our independent pharmacists onto Google, Facebook, and other digital channels.

· Our managed care focus area continues to protect our customers’ independence by negotiating ideal contracts to maximize profit margins and minimize profit leakage.

· The business performance focus area strengthens our members’ business core by combining deep industry knowledge with data-driven insight to increase efficiency and improve profitability.

What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?

Remember to be yourself, be human and encourage your team members to do the same. I have two kids, a husband, a full-time job and a packed travel schedule. I don’t think any working parent out there has truly figured out how to achieve a perfect work-life balance, and that’s okay! Just make sure to have a squad you can count on to try to achieve some sort of balance. As long as you have a squad that has your back, believes in you — and you do the same for them — you will be successful. You should always be looking for those people that allow you to let your guard down and be human. They won’t always be more tenured or wiser. In fact, they could be younger or newer to the company with a fresh perspective and keep you honest with the younger generations. Working with your associates to identify who makes up your squad and encouraging them to build that network both inside and outside of the office will make for a successful team.

What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?

I can’t stress enough how incredibly important it is to be yourself. As I’ve grown in my career, I’ve learned that confidence in who you are and being yourself is good enough. You will earn people’s respect and trust as a leader if you’re genuine. When I first started business coaching, I was convinced I had to be extremely poised and professional. I put my bubbly personality to the side and attempted to be another version of myself that was ultra-polished, corporate and professional. I had it in my head that I had to say the bare minimum in meetings and probably came off a bit robotic and cold. It got to a point where my team and customers told me that it was easier to work with me when I was my authentic and bubbly self. As I look back at this, I find it funny only because I’ve learned that being myself is what gains the trust of my colleagues and customers. Being authentic is what helps me connect with others during meetings and presentations. Discovering that I didn’t have to put on this persona to be successful and that I could just be my natural self was a great teaching moment for me.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

My heart has always been in the field with our amazing customers and there are several of them who’ve influenced me throughout my career. When I held my very first coaching meeting with a customer in Missouri, we were still testing our Business Coaching Program. I flew to Missouri in the middle of the night and knocked on the pharmacy’s back door right as the sun was coming up. I remember being incredibly nervous. From the pharmacy’s website, it looked like they had the whole world figured out, and I didn’t have much else to offer them. But, I quickly learned that even though a business may have solid infrastructure with smart, progressive owners and employees, they still have opportunities in their business. In this case, I was able to help these owners strengthen the deprioritized areas of their business, while also learning more about generational pharmacy and how a family can successfully run a business together. The owners also confirmed that our Business Coaching Program was effective and efficient and even offered ideas to help us continue our growth. I’m still in touch with them to this day.

The relationships you build as a business coach are very similar to deep friendships. While visiting one of my early customers in Ohio, he asked if he could introduce me to his mother who had very severe Alzheimer’s disease. He went on to share that his father — who previously ran the pharmacy — passed away and he felt it was important for me to meet his mother who has served as the pharmacy’s backbone for the last 30–40 years. Even though her husband was the pharmacist, she had overseen running the business and had been the decision-maker for most of her life. While I sat at the table and had a cup of tea with her, I kept thinking about how special this moment truly was. This humbling and inspirational gesture demonstrated the legacy and hard work that goes into running independent pharmacies. It reminded me why my job is so important.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I constantly remind my team how hard it is to be an independent business owner — a true pillar of every community in America and our healthcare system, in the case of pharmacies. We’re lucky to have the opportunity to wake up every single day and help independent businesses thrive. Not only do we help them improve minor operations and logistics but also, we try and set them up for success for years to come.

We help these independent pharmacies manage their businesses, so they can focus on what’s most important — their patients. Through our work with pharmacists, we are ultimately helping patients gain access to quality care. Community pharmacies have a unique patient-focused customer service model and clinical expertise. In fact, the pharmacy owners are in this business because they care about their communities and their patients. At the end of the day, if we can help patients get healthier, that’s the greatest good we could ever ask for.

What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

1. Be yourself. As I talked about earlier on, I earned the trust of my team and customers much faster when I was my genuine self. People can tell when and if you’re putting on a façade.

2. Form in-person relationships with your clients. Listen to your clients and then use that feedback to develop solutions tailored to their needs.

3. Identify your “squad.” It’s important to find those people that will always have your back and support you through your personal and professional journey.

4. Choose your battles. That’s something I try to keep top of mind every time I step into a meeting. For myself, it can mean choosing my battles at a corporate level by prioritizing and focusing on what’s most important to AmerisourceBergen or helping our customers and stores determine what areas need the most focus.

5. Demonstrate empathy towards team members and customers. When meeting with a customer who needs business help, it’s important to try to get to know them, understand their perspective on their business and how they’ve gotten there. It’s also important to trust your team, especially if you want to gain their confidence in return. An AmerisourceBergen guiding principle that resonates with me is “put people first and the rest will follow.” When we invest in our associates and strive to understand our customers, we succeed together.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

Less than 30 percent of today’s pharmacy owners are females. I think it’s important to offer mentoring and leadership programs to female community pharmacy owners. After recently facilitating a Women in Pharmacy panel, I was delightfully surprised by the number of women who wanted to join, expressed interest in a mentor and were hoping they could do something more. I’m still getting messaged by executives on LinkedIn, asking about the panel and sharing their own perspectives. I now feel it’s my responsibility to see this mission through, and I have a lot of ideas on how we can do it in an effective and meaningful way.

This movement also goes back to the importance of finding a squad. For example, maybe there’s a female business owner in Kentucky and a female business owner in Idaho who don’t have a tremendous amount in common yet experience the same challenges. I’d love to create a resource where they could pick up the phone and call each other. I believe the Good Neighbor Pharmacy network has the power to facilitate something like that and truly see potential in a great opportunity there.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced.” — Soren Kierkegaard

If we’re always looking for what’s wrong, we don’t get to see what’s right. And, we miss out on having fun. I’ve had people on multiple occasions ask me: “Don’t you hate traveling? Don’t you hate getting on a plane at night?” Well, I wouldn’t do it if it wasn’t meaningful, if I didn’t have some fun along the way and if I didn’t have the right squad at home to back me up. I would never leave my husband and kids if I didn’t believe I was truly making a difference. At times, it is difficult because my kids don’t really understand what I do because I do it all remotely but I have no doubt they know that I am passionate about it and find joy in helping others. Hopefully, when they get older they will do the same. Life is not always going to be happy, but it’s also not always going to be a problem. It’s important to focus on the experience and not always look for the issue. We should focus on what’s good and look for ways to expand on that.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Feel free to connect with me on LinkedIn and learn more about Good Neighbor Pharmacy at www.mygnp.com.

Thank you for joining us!

Share your comments below. Please read our commenting guidelines before posting. If you have a concern about a comment, report it here.
We use cookies on our site to give you the best experience possible. By continuing to browse the site, you agree to this use. For more information on how we use cookies, see our Privacy Policy.