article

Liz Barrett, Novartis: ‘My personal mission is to help find cures for cancer’

As part of EPR’s Women inspiring Pharma series, Liz Barrett, CEO Oncology, Novartis, talks to Science Editor Dr Zara Kassam about finding cures for cancer, identifying meaningful partnerships and acknowledging unconscious biases…

Tell me about your career? (A brief summary to date )

I joined Novartis in February 2018 as CEO of Oncology after holding a number of roles in the pharmaceutical industry. My personal mission is to help find cures for cancer and I have a Twitter handle — @lizforacure — dedicated to sharing news about reimagining cancer. I’m truly excited about the real prospects for finding cures with my team at Novartis. The strength of our portfolio and pipeline give me confidence that this ambition is achievable, and it’s one of the main reasons why I joined Novartis. But it may be a surprise to learn that I didn’t begin my career in oncology, or even in the pharmaceutical industry.

My personal mission is to help find cures for cancer

I started out in the consumer brands industry working on a range of products including Cool Whip and Reach toothbrushes. I have always been passionate about finding the best attributes in every brand and business I supported and discovering what was most meaningful to the people who touched that brand. I was always interested in understanding what motivated people to make certain decisions about the products they used and it was a strength for me to put myself in the place of others, allowing me to drive for results through real insights and strategies. I was energised to do my best work and it gave me a purpose-driven focus.

That search for purpose in my work has stayed with me throughout my career. After 10 years in the consumer products industry, I found myself looking for a meaningful way to have a greater impact, and after much effort, was able to move to the biotech side of J&J. I worked on both HIV and Oncology, initially focused on patient communication, advocacy and education.  I spent the next 20 years in various roles in Oncology and Specialty areas running various businesses and regions in J&J, Cephalon and Pfizer. The majority of that time has been in oncology where I became very passionate about having a profound impact on people living with cancer. I was fortunate to have roles in oncology supportive care, oncology therapeutics and oncology diagnostics and have had broad experiences from starting a new Oncology Business Unit in Cephalon to leading Pfizer’s Global Oncology Business Unit to advance to #6 from #12 in the industry. 

What does your current role entail?

I am CEO of Oncology at Novartis and I am also a member of the Executive Committee of Novartis (ECN). My role is to work collaboratively with the heads of research and development and the ECN to bring innovative and transformative medicines to people with cancer.

Cancer research is evolving quickly and while much progress has been made there is still so much more to do. There remains a high unmet need in cancer which is the #1 or #2 cause of mortality in most countries around the world. Cancer incidence continues to grow and it’s important to recognise that cancer is not one disease but many tumours and pathways and as we shut down one pathway, it finds a way to evolve and escape treatments. Fortunately, we have transformed some cancers into chronic diseases but far too many people still progress on treatment.   

My father was a big influence on my life. He instilled in me a belief that I could do anything I set my mind to

There are so many targets and combinations that no one company can do this alone. I’m concentrating on identifying partnerships and collaborations with academia, biotechs and other pharmaceutical companies to find the most meaningful new treatments for patients. As we reimagine cancer in Novartis, I’m focused on evolving our culture to inspire and motivate our associates to make like better for people with cancer. This shared vision is very meaningful to our associates and gives them personal and professional satisfaction.    

Do you think being a woman in the Pharma industry is a challenge?

I definitely recognise the challenges of women in our industry, and frankly all industries, when it pertains to our ability to be represented at the highest levels of leadership. I’ve tried to focus on the benefits of being a woman in the pharmaceutical industry. Unfortunately, there are so few of us with the right level of experience and knowledge, that there are many opportunities for women if they are interested in advancing. I know that unconscious bias exists and women need to put themselves forward for high-level roles, be willing to take risks in their careers and mentor and champion other women. I believe I am a different leader because I am a woman but that has actually benefited me as both men and women appreciate a different approach.    

What have you experienced as barriers to success on your career path, and what advice would you give to women who come up against these same barriers?

I think communication is really critical. As you know, men and women can say the exact same words but it will be perceived differently. Rather than fight it, I advise to embrace it and you can be a more effective leader if you understand that early and recognise the impact you have on others.

I also tell women to stay true to themselves and build their careers on their own terms. It’s helpful to acknowledge that being a woman will likely influence their career decision-making in a way that won’t necessarily affect their male colleagues. Women know better than anyone what’s right for themselves and their families and that influences their work and the choices they make.

