In this episode, Josef McNeal, National Sales Director for Abbott Nutrition, joins Samuel as he shares his amazing career from sales rep to an executive-level leadership role with the focus on innovation and digital solutions. Josef gives an overview of Abbott Nutrition and how they assist large group practices, hospitals, and institutions embed nutritional pathways with the use of innovative digital solutions. Get to know how Josef directs his team from a leadership standpoint that is rooted in his learnings selling insulin in his early days. Josef and Samuel discuss the importance of authenticity and the skills you need to have to be successful in any sales job.
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Authenticity, Digital Solutions and Executive Level Leadership
Josef, how are you?
I’m good. How have you been?
I’m living. I’m making it work in this new environment of the Coronavirus era. Why don’t you tell everyone who you are, who you’re with, and what are you doing?
Thank you for having me first and foremost. My name is Josef McNeal. I’m originally from Gainesville, Florida. I come from a family of five boys and going through college, I played sports. I went to a university called Stetson University, which looked at education first. From there, I got my undergrad in Computer Information Systems and later on, I went and got my Master’s in Healthcare Management. What’s crazy about all of this is that I initially started working for Wells Fargo. You wonder, how did you transition from Wells Fargo and then banking to the healthcare industry?
It’s important to have a mentor as well as the sponsor. I had the best of both worlds where I had a mentor who was related to me who was in the industry then I had a sponsor who was an executive in the industry that could speak for me on my behalf. After working in banking for a while, I went on and worked for Sanofi-Aventis. I initially start there for a year and a half. Since then, I’ve been with Abbott Labs for several years.
I’ve held many different job titles from Abbott as a representative, a district sales trainer, a national sales trainer, working in a pediatric specialty, working in the pharmaceutical part of our business, and then transitioning over to the nutrition side of our organization. I’ve had a number of hats and have been able to change the perspective of what they look at as athletes, as someone that is a minority that’s in the executive space. I think that’s important too. Now I’m having a lot of fun. I’m leading an innovative team nationally and we’re creating new things all the time. I’m having a lot of fun still doing what I’m doing.
What is your role now?
My role now is I’m a national sales director for Abbott Nutrition where we focus on the innovation space. What we’re all doing is we’re working all virtually. We connect the virtual world to what’s most important to the healthcare industry, telehealth, telemedicine, remote patient monitoring, and align that with some of our nutritional aspects that can benefit patient’s lives.
Talk to us a little bit about what is the nutritional division of Abbott?
Some of the main brands that you would know from Abbott would be Ensure, Glucerna, and then we have a multitude of 50 to 100 different products that are held inside the hospital. For a patient that has malabsorption issues and it’s tough for them to take in certain products that have a protein, we will have specific products for those patients. It’s a multitude of products, but we have a vast array of brands that are out there on the market.
You run that division, what does your team do? What is their day–to–day look like? Are they reps? Are they working from home? Tell us how does that work.
That’s the unique piece of it. I have a team of two sales directors and in those sales directors have a number of reports that are regional account managers. Those regional account managers focus on working with large group practices or even hospital institutions that are looking to embed a nutritional pathway into their current electronic health records. What we do is try to identify patients that would be of need for nutrition early before they need the product. By the time they need the product, they’ve probably lost a lot of weight.
If they’re at a state to where in their disease state, they probably should have already started on nutritional processes. If you think about it, if you are someone that had cancer and you’ve lost 15% of your body weight, that puts you at a higher risk for additional complications later on. What my team would do is identify things that would show that you would be at risk based on evidence-based practices. We initiate those specific practices within the pathway, work within that hospital or practice institution to make sure that that patient is identified early before they start to get down that loss of lean body mass.
What type of representative is that called?
For us, it’s called a number of things but what we look at it is the overall patient population. The larger patient populations that cost our healthcare institutions more time, effort, and money to care for it. It would be those that have comorbidities, those that have diabetes, CHF, they have a higher BMI. It’s going to be those individuals that have a higher risk for some event.
