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Succeeding in Pharma as a Woman or Minority Professional


Broaden your industry exposure. Think beyond yourself... Timely advice from this year's HBA Woman of the Year, Carolyn Buck Luce.

HBA woman of the year Carolyn Buck-Luce says career success depends on community. 

As Big Pharma vaults from the patent cliff to confront the bottomless pit of payer expectations, job “restructurings” are mounting, with a loss of some 220,000 workers in the US industry over the past decade. The current era of austerity is also having a less documented effect on the professional growth prospects of those who remain employed, especially women and minorities—groups who even in good times face difficulty in making the transition from “surviving to thriving.”

This year’s Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association Woman of the Year, Ernst & Young Pharmaceutical Sector Leader Carolyn Buck-Luce, has made a career of studying the causes behind a stark reality: while women outnumber men in filling the entry-level professional ranks in Big Pharma, their ranks thin considerably through the transition to middle-management and slows to a downright trickle once you get to the most senior “C-suite” positions.  In a series of interviews Pharm Exec conducted with Buck-Luce over the last month for our April cover feature, we asked her to provide some timely advice to women and minority professionals interested in advancing their careers under a shrinking tent. Stretching that tent, and undoing the ropes that bind, depend on the following:  

Go for global. Technology is making all types of business processes, transactions, and models more possible, doable, and affordable, removing the barriers that once kept managers comfortable and complacent in the silos of the local mindset. And growth in the industry is coming from emerging markets, as opposed to the “submerging” developed markets of HQ. Tomorrow’s prized managers will share a common characteristic of exposure and fluency with a diversity of cultures and business practices—so take that foreign or beyond HQ assignment, and the sooner the better.

Broaden your industry exposures . As the pharma business model adjusts to tougher, less predictable business conditions, the appetite for insights from other industry sectors is becoming a staple on the strategy menu. Buck-Luce believes her previous work in finance, retail, banking, technology, and leveraged acquisitions helped her see things her drug industry colleagues did not—putting her out in front in the re-positioning of pharma as a business driven not by pills, but by outcomes linked to information. Bottom line principles deemed “radical” in health care—such as never believing you know enough about your customers—are actually commonplace in other sectors, and the “how to” is more transferable than many believe is possible.

Think broadly—and always beyond yourself . A major, career-inhibiting mistake is always reacting to others on the assumption they perceive, evaluate, and behave the way you do. You must always work first to understand how you fit into other people’s models, rather than your own model. This is the essential basis for cross-cultural awareness, a basic character trait that Buck-Luce possessed early on in her career but which has lately been refined as a key element of formal leadership training in today’s global organization. She calls it “OQ”—organizational intelligence—understanding how an organization thinks and feels and then taking 99 percent of the responsibility of what it takes to be an effective change agent.

Business is a conversation. Make it personal . Being adept at communications is a significant skill for all pharma professionals, if only because the customer base is becoming more diverse. More important, success for the industry depends on changing behaviors—and here it’s not just economic incentives that count but also the sheer capacity to educate and persuade. Drugs are an information business, and the medium is personalized medicine. That’s going to require a technical proficiency around the medicine as well as a profound understanding of the person who takes it. Empathy will be a driver of outcomes along with the ability to forge useful connections from disparate sources of information and diverse stakeholders. Learning how to relate to others through superior communication skills is a career builder. Says Buck-Luce: “This interactive relationship with the patient and collaborative partners is what we call horizontal leadership. From a cultural perspective, it should be part of every leader’s DNA. And women bring very authentic capabilities to this which come from years of ‘leading from the foot of the table.’”    

Treat technology as a tool, not a threat . As a professional, strive to keep pace with change in the applications that impact your function; each year do something that makes your department stand out—for example, in using data and “real world” analytics to quantify your ROI contribution to the business. Deep customer insights combined with hard facts are hard to refute when budgets are competing for portions of a smaller pie. And it pays to take the edge off something you don’t know by being first to try it. Buck-Luce recalls the example of an early sponsor, Citibank CEO Walter Wriston, who reacted to the banking industry’s qualms about the impact of the ATM by placing the first machine in the lobby of his own HQ; “He passed the future every day.”  

