The Navigator: Charlotte Sibley

April 1, 2008
Joanna Breitstein
Pharmaceutical Executive
Volume 0, Issue 0

Here's the saga of how market research, health outcomes, and dozens of other tools that connect the industry to patients came to be.

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.

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.

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!"

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."

"She has courage, internal fortitude, and an incredible drive to overcome difficult obstacles and be successful—all while remaining down-to-earth, incredibly supportive of others, and a genuinely nice person," says HBA President Elizabeth Mutisya. "It's a rare combination."

As for Sibley, she believes in taking the good and bad alike in stride. "I've been hired, I've been fired," she says. "I've been upsized, I've been downsized, I've been promoted, I've been demoted, I've been acquired, I have been the acquirer. I look at all of this and say, 'You know what? This is what happens.' I've gone through tough times and good times, and neither lasts. You just have to try to keep a sense of humor and resilience."

So You Want to Be a French Professor...

Sibley was born in Natick, MA, 15 miles outside of Boston. She was the first in her family to go to college, attending Middlebury, a small liberal arts school in Vermont, where she majored in Romance languages and music. In the summer, she worked as a waitress to make money. But come school time, she doubled and tripled up on course load so she could graduate early, working toward what she thought would be an academic life as a French professor.

Charlotte says she and her husband, Leif, enjoy life. In particular, they are avid opera fans. They met on a blind date to see The Marriage of Figaro at the Met, and they married in 1998.

That plan changed when recruiters from the US Trust Company came to Middlebury hunting for summer interns to staff the international division in New York. Sibley says she didn't know the difference between a stock and a bond, but she majored in French and German, and that made her "international enough" to get an interview. Besides, a stint in the Big Apple would allow her to spend time with her fiancé there. By the end of her second interview in New York, she no longer had a fiancé—but she did have a job, and she became US Trust's first female intern.

It was 1967, and a bull market on Wall Street. Business was great, and New York had it all. By the time Sibley returned to Middlebury that fall, she had changed her mind: She was going to business school. She attended the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business, making connections and learning about the value of teamwork. But when it came time to graduate, she didn't take a job at an accounting or consulting firm, like most of her classmates. Instead, she joined Pfizer as a market research analyst. "Maybe it was a sign of the times," says Sibley. "The people at school said, 'Fizzer? What is that, an agricultural company?' They didn't understand. The joke was that I worked on 42nd Street and pushed drugs."

At Pfizer, Sibley learned the fundamentals of data collection and management. She was also exposed to the bureaucracy of corporate life. "You think American business is the most efficient," says Sibley. "Then you see the reality, which is that it's not as efficient as what you were taught from books. And you have to make things work in the real world with the constraints of never having enough time or money."

If Pfizer was Sibley's introduction to pharma marketing research, then her next job as a drug securities analyst for Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette taught her the basics of sound company management. "I had to step back, look at the industry, and determine what made a successful company," says Sibley. "Thirty years later, it's still the same things: good pipeline, financial controls, and visionary management."

At this point, Sibley understood what a pharma company needed to succeed, and she had learned a bit about how pharma market research had always been done. But what she hadn't learned was how to truly get inside a consumer's head. That was a lesson she received at her next job, with tea-and-prepared-food giant Lipton, in an industry where companies live and die by their knowledge of customers.

Sibley arrived at Lipton in 1978 as a market research manager for new-product introductions. She found herself immersed in the world of consumers. There she studied the habits of women who hiked, raised children, and were relieved when they could get dinner on the table by just adding boiling water. It was a different world than Sibley knew, who was a single New York city girl with a taste for opera, but an important early lesson in understanding the representative consumer.

Sibley's boss, Vivian Bruno, was a stickler who didn't cut corners for anyone. "The product had to meet certain criteria set by market research, and if it didn't, it was back to the drawing board," says Sibley. "There was no slippery slope."

Sibley wanted to bring that type of research-based decision making to pharma. "I knew from Lipton that marketing research could play a more definitive role," she says. "We should be the voice of the customer, the objective voice."

The Consumer Touch

Sibley got her chance in 1987, joining Bristol-Myers Squibb as director of business research and information in the global strategy group. (She would later move to oversee the larger domestic group.) Bristol-Myers had just merged with Squibb, and the atmosphere was solemn inside the company. People were protective of their jobs and scared to stick their necks out.

