By Joann S. Lublin 

In Personal Board of Directors, top business leaders talk about the people they turn to for advice, and how those people have shaped their perspective and helped them succeed. Previous installments from the series are here.

Michelle McMurry-Heath, the head of a global biotech-industry group, knows how to break the mold.

About two decades ago, she became the first Black graduate of Duke University with combined medical and doctoral degrees. This June, she became the first Black executive to run the Biotechnology Innovation Organization. BIO represents about 700 small and big biotech companies.

Dr. McMurry-Heath aims to shake up the status quo in an industry that's dominated by white men, criticized for high drug costs -- and struggling to end the pandemic through accelerated research. BIO members include statrtup Moderna Inc. and industry powerhouse Pfizer Inc., which are backing competing vaccine candidates that were revealed in recent days to have shown efficacy rates of more than 90%.

Among other things, Dr. McMurry-Heath champions greater minority participation during clinical trials of potential Covid-19 vaccines

"Improved access to scientific innovation is a social-justice issue," the 50-year-old BIO leader contends. Otherwise, "we are locking underserved communities into inequality for generations to come."

Dr. McMurry-Heath took BIO's top spot after her mostly female mentors assured her that she was ready to be a chief executive. They also proposed that the novice CEO overcome possible weaknesses by building a diverse leadership team whose different strengths "make a stronger whole, " she says.

Born and raised in Oakland, Calif., she declared at age 8 that she wanted to be a doctor -- or president of the United States. Caring for vulnerable people essentially "was in the drinking water when I grew up, " Dr. McMurry-Heath recalls.

Her mother, a public-health nurse, worked to reduce local infant mortality. Her father, a U.S. government psychologist, helped design substance-abuse programs for Native American reservations.

Dr. McMurry-Heath majored in biochemistry at Harvard University, where she met her future first husband. He was battling cystic fibrosis. Her Harvard roommate had a severe bout of lupus during their first year.

She says she obtained medical and immunology degrees in order "to take care of ill patients, but also discover new scientific solutions for serious illnesses." The young physician-scientist decided to pursue a science policy career, working for U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman and two thinktanks.

In 2010, Dr. McMurry-Heath landed at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as an associate director of its Center for Devices and Radiological Health. She expanded patients' involvement in medical-device development by spearheading the creation of an unusual public-private partnership that included patient groups.

The difficult effort "took us nearly two years," she observes. "I poured my heart and soul into that."

At the end of 2014, Dr. McMurry-Heath took an executive position at health care giant Johnson & Johnson. She initially focused on regulatory affairs for its medical devices. She eventually gained a wider management role, overseeing about 900 staffers.

"I don't shy away from taking a dramatic career step," she points out. However, "I never take those steps lightly." Dr. McMurry-Heath relies on her personal board to guide her professional progress. Here are four of her most trusted advisers:

Dr. Margaret "Peggy" Hamburg

Former foreign secretary for the National Academy of Medicine and former commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration

The women met in 2002 when Dr. McMurry-Heath was drafting a bioterrorism preparedness bill for Sen. Lieberman to co-sponsor. Dr. Hamburg was a vice president of the Nuclear Threat Initiative. The nonprofit organization tries to prevent catastrophic attacks from weapons of mass destruction.

Dr. Hamburg hired Dr. McMurry-Heath during a subsequent stint as FDA commissioner. She recommended that her recruit cope with the fairly fractious world of medical devices by embracing a highly collaborative managerial style.

"Never use an iron fist if you can use a velvet glove," Dr. Hamburg recollects telling her. Yet "never compromise your integrity or weaken your resolve."

Dr. McMurry-Heath came to view Dr. Hamburg as an important role model, too. "Witnessing (her) grace under pressure still stays with me today."

Marsha B. Henderson

Retired associate FDA commissioner for women's health

Ms. Henderson became a highly valued adviser because she shrewdly understood the FDA's internal politics, according to Dr. McMurry-Heath.

The veteran agency official educated her less-seasoned associate about key power brokers and "which levers would be influential with those various centers of power," Dr. McMurry-Heath remarks.

Ms. Henderson also suggested that her mentee "stand firm and always look fabulous," Dr. McMurry-Heath adds. As a result, "I stopped apologizing for enjoying my style and my swagger."

Ms. Henderson says she encouraged Dr. McMurry-Heath to be her unique self without fear. "I think it worked!"

Dr. Shamiram "Shami" Feinglass

Chief medical officer of Danaher Corp.

Drs. Feinglass and McMurry-Heath discovered they shared similar childhoods following a 2010 FDA public meeting. The latter served on that meeting's panel about scant racial and gender diversity in the medical-device industry.

"We both grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area with mothers who were public-health workers and advocates," Dr. Feinglass remembers. "The drive for social justice runs deep and is something we both spend much time discussing."

At the time, Dr. Feinglass recently had quit a different U.S. government agency to join private industry. Her business experience proved useful later while Dr. McMurry-Heath was weighing J&J's job offer.

Dr. Feinglass persuaded her protégé to be a tough negotiator -- and retain a lawyer before she signed an employment contract with the company. Women often realize they must negotiate on their own behalf "a little bit late in their careers," Dr. McMurry-Heath concedes.

Michael Watkins

Co-founder of Genesis, a leadership-development consultancy

When J&J offered to pay for an executive coach, Dr. McMurry-Heath picked Dr. Watkins. The leadership-development specialist had previously counseled several of her colleagues there.

He has continued coaching Dr. McMurry-Heath since she arrived at BIO. "Michelle inherited an unusually complex political environment -- with a large board and a broad array of external stakeholders, all at a time of extraordinary turmoil," Dr. Watkins notes.

He says that's why he wanted the new chief to forge "less-than-obvious alliances" with BIO board members who have different interests and agendas.

Dr. McMurry-Heath also appreciated his reminder "to get to know people and listen before you necessarily act." So, she soon arranged individual Zoom video calls with 100 of the 106 BIO directors. She asked what they liked about the industry group and what drove them crazy.

The CEO intends to hold similar one-on-one sessions with the remaining BIO board members by year-end. Despite her demanding job, she says she pushes hard "to do better tomorrow than I did the day before."

Challenging herself in this way "makes me the most creative," Dr. McMurry-Heath explains. And "it keeps me from resting on my laurels."

Write to Joann S. Lublin at


(END) Dow Jones Newswires

November 21, 2020 00:14 ET (05:14 GMT)

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