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Paving the Way: Bold Perspectives from Female Executives in Biotech

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Paving the Way: Bold Perspectives from Female Executives in Biotech

Just in time to celebrate Women’s History Month, GQR Life Sciences is excited to promote a blog series led by our very own Katie Litwin to celebrate female executives in the biopharma sector.

Katie kicks off her series by sitting down with Lisa DiPaolo and Kimberly Moran, both of whom are recent graduates of the highly selective Women in Bio’s Boardroom Ready Program which is designed to optimize a woman’s chances of success in finding a board appointment in Life Sciences. She’ll explore topics of negotiation, navigating management challenges, building a strong company culture, and more.

Their experiences not only celebrate their achievements but also mirror the significant progress women have made in life sciences. As we acknowledge the strides made by women in the field, we draw inspiration from Lisa and Kim among many others, whose resilience, negotiation skills, and strategic insights are paving the way for a future rich in inclusivity and innovation in life sciences

Lisa DiPaolo

Ms. DiPaolo was appointed as Executive Vice President, and Chief Human Resources Officer in September of 2022. She brings more than 20 years of pharmaceutical and biotech experience to her new role.

Most recently, Ms. DiPaolo served as Senior Vice President, Human Resources, at Ipsen where she led the Human Resources function for the North American business as well as global R&D and Business Development where she successfully led broad organization transformation to scale the business. During her tenure, she was also responsible for building and leading compensation and benefits, talent management, and talent acquisition globally. Previously, Ms. DiPaolo spent 8 years at Biogen in several leadership roles, and in her last role served as Vice President, Global Therapeutic Operations, Global Medical, and Executive search. 

Reflection and Rise:

When you look back at the progression of your own career, are there any habits or qualities that you can attribute to your rise or contributing factors that you would recommend other women consider?

The willingness to take on the challenge even if you don’t feel like you’re totally qualified. A lot of women undersell themselves and don’t feel they’re qualified to take on a position. The reality is that you’ll figure it out when you jump into the challenge, and you’ll be able to rely on your cabinet of people to also help you with any challenges you may face. When I look at my progression, it was my willingness to stick my neck out a little bit for the sake of learning. You don’t need to feel 100% every time you jump into the deep end.

Negotiation – it’s never easy, but have you ever had a situation where you have had to negotiate on behalf of yourself, and do you have any advice on the best way to navigate?

All the time, your whole career, you may not consider it a negotiation, but it is. My advice is: Don’t hesitate. Don’t be apologetic about it. It can’t hurt to ask for what you want. Know your value. The number 1 thing women do is say, “Will they think less of me?” or, “Will I look bad?”. If anything, the opposite. They will respect you for having the confidence to advocate for yourself.

What do you think makes up a “good” exec team and in situations of disagreement, how do you manage conversations within your leadership team?

I think diversity of thought makes a good leadership team and is made up of strong leaders who can work with 10/10 people. When I think about those who can work with anyone, those are the people who can listen to others’ views and those who are genuinely committed to the greater good. It’s all about alignment and accountability. They’re able to hold hands with their fellow leadership, come together in times of disagreement, and move forward as a united front. It’s not about winning, it’s about the business being successful.

Management comes with its fair share of challenges. Working with difficult employees can definitely be one! How do you best deal with a direct report you may be struggling with?

You have to be firm but fair. Provide clarity on the expectations and be direct and clear on the shortfalls. Provide support needed if it’s missing. For an executive level position, if it’s just not a cultural fit, this should just be addressed sooner rather than later. You can’t force a fit. At a VP or above, people are expected to do the role that they’re in. It’s doing everyone at the company a disservice to not deal with someone who isn’t culturally aligned. We often think about firing as being a very bad thing, but it doesn’t need to be that way, it can be very respectful, it can be a conversation about how both parties move forward in different directions, and that’s OK.

You’ve worked in environments large and small – is there any advice or best practices you would take and apply in a smaller company setting?

My suggestion would be taking the best-in-class practices from larger companies and building fit-for-purpose solutions at smaller companies. Having worked in larger companies you inevitably learn to do some of the work yourself and then you bring that to a smaller and nimble team. For example, from a talent management perspective, when we’re thinking about succession planning and talent management models, these frameworks tend to be very engineered at larger pharma. You can use the bigger picture themes of these models and fit them to a smaller environment.

I’ve seen this scenario a lot where - You’re uniquely qualified for a position, it’s one thing to know it, and another thing to articulate it – do you have any suggestions on how to go about preparing on this topic and best position yourself? 

