Learning the unwritten rules and dynamics of power

As part of EPR’s Women in Pharma series, Nawal Ouzren, CEO of Sensorion, talks to Science Editor Dr Zara Kassam about the diversity in drug development, creating a new growth mindset and elevating conversations beyond obvious beliefs…

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

As a child, I was very excited by how medicine could help patients in need, so you could say that I have always been very interested in the medical field. It wasn’t where I started off though, and my first job was in plastics engineering with GE, because it gave a bigger chance of immediate financial security when I left college, which was very important to me, coming from a not-so-wealthy background.

I was approached by Baxter in 2006, and given my long-standing interest in the field, I didn’t hesitate, and I’ve been in the pharma and biotech field ever since. I moved through several senior roles at Baxter and then Baxalta and Shire before becoming CEO of Sensorion in April 2017.

The element I would highlight is the diversity of my role. Biotech companies are usually quite small, and you need to take leadership of all aspects of the company – drug development, strategy, human resources, marketing, the science and more.

What does your current role entail?

As the CEO of a small biotechnology company, you are close to what is happening day-to-day. This means you can be more directly involved in all parts of the business and so what I do varies enormously. My role ranges from speaking to investors and journalists to strategy discussions with my executive team; from in-depth talks with our head lab technician to meeting patient advocacy groups; and everything in between.

 You should take the job that scares you the most

This is quite different from the senior roles I have held at larger companies, where you are more specialised in one area of a huge business. No one day looks the same as any other, and it is really exciting and interesting to be deeply involved in everything, and I enjoy the variety in my role. There is a huge diversity in the types of people that I deal with, and that gives plenty of opportunities for learning different perspectives and how we can harness them to improve the lives of patients. The biggest difference is the multiple interactions with investors, and how to shape the shareholding so that we have sustainable and solid foundations, and I also spend more time talking to advocacy groups and journalists.

Do you think being a woman in the Pharma industry is a challenge? Is there a woman in the industry that you particularly admire?

I couldn’t say specifically that it was difficult for a woman. Getting into bigger jobs was sometimes challenging because I came from outside the organisation or was younger and it was a more senior role. So it’s more my age, rather than being a woman. Sometimes there may have been a condescending tone, but I did not experience or notice issues because of my gender.

There is no question that women are talented and competent, but I think many won’t apply for jobs if they don’t meet all the requirements perfectly. It’s not about what you know, but about your learning agility, and this is stretched by taking difficult and challenging roles. Being uncomfortable is what makes you grow the most.

I am inspired by so many different people and I can always learn from someone, from sponsors and how he or she does it, and also people reporting to me and how they carry out their jobs and respond to feedback.

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?

 You have to understand the code of the role, which will make you successful. No one gives you the key and you have to learn it the hard way sometimes. You have to have one or two difficult meetings and you learn the unwritten rules and dynamics of power.

I would say that at the beginning in a new role, you should observe a lot and ask questions. Try to identify a couple of people you can trust to pressure test your hypotheses and understand the history of the organisation. It’s not enough to prepare, you have to understand the people and the dynamics around the table. Of course, you have to know your numbers, but don’t just count them and ignore everything else.

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

You should take the job that scares you the most. There is no question that women are talented and competent, but I think many won’t apply for jobs if they don’t meet all the requirements perfectly. It’s not about what you know, but about your learning agility, and this is stretched by taking difficult and challenging roles. Being uncomfortable is what makes you grow the most.

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

The numbers speak for themselves. Not having diversity in drug development is a big mistake because you lose the perspective of women, and there are fewer women as the pyramid goes up. There needs to be a commitment to interview very diverse candidates for every position in an organisation so that they gain experience. At Sensorion, the Board and management are 50-50 and I feel pretty proud of that. At the moment we are very small, with only 20 people, but as we grow we will certainly put such a policy in place to ensure diversity.  

How can we better encourage more women into careers in biology, chemistry, mathematics, and so on?

You have to take girls when they are young, up to six years old, and give them the experience of science before the narrative starts to take hold, so they see that there are women in labs, and working in coding. You create the appetite at a very young age and that can really make a difference. As teenagers, it’s almost too late, as the narrative is so ingrained. Parents and teachers have to create a new growth mindset.

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

Women have a broad role in society, as professional and caregivers in families, and understand deeply how things work or do not work in healthcare. That can give a different and much broader perspective on drug development than if a company is dominated by men as women generally care for their spouse, their children and even parents.

We understand better what could make a drug more successful beyond efficacy, and that is caring – I still remember a conversation with mothers caring for their children suffering from Hemophilia where they said they had no issue infusing their boys with FVIII solution while it was almost impossible to make them swallow their iron supplement pills. In companies, we are often convinced that an oral route of administration will drive better compliance. The feedback of these mothers brought us a sense of reality by elevating the conversation beyond obvious beliefs.

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