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#ImBlackInPharma | Nyambe (Yam) Sumbwanyambe

Updated: Jan 27, 2022

Nyambe (Yam) Sumbwanyambe - Commercial Excellence Lead

What do you do?

I am currently the Commercial Excellence Lead for the Human Health Division of MSD in the UK. My organisations mission is to save and improve lives. I play my part by collaborating with other business leaders to understand and enable evolving commercial, sales and marketing capabilities. I lead activities that support our business in operational execution and performance improvement. That could include anything from supporting talent development, to executive event/party planning, to adoption of new and leading-edge technologies. The goal is always to drive growth and value by delivering outstanding customer experiences.

Alongside my role, I am part of the leadership team for our Employee Business Resource Group, the League of Employees of African Descent (LEAD). We aim to build our pipeline of future leaders of African descent and I specifically focus on supporting our members career development.

What do you enjoy most about your role?

My work aligns with my values of purpose, personal growth, and making an impact. Each day offers variety and I get a real buzz from the privilege of pressure to deliver and the constant stream of opportunities to learn! The old Pharma models of working and customer engagement are evolving or gone, and nobody is quite sure what the new model looks like. Similar could be said for leadership and talent development in our industry too. It’s exciting to be part of creating that change. I am currently charting our future commercial model and hope to help improve healthcare outcomes as a result. I also get the opportunity to shape inclusive environments that help people thrive and grow.

How did you get into Pharma?

Getting into Pharma has changed over the years. My journey started as a representative in Yorkshire. Back then, the first test was getting shadowing experience (observing a pharmaceutical representative going about their daily business). If you could convince a rep to allow you to shadow, it’s a good sign you could convince a clinician to spare some of their precious time when it really counts.

Soon after passing that test, I secured my first role at a contracted salesforce team, before later moving onto MSD, where I have been for 14 years. The lesson from shadowing I still use today is; listening is often the only thing you need to do well to truly help someone!

Why Pharma?

Regardless of your role in this industry, you are playing an important part in changing people’s lives. Through enabling optimal healthcare outcomes for patients that need our products and services, the pharma industry offers a unique opportunity to have wide reaching impact. If I’m honest it’s why I have stayed here all these years. I came into my own when I moved from sales to learning and development. It opened my eyes to how our business really works and was a platform to amplify my impact on our people and business. The pharmaceutical industry doesn’t always get the best press, but I believe, and have seen so many noble and necessary achievements in this field and look forward to more to come!

What has your experience been being #BlackInPharma?

Looking back at my childhood, I was regularly told I must work twice as hard to be seen the same as my white peers. This is as a narrative I felt, especially in my early career. I had one awful experience with a manager that I wasn’t equipped to deal with. As a result, for some years to follow, I irrationally waited for future managers to realise I was not as good as my results suggested. In some ways, that kept me honest, focused, and helped me progress. It also wasted precious energy overthinking my contributions. As I have matured, I have realised my true value and found a better balance between working hard and working smart. My top tips? Good processes matter, relationships matter, and results come if you pay attention to the other two. With the right mindset you can always positively influence these things and I have found people respect that. They respect you as a black person in Pharma.

I am fortunate to have had managers and mentors that have enabled and supported me and my career. I have also been able to make few lifelong friends along the way at work. (Shout out if you are reading, you know who you are!).

The world is battling social injustice on many fronts. Organisations have a key role to reflect the diverse customers and patients that we serve. Now, more than ever, they are looking for brilliant diverse minds to help them do that!

Top tips to getting into your role / Pharma?

Have you heard of “Ikigai”? If not, google it, preferably when you’ve finished reading this. It’s a Japanese concept I like to refer to; something that gives a person a sense of purpose, a reason for living. The pharma industry offers many different opportunities to find your “Ikigai”; something you love, something the world needs, something that aligns to what you are good at, and something you can be paid for. Ask yourself these searching questions and then target specific roles that meet your needs.

I came into the industry through the traditional company rep role. That role has completely changed, and I don’t believe it will be the main route in for commercial roles moving forward. I would advise those that are more experienced to bring their transferable skills from other sectors. Take advantage of internships, graduate schemes, and apprenticeships. Use recruitment agents but don’t be afraid to approach organisations and people doing roles you are interested in directly via LinkedIn. When you do, clarity on your “Ikigai” may help you be a little more authentic when networking and stand out from others. Different roles have specific requirements. Most will appreciate candidates that have an empathy for patients, understanding of current trends in the industry, and new developments in other industries that pharma could benefit from. Be and stay curious.

I am not typical of people in my role. I have expertise in learning and development, not a heritage in marketing. I have always been closer to the people than the business. Meaning that I believe you can be commercially astute whilst prioritising employees, customers, and patients. I am often the only black person in the room. These are not qualifying comments, they are some of what give me unique perspective in my role, I see them as my superpowers. As I have matured, I feel like I am gaining some of the “cheat codes” to progress in the commercial sector of the pharma industry. If I was to give my younger self some advice, these would be my top 5:

· Focus on strategy – Get into the habit of being boarder-line obsessive about how you invest your time, I would suggest that over 50% of it should be focused on activities that drive core business aims forward. Protect time to review and plan for this every day. Question the value and return on investment of your activities, and if any of them could be improved. It will help understand the impact you are having, give you the headspace to say no to distractions, and identify opportunities to drive efficiency and improve results. This relentless focus on strategy should give you the clarity that is so critical when taking others on journeys of change or implementation.

· Develop wide networks and keep in touch with the pulse of the environment. Seek to understand what competitors are doing and look out for the potential impact of political, environmental and/or economic events. To be commercially excellent you need to find the balance between predicting and making the future. Technology is playing an ever-increasing role on this front. Follow thought leaders on social media, build your own social media presence, and look to participate in forums where you will find the brightest minds. A good friend once told me it pays to be to; “be more interested than interesting”.

· Don’t be afraid to fail. Get comfortable with hypothesising, testing new ideas and iterating. When things don’t go to plan, frame the experience as a learning opportunity and share it like you would your successes. Play a leading role in creating a learning environment of creativity and engagement, it’s the type of culture that is essential for our success. These types of attitudes reflect resilience, accountability, and business leadership. Key commodities in supporting organisations to overcome challenges and work through problems.

· Connect the dots within your business. Get to know the focus of sales and marketing and the relation with commercial return. At a very basic level, ROI and efficient ways of working create more resource for patient benefit. Assess sales and marketing data personally so that you can help strategise for better results. Be proactive in sharing your thoughts. Learn all you can about how money moves within our business and how to drive positive culture and results. Invest in understanding the market and challenges of the sales team so that you can help bridge any gaps preventing you meeting customer’s needs.

· Prioritise your career development. Be intentional about driving and sharing your career and development plan with people that matter most. Clarity on where you want to go, how you plan to get there, and why it’s important to you, make it so much easier for others to help. The “how” may change with insight from development conversations. 70% of development happens in your current role, look for ways to demonstrate commercial excellence or take on additional responsibilities and projects that will broaden your experience. Get into the habit of leading without authority early. Use coaching and mentoring as tools to accelerator your career, not as driver it. Don’t forget to track your progress and shout about your successes. Be curious and take every opportunity to pay forward what you have learned on your own career journey.

Small Print: I am working on applying my own tips consistently and I’m not perfect… yet!

Fun fact

I was once awarded a prize for dancing on stage at a night club by Ja Rule (search “Always On Time” if you don’t know who). My love for music and dancing is still strong, but these days my three-year-old has better moves than me. You can check our moves out on last year’s Dove Men+Care #DadsCare ad campaign… don’t blink or you’ll miss us.


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