You learn through your experiences. I got confidence in my career as I went through different experiences. I have found that overcoming this hesitance is more of a mindset, and I’ve learned a lot through just experiencing and navigating questions as they were raised. What women leadership should prepare is, “what’s their story”. What is your story and how does that align for the job you’re going for. It’s all about preparation of your elevator spiel. And, have examples in mind that you can clearly demonstrate and back up your story. At the end of the day, it’s all about preparation.

The Future of Biopharma:

Remote working has become quite a popular and contentious point of discussion. How has your organization adapted to the shift? Have you found the impact of “remote work” has hampered your employee satisfaction or opened new doors for your company?

It’s opened new doors for us. Our engagement scores were very high this year.

How are you creating a consistent employee experience remote and in-office if it’s mixed?   

There isn’t any perfect solution. CEOs are starting to want people to come back to the office. We adopted a model where we ask for 3 days/month that we call “core weeks”.  There is nothing from a productivity perspective that has suffered from this. We bring people together for purposeful moments such as patient stories, town halls, team buildings. We have heard people love the energy when they are here. They love the dedicated time. Outside of the core weeks, we also have coffee chats, focus groups, etc. So, it’s not like we’re just interacting with each other once/month. We’re always connecting.

Do you foresee any hiring challenges that you’ll face over the coming year related to this split between remote vs in-office? If so, how do you mitigate those with your talent acquisition strategy?

I still see people trying to figure out and again and there is no perfect answer. But what I said to our CEO is that we will not win the war on talent if we’re so prescriptive. It will likely pose an impediment to our hiring goals. People want flexibility with their work schedules and lives so I think employers should keep that perspective at the forefront of their minds.

What goes into making and also SUSTAINING company culture as your company grows?

In my experience at Biogen, we were under 5000 employees and as we grew the CEO still wanted to keep to a small company culture. As you grow, you add more processes. You just have to. But it’s about getting the right nimble people in place, so you don’t lose speed and have analysis paralysis as you grow into a larger team. You have to hire against the key values you have as an organization. Think about, “What do we want people to demonstrate – is it, ‘dealing with ambiguity?’, ‘working well without process?’ and hire against these traits as you build your key leadership and allow that to trickle down.

Connect with Lisa DiPaolo

Kimberly Moran

Kim Moran is Head of U.S. Rare Diseases, where she oversees the rare disease commercial organization in the U.S., preparing for future launches and building the strategy for our entry into multiple rare diseases. Kim’s career began in rare, working in myasthenia gravis, and she believes through our deep understanding of patients and their needs, we have a responsibility to take risks to deliver for them. Over her nearly 15 years at UCB, she’s seen the organization grow and evolve, giving us the opportunity to gain closer proximity to patients, understand their unmet needs, and deliver unique solutions, including through digital pathways.

Reflections and Rise:

When you look back at the progression of your own career, are there any habits or qualities that you can attribute to your rise or contributing factors that you would recommend other women consider?

Reflecting on my own career, I think being more open allowed me to achieve success. A lot of times you (women) feel there is some traditional career trajectory you should have. The world doesn’t work that way. You should strive to be long-term minded, and capabilities minded. Think to yourself, “how can I add more tools to my toolkit?” and “what else should I add to round out my profile?”

Be aware of trends and what else is out there that could present itself as a risk or opportunity. As a business leader, you need to understand the trends and resources available to you to continue to innovate in your space and role. As an example, while a few years ago I knew very little about AI, I really dove in to immerse myself in digital and AI trends to be able to understand the implications better for my business. 

Negotiation – it’s never easy, but have you ever had a situation where you have had to negotiate on behalf of yourself, and do you have any advice on the best way to navigate?

I negotiate probably daily. I love it. I want women to be more comfortable with it. There’s nothing wrong with asking for something or making a request. And framing it in that way can be a good tactic to use; that you are “making a request”. I suggest also considering taking a basic negotiation course. Understand the cognitive theory behind negotiation if that helps you overcome the fear and come up with a strategy. Consider, ‘what is the most basic thing you are willing to walk away with or from’. 

Negotiations also often go multiple rounds. There can be multiple conversations. So, come up with your initial strategy and continue to shift it as conversations continue. We also have a duty to role model it for others in our organizations so that other rising leaders can see effective negotiation tactics. 

If you were to give yourself any advice reflecting back to your early career, what would you say?

Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. Earlier in my career, I did way too much. I’m a big fan of simplification. I got to a point where I was taking too much on my plate. I began to reflect on, what are the three most important things I need to do to be successful in my role and how can I achieve those. But doing 20 things an inch deep is not doing anyone any good.

Let’s dig a bit deeper here - how do you decide what ARE the most important things you need to do to be successful in your role, especially early on in your career when you want to make an impression?

