The Navigator: Charlotte Sibley

Apr 01, 2008

You win some and you lose some. For Charlotte Sibley, the worst loss in her more than 30-year career in pharma came when she tried to tell her boss some bad news about a brand-new drug called Lipitor.

It was 1996, and Sibley was head of market research at Bristol-Myers Squibb. BMS, of course, had a strong foothold in the lucrative cholesterol-lowering market, thanks to its statin Pravachol (pravastatin), launched in 1991. The question was what kind of impact could be expected from the new cholesterol drug just launched by Pfizer and Warner-Lambert.

The marketing department predicted that Lipitor (atorvastatin) would take share from Zocor (simvastatin) and other competitors, but would not affect Pravachol. Finance agreed. But Sibley's research showed Lipitor as having much bigger gains—and she said so.

Who to listen to? As Sibley says, when it comes to developing fact-based forecasts, marketing has the capability, but its job is to promote the product, so it tends toward rose-colored perspectives. Finance is objective, but it doesn't know the market.


Charlotte Sibley thought she was going to be a French professor. But by the time her college graduation photo was taken (left), she had decided on a career in business; Sibley is also known for her sense of humor and love of life (right). "Life is not a dress rehearsal," she says. "Go for it!"
We all know that it sometimes takes a lot of business discipline not to kill the messenger. This was one of those times, but the discipline apparently wasn't there. Soon afterward, Sibley was fired. And Pravachol—well, you know the rest.

What she doesn't say—though others will—is that stories like this are less common today than they used to be. And if market research and customer focus have taken on a larger and more secure role in pharmaceutical companies, it's partly Charlotte Sibley's influence.

Early on in her career, a boss once told Sibley, "You're the navigator. Tell us where to go." She apparently took the advice in the broadest possible way. Throughout her career—which includes stints at Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson, BMS, Pharmacia, Millennium, and her current employer, Shire—Sibley has been in the vanguard of engaging pharma with its customers. She was an early visionary of working with consumers and other stakeholders, and is credited with turning market research into a strategic function that helps the business make smarter decisions, a mantra she's repeated so many times that it is now in the DNA of most companies. Along the way, she helped establish the industry's first competitive intelligence unit and helped invent the field of pharmacoeconomics and health outcomes.

You lose some, but you win some. And Sibley recently added two items to her already long list of wins. She was appointed Shire's senior vice president of leadership development, a job that acknowledges and builds upon her decades of mentoring and developing generations of research professionals. And she has just been elected Woman of the Year of the Healthcare Businesswomen's Association, an honor she shares with previous winners such as Meryl Zausner, CFO of Novartis Oncology, and Christine Poon, J&J's vice chairman.

"Charlotte can laugh or cry with you," says Wassihun Alemayehu, Shire's director of market research. "That should speak volumes, because leadership isn't about your technical skills, which she has plenty of. It isn't about how much people love you, though she has plenty of love. It is how much you can open up and communicate and nurture other leaders, which the industry is now starting to realize."