A conversation with Paula Brown Stafford

Women’s voices in healthcare

It is our distinct pleasure to speak with Paula Brown Stafford, the president of Clinical Development at Quintiles. Paula is a deeply respected and admired thought leader who serves on the HBA advisory board and helps shape the strategic direction of the HBA.

Paula has grown as her employer Quintiles has grown. The company went from humble beginnings on the University of North Carolina campus to a company with a spot on the Fortune 500 during its 33 years. In year three of the company, Paula started as ‘employee number 23,’ a part-time statistical aid while she completed her biostatistics undergraduate degree. During her career at Quintiles, Paula took on a variety of leadership roles spanning project management, sales and scientific operations to ultimately become the president of clinical development in 2010. Her global responsibilities cover Quintiles Phase I-IV services, including medical and project management; site, data and safety monitoring; laboratory services; and functional resourcing.

In 2010, Paula founded Quintiles' Women-Inspired Network (WIN). In just three years, the excellence in business performance, stewardship, execution, sustainability and measureable results led to Quintiles winning the HBA ACE award at the annual leadership conference in 2013.


What is one piece of advice you were given early in your career that you either dismissed or nearly dismissed thinking, "Oh, that's not going to be the case," but it turned out it was really good advice?

Stafford: I had been at Quintiles for about three years, and I was asked to take on a new role. We had a new head of HR who had come from one of the New York City oil companies – and it was one of our first hires into Quintiles from a Fortune 500 company. I really had tremendous respect for this man and we have remained friends through the years.

I was trying to obtain his advice on whether or not to take the new role I had been offered. He said, "Paula, we're going to push you until you fail." I thought, “Why do they want me to fail?”

I realized later what he was saying was, You have the capability, and we're going to keep pushing you. You may not think you can do this, but I know you can, and I'm going to push you. I'm going to put you in this next role and we're going to see how you do. If you fail, then we pushed you too far, but the only way we're going to know is if we keep pushing.

I didn't like his advice at first. However, through the years that saying has come back to me many times and I think of it when I mentor others. So that was a piece of advice that I would say I dismissed at first, yet turned out to be very valuable to me.

The way he said it could have been construed as negative. I felt he was saying we're going to grind it out of you and you're just going to crumble. But what he meant was we know you're capable.

You founded the ACE award-winning Quintiles' Women-Inspired Network. In the video shown when the award was presented, you said that you wanted all women at Quintiles to feel that nothing could come between them and the top. Can you tell us what inspired you to help create that network and some unexpected benefits?

Stafford: In 2009, I attended the HBA Woman of the Year event for the first time. I was so inspired by all of the award winners. Then later that year, I ran into Liz, a woman who also has a lengthy tenure with Quintiles.

She said, "Paula, I just want to tell you that you are our hope." And I said, "What? What do you mean, Liz? Why am I your hope?" And she said, "Well, you're the only woman with an office on the executive floor. Every woman in this building looks up to you now because they see that you've done it. "

I went away and really reflected on that conversation. After some deep thought, I felt I had to do something. I couldn’t just sit in my office and be this quiet inspiration.

In January of 2010, I decided to be bold. I wrote a memo to the executive committee that stated my belief that Quintiles needed to start an advisory group for women and that I would like to chair it. In the memo I said, "I would like this committee to help me determine what it needs to look like because what I want to give the women in our organization is the feeling that this company respects women and that you can go anywhere - whether you're a woman or not - and that there's nothing between you and the top but you."

I invited seven women and three men to comprise the advisory committee. One woman that I asked to be on the committee said no. I think that she feared it, or perhaps didn't feel it was necessary. The three men that I invited did join and were active in defining our women’s group. 

I was clear about what I didn't want our women’s group to be – it was not to be about quotas.

The advisory committee acted for a year and created the Women Inspired Network (WIN). Now, we have over 1,500 members in our global  WIN network. We're strong in the U.S. and Europe. And we have a growing contingent in India and Singapore as well. Today, it is a revered community within the company.

What came out of founding the Quintiles WIN that you did not expect?

Stafford: I didn't expect to go around the entire world and to be personally thanked for starting this group within the company. Quite simply, I didn't expect the appreciation for it.

I also didn't expect the number of men who said, "Would you mentor this woman who reports to me?" There was an immediate reaction from men who had women reporting to them who needed to be mentored. It was interesting that men thought that women needed to be mentored by women.

What do you think the HBA can do in the next five years to really advance our mission? 

