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2002 Sara S. Harrison

From Chemist to VP: Sarah S. Harrison, 2002 HBA Woman of the Year
By: Robin Madell, Consultant

With each year that passes, the bar becomes higher for the women we recognize for the HBA's top honor. It's a great thing that women now crowd the industry's corridors at the senior level, from directors through vice presidents, inching ever closer to those elusive top spots. Yet with so many high-flyers to choose from, the HBA Woman of the Year (WOTY) must be a superwoman among an ever-growing pool of leaders. Sarah S. Harrison, 2002 HBA Woman of the Year, fits the bill to a tee. The flood of nominations from her colleagues, her higher-ups, her customers, and her community members paint a picture of someone who goes above and beyond in all arenas - a model for our industry and our time.

As vice president of customer strategy integration at AstraZeneca, her position at the time of accepting this award, you might think that Harrison had started her career on the track to upper management. Not so. Her early aspiration was to become a physician, and she got a degree in chemistry as a back-up plan in case she didn't have time to finish medical school. It was a good plan. After a short run at Gulf Oil as a chemist, Harrison opted to take a similar post at Zeneca (then ICI), in agricultural chemicals, which gave her a chance to be involved on a start-up team that was beginning to build a new plant in the U.S. The local plant manager and the director of operations there became her first mentors, encouraging her to move into the business side and accept a job in the home office. Despite her initial trepidation - she now had a husband and three children to factor into her decision-making - she took his advice. She signed on as national production coordinator and began her corporate climb, first on the manufacturing end of the business.

A Pull Towards Pharma

In the meantime, Harrison leveraged her newly acquired MBA and began to think about how she might parlay her business acumen to the healthcare side of the business - the source of her true passion. She had been offered a promotion in Zeneca's agriculture business, but her heart wasn't in it, and to her surprise, she learned she was being sought out by management to be considered for the pharmaceutical division. Despite her lack of experience in the area, the fact that she had been a star performer in each of her moves did not go unnoticed. In 1989, she joined the pharmaceutical side of Zeneca as manager of bids and contracts. Shortly afterwards, at the advent of managed care, she was offered the chance to take over healthcare contract management for hospitals and managed care. These she did without the standard district manager background. "When people asked where I had been in the field, I would say, “In soybeans!” she laughs. In less than 10 years, Harrison had climbed all the way to vice president of managed healthcare and national accounts, having risen through traditional product management and market strategy/contract operations.

Harrison was offered and accepted the position of vice president for the pain, anesthesia and infection therapeutic area for the newly merged AstraZeneca. In this capacity, she had profit and loss accountability for clinical development, commercialization and life cycle management of the products. 


A Management Style That Defines Success

Her management style is perceived by many to be very demanding and direct, and Harrison admits this is true - but adds that she is also much more. "I like to help my team set and achieve aggressive goals, think out of the box, get out of their comfort zones, beat the competition, and strive for performance `par excellence.' I am accessible to help my team achieve results and deliver beyond their own expectations. I am a coach and co-worker at the same time, willing to roll up my sleeves whenever needed," she says. Countless employees, men and women alike, credit Harrison with providing opportunities for one-on-one mentorship. She firmly believes in routinely recognizing and celebrating successes (small and big).


Industry Changes Demand New Skills

In honor of the HBA's 25th anniversary theme, "Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow," we asked Harrison what skills and qualities she believes were most important for women in the industry when she entered the workplace, versus what is important today and for the future. She suggests that while communication skills, management style, interpersonal skills, ability to learn, analytical and thinking skills, and organizational skills were yesterday's requirements and are still necessary, today's success skills stretch even farther. These include the ability to lead, be an effective team player in matrix operating models, adaptability to change, a willingness to help others (and therefore your company) succeed, strategic thinking and ROI driven execution, strong presentation and influencing skills, setting and meeting ambitious - and measurable - goals, and a strong customer focus.

Among her many victories in life so far, Harrison counts receiving the HBA's Woman of the Year Award among her finest moments: "This award is very significant to me and probably the most prestigious recognition I've received because it acknowledges both my professional and personal accomplishments," she says. "It's also gratifying and humbling to know that, in large part, this comes from my peers and colleagues in the industry." Regarding community service, she says, "I do these things as part of my interest in `giving back' and because it's who I am. It's what makes me tick!"

Read more about the 2002 Woman of the Year event

Robin Madell has spent over a decade as a writer and consultant on business and public interest issues. Robin spent the past year on Wall Street as director of communications for Catalyst, Inc., a nonprofit research organization that works to advance women in business. 

About the HBA
The Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association (HBA) is a global nonprofit organization serving a community women and men in leading life sciences, biotech, pharmaceutical and supporting companies. The HBA has nearly 120 Corporate Partners and nearly 8,000 members served by more than 20 chapters and affiliates across the U.S. and Europe. advancement issues. HBA has nearly 5,000 individual members and over 130 Corporate Partners. It is widely recognized as the catalyst for leadership development of women in healthcare worldwide.