A Balancing Act - Pharmaceutical Executive

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A Balancing Act
Rather than remaking herself to fit the executive suite, Meryl Zausner has remade the executive suite—and the industry—into a place that is more friendly toward women. In the process she is pioneering


Pharmaceutical Executive


A turning point came at one of Ethan's Little League baseball games. In the bleachers, she sat with two other mothers whose husbands had also recently passed away. One was saying that she had to find a husband, that she couldn't afford to live, and certainly couldn't be by herself. The other woman, too, was destitute. In one of those moments of stillness, where many of life's decisions are made, Zausner resolved to herself, "I have to have a normal life for this kid. That much I know I owe him."

"Your Girlfriend and Your CFO"

In the course of learning to balance her own life, Zausner became a different kind of manager. "Many women get to senior levels by emulating the less well-liked qualities of men," says Krista McKerracher, global brand leader for Exjade (deferasirox). "But Meryl is a girl's girl, and at the same time, a very smart businesswoman focused on results. She is your girlfriend, and she is your CFO."

It's a management style that seems to be catching fire. "Meryl has taught me to be much more human," says Epstein. "I was always very focused on the business. But at the same time, I could have walked down the hall and not noticed you were there because I was so focused. Meryl has helped me to take the moment to stop, look around, to recognize that actually the more effective way to lead is through other people."

One of Zausner's goals is to empower other women. As such, many of her projects are designed to remove obstacles that get in the way. For example, seeing how eager women were to talk with one another at an HBA luncheon in 2003, she formed Executive Women Impacting (EWIN) Novartis to provide mentoring and open dialog—and help with work/life balance.

When it started, the group was grassroots with just a few members. Today, it has more than 1,000 with a charter and board and full-day programming activities. EWIN hasn't changed the world—it hasn't, for example, led to any women being named to the executive management of Novartis. But Zausner has made management listen. "It had an impact in Switzerland, where they didn't have a lot of senior women working," she says. "But Thomas Ebeling [CEO of Novartis Pharma], to his credit, said, 'We've got to fix this.'"

In 2004, Ebeling established the Diversity & Inclusion Council and picked Zausner to serve on it. In addition to groups for African-Americans, Asian-Americans, and about a dozen others, the council runs a group called "Winning Styles." Intended to help employees' presentation skills, the group has instead become a safe haven where women can open up about their issues in the workforce and the industry.

Zausner was an early sponsor of the club, sitting in with small groups of women, and sharing her story. While her direct reports always knew this side of her—the one that put a $6 billion business on hold while they spoke with her about their personal issues—these groups cast her net even wider.

Zausner says she is willing to be there because so few women in the industry send the right message to the next generation. "There are some senior women who never married or don't have children. They've sacrificed and are very isolated," she says. "They tell younger women, 'You can't have a career and a family; you have to make a decision just like we did.'"

Zausner plans to start an alumni network to better understand how to retain women in the workforce, and even lure back old employees by promising they won't have to make an either/or choice. But what makes Zausner think this will work?

"When my husband was sick, all I needed was one or two people to say, 'It's okay.' I never had that. But now, that person is me."


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