Stafford:  Two things come to mind. With our name "HBA,"  healthcare is the industry we represent. Yet most of our members come from the pharmaceutical sector. To truly reach the HBA’s mission, we need to go beyond pharmaceutical manufacturing and services companies and go broadly into the healthcare field to find new members and leaders.

The second is that we need to tell, train, and advise men on how best to work with women.  My hope is that men learn how women are different; and when working with women, they recognize and leverage those differences for shared success.

I feel that helping men understand how to better support women and how to work with women will further the HBA mission.


While many of the men in my company felt like women had to mentor women, my greatest mentor is actually a man. Actually, he has been more of a sponsor to me.

My definition is that a mentor or coach generally have a start and a stop date. I feel like a sponsorship is a lifetime. I have had my sponsor since I was 21 years old. Dr. Gary Koch was first my professor, then my employer, and ultimately, my sponsor.

I've talked to him about where to send my children to school. I've talked to him about my career. I've talked to him when I had challenges. I've talked to him when I had successes. He's always been a mentor, a coach and a sponsor for me. 

That is sponsorship. A person who takes that strong interest in you and in your career; someone that you can just always count on and really sees you as an entire person in the big picture. Can you share a bit about someone you sponsor?

I have had the opportunity to mentor many. One particular young lady comes to mind. She is a talented young woman, and I have advised her for nearly five years and I have encouraged her career progress. In doing so, I provided a reference for her application to earn a master’s in public health degree.

Our relationship started with her as a business partner.  We worked closely together for two years, and I then encouraged her to take on a new role that would help her to grow her skill sets. Very selfishly I could have said, "You need to stay here. This is where you need to grow, within your current role and support me." However, I felt that she had a great, new opportunity in front of her and that she could do anything she wanted to do. As a result of our discussions, she accepted a new role within the company and has excelled since.

In my career, I have taken on a number of different roles - generally every three years.  We are products of our experiences, thus I have always felt like I wanted to encourage others to seek new opportunities so that they could learn, grow and increase their marketability in the organization and the broader industry.

Do you serve on any corporate boards, Paula?  And if so, could you tell me about that?

Stafford: I am on a number of boards and advisory boards. For five years, I was on the board of a NASDAQ-traded company named Bio-Imaging, which was subsumed under BioClinica and they're no longer publicly traded.

I was on that board for five years and was the only woman –  it was a tremendous experience.  At first, I felt intimidated as I was relatively young and working alongside a host of very experienced male executives. I quickly realized that I needed to put that intimidation feeling aside and focus on bringing the expertise that I had to the boardroom. It was the right decision, and I was very well respected by the members as a result.

I later took myself off the board because I was conflicted between the strategic direction of my own employer and the company for which I served on the board.

My experience then came full circle when one of the board members reached out to stay connected, reinforcing that I had held my own as a board member.

How did you get on that board? How did you end up getting on that board?

Stafford:  I was leading a number of different business units within Quintiles, with responsibility for the profits and losses of those businesses. What qualified me for a board seat, was being responsible for the performance of a business unit, divesting that business unit and negotiating a seat to ensure service delivery and customer voice. Our board seat was negotiated for a fixed two-year period, however at the end of the two years, the shareholders voted that I continue to serve and I was re-elected thereafter until my departure three years later.

In addition, I serve on the HBA advisory board and I’ve served for nine years on the Clinical Data Interchange Standards Consortium (CDISC) board (two years as Chair). I'm also on the board of the Association of Clinical Research Organizations (ACRO) and I am the president of the Public Health Foundation board for the School of Public Health at the University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill. 

Do you feel that serving on association boards and foundation boards, other nonprofits, prepares you for serving on a for profit corporate board?

Stafford:  Somewhat. On a for-profit public company board, you deal with issues regarding revenue, profits and shareholders, etc. – thus the discussions are different than you’ll have on a non-profit board.

However, I would say that strategy, talent and financials are the common threads. The overlap that carries from a not-for-profit to a for-profit and vice versa includes:  the cadence of meetings and topics to develop and approve enterprise strategy; develop and approve annual budgets; and conduct talent and succession planning. Whether it was CDISC or Bio-Imaging, I had strategic, fiduciary and succession responsibilities.

Boards should be reviewing enterprise strategy – input and contribute to the plan. Having a succession plan in place for the CEO of that board is critical – input and contribute to the plan. And you must be able to read a financial report to serve on any board. It helps if you are knowledgeable regarding the capital structure of your company; and then you can take that knowledge to your board service - how leveraged should you be, how do you incentivize your leadership team, how many and what kind of shareholders are ideal, etc.? 


References: http://www.quintiles.com/about-us/our-history