I want to believe that when you were young, maybe 5, 6, or 7, you weren’t saying, “One day I want to work for Abbott in the nutritional division.” When you went to college, you were an athlete. You said you started in the banking industry. What got you into that? Did you want to be a banker? Was that the dream then you saw, “Wait a minute, there’s something else that got my intention?” Tell us a little bit about coming out of college, what you want it to do, what you got into, and then how you got into your first role in the pharmaceutical space?
Coming out of college, to be honest with you, I wanted a job. It didn’t matter where it was. I’ve always been good with numbers and I think this could be within my wheelhouse and upon starting with Wells Fargo, probably the first six months I was introduced to my sponsor from my mentor. My mentor is like a godfather to me. He had been in the industry for over 10, 15 years at that time. He had been trying to get me over into the industry. I was like, “I’m not sure if that’s something I want to do.” He said, “I think you should talk to this guy who I want to make your sponsor because I think this would fall in your wheelhouse. This will be something that I think would be a passion of yours.”
For me, it was like, “I’m open to it. Let me have a conversation with this person.” The 30–minute conversation turned into two hours. Then that two hours turned into me following up with them the following week to have a ride along with them to see what the day–to–day is. Once that I did the day–to–day, I think it was over because I knew it was something that I wanted to do. I have a passion for initiating new things, helping people, but also challenging myself and I saw that it’s happening every single day and in the pharmaceutical industry and it changes still every single day. With COVID-19, we’re facing new challenges. There’s a new challenge now.Everyone has a unique skillset that can add to the team. Click To Tweet
What was your first role in the pharmaceutical industry? What type of rep were you in?
My first role with Sanofi-Aventis was selling insulin. I had rapid-acting insulin as well as the basal insulin. I can tell you if you’re ever going to be thrown into the industry, that would be a tough deal to go into initially. It taught me so many different lessons. Until this day, I still go back to my time starting there to keep myself honest on what’s needed and what patients go through.
How long were you there as a sales rep?
I was with Sanofi-Aventis for a year and a half then I transitioned to Abbott Pharmaceuticals. I was a rep probably the course of maybe 4 to 5 years and then transitioned into a trainer. From a trainer, that’s the steps you take in order to get into management.
How was the training space for you?
The training space was the hardest job I’ve ever had in the pharmaceutical industry. The reason for that is you never own your own schedule and I covered Key West to Washington, DC. I was responsible for initiating, helping, and assisting reps with any new materials that we had or anyone that was coming on into our organization but it gave me a great deal of understanding of how to build my team and what I’m looking for.
The traditional individual that most people at that time were looking for in the pharmaceutical sales reps, like, “You have to have X amount of experience in this role.” I went away from all of that because I remember how hungry I was to get into the industry and I was willing to take any coaching. Those were the types of reps and people that I wanted. I was looking for teachers. I was looking for any ex–athlete. I was looking for anyone that worked in the rental car business. I was looking for individuals that have tough jobs but had a great customer service experience.
Is that still how you see it now as far as when you look for people to put on your team?
It’s still that way now. If you were to ask anyone on my team, they always say, “You always bring on an eclectic group and those groups do well.” It’s because everyone has a unique skillset that can add to the team. Now, I have a few dietitians that are on my team and they’re clinical. I have a few individuals that come from a sales background. I have a few individuals where one was an accountant before they came over into sales.
It’s a multitude of backgrounds. I want to know, “Are you coachable? Are you willing to make mistakes but learn fast? Are you willing to think outside of the box?” I think those things are important. I always look for authenticity. I want people to be themselves. At the end of the day, we interact with individuals we like whether we like to admit it or not, we do. We also like to deal with people that listen to us and not someone that controls the conversation. I think those things are still highly important to me. It’s important overall when I think that comes with a sales job, you can’t understand what’s important to our customers if you’re not willing to listen to them first.
I’m assuming you interview people for your team regularly.
