February 11, 2024

For Omonye Phillips, pharmacy is her calling, but leading, motivating, and empowering people is her special gift. 

It’s a gift that took the 2011 PharmD graduate from her first job as a staff pharmacist at Rite Aid all the way to her current role as Divisional Vice President of Pharmacy Operations for the national drugstore chain — all in less than a decade.

Dr. Phillips oversees a $2.2B P&L and is responsible for Rite Aid's divisional pharmacy operations in central and parts of southern California. She is responsible for every aspect of pharmacy operations, from clinical initiatives and improving patient outcomes to customer service, human resources, and divisional growth.

Natural-born leader.

Her leadership qualities emerged as early as grade school in Nigeria and continued when she was at the College of Pharmacy. She was a Leadership Scholar, president of the University of Michigan Chapter of the Student National Pharmaceutical Association for two years, and class representative to the Pharmacy Student Government Council in her P1 year.

Her talent for management and operational improvements quickly emerged on the job at Rite Aid. “I made sure that the pharmacy staff and the entire operation is high functioning so that we could deliver the best experience to our patients and customers,” she says. 

Before long, her district manager noticed her talent and promoted her to pharmacy manager of a location that was struggling and understaffed, with many compliance issues. “I was petrified,” Dr. Phillips recalls, but she set a goal and a deadline: “I gave myself two months to make changes there.”

She started by hiring and making sure the personnel still on the staff were properly trained, and within three to four months, the store was “fully staffed, in compliance, and doing great,” she says. Again, her achievement was recognized, and she was put in charge of a store in even more dire straits. This time, she had just had a baby, yet she gave herself just a month to work her magic.

“Everything I learned from the previous store, I applied to this one. It was tough but also very rewarding and gratifying to see the change you can affect if you equip people with what they need to succeed. Recognizing the needs of staff and being there for them — all that translates into great customer care. If you take care of the staff, they will take care of the customer.”

A talent for turning underperforming stores around.

By now, the regional corporate office recognized her talents as a turnaround artist and her impressive ability to transform underperforming stores. She was invited to interview and landed a role managing not one store but 28 pharmacies across Michigan — while her firstborn was not yet a year old. 

When she came into the role, she was advised that she would need to dismiss pharmacists who were not fully dedicated to their role and hire new ones. “I ended up not having to do that. I started by creating a healthy culture providing all the support people needed, equipping them with all the tools they needed, then holding them accountable.” 

In 2020, after advancing her career in Michigan to overseeing 75 stores, she was tapped to move to California to run pharmacy operations as a regional vice president, and today, she is a divisional vice president overseeing operations for all Rite Aid pharmacies in southern and central California with the responsibility of 160 stores. Her leadership approach, driven by her capacity to recognize people's strengths and inspire them to achieve, has made her one of the youngest executives in any Fortune 500 company

So what’s the secret sauce? 

Every day, she works to ensure that customers who visit her pharmacies — often the frontline healthcare providers for many patients — receive excellent care, education about their medications, and great service.  

What is her secret to success in this competitive marketplace? “It’s so simple. It is empowerment and recognition. That’s my secret sauce,” she says. “I start out making sure everyone is up to speed, and they do not lack anything to do their job. Then, I empower them to go ahead and fly. If you are going to be on the team, it means you are qualified. And if you are not, you’re going to have to leave, or you’re going to have to get better.

“The other thing is recognition. It never hurts to say, ‘Good job,’” she adds. Praising your team might seem obvious, but in the busyness of the every day, it is easy for leaders to forget to acknowledge their employees. Not doing this can greatly impact job satisfaction and, ultimately, retention. She also focuses on leading to her employee’s strengths. She’ll say, for example, “I notice you are getting better at this. I want to pair you up with a new person so you can help them get up to speed.”

“It’s about making people feel special and important because they are. The people who are high performers are going to feel so gratified that they are going to overperform even more,” she says. The people who are not performing at a high level “learn that their boss is going to ask questions” as part of her culture of accountability. “I want my teams to feel inspired by their work because they are at the frontline of helping to improve how a patient or customer is feeling.”

A love for math, chemistry, and treating diseases.

Dr. Phillips was drawn to pharmacy through a love of math and chemistry and a passion to treat and cure disease, sparked by the devastating loss of her mother to cancer at an early age. Born in Nigeria and educated in rigorous programs in West Africa and England, she came to the University of Michigan not knowing a soul. She completed her undergraduate degree in a two-year pre-pharmacy program, followed by her PharmD

Like so many alumni, she was inspired by supportive faculty, especially Dean Valener Perry. “She knew each of us, believed in us, and set high expectations. If you got into pharmacy school, she would ensure you would deliver!”

“My time at the College of Pharmacy helped build my leadership skills significantly,” she adds, noting that she is delighted to give back to the College as a member of the Alumni Board of Governors and one of the founding donors of the African American Pharmacy Alumni LEAD Scholarship. 

Of the many career paths possible in the field, Dr. Phillips chose retail pharmacy because she wanted the personal, one-on-one interaction with people and the work-life balance that would allow her to have the family she was planning. To bring it full circle, as a staff pharmacist, she developed relationships with her patient customers, and a couple of them came into the store to throw her a baby shower.

In her corporate role, she still gets into stores regularly and enjoys that one-on-one contact through mentoring her pharmacists and emerging leaders. Plus, she adds, “I may not get that constant patient interaction, but I get to affect even more lives because I'm overseeing hundreds of stores and pharmacists.” 

Go into pharmacy to influence change in people's health.

For those considering following her path, she says, “professional pharmacy right now continues to evolve. If it's something that you're interested in, definitely go for it because there are so many paths to take. However, I would also say just like most medical professions, it’s challenging. Don't do it for the salary or the badge of honor of having a doctorate. If you do it for those things, for the six-figure salary, you’ll be tired and extremely unhappy and ungratified.  Do it because you care about people, and you want to influence change when it comes to their health.”

“I'm a living testimonial to the opportunities of pharmacy and how they extend far beyond the field,” she says, noting that she often is recruited for jobs in other sectors. “I could lead any group of people. I have been recruited to lead medical and dental practices, even car dealerships. That's one (of the many) things I've been able to get from doing retail pharmacy, and it's a blessing. Additionally, I have friends in the corporate world, for example, who are doing more than pharmacy.”

“The skills you learn from such a rigorous program at the College of Pharmacy really prepare you for life in general and anything you want to pivot into. Combining my people skills and leadership qualities with the pharmacy profession has been extremely rewarding and gratifying for me,” she says.