THE INSPIRATIONAL SONG “Climb Every Mountain” from the well-loved movie “The Sound of Music” could be Rear Admiral (RADM) Pamela M. Schweitzer’s theme song — both literally and figuratively. RADM Schweitzer is a mountain climber both in real life and in the profession of pharmacy.
In 2014, RADM Schweitzer became the first woman ever appointed to the Chief Professional Officer (CPO) post with the United States Public Health Service (USPHS). In this role, she provides leadership and coordination of USPHS pharmacy programs and professional affairs for the Office of the Surgeon General and the Department of Health and Human Services.
Reaching this pinnacle is only one step in her long and impressive upward career climb. RADM Schweitzer received a B.A. in Biological Sciences from California State University Fullerton and earned her Pharm.D. from the University of California San Francisco School of Pharmacy. Her career has been long and distinguished, including leadership roles with the Indian Health Service and Veterans Administration. She has received numerous awards and honors, most recently ASHP’s William A. Zellmer Lecture Award, which recognizes exceptional leadership in advancing healthcare-related public policy.
Mentorship and support from colleagues have played an important role throughout RADM Schweitzer’s career. “I didn’t want to be considered for the job originally,” she said, referring to the CPO position. But her mentors encouraged her and gave her the confidence to apply. “What I didn’t originally realize about the position was how important it was to other women,” she said.
Support for Women Pharmacists
After RADM Schweitzer accepted the CPO position, she could see the challenges that other women pharmacists were facing. Frequently, junior officers would come to her for guidance about balancing career and family. To address these issues, she started a women’s leadership support group, which includes more than 110 commissioned core officers, mainly pharmacists.
The group discusses numerous topics, particularly those related to work-life balance, including career decisions as they relate to balancing work and family, the importance of support, and leadership/management challenges. “Family first,” RADM Schweitzer often tells members of the group. “Learn to be smarter about where you put your energy. Where is your passion? If it’s your kids, do that! You learn leadership skills even by volunteering in your community.”
The support group also teaches women in leadership roles how to compartmentalize. “When you’re at work, you work,” explained RADM Schweitzer. “At home, you focus on family. Don’t let work brew in the back of your head. Turn it off.”
There are multiple support groups now located in different time zones. They usually meet once a month and periodically have special sessions on specific topics. One of the speakers at a recent meeting was RADM Schweitzer’s grown daughter, who spoke about what it was like to be the child of a mother with a professional career.
RADM Schweitzer credits her mentors with much of her success. “I learned a lot about how to maneuver through a bureaucracy, best approaches to take in solving problems, and other soft skills needed when working with the C-suite,” she said. “Men tended to take me under their wing, giving really good advice — for instance, not showing facial expressions when in meetings or negotiating.”
RADM Schweitzer routinely spends her evenings mentoring women who are strategic thinkers, which positions them to be the next generation of leaders. “Strategic thinking is the most important skill that people need to learn in order to be a leader,” she said. “I tend to help people with the soft skills used in dealing with people and problems, or helping them understand the big picture of what they are trying to achieve. I also help to give them confidence and reinforce when they are on the right track. I use Myers-Briggs techniques all the time.”
She also mentors junior officers and admires how “they want to learn to make things happen.” RADM Schweitzer gives them projects and works collaboratively with them. “It helps them get off the ground, it helps to connect them, and it becomes obvious who the good ones are.”
RADM Schweitzer is happiest when she is challenged, which inspires her to challenge others. “People want to feel included and part of something that is making an impact,” she said, which is why RADM Schweitzer asks junior officers to help with simple projects and encourages them to participate in workgroups. “I like to get [projects] off the ground, then train other people that I can pass the project off to. That’s another good way to mentor people.”
On the Up and Up
As a seasoned mountain climber, RADM Schweitzer sees many analogies between mountain climbing and pharmacy leadership. “Climbs take a lot of training,” said RADM Schweitzer. “You look at the mountain and it looks absolutely impossible, unachievable, unattainable — like the scope of a project. But one step at a time, staying focused on the mission and you get there. You may have to stop and adapt, or adjust what you are doing, but you keep going and you don’t give up.”
She has climbed Mt. Rainier, Mt. Kilimanjaro, and many other geologic giants. She noted that scaling Mt. Rainier was particularly rough, requiring the use of ropes to cross glacial ravines. “You’re going up, and people along the way are dropping … but you just keep going. Something inside keeps pushing you,” said RADM Schweitzer. That push, she noted, is what is needed to attain leadership positions as well.
One of the secrets to RADM Schweitzer’s success is keeping things in perspective and looking at the bigger picture. She admits that always doing the right thing can be difficult. Early in her career, she used to avoid people she didn’t get along with, but she eventually realized that wasn’t productive. RADM Schweitzer learned to turn conflicts into something constructive. “I needed to see the world from their view and figure out what they wanted. I needed to be strategic,” she said.
Ask Women to Lead
When it comes to being promoted into leadership roles, RADM Schweitzer encourages women to speak up and ask for what they want. In her experience, women are less likely than men to speak up in group settings, unless the group is comprised primarily of women.
Women in leadership positions can help other women by asking them to contribute in meetings and giving them kudos when they make a good point. “Women need that encouragement more than men do,” said RADM Schweitzer. “I help by calling on them, saying ‘Hey, what do you think? I’d like to hear your thoughts.’ It makes a difference.”
A look at RADM Schweitzer’s career makes it clear that with inner drive, support from mentors, and strategic thinking, women can climb to the top.
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