Pushing through the glass ceiling

Where are the opportunities for career progression in pharmacy?

Community pharmacy can be a relatively secure career – and one that many pharmacists report getting a lot of job satisfaction from.

But if there is one area where pharmacy may be lacking, perhaps it is an obvious path to follow to gain career progression. This would explain why more than two-thirds (68%) of 525 employee pharmacist respondents to the C+D Salary Survey 2016 said they did not feel they had room for progression in their role.

It is a damning figure for community pharmacy employers to reflect on, not least because the perception of a lack of progression can have a profound effect on employees, as career coach Ros Toynbee explains. “If people feel they can’t progress, that tends to make them feel much smaller and lacking in confidence, so it tends to become a spiral.”

This is not just a problem for the employee, as career development firm Right Management warns. “Organisations that ignore the career development needs of their employees do so at their own peril,” in a 2016 report on why discussing career possibilities “drives success”.

The good news is that opportunities for progression can boost employee morale by around a fifth. According to European research published this year, the proportion of happy employees in organisations that enable internal career moves is 19% higher than in those that do not –  which analyst International Data Corporation (IDC) branded a “relatively high impact”.

Career opportunities can also make a difference to a company’s ability to attract employees in the first place. Charles Thomas, manager of a Day Lewis branch in Torquay, says he chose the company for his pre-registration placement because it had won a C+D Award for training and development. He felt the company offered him the best opportunity to gain the manager role he craved. “I think they were well-aligned with what I wanted to be doing and where I wanted my career to go,” Mr Thomas says.

It’s not just down to individual employers, of course. The wider political and economic environment may affect the whole profession’s ability to provide career progression, as cuts to funding in England, and NHS England’s review of clinical services, are dominating thoughts in community pharmacy at the moment. However, these wouldn’t have directly influenced the stark statistics from the latest C+D Salary Survey, which ran before these initiatives were announced.

But, as Kent contractor Amish Patel says, this background “has definitely not helped”. “It’s very hard to be creative in pharmacy at the moment, so that doesn’t help people to progress,” he adds.

The employer’s role

Despite the threat of cuts, employers have a role to play in supporting their pharmacists to achieve their goals, Numark’s service development manager Laura Reed says. When it comes to careers, regular reviews help you “find anyone who’s got a particular interest in something”, she says.

Analyst IDC stresses that these reviews should be “regular” – ie more than once a year – adding that “formal, annual appraisal is not in vogue and widely regarded as inflexible and bureaucratic”.

It seems like someone forgot to tell this to most employers, though, with annual and semi-annual employee performance reviews still carried out by two-thirds of organisations. However, IDC notes that regular or continuous review practices are appearing to become more popular for employee development and performance.

All employers “must find ways to apply the rigour and consistency of the annual appraisal to more frequent and informal feedback processes involving managers and employees”, the firm advises.

Global research published in 2015 by Right Management also suggests change is needed. It revealed that just 16% of employees have ongoing conversations with their managers about their careers, yet 82% say they would be more engaged if their manager supported such conversations.

“The majority of employees are looking for more guidance on how to grow and advance their careers,” the consultancy says.

“Companies that embed the career conversation process into their culture will significantly increase their employee engagement in a way that translates into increased individual and organisational performance,” it adds.

Alternatives to the career ladder

This is the approach that Lloydspharmacy owner Celesio UK takes, according to its head of talent, Sandra Pearce. “Our leaders and line managers are encouraged to use a range of formal tools as well as in-the-moment conversations and coaching, to recognise and identify potential career opportunities,” she says.

These opportunities for community pharmacists might be within, but also outside, the sector, she adds. Numark’s Ms Reed, a former pharmacist, is a good example.

“There are so many opportunities out there for pharmacists. I have never had an issue with career progression or there being any ceiling. It’s about expanding your options,” she says.

Ms Reed is now pursuing the head office path, where some of the options include human resources, operations, service development, property, or policy and strategy.

But if that doesn’t appeal, then there are other ways to broaden your horizons, says Celesio UK’s Ms Pearce. “Some of our pharmacists have moved from community pharmacy to outpatient dispensary, or to work with mental health trusts or prisons.”

Day Lewis’s Mr Thomas believes these types of opportunities are likely to grow in future. “There are going to be major changes in primary care and, potentially, community pharmacy in the next few years,” he says. “So community pharmacy is very much a ‘watch this space’ career at the moment – which is something to be excited about.”

This may require adjusting your mindset beyond the traditional ‘promotion’ for career progression, Ms Reed explains. “Sometimes you have to go sideways… but if pharmacists get out there and explore options, especially in general practice and public health, there are lots of [paths] they can diversify into.”

Ms Pearce agrees, explaining that Celesio UK encourages a “crazy paving” approach to career development. She suggests pharmacists think laterally, rather than attempting to climb the promotion-based ‘career ladder’ of old.