Because we’ve created this innovation space, this group was not here years ago. I presented the opportunity for us to have a group that focused on quality control, quality metrics, CMS innovation, and how we can fall within our customer’s wheelhouse as it pertains to their quality advancements. With that being said, now what I do is I work with a number of reps that are in the field and put them through a leadership development program where they get a chance to engage with the customers from the C-Suite level that we’re working with. They get a chance to receive additional coaching from mentors who are ramped in the field and then they get a chance to receive additional coaching from the senior managers as well as regional directors and myself.You can't understand what's important to our customers if you're not willing to listen to them first. Click To Tweet
What do you believe makes a good rep? I love what you said about who you look for when you put people on your team and what you strive to train yourself to be able to do as you branched out, but when you have a new rep and you want to give them advice on how to be an amazing rep, give me the top three that come across your mind.
I think about my time being a rep and the mistakes I made initially too, but more importantly, number one, you have to be coachable. Don’t take things personally. It’s the model of, if no one’s coaching you, you will never reach your peak. I think you’ll always never reach your peak if you’re coachable. That means you’re always looking for the next opportunity to be your best self. Number two is being authentic.
I want you to be yourself, the understanding of what the customer’s needs are and I think the more that people are themselves, the best version of them will come out and not what they’re trying to be, because healthcare providers can read through that fast. If you’re being fake, they can read through it and pass it fast. The third thing is, stay up to date on things. Stay educated and read. There are changes, especially with COVID-19 that are happening fast.
The more you’re able to relate and understand our customer’s world, what they’re going through, what patients are going through the more you’re able to relate to them and build rapport fast. If you can read and understand what’s happening in our healthcare provider’s universe, they’ll trust you more. You are someone that they see now as a trusted advisor and not someone from the industry. I think that’s important to remove yourself and create your brand as someone like an advisor more than someone from the industry.
I want to touch a little bit on the authenticity because that’s an important one but I want you to explain what that means. Give us an example of what it means to be inauthentic and then, in that same scenario, what it means to be authentic.
First, let’s talk about the person that’s being inauthentic. What that is having conversations and it’s a one-way conversation. Controlling the conversation, leading the conversation with the healthcare provider, telling the healthcare provider what you want and what you need is self-centered and it’s not around what’s most important to the provider and the patient. If that is your authentic self, then maybe this isn’t the job for you. Maybe you need to be in a different role.
If you’re someone that shows compassion for people, you have to have empathy for what’s going on. If you are someone that meets those skills and quality, then that will allow you to have the best authentic version of yourself when you’re having conversations with healthcare providers. You’re willing to lean in and listen. You’re willing to check-in if you’re having a discussion with them, you’re checking in while you’re talking.
There’re breaks in your conversation. Is this relatable to you and your patients? Is this something that you would see that valuable? Tell me, why not? Be honest if it’s something that, “You have a great point. Maybe that’s not the best patient for being your authentic self.” Also saying, “I don’t know but I’ll find an answer for you.” Never give luck, never give something that you’re not sure of. Be your authentic self. If you don’t know, be able to provide the answer later on, but be okay saying that. I think that gives you more value than most people understand is being honest, upfront, and true.
You’ve had a long career and you still have so much left. What are some of your goals for where you want to take things? You don’t have to give me the specific plan, just some general ideas, the direction you want to take.
I have a passion for helping people. My undergrad is a computer information system. I love the tech and the virtual world. I love working with large populations. I’m in my wheelhouse and we have multiple divisions within Abbott. Some organizations have diversified groups. I can think of J&J that’s diversified, similar to what we are. As you may know, everyone works in silos and communication drops. There’s an opportunity where we all do something well that could benefit patients as well as our customers.
If you’re thinking long-term, I would like to bring all of the groups together to be able to at least have a discussion around what’s our value proposition that we provide for customers and patients, what’s important to us? How do we still stick to our ethics, morals, and values while bringing additional resources to the market? That’s important to me. I think there’s a global view to it that we’re getting close to touching now but we’re scratching the surface. I think COVID-19 is forcing us to do more of that now, which is good.
