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Lisa LeCointe-Cephas, SVP, chief ethics and compliance officer and office of general counsel, human health, Merck, uses her unique style of leadership—stop, drop, and roll—while elevating voices that need to be heard.
With the rise of artificial intelligence (AI) and other emerging technologies, professionals are facing unprecedented ethical dilemmas. The possibilities and perils of these advancements are blurring the line between right and wrong, leaving employees in need of guidance to make the right decision. The stakes have never been higher and require ethical leadership that champions technological development while remaining grounded in moral values. Lisa LeCointe-Cephas embodies this kind of leadership.
“My job is, essentially, to make it easier for every employee to stand at the ethical fork in the road and be able to call on tools, understanding, [and] corporate values to make the right decision and the right choice,” says LeCointe-Cephas, SVP, chief ethics and compliance officer and office of general counsel, human health, Merck. Those choices, especially in the current environment of AI dynamic data sources and scientific speed, require compliance to protect the most important resources that pharmaceutical companies hold: personal and intellectual property.
This is not the first wave of change for compliance and ethics leaders in pharma. Approximately five to six years ago, many pharma organizations moved from a rules-based policy to a principles-based policy system. The latter is based on the trust generated by corporate culture, where the compliance function emphasizes ethical behaviors and acting with integrity as the norm, as opposed to simply focusing on rules.1 Now, the new complex landscape depends on leaders like LeCointe-Cephas to navigate and establish best practices.
“AI, generative AI, automation, digital data, ChatGPT...all have been frequent topics of conversation among the ethics and compliance community. And it’s interesting because I think when people hear ‘compliance,’ they don’t always think of that function as top of mind for change,” LeCointe-Cephas tells Pharmaceutical Executive®. But she notes that automation and digital innovation have been in use for quite some time at Merck, and, to that end, the compliance and ethics team has been coding, using machine learning, and automating to enhance processes, decrease response times, take the churn out of lower-risk activities, and apply predictive analytics to determine where risk may arise in the future.
LeCointe-Cephas points out that her global privacy office team at Merck has been leading the charge and staying ahead of the curve with AI and other emerging technologies and tools.
“These technologies have a tremendous potential to change the entire landscape of the life sciences and pharmaceutical industries, with things like drug discovery, innovative therapies, fraud prevention, business modeling, and countless other applications,” she says.
At the same time, of course, these fast-moving, ever-evolving technologies require governance. “This is going to be a space where the regulations and the laws will likely be behind pace relative to the advancement and the application,” adds LeCointe-Cepha. “We’ve seen that with other technologies in the past, for example, mobile messaging. We can’t really wait and see what will happen from a legal perspective. We have to stay ahead of the curve.”
With that purpose in mind, Merck published in May its “Commitment to Developing and Using Artificial Intelligence Ethically and Responsibly”—an internal commitment the company had in place for some time.2 The document was made public, according to LeCointe-Cephas, to ensure others would understand the commitments Merck adheres to in its mission to save and improve lives. She adds that the principles are aligned with major international frameworks as well as with Merck’s preexisting company values that focus on safety and respect for people.
Along with the aligned Merck commitments, LeCointe-Cephas keeps her company on the ethical and compliant pathway through advising, strategizing, problem-solving, and thinking about the future.
“Every time someone comes to my office, asks a question, or presents an initiative or new business strategy, our goal is to understand what they’re trying to achieve,” she says. “So, we are not asking, ‘What are you doing?’ but rather, ‘What are you trying to achieve, and why?’ We can get them to where they want to go in a compliant way. We are meeting the business where they are.”
LeCointe-Cephas is more than familiar with existing laws and regulations and her prior career experience in pharma is well-suited to anticipate where those same laws and regulations—or lack thereof—could cause risk.
Originally aiming to be a physician, a decision more aligned with her immigrant parents’ desires than her own, LeCointe-Cephas discovered through classes (including psychology, behavioral neuroscience, evolution, ethics, morality, and philosophy) that she was interested in people—and, more specifically, what makes them tick. This realization led to her choice to become a lawyer. “Law is ultimately about behavior,” says LeCointe-Cephas. “It’s about how we govern it. It’s about the relationships among individuals. It’s about relationships with society, and how we structure those relationships.”
Armed with her language and communication skills as well as her analytic and strategic skills, law was the perfect focus for her.
LeCointe-Cephas was a partner at the firm of Kirkland & Ellis LLP, conducting securities litigation and white-collar criminal defense work. It was here that she discovered a natural link between investigation and leadership.
“When you are in an investigation or a witness interview, sitting across the table from someone else who is probably uncomfortable in that situation, you learn a lot about how to communicate effectively,” explains LeCointe-Cephas. “You learn to put people at ease, listen to them, [and] get them to share their stories with you. These are all things that you need to be able to do as a leader.”
Another experience from her time at Kirkland and Ellis that she views as transferable across leadership is working globally in unfamiliar cultures or places, and having basic human conversations and interactions. It’s helped expand her ability to speak to all different types of people and think on her feet. “That, frankly, is going to be a critical skill for all executives, as we have an even more diverse and dynamic workforce,” she says.