1. Get feedback and alignment from those around you of what they consider to be the most important elements of your role

2. Sense check with key stakeholders. Come to them and say, “This is what I’m focused on, is there anything you see as a higher priority” and constantly update that list depending on shifting organizational/personal priorities and

3. Be a great communicator with your team and management, and in combination with continuously seeking alignment will make you focused and impactful. Then, over time, you’ll start to figure out what is important and learn how to read the strategic trends for the future to make your own assessments and shape your strategic advice.

What do you think makes up a “good” exec team and in situations of disagreement, how do you manage conversations within your leadership team?

A good executive team should be a diverse group. There should be a mix of industries, perspectives, experiences. There should also be collaboration, as well as healthy conflict and debate. This means a team that knows how to have a debate, and ultimately walk away aligned. That takes good psychological safety and trust. Especially at larger companies, you can’t have two people steering in different directions and bringing that to their teams.

When you think more holistically about your own career progression, have you ever taken a “step back” in title? If so, how do you recommend that rising leaders think about title in comparison to other factors and do you have any over-arching advice of how to think about this?

I would reframe this from “taking a step back” to “taking a lateral move to eventually step up”. It goes back to the toolkit – taking these moves moved me from a global role to a US role or a medical director to a sales role. With the toolkit analogy, you must consider what you are gaining as a result. And you can tie that experience back to goal setting. As an example, saying, “if I take this, I want to achieve X” – and then you can speak with your manager about those 12-18 months objectives and how they can help you manage that.

You’ve worked in environments large and small – any advice on best practices/habits you would take and apply to a smaller company setting or vice versa?

I started my career in a very tiny biotech. I was employee number 36. So, I was able to quickly learn all the different functions at a biotech. Each person owned their role. I learned accountability from that. I also learned agility. You don’t always have to have all the information to make a decision. Large pharma can learn from that agility - of course, with guardrails around it. But working on risk tolerance is huge for leaders at any organization.

There are also layers for decision making at larger companies. I would suggest larger teams empower decisions that are made at a technical level. At the executive level, you need to have the smell for it. Ask, “does this smell like the right decision and are the right people in that function to make the right decision”. But allow your people to own their work.

The Future of Biopharma:

Remote working has become quite a popular and contentious point of discussion. How has your organization adapted to the shift and how are you creating a consistent employee experience remote and in-office if it’s mixed?

I’m a big fan of the hybrid model. There are some tasks that require a quiet, focused environment. There are other tasks that require being in person and collaboration in situations where personal connection and reading the nonverbals is so important. Every company and every department has to figure out the secret to their own success. But the biggest thing I would encourage organizations to consider is being intentional about your time and setting guidelines that are consistent. Be intentional about expectation around in office time. At the end of the day, if you want to attract the best and brightest talent you have to have some flexibility no matter what decision is made.

What goes into making and also SUSTAINING company culture?

Be clear about the health and the direction of your company culture. If you are in a position of driving change, you must be clear about the why behind organizational changes. If you want to retain talent, you have to make clear to employees why they are valued. Communicate. Don’t communicate too early but communicate clearly. Don’t dangle uncertainty too long. People stress, swirl, and leave. The more you can be clear about what is happening and why, then people aren’t panicking as much.

What do you think makes up a “successful” interview/hiring process? And how can you hire effectively at scale or consider other avenues to bring in necessary resources?

I think what makes a good interview process is a very clear expectation of the capabilities, competencies and skillsets that are necessary for the role. Additionally, it is smart that interviewers understand their biases. There’s a SEEDS model that we use that can help individuals identify their biases a little bit more, which helps you become more objective. I would be very clear to the interviewee about your company culture and assess that. “Is this person adaptable to change? Or do they look like they’re flexible enough to work well?” And finally, I would recommend a diverse interview panel. Whoever is interviewing you should also demonstrate the diversity of your company.

The future of AI in Life Sciences. How do we de-mystify it and do you seek AI as a risk or benefit? How are you integrating it into your company?

My recommendation is to not be so scared of it. When we hear computers have human-like qualities, we immediately get scared and believe our jobs are at risk. But AI is just pattern recognition. It just does it faster than we can. We use it with our salesforce effectiveness to better understand the patient journey and understand where patients get stuck in the clinical trial process. I recently saw a presentation with the NIH where researchers used AI to analyze rare disease patients and did an analysis of the entire genome of the patient against all possible drug candidates that could impact the one gene in question that was causing the disease and they found something that worked. I think first understanding why you might need a new system and how it will benefit you will help people understand it better.  It’s not about replacing human beings; it’s about enhancing our abilities.

Connect with Kimberly Moran
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