Create your own opportunities

So, while feeling as though you’ve reached a glass ceiling may not be unusual, there are steps you can take to address it. Moreover, your employer does have a role to play in facilitating your career progression. As Mr Patel puts it: “The opportunities are there, but employers need to work with you on it.”

Now it’s time for the tough love.

Too many people rely on their employer to guide their career development, but, in fact, the drive has to come from you. “Start taking responsibility for yourself to get up and do something,” urges Mr Patel. “Too many people wait for [career progression] to come to them.”

That means initiating those career conversations, as well as networking, investing your own time – and, if necessary, money – in training and gaining experience (see box below). “The ultimate responsibility for the development of your career is with the individual – it’s not with the organisation,” career coach Ms Toynbee says.

It may not be as difficult as it seems. The latest C+D Salary Survey found pharmacy employers are broadly supportive of training – 59% of employee pharmacists (community pharmacist branch managers and second or non-manager community pharmacists) said their employer was “very supportive” or “quite supportive” of training.

Some survey respondents bemoaned the lack of formal training provided or paid for by their employer, and lamented the need to undertake training in their own time. But this is the norm for other healthcare professionals, such as GPs, says Mr Patel, who asks: “Why should pharmacists always wait for our employer to send us on a course? Take charge of your own career.” 

Isle of Wight contractor Gary Warner undertook an independent prescriber qualification to develop his career. “As an independent prescriber, just taking a [patient’s] history and physical assessment – without even doing the prescribing bit – changed my practice drastically straight away,” he says.

He adds: “Don’t wait for your employer to start you on that course; if you want to do it, it’s your time to invest. Sometimes you can be empowered and sometimes you empower yourself.”

And formal training is not the only way to develop your skills, and therefore your career, Ms Pearce says. “The best form of learning is done on the job, in line with professional requirements, and this is achieved through face-to-face interventions, regular feedback with your line manager, online training, speaking to peers and more formal training events.”

Other options include participating in projects and pilots, suggests Ms Reed: “Every chance [you have] to get involved in something, do it.” Ms Toynbee adds that secondments and work shadowing are “very much underused”.

Mr Patel also advises creating these opportunities yourself, by running travel clinics and private out-of-hours clinics “that allow you to explore your clinical skills more”.

If all this sounds like a lot of hard work, then remember it will also be rewarding. “It’s about being really proactive, which unfortunately means pulling your finger out,” says Ms Toynbee. “If you’re putting your head down and waiting for your boss to magically hand you a pay rise, a promotion and new opportunities, chances are they won’t.”

The overarching message is that the person most responsible for your career progression is you. So if it still feels like there’s a glass ceiling overhead, it’s up to you to reach up
and smash it.

In their own words: pharmacists’ frustrations about career progression

On training

"All training opportunities  are by using my own initiative; there is no guided learning.”

On taking on extra responsibilities 

“I was being asked to do a lot of extra things for the company, such as: supporting my line manager with queries from other pharmacists; travelling to other pharmacies to destroy controlled drugs; covering maternity leave in another store for three months, while still being responsible for my own [pharmacy]; writing training modules for the company; and training for and providing a travel clinic. I had also recently taken on a new care home in my pharmacy when all of this was going on.”

On running extra services 

“We do a lot more varied work such as travel and flu vaccinations, and private services such as hair retention, [but] training is done in our own time. With the plethora of pharmacists out there, we just have to get on with the work.”

On upskilling:

“There are no opportunities to become independent prescribers for community pharmacists – unless they leave and become practice pharmacists.”

Ros Toynbee, director of consultancy The Career Coach, has these tips for pharmacists:

  • Talk to your boss You need to assess where your position is, and so you need to have an honest conversation with your boss in the first instance. There may be other more senior people who you trust who you can go to as well.
  • Invest in your own development You might need to be creative about how you get experience. For example, you might have to create opportunities for yourself, outside of office hours. There may have to be a trade-off in order for you to progress   
  • Build your brand You have to be much clearer about your ‘brand’. You need to be able to articulate what you can offer in terms of your unique skills and experiences.
  • Don’t be afraid to network Be proactive about networking, asking for guidance and feedback. Many people are intimidated by the concept but networking is just a conversation, or a 20-minute coffee, and you need to be having those conversations. The goal is increasing your visibility to those who might be able to open doors for you, to think of you and let you know about opportunities when they arise. It’s about who you know and, importantly, who knows you.
  • Consider your behaviour Skills and experience are not the be-all and end-all for employers – it’s also about the behaviours you display in the workplace. The most important behaviours are showing that you an learn, that you’re resilient and that you’re easy to work with. All of these count for something in your career. Emotional intelligence is a great virtue.
  • Put rejection in perspective However much it may feel like it, if you get a ‘no’ during your career, it’s never personal.
  • Get on with it Don’t wait for an opportunity to become available – take the reigns. 
  • Keep persevering Once you’ve started doing all of the above, keep it up. If you knock on enough doors and if you are prepared to wait, you will succeed eventually.
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