Health Care GC Turned CEO: Business Expertise, Personal Flexibility Are Keys to Getting to the Top

July 11, 2017| CATEGORIES: Avella , Press Feature

When Rebecca Shanahan was interviewing for her first general counsel position in health care, she was asked about her ability to transition from consumer electronics to such a highly regulated industry.

"I know all about charged-couple devices in a television, and I'm not an engineer, but I know how to sit down with the engineer and really understand [the subject matter] in a way that allows me to apply it to the law," Shanahan recalled telling the interviewer, speaking of her then-job as an in-house lawyer at RCA. "If I can do that, I think I can figure out health care."

For someone who enjoys challenges and problem-solving as much as Shanahan does, the move to health care was an opportunity to hone her "rapid-fire" legal skills while learning to become a strategic partner with the business.

And so began a new chapter in her career that spanned legal and executive positions at several health care companies and culminated with the role of chief executive officer at Phoenix-based Avella Specialty Pharmacy, which operates a chain of retail pharmacies that provide specialty medications to patients in the United States. Under Shanahan's leadership, Avella's sales have nearly doubled in the past three years—likely one of the reasons why Ernst & Young recently named her Entrepreneur of the Year 2017 in the Mountain Desert region's health care category. 

Shanahan spoke with Corporate Counsel about what it takes to step out of the GC role and into the CEO position and shared some personal insights from her journey to the top.

As the general counsel at Community Hospitals of Indiana—the job Shanahan took after her time at RCA—she offered to help a finance department employee charged with developing a strategy for recruiting primary-care physicians. Together, they created a legal structure that would house a recruitment process—one so successful that an academic teaching hospital recruited her as a senior vice president to help build a primary care network of physicians affiliated with particular hospitals.

Since then, Shanahan has largely moved from GC duties to executive roles and board memberships. She credits her success in making the transition to her "capability of understanding not only the legal issues and the constraints that would be required by regulations, but also a true understanding of the business that I was providing those services to."

"As an in-house counsel, you can just see yourself as a lawyer practicing law with one client, but I saw it as being in the middle of the business," she said. "I got to understand everything that was going on with the company. And pairing that with the legal skills, natural curiosity and fact-finding and problem-solving skills you learn as a lawyer together makes you incredibly valuable to your organization."

In addition to curiosity about how the business works, getting a seat in the C-suite also requires flexibility—or, as Shanahan puts it, "saying yes until you have to say no"—and a certain level of courage.

"You just have to be open because in ways large and small that you can't predict at the time [a particular position] may be a logical part of your journey," she says. "You also have to be somewhat fearless because it takes a certain degree of confidence to step out of your comfort zone and move on to a new thing."

And on a more personal level, while it may not have been common when Shanahan graduated from law school in 1977 for women to pose direct questions related to their careers, making the right queries of potential life partners, should an aspiring professional woman opt to have one, is crucial to success, she said.

"You have to have a good partner who allows you to pursue your passions and career," Shanahan said, referring to her husband, who died from ALS in May 2016. "There is a critical inflection point around the issue of: 'What is the level of flexibility that you two will agree to have for each other?' You need to ask those questions to make sure the two of you are aligned on that."

And being equally flexible and supportive of your spouse's career often means "saying yes to different things," Shanahan said.

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