But Sibley stood in sharp contrast to the company around her. She was full of new ideas and looking for more, says Colin Maitland, whose agency Isis Research counted BMS as a long-time client. "It was exciting—and exciting was the right word. There was a readiness to look at any idea we put up, instead of the 'not done here,' which is what we were used to."

Sibley got the whole team moving forward and looking outward—all the way to the patient level. That was new. Most companies at the time focused on key opinion leaders (KOLs), who in many cases didn't even accurately represent average physicians. "It was like the pharmaceutical field of dreams," says Sibley. "Make it and they will come." Direct-to-consumer advertising had not yet arrived, and managed care was still in the midst of its rise to importance, but Sibley was already arguing that pharma needed to pay attention to all of its stakeholders.

"Charlotte always thought of patients as the ultimate consumers of drugs," says Cliff Kalb, now head of the consultancy C. Kalb & Associates. "She was ahead of the curve—it wasn't until DTC that the industry caught up with Charlotte."

Sibley championed some of the first efforts to find out what patients want. For instance, the virology group at BMS was about to move forward with a shingles drug. The head of the division had sought advice on formulation from several of his KOL physician friends, who said a spray would be best—that way, they reasoned, patients wouldn't have to touch the suppurating lesions characteristic of the disease. But Sibley's group insisted on conducting focus groups and invited the R&D execs to listen.

The patients, it seems, didn't like the idea of a spray. They said they thought it would feel cold, that it would sting, that they would dread putting it on. Instead, they preferred a cream—it seemed soothing, and applying it would make them feel as if they were doing something to help themselves. Sibley watched the scientists' eyes light up. They understood: "Hearing directly from the patient, the end user, was absolutely revelatory to the R&D people," she said. "And then, of course, as direct-to-consumer came along, we had to start understanding the consumer more. But for most pharma companies, this was a brave new world."

At BMS, Sibley pioneered many industry "firsts." She helped start the first competitive intelligence unit in pharma and championed the use of market research data to design better clinical trials. In particular, she worked with a group that advocated testing their drug against the most popular, most prescribed drug—not just the ones KOLs preferred. Sibley also worked on helping researchers institute health outcomes, both in terms of patient-reported outcomes but also in terms of health value. This is common today, but it was quite revolutionary in the late 1980s. She also conducted the first perceptual mapping of the ACE inhibitor market.

Everything was falling into place—until the fateful Lipitor forecast, after which everything simply fell apart. After Sibley departed, people were worried. A vendor said she had watched Sibley beat her head against the wall for so long that she was afraid there was no way to fix the damage that had been done. Some doubted that she would return to pharma.

For her own part, Sibley says she just felt relief. And before too long, she was ready to start again. She went to work for longtime client Colin Maitland, and built Isis Research's US business from scratch. She was the right person for the job, and just 15 months after starting, the business achieved profitability.

Charlotte's Web

And then, in 1999, along came an opportunity and a pair of kindred spirits, in the form of Fred Hassan and Carrie Cox, who were heading up Pharmacia and shared her ideas about developing customer-focused products. She joined the company as vice president of global business research. "This was a critical position at the company, with products like Detrol, which required the company to create white space out of nothing in the overactive bladder arena," says Richard Vanderveer, group chief executive officer of the GfK US Healthcare Companies. "She was part of the excellent management team at Pharmacia" (which, later on, would gain the nickname "the dream team").

Sibley was handed a $56 million budget and charged with building an information group. At Pharmacia, she was able to talk market research with Fred Hassan in a way that he could understand. She gained buy-in to pioneer a big segmentation project and brokered a shared accountability by tying the bonus of oncology market researchers to the profitability of the oncology group.

There was just one distraction: Six weeks after she joined, Pharmacia merged with Monsanto/Searle, which rearranged the building blocks of the company and the entire industry. Still, Sibley exceeded expectations. She cleaned up the post-merger mess and assembled a new group at breakneck speed, hiring 68 people in 16 months.

For this new group, the chaos unfolded in a positive way. "Pharmacia had this colossal growth with all these new people coming in," says Maitland. "And at the end of that, all these people had done really well and loved her—it was fun working for Charlotte. And they bred another generation of people, who were also enjoyable to work with."

It got Sibley a reputation—and a career path—as a sort of Johnny Appleseed of market research groups that mattered. She built one in Millennium in 2003 and then at Shire in 2005.