When it comes to navigating your career, what’s the one thing you would advise people that want to move up, get into different roles, and take on more responsibility? What’s the one thing you would advise people to keep a pulse on as they progress through their career?You have to be coachable, don't take things personal. Click To Tweet
For me, it’s not cookie-cutter. For most individuals, what I would say is proactively create a project for yourself that will bring value to your organization. You don’t just blindly do it. You need to have conversations with those that are in an executive space within your organization, or even your manager to understand our five-year term goals look like? What is our two-year goal look like? How are we progressing? Then what you should do is identify someplace where you can provide additional value and create a project.
The reason why you want to create a project is you want to have a proof of concept whenever you’re having a conversation with anyone from C-Suite that’s in your current corporation or organization so then they can say, “Josef, what steps have you taken?” “I’ve spoken to these 4, 5 individuals, and what I’ve seen as an aligned goal of what they think that’s important for us in the near and distant future are these three topics. Based on these three topics, here’s the project that I’ve started doing over the last 3 to 4 months. I would like to continue this.”
The reason why I would like to continue this and the reason why I would like to continue this is to build a proof of concept that we can do this across the nation. The reason why that’s important is that now shows them that you’re going to be a proactive person, whether or not it’s been a project that they see valuable. They can then see value in you as an individual that can bring more to the organization. I would say that’s one thing. The second thing is you got to find mentors within your organization that will be able to speak to you and speak for you when you’re not in meetings or you’re not able to be in certain meetings.
I think building those mentorships is based on trust. Also, you can build those off of your hard work. I’m a mentor for a number of individuals within my organization and I picked those that don’t have a lot of experience to those that do have a ton of experience. I think it’s good for me to have a good grasp on what the person that’s starting out, what they’re going through versus someone that has fifteen years of experience and they’re trying to get to the next level within their career. While those are different, there’s still a lot of similarities there in what both individuals would need.
Josef, what is the one thing you can go back and tell yourself this when you started?
The one thing I was always afraid of is a failure, but I think we learn and become our best selves when we do fail. I would say is take more risks, but make sure those risks are calculated. What I mean by that, that’s not going against your ethics and morals, it’s don’t be afraid of asking people for business initially upfront. Don’t be afraid to close initially upfront for things in your career. You have an internal customer, which is your corporate structure just as much as you have an external customer. I was never afraid to ask for things externally, but I think I was more hesitant internally to ask for certain things. The moment that you decide that you own your destiny within your career, and it’s your responsibility to make sure that your career develops, the quicker things will happen for you.
Thank you for that, Josef. It was wonderful having you. Any other things you would tell our audience before we say goodbye?
The only thing that I would say is this industry is hard to crack and get into so continue to push forward. I’ll tell you, I went to 40 interviews before I got my first job within the pharmaceutical industry. I was motivated but almost gave up on that process. Do not give up and continue to have people that are mentors that are in the industry. Most individuals know it’s tough to get in and once you get in, you understand how this process works. I’m always here as a source of information and I love helping individuals continue to push it for it. Once you get in, you got to make sure that someone else gets in behind you.
Thanks for the time, Josef.
About Josef McNeal
Healthcare is an ever-changing industry that requires ongoing learning to meet quality demands for better patient care. Our focus on patient care has been a constant foundation in partnering with leaders in healthcare to produce “Best-in-Class” resources for patients. New integrated delivery models are emerging in response to overall patient care and moving from FFS to VBM (population health, experience of care, per capita costs, and improving health of populations).
Due to a multitude of reforms, healthcare delivery is heading toward greater coordination, patient-centered clinical integration decision-making, and quality-based reimbursement structures. My diverse experience in the industry is an asset to healthcare executives as they transition from a model of episode care to value-based care.
I am proud to work for an organization such as Abbott who takes pride in helping people achieve and maintain good health that is essential to building more productive communities and maximizing the potential of society as a whole.
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