Woman of the Year: Deirdre Connelly

Apr 27, 2010
By Pharmaceutical Executive Editors

When you've been in pharma for 25-plus years, you've likely had to wear a lot of different hats. Deirdre Connelly, president of North America Pharmaceuticals for GlaxoSmithKline, has collected more hats than most of her peers; she could almost outfit an entire baseball team.

Connelly, 49, is based in Philadelphia these days. But she started off as a humble rep at Eli Lilly in 1984, and from there doggedly rose through the ranks: general manager for Eli Lilly Puerto Rico in 1995; regional sales director in 1997; head of the women's health business unit at Lilly's US affiliate in 2000, where she oversaw the successful implementation of the global marketing campaign for osteoporosis treatment Evista; executive director of US human resources in 2004; and, finally, president of US operations in 2005.

Fortune named her one of its 50 Most Powerful Women in business three years straight. She came in at no. 47 in 2007, no. 42 in 2008, and as of this year she's sitting pretty at no. 37. And now Deirdre Connelly has another feather for her cap, having been named the Healthcare Businesswomen's Association's 2010 Woman of the Year.

Connelly attributes all those promotions and accolades to two things: work ("A lot of work," she emphasizes) and the guidance of men and women, like former Lilly CEO Sidney Taurel. "I had a couple of extraordinary people that took me under their wing and taught me a lot," she says.

WOTY: Role Models and Advocates

Deirdre Connelly's ascension to US president of Lilly wasn't a surprise, per se—but it was also something Connelly says she had never really considered: "If you had asked me at the beginning of my career if I was going to end up as president, the answer would have been 'no.'"

Former co-workers at Lilly tell a different story, however. Company HR consultant Catherine Foley was one of Connelly's many nominators for this year's HBA award (she also put together the dossier for Connelly's nomination last year). Foley began working with Connelly when she was putting together a leadership program for new MBA hires. Connelly signed up as a faculty advisor.

Foley paints a picture of a woman determined to impact as many blooming Lillyites as possible, regardless of gender. "One of the common themes we discovered when we were collecting information for Deirdre's Woman of the Year nomination was her commitment to mentoring," says Foley. "She gave clear and direct feedback, scheduled time to meet with mentees, and just followed through in general, which is a rare thing." Connelly opened up to the acquisitive young staffers, explaining how she learned from various missteps and personal setbacks and used those experiences as career fuel.

She left Lilly in 2009, after almost four years at the helm of its US operations (and 24 at the company) to tackle the challenges that come along with being president of North American Pharmaceuticals at GSK.

Connelly is the first female to hold that title, and one of only two women on GSK's corporate executive team (the other is SVP for HR Claire Thomas), but she dismisses any question of discomfort with a wave of her hand. "It's not run in a way where you feel like you're either a man or a woman," she says. "The approach is very professional." Connelly points out fellow team members Moncef Slaoui (from Morocco) and Abbas Hussain (born in India) as further examples of the team's diversity, but admits she'd like to see an even more varied crew in the future. "Our customers are very diverse, and the more we reflect that in our organization, the more we can offer them."

lorem ipsum