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
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
Among other things, Dr. McMurry-Heath champions greater minority
participation during clinical trials of potential Covid-19
"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
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
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
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
Dr. Margaret "Peggy" Hamburg
Former foreign secretary for the National Academy of Medicine
and former commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug
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
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.
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
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
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
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
Challenging herself in this way "makes me the most creative,"
Dr. McMurry-Heath explains. And "it keeps me from resting on my
Write to Joann S. Lublin at firstname.lastname@example.org
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