Up Close and Personal – The Bill Strickland Story

Living his formative years in Houston with a mother in healthcare, Bill was fascinated with two things; the Space Program/the puzzle of walking on the moon and Healthcare/the puzzle of saving lives. Being colour blind and dependent on glasses to see, his dream of being an astronaut didn’t go very far! But solving the puzzle of saving lives has been a constant throughout Bill’s life.



Bill Strickland's (Head of Global Medical Resources at AstraZeneca) aptitude for science came naturally. His father taught Chemical Engineering at the University of Arkansas and his mother was an Ultrasonographer He loved complex problems and had an eye to see opportunities and make improvements. His mom always said he was the “but why” kid. How do you get someone to the moon? How do you cure cancer? Bill wanted to know. 
 
Between the ‘puzzling’ and games they played as a family to test their minds and the incredible stories his mom brought home from the hospital; Bill was hooked on solving the problems in medicine. After his mother introduced him to Dr. DeBakey, considered by most as the greatest surgeon ever and the pioneer of open-heart surgery, Bill knew what he wanted to do. He was fascinated about how he might be able to help save lives. He would enrol in a pre-med program. 
 
While obtaining his undergraduate degree at University of California at San Diego, he did some volunteer work in a lab and then worked at Scripp Health for a year after graduation. It was there he discovered the Clinical Pharmacy Path. He thought it would be a good mix. He could be more focused on the puzzle of chemicals and how they help heal people and so he enrolled at the University of Michigan School of Pharmacy. 
 
After graduation from Pharmacy School, he realized he didn’t want to be a traditional pharmacist. He wanted to be a Clinical Oncology Pharmacist. He loved the complexity of it and felt it was there where he could make the biggest impact. He saw that the doctors were very good at diagnosing and creating treatment plans but could use some help at combining medications outside their expertise. His puzzling mind embraced the intricacy of the calculations. He knew the importance of accuracy. Especially in pediatrics; one small error could mean life or death. He was fascinated and derived great meaning from the impact he could make. 
 
Eventually he became Chief then ran the Hematology/Oncology pharmacy residency program.
It was there he met and worked with pharma companies and was introduced to the MSL role. The army was about to move him away from oncology and even worse, to a geography he didn’t want. He thought the MSL job looked interesting and challenging and he figured he could always go back to the clinical world. 
 
What did you love about pharma? 
Once in pharma, he loved dealing with world experts. He felt connected to physicians and collaborating with physicians for the benefit of patients and realized he couldn’t have this depth of impact anywhere else. They were changing lives together! 
 
His organization, SmithKline Beecham, had a great leadership development program and he begged them to enrol him. “If I fail, you can say I told you so, but if I make it, I earned it,” he rationalized. After passing with flying colors, he secured a District Sales Manager role and led his area to #1 in country.  A year later they merged with Glaxo and formed a medical affairs group. He was asked to take a Director role. That was his start in medical affairs leading teams that led to his current role as Head of Global Medical Resources at AstraZeneca building global platforms and innovations to improve patient outcomes faster.
 
What influenced your people-first focus?
Bill speaks fondly of a mentor in his career who impressed upon him the importance of people first! “Give me a mediocre strategy but a good team over a brilliant strategy and a weak team and I’ll win every time,” his mentor told him. A few exceptional leaders showed him how to put people at the centre of everything.
 
Bill recalls an experience that has stuck with him. In officer candidate school, Bill was the leader of a team. They had 30 minutes to prepare. The pressure was on. People were observing how they would perform. Right before they were to start the assignment, the instructor said the leader was killed – Bill had to step aside and let his team perform on their own. If Bill had been a good leader his team would do great without him. They would know their roles and how they could work best together.  That never left Bill. A leader can’t be there for every level of detail. You have to prepare and trust your people. 
 
How does your people-first focus show up?
Bill has been leading in “patient-centric” or people-first ways since before patient centricity was discussed. Here are just a few of his beliefs:
 
1) Humans not numbers - It’s about people. Bill feels that we get caught up in numbers, spreadsheets and clinical trial design. But it doesn’t matter if you have a brilliant cure, if people don’t adhere to it. If the patient has to take it four times a day, it won’t work. Once you make everything about humans; about employees and patients and everyone in between, that’s when everything will tick. 
 
2) Collaborate - We’re all in this together. There should be no us and them; managers/employees or pharma/doctors or doctors/patients. It doesn’t matter where the idea originates, everyone needs to work together to create the best outcomes. 
 
3) Give first – What gets Bill up in the morning is thinking about how to help his people reach their goals. A good leader doesn’t make it about him/herself. Bill believes he should hire people better than him, then get out of the way, reward and recognize them.
 
4) Check your ego at the door - We can’t be so arrogant to think patients don’t have a better idea than us or team members don’t have a better idea than team leaders. We can learn from patients and they can learn from us. There should be no hierarchy. “Stop worrying so much about how your trial comes out and instead think more about its impact on patients,” urges Bill. 
 
5) Listen – We need to be attuned to insights. This means being more accessible, listening, feeding it to our collaborators and acting on it.
 
What are some of the outcomes of this approach?
 
Here are just three examples of how Bill’s approach creates better outcomes: 
 
1) Speeding enrolment into clinical trials – Bill partnered with the several Major Health Systems to help them flag potential patients for studies. When patients arrived in the office, the doctor knew to offer them the trial. 
 
2) Expanding impact of Medical Information - Bill discovered a tremendous underutilization of the Medical Information specialists. They were traditionally asked to create standard responses, answer questions, and help with promotional review but they were product experts. “So why aren’t we using them more?” wondered Bill. He formed a virtual team to reach more healthcare providers and tasked them with content development for all of medical. That saved money and created better outcomes for all. 
 
3) Bill partnered with IT to develop innovative approaches to common challenges. One example was the use of AI to identify and categorize insights gathered by MSLs in their free text comments. The prototype has been so successful in focusing the medical team on the important insights that it is now going live across all therapeutic areas.
 
Bill, we’re looking forward to seeing what puzzles you will solve next. Thank you for bringing you passion to pharma. You are truly living your purpose!
 

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