One of my favourite thoughts about women supporting women comes from former First Lady of the United States Michele Obama. She said, “We should always have three friends in our lives. One who walks ahead who we look up to and follow; one who walks besides us, who is with us every step of our journey. And then, one who we reach back for and bring along after we’ve cleared the way.”

I have turned down opportunities that offered great development experience and higher compensation, and potentially greater advancement. But I said “no” because it was not in the best interest of my family at that time in our lives. Women should understand that those decisions are okay to make, and they do not herald the end of a career trajectory. In fact, it’s very possible that the next role I took after turning down another position for family reasons may have brought me to this point in my career. 

We can’t predict the future. So it’s important to be open to alternative paths in our careers because, like science itself, the process is not always precise.

Are there any examples within your company in particular where women have been successful?

At Novartis, I’ve been so impressed with our associates – both women and men. We have some really smart, talented people in this company! Our people are one of our most important assets and we are passionate about fostering diversity and inclusion and developing talent.

 I think women sometimes opt out or choose a different path because the sacrifices are significant and they choose to step off

We have a goal of improving female representation in leadership roles in the organisation. We have a great program called Vista for early and high potential talent to meet external experts in the field and have direct exposure to my leadership team.

A year ago, there were no women on the Executive Committee of Novartis and now there are two…so it’s a start. We are very fortunate to have a diversified board of directors and there is a real focus on ensuring women are represented at every level. 

 What can women do to prepare themselves to reach the C-suite in the pharmaceutical and healthcare industries?

My father was a big influence on my life. He instilled in me a belief that I could do anything I set my mind to. He raised me to believe that no matter the situation if I worked hard and always did the right thing, I could accomplish anything. So to women looking to advance in this industry, I say know your value, know your strengths and be your own best advocate!

It’s important to demonstrate that you get the big picture because that is the difference between an operational role and an executive role. Confidence and executive presence, strong communication skills and inspiring leadership are traits that can differentiate women or men with true potential to be at the executive level. Mentors and sponsors can also have a significant impact, but it’s important to find mentors with whom you truly connect because the best mentors and sponsors are those willing to spend their personal equity to champion you for increased roles and responsibilities. Most of my mentors have been men but as I moved up in the organisation, I was fortunate to have women executives proactively reach out to me. They clearly felt a responsibility to foster and support me as I advanced and I was extraordinarily grateful for their support. 

One of my favourite thoughts about women supporting women comes from former First Lady of the United States Michele Obama. She said, “We should always have three friends in our lives. One who walks ahead who we look up to and follow; one who walks besides us, who is with us every step of our journey. And then, one who we reach back for and bring along after we’ve cleared the way.”

Looking more broadly at the industry do you think there is a glass ceiling for women in Pharma and is it any worse than in other industries?

Unfortunately, women remain under-represented in our industry as well as others. I don’t think there is a glass ceiling as I really believe society and businesses are more open than ever to support women at the highest levels. I think women sometimes opt out or choose a different path because the sacrifices are significant and they choose to step off. Until we find equal sharing of caretaking duties and streamline organisational complexity, it is going to be difficult to get to equal representation. Women also must have the confidence and belief in their self-worth but not in a defensive manner. Know you are there because you have something unique to offer. Also, remember you get to choose. If you do not feel valued for your contributions, take a risk and find a role or an organisation where you can have your greatest impact. In the end, I think that’s what we all want…to have an impact.   

Currently, men outnumber women in science graduate degrees in the UK – how can we better address this imbalance to encourage more women into biology, chemistry, mathematics, and so on?

The good news is in the US, more women than men entered medical school for the first time in 2017. But you are correct, we still have a long way to go in the area of STEM for women. I studied business with an undergraduate degree in Business Administration from the University of Louisiana and then I received a Master’s of Business Administration from Saint Joseph’s University. It’s important in my role that I understand the science so I take it upon myself to tap into the experts and build a working knowledge. So, while I agree we need to start early and encourage young women to consider science and math, you can still have a great career in this field without that background.

How could the Pharma industry benefit if more women were in higher roles?

Diverse backgrounds bring better ideas and solutions. I’m a different kind of leader because I’m a woman. I bring a diversity of thought and life experience and that difference has enhanced my contributions and helped me achieve my goals. At the end of the day, it is the sum total of our expertise and experiences that shape our careers and ultimately, our ability to have a positive impact on our greatest asset, our people. 

Send this to a friend