Woman of the Year: Deirdre Connelly - Pharmaceutical Executive


Woman of the Year: Deirdre Connelly

Pharmaceutical Executive

On the Road Again

Connelly doesn't lead what one might call a sedentary life. Her territory is North America, so she spends most of her time in the States—60 percent in Philadelphia, another 30 percent in Research Triangle Park in North Carolina. But because the GSK home office is in the UK, she also gives London about 10 percent of her time.

When the nostalgia bug bites, she sometimes goes back to her rep roots and heads out for a day of sales calls. "It shows respect for my teammates," Connelly explains. "The job these guys have is not the job I had when I started 24 years ago." And these are not just ride-alongs, she adds. During these jaunts, she carries the bag. (The bag doesn't carry samples, though, since she's not registered for that.)

One doesn't just jump back into the rep fray, of course. Connelly had to complete four hours of training for each of the two products she was presenting, as well as go through all the standard certification requirements. Since she'd never presented those products before, that added another layer of work. "We bring medicine to patients, and that requires a lot of preparation," she says.

Most recently, Connelly saddled up and called on eight doctors in north Philadelphia. She concealed her title—unless directly asked, of course. Doctors, she says, are typically agog when they discover GSK's president of North American Pharmaceuticals has come to see them, but Connelly always reassures them that the honor is all hers. She tells them: "You're our customer—I'm here so we can hear what you have to say."

And those customers love giving Connelly their input. She typically asks them to design their dream sales force, and takes notes as each doctor describes his or her vision of the Platonic Sales Ideal. Connelly says a physician will sometimes even say the GSK force is already The Ideal—high praise for the team's captain.

Some of the doctors' comments give more than just insight into physician decision-making. One, after learning who Connelly was, even sent a letter thanking her for taking a hands-on approach, which struck GSK's president of North American Pharmaceuticals as incredibly sweet, but odd. "They're the ones treating patients and helping people, and they're thanking me for coming over?"

The Heart of the Matter

Like a mother of multiple children, Connelly at first hesitates to name the therapeutic area most dear to her. But after extolling the virtues of GSK's respiratory and diabetes pipelines, she concedes that one does hold a special place in her heart: Lupus. Her father was diagnosed with the debilitating, deadly condition when she was just 16. "He fought it valiantly for 16 years," she says.

So GSK's new monoclonal antibody Benlysta (belimumab) is particularly exciting to her. "We haven't seen anything for lupus in almost 50 years," Connelly says. "The last one was prednisone. But here comes a product that may eventually alleviate the pain and suffering of patients with lupus."

And while it's too late for her father, Connelly is glad to have a hand in bringing the next cutting-edge treatment to market. "I'm part of a group of people that are potentially going to bring Benlysta to some 16-year-old kid who is not going to have to go through what I went through," she says. "And, more importantly, her dad won't have to go through it."

Within the next 18 months, Connelly says, GSK plans on rolling out six new products, with 30 more in the pipeline. "Think about the amount of benefit that will bring to society," she says.

She may be integral to bringing products to market, along with being one of the most powerful women in pharma, but if Connelly ever starts feeling a bit too big for her britches, she thinks of her mother, Dolores. Before she passed away in 2002, Connelly's mother kept her daughter grounded. "I miss it now that she's not around, but she would always tell us, 'You may be this or may be doing that, but I'm the boss here.'"

Only in mid-career, Connelly's accomplishments are already considerable. As head of North American pharma, she has the daunting challenge of trying to turn around the sluggish US market. If she succeeds, Connelly may find herself auditioning for the role of the first female Big Pharma CEO.

But at the end of the day, her eyes are on another prize: "We have a calling to find a cure for diseases. We have a duty to our patients to find those cures."


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