These market research operations were previously seen as service providers. "It used to be a 'Here's what needs to be done—go do it' kind of thing," explains Wassihun Alemayehu, who worked with Sibley at Millennium and then joined her at Shire. But Sibley retooled them so that they were part of the product teams and could influence decision making. "Charlotte ensures that marketing research is integrated with the business team," says Alemayehu. "It isn't secondary technical expertise residing somewhere. It's about the business itself."

At Shire, she created an intelligence unit that allowed the company to better leverage its specialty model through segmentation, patient flow models, and behavioral-based marketing. She also built the forecasting function she dreamed of—one which resided in market research, where she could assure its quality and integrity. "The secret to a good forecast is shared accountability with finance, marketing, and market research in terms of agreeing on the assumptions—what are the things that are going to drive this market," says Sibley. "It's not, as we used to say at Millennium, 'WNH'—that's wishing and hoping." With this model, Sibley went on to forecast the growth of Velcade within 1 to 2 percentage points year after year. At Shire, Sibley and her group forecasted the launch and sale of the new ulcerative colitis drug Lialda within 400 prescriptions—a personal best.

Leadership: Pet Project Goes Pro

You can't spend your life building high-powered market research organizations one after another without developing some people skills. For much of her career, talent management has been a passionate side project for Sibley. But in 2007, Shire formalized Sibley's passion into a new role, naming her senior vice president of leadership development. After years of sending human resources director Peter Lasky articles on leadership and the like, it took Sibley only about three seconds to consider the opportunity when he approached her with the offer.

Sibley's philosophy has been to first find the right people—and then let them build the organization. "She brings in amazing employees everywhere she goes," says Anita Graham, chief administration officer and Sibley's boss. "She is into attracting and developing her people, having a vision for them, and helping them see their own vision for themselves."

CEO Matt Emmens says Sibley's analytical approach is just what Shire needs to develop its people. The company grew 41 percent in 2007 and has hired 2,000 people over the past two years. It has made several acquisitions, changed the product mix, and consolidated the business. With all the commotion, it would be easy for anyone to get lost. "Our organization's culture is still evolving rapidly, and we have a large number of new employees who will need guidance and a place to touch base to figure out their growth," says Emmens, who is no stranger to the idea of leadership development. In 2006, he won HBA's 2006 Honorable Mentor award and recently published a book intended to motivate young people working in the biz. "We can't be in better hands, with Charlotte piloting and being the navigator of our people's growth."

Sibley brings to her new role some tricks she learned along the way—about shared accountability, this time between employer and employee—and a culture of inspiring greatness through career development. For example, Bridget Cleff contacted Sibley when considering a career change. She had known her from Millennium, and Sibley gladly threw open her network of contacts. When Cleff came on board at Shire, Sibley offered her the chance to head up market research for the important Lialda launch. "It was the kind of opportunity that you sit and you wait for, that opportunity to work on a new brand in multiple countries," says Cleff. "Charlotte gave me the chance by saying, 'It's yours. Run with it. Make it happen.'"

Part of that goes back to the finesse with which she influences others to invest in their employees' development. "It's not just Charlotte who is supporting you," says Cleff. "She builds the culture so that people throughout our organization are committed to career development of the people on their team."

Meanwhile, Sibley's first project in her new role is a program for senior management of Shire at Wharton. The course builds the cross-functional leadership that is needed to be competitive today and enforces the feedback loop.

For example, there's the lesson on the ADHD patch Daytrana (methylphenidate). Parents complained of problems applying and removing the adhesive patch from their children. Sibley worked closely with Chhaya Shah, in quality assurance, to design a survey that, when completed, distilled an important nugget of information: When caretakers were educated on how to use Daytrana, it increased the chances of better application by 35 percent. "That was valuable data," says Shah. "No one else could get it but her."

But Mike Cola, president of specialty pharmaceuticals, says Sibley is looking far beyond training—and even the integration of internal teams. "She's trying to draw out of the organization the wisdom, the learnings, and then figuring out how to reapply them," he says. "Once the dust settles, you have to start to be able to be good at things. And one way you get to be good is to continuously learn from what's going on both internally and externally."

For a master navigator, it's the challenge of a career: The people, the maps, the destinations are all new. What remains is the directive a young Charlotte Sibley got from one of her very first bosses: Show us where to go.