Soon, LeCointe-Cephas would transition from private practice to in-house counsel at Bristol Myers Squibb, as the company’s global government investigations senior counsel. She kept her mind and her opportunities open so that if there was a chance to help outside of investigations on a compliance issue or a business initiative, she would be available.
“When you offer to help, surprisingly, people are happy to give you those opportunities,” says LeCointe-Cephas. “I think that’s an important part of any career development. If you want to expand your remit and be a continuous lifelong learner, it’s just digging in and saying yes when you can.”
Another tip for up-and-comers in the industry is the “stop, drop, and roll” approach, which she says can be adapted for any adversity that one might face.
“People make mistakes. They are going to ‘fail.’ But how do you learn how to reframe that failure as feedback and use it as a gift?” says LeCointe-Cephas. “How could you do better next time? Once you figure that out—and you have a root cause and you have a plan of action—don’t sit in the negative thoughts about it. Don’t view it as a failure. Move on. That’s the ‘roll’—figure out how to do better next time.”
LeCointe-Cephas has adopted the stop-drop-roll mantra in her leadership of others.
“It’s great for putting out fires literally and figuratively,” she says. “‘Stop’ is taking the time to listen, reflect, collect my thoughts in any situation, and connect with people. ‘Stop’ is being a very intentional and focused leader.”
‘Drop,’ LeCointe-Cephas describes, is dropping any preconceived notions in any situation. These, she says, can involve negative thoughts, personal hang-ups, or any judgments about the value proposition on the table. “The ‘drop’ is being an open leader,” she adds.
LeCointe-Cephas points to ‘roll’ as the most important component of her approach. “There is no one-size-fits-all leadership style,” she says. “Sometimes you’re a visionary; sometimes you’re strategic or you are autocratic; and sometimes you lead by consensus. The key is that you read the room and be able to pivot. The ‘roll’ is being a dynamic and flexible leader at all times. It’s worked for me so far.”
Being intentional, focused, open, dynamic, and flexible has formed LeCointe-Cephas’ basis for leadership. But what are the skill sets that support that? She describes herself as possessing excellent listening and communication skills as well as being analytical and strategic. It was a combination of those skills that helped usher LeCointe-Cephas into a life in law and ethics and it’s those skills she brings every day to her current role.
LeCointe-Cephas is clearly a positive force. She credits her hard work as well as her natural abilities and inclinations as markers for her success. And she has a very good vision of how she can help others by using her platform.
“I’m black. I’m a mom. I’m a woman. I’m a first-generation American. My grandparents died before I was born of preventable diseases. And yet here I am today, a pharmaceutical executive,” says LeCointe-Cephas. “I’m educated. I have resources. And I have the tremendous fortune of working for an amazing company like Merck that has hired me, not in spite of those things, but because they want me to bring my full, authentic self, informed by my adversity, my differences, and my unique experiences to work every single day, in furtherance of our important mission of saving and improving lives.”
LeCointe-Cephas notes that she has worked for two dynamic female general counsels, but adds that among Fortune 500 companies, women reportedly make up less than 13% of general counsel roles. She further points to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who notably spoke about healthcare disparities in 1966—messages that are equally applicable today.
“Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhumane, and here we are in 2023. In many communities in the US, but also in communities around the world, we see a stark divide in medical care—on racial lines, on gender lines, socioeconomic status,” says LeCointe-Cephas. “I believe that disparity or inequity of any kind, and in any arena, whether it’s law, business, health care, access, health literacy—all of them need to be addressed and all of them are important topics that we have to shine a light on. It can’t go unsaid in any arena. And I feel like it can’t go unsaid by me. I have a platform, a voice, and I have an obligation to speak for, and on behalf of, the groups that I personally represent, but also importantly, to elevate the plight of those who I don’t directly speak for but need their voices amplified as well.”
LeCointe-Cephas gives Merck kudos for the organization’s efforts to expand STEM initiatives as well as internship and career development programs, where senior leaders share their own experiences and lessons in resilience. Serving as a mentor or sponsor (not a formal mentor/mentee relationship) can also be a platform.
“If you are aware of an LGBTQ person or a minority who would be excellent for an opportunity but who might not be the natural choice or may not be top of mind, can you step into that room to shine a light on their capabilities?” she asks.
LeCointe-Cephas says she doesn’t shy away from opportunities to open up conversations about the difficult issues that society faces or make people uncomfortable. For those reasons, she will be speaking at a Young Black Pharma event in the fall and will be the chairperson for Informa’s Pharmaceutical Compliance Congress in the spring of 2024, bringing her positivity to the fore.
While LeCointe-Cephas is busily prioritizing and executing strategies to help advance Merck’s mission, she says she honestly doesn’t experience sleepless nights because of work.
“I do feel, we as an organization, have such a strong commitment to getting it right,” she adds. “I am energized every morning to get up because this industry and this job really allows me to have that great balance of my skills and my passion—connections with people. And because I didn’t become a doctor, I still at least get to say that I contribute to enhancing health outcomes around the world.”