Establish an evidence base to buttress your personal brand . Young professionals often ignore or disdain the bureaucratic processes designed by human resources personnel to take some of the subjectivity out of annual performance evaluations. But another perspective is to make the process work for you, by paying attention to the points and criteria that put the weight of the organization behind a quantitative measure of success that is hard to misinterpret. For women seeking to differentiate themselves from men in seeking positions in top management, evidence of prior accomplishment has to be clear and irrefutable. The reason, according to Buck-Luce, is the club culture of organizations that tend to perpetuate their own kind: research has shown that the men who call the shots will evaluate other men based on their potential, while women must win on their irrefutable track record. “It is interesting that I often hear men say, ‘Lets give him a chance,’ and turn around and say, ‘Should we take a chance on her?’—two different connotations for the same word!”

Create a strategic plan around the most important product: You . While it pays to be flexible, every woman manager should draft a road map that identifies how she wants to “be known” in the world, e.g., “your purpose” in ten years. It should include an assessment of skills, power tools (e.g. personal brand, relationships, knowledge), prospective developmental assignments, and networking targets needed to become that future leader. An additional important and frequently overlooked ingredient in the plan is setting a forward trajectory for your personal and civic life. No plan is likely to succeed if the personal and professional end up competing with each other: the two cannot be separated, as is often assumed. Think about any job as a platform, not a position. Ask yourself, “What do I want to learn, what kinds of people do I want to meet, what critical experiences do I want to have?”—in relation to your 10-year “purpose.”  Whatever position you have can become a platform for discovery and growth in these three areas. And what you will learn is how to be a better, more engaged and informed leader at work, at home, and as a citizen of the world.

Analyze how you respond to power signals in the workplace . Power—who wields it, for what purpose, and how it affects others—is the lifeblood of any large, complex organization. I have found that women have an ambivalent relationship to power, due to the cultural reinforcement that begins early in life around the notion of being a “good girl.” The best way to handle the ambivalence is to build the will to attain influence around a sense of purpose: once I have power, what good will I do in exercising it beyond myself? Being able to answer that question goes a long way in resolving that ambivalence so women get more comfortable and effective in wearing ambition gracefully and fully partnering with male leaders who face much less cultural resistance to being ambitious with respect to leadership opportunities and intentional about gaining and using power.

When you take a risk, make it distinctive, and when you fail, learn. A successful career entails often taking a prudent risk, and failure is to be expected: in both cases, the learnings are deep and should be applied constructively as a tool in your path to effective leadership. Buck-Luce relates an example from her own career: “Twelve years ago I was leading E&Y’s efforts to drive alliances and investments in dot-com companies, and then the dot-com bubble burst. At that time, E&Y was building a new strategy to dramatically increase our footprint in industries where we had not had a significant advisory presence. I raised my hand to offer to build a global pharmaceutical business for E&Y, without any previous experience in healthcare. My banking background had given me the experience on how to “learn” industry and the topic of global health was an area I was passionate to learn more about. Today, our Global Life Sciences Sector is one of the fasted-growing priority sectors for the Firm. So when you do take a risk, don’t be shy: go for the gold. There is little pleasure in failing small. 

Ultimately, Buck-Luce’s final advice for career advancement is direct and remarkably gender free: be yourself. “Sincerity is easily discerned by others and can distinguish you, both men and women, from the “organizational man” culture of the last century where conformity, not authenticity, was encouraged,”—a fresh thought in itself. We’ll no doubt hear more from her on the topic of individual fulfillment—of which career is only a part—when she accepts her award at the HBA Woman of the Year luncheon here in New York on May 3. 




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