First 90 Days: Syneos Health’s Michelle Keefe

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Welcome to First 90 Days, a series dedicated to examining how pharma executives are planning for success in their new role. Today, we’re featuring a conversation with Michelle Keefe, Syneos Health’s new CEO, who approaches the role with a combination of confidence and humility.

Upon hearing the news that she had received the unanimous nod from the board of directors to take on as the role of CEO of Syneos Health in April, the first people to congratulate Michelle Keefe were her daughter, Taylor, and her husband. Keefe says the two were “eavesdropping” outside her home office when the call came. “This full-circle moment” was meaningful to Keefe, as Taylor, who is a clinical mental health counselor, lives about 90 miles away and is rarely home.

“It was great my family was with me,” Keefe says. “Their support has been critical to be able to do a job like this

Getting to lead Syneos, a fully integrated clinical research organization, and its 29,000 associates, is a “dream job,” and one that Keefe has been building toward for 30 years.

“It’s the opportunity of a lifetime and I’m so excited that I’m going to be able to guide the organization to get to the next level of success,” she says.

Keefe started her career in Big Pharma at Pfizer, where, as regional president, she designed and implemented the commercial model for the US primary care business unit. She then went on to be vice president of market development for the Visiting Nurse Service of New York, a role she says was a “tipping point” in her career.

“I saw the Herculean efforts that nurses and caregivers go through to make sure healthcare is delivered, especially to marginalized patient populations, which account for 80% of care,” she says.

Keefe eventually joined Publicis, first as chief operating officer and then president and CEO of Publicis Touchpoint Solutions (now Amplity Health). Her extensive commercial background was the perfect fit for the role as of medical affairs and commercial solutions at Syneos Health, which she assumed just over four years ago.

Keefe takes over the mantle of leadership from Alistair Macdonald, who held the position of CEO for 20 years. Macdonald, a PharmaVoice 100 honoree, was responsible for merging INC Research and inVentiv Health, a combination CRO and contract commercial organization, to create Syneos Health in 2017.

Keefe’s ascension to the top role marks the first time a woman has headed up a publicly traded CRO of this size since Candace Kendle, who founded Kendle International. In 2011, Kendle oversaw the sale of the company to INC Research. When asked about this connection, Keefe says while she’s glad to be among women breaking new ground, she’s quick to clarify: “Syneos is not a CRO.”

“We’re at an integrated product development company,” she explains. “Yes, we have the capabilities of a CRO but we really want to throw out the terminology of CRO and the same thing with CCO — contract commercial organization. We want customers to see us as a life sciences services partner.”

Macdonald, who will stay on as an advisor at the organization until 2023, started laying the ground work for the transition back in January.

“I am very grateful to Alistair, who is a very inclusive leader,” Keefe says. “I feel like I’ve been crafting the future of the organization as we’ve gone along. There won’t be a huge shift in strategy, yet there are a couple things I am going to focus on right away.”

The first of those focus points is what Keefe calls the intelligent enterprise, which is “the acceleration of our digital data and analytics capabilities that started with our commercial asset Kinetic, followed by the acquisition of RxDataScience last year.”

In today’s installment of our continuing series, First 90 Days, Keefe, a PharmaVoice 100, shares her strategic vision for the company, why she believes diverse teams drive better outcomes and what it means to be a role model.

PharmaVoice: What does the first 90 days look like for you?

Michelle Keefe: I was very conscious coming into this role from the inside to not assume I know everything. I am looking at everything with a fresh set of eyes just as if I were new to the company. With that mindset, I don’t allow biases that I might naturally have or beliefs that I have guide me, and then I can marry what I see with what I have experienced. I’m doing listening tours with our three stakeholder groups, starting with colleagues. I’ve done three already and a town hall with more than 10,000 employees with Michael Brooks, who is the new COO. We are going to Europe in June, and when we can go to China and Japan, we will.

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