Women We Admire: 6 Life Lessons from Biopharma Leader Nancy Phelan

by | December 7, 2018

How her sister’s serious chronic illness inspired her healthcare career, lessons in women’s leadership, and why work-life balance doesn’t work

This post is part of the FemmePharma series, Women We Admire, where we highlight women who inspire us with extraordinary life lessons. In this post, we chatted with Nancy Phelan, a leader in the biopharma industry and advocate for women’s health. Read on to learn about how she got her start in healthcare, why she doesn’t believe in work-life balance, and tips for staying on top of your menopausal health.

1. Pursue your biggest dreams

Nancy Phelan always wanted to work in healthcare, and she jump-started her career in a remarkable way. Phelan, a biopharma leader with a storied career in global pharmaceuticals, was inspired to enter the healthcare field as a result of her sister’s life-threatening asthma. With no viable asthma treatments that could help her sister at that time, Nancy and her family lived in constant fear.

“I was 7 or 8, and it really made an impact on me – her disease was so serious,” Phelan said. “I remember always feeling scared. Was my sister going to come home? Was she going to pull through every asthmatic episode?”

Everything changed when not one, but two pharmaceutical drugs were introduced that actually proved to help.

“These products completely changed my sister’s life and my entire family’s lives,” Phelan said. “I remember being captivated by the magic of medicine. Not just from a treatment perspective, but the impact on the family. It’s really something that stayed with me from early in my life.”

Once Nancy graduated from college, her mission was clear: she wanted to work for Schering-Plough, the pharmaceutical company that developed the products that saved her sister’s life.

And she did. Nancy began her 11-year run at Schering-Plough in sales and eventually played a pivotal role in the launch of the popular allergy drug Claritin and its transition from prescription to the over-the-counter drug it is today.

2. There’s no such thing as work-life balance

As Nancy continued to grow in her biopharma career, her family grew, too. She left Schering-Plough once baby number two was on the way and prioritized choices that were right for her professional life and personal life.

And that begs the age-old question: is there such a thing as balance when you’re a working mom?

“Think about an old-fashioned scale,” Phelan said. “When you are in balance, you are doing two things equally well simultaneously. That’s not possible. I am never in balance. What I try to do is always be out of balance. So when I’m at home, I want to be focused on home. When I’m at work, I want to be my best possible self at work. That doesn’t mean that life doesn’t interrupt and that doesn’t mean that you don’t make trade-offs. You have to be realistic with yourself.”

Nancy says that this advice has helped her be both physically and mentally available, whether she’s at home or in the office.

“I think this notion of balance is a bunch of shenanigans,” she said. “I don’t want to ever be in balance. I was to be 100% off balance and be completely focused on whatever it is I’m up to at that moment.”

3. Give yourself a break

During Nancy’s time at Pfizer, she had the opportunity to see women’s healthcare through a new lens when she was part of a team working to develop an Alzheimer’s treatment. That’s when she realized that women – and oftentimes, menopausal women – are usually the default caregivers in their families, tasked to look after their ailing parents.

“When you’re a mom, you celebrate when your child gets out of diapers,” she said. “You get to share these great moments with your friends and family. With Alzheimer’s, you have the opposite happening. You’re loved ones stop talking. Your loved ones start wearing diapers. You don’t celebrate these milestones. There’s a lot of shame and stigma associated with it.”

So it’s no surprise that women who are caregivers are under a tremendous amount of stress, especially when it’s one of many roles that they play in the lives in of their family and friends.

“Unfortunately, a lot of the burden lands on women, she said. “I started to think differently about women’s health in that role. It’s hard to take care of yourself when you’re juggling a career, kids, and the caregiving burden. I now take a broader view of women’s health to think about the role that women play in healthcare. They are often the Chief Medical Officer, helping friends and family go through those things.”

That’s why it’s so important for your health – and if you’re a caregiver, the health of your loved ones – to give yourself a break.

4. To elevate yourself, first, elevate others

Nancy says that she has been fortunate to work with colleagues that have empowered her throughout her career. That’s why she stresses the importance of building diverse teams and coaching women professionally to help them bring their best selves to work every day.

“The best teams that I’ve been on are the ones that are diverse,” she said. “I want people with different points of view, different experiences, on the teams that I build. Of course, that includes women.”

“Throughout my career, I have spent a lot of time coaching women. There is value in being able to coach someone when they’re talking through a career choice. Helping them understand how to get feedback and work well with others. These softer skills are critical when you think about how your career can continue to grow. Do you show up as confident? Do you show up as collaborative? Do you show up well prepared? I spend a lot of time coaching women on these things.”

5. When it comes to menopausal health, do your homework

Working in the healthcare industry was a big wake-up call for Nancy when she realized how much misinformation there was out there about women’s health. In one of her roles, she was focused on bringing more accurate information to the public about women’s health. She has a few pointers for helping menopausal women stay better informed.

“Being in the healthcare industry, even I find it hard to navigate, but there are a couple of things you can do,” she said.

“One is to know your source. There are some great resources that are usually medical associations and patient associations, like the American Association of Gynecology. They’ve got great resources.”

“The second thing is there’s a lot of great patient communities out there. A lot of times you can find people like you who are going through the same thing and they give you a different perspective.”

“The third thing is buyer beware. You can’t just go by one resource. Of course, your physician is helpful, but you need to triangulate. Know your issue, what you’re trying to solve for, look at the different perspectives from your physician and credible sources, experts, and other women. If you see a response or approach that is repeated in a couple of different places, usually that’s credible. If you see something that sounds too good to be true or you’re only seeing it in one or two places, I would discount that.”

“The last thing is that we’re all different. What works for one person may not work for someone else. You need to have that discussion with your physician, be able to talk about your specific issues and what’s working or not working for you so you can find an approach that works for who you are.”

6. Be picky when it comes to menopause solutions

As a leader in the healthcare industry, Nancy has high standards when it comes to the companies she works with. That’s why we’re so excited to have her level of expertise on the board at FemmePharma.

“Menopause is a really sensitive, personal topic,” she said. “I’m excited about companies like FemmePharma. I think what Gerie is doing is amazing. She’s applying pharmaceutical grade knowledge, manufacturing, and science in an OTC environment. There will be high quality, made for women by women products that you can get access to on your own. You can take your healthcare into your own hands. It’s exciting, it’s disruptive, it’s about time.”