Sanofi's Anne Whitaker on leadership and agility during revolutionary change in pharmaceutical industry

Friday, October 26, 2012

There are times when Sanofi executive Anne Whitaker -- and lots of other executives for that matter -- might like to have a GPS to help steer their companies through the changes transforming the pharmaceutical industry.

Instead, they have to rely on their leadership skills.

“When you’re in a changing environment, you can’t take a GPS,’’ Whitaker said during a recent talk at the Rutgers Business School. “You have to have enough of a vision so that people trust that you know where you’re taking them.”

Whitaker, who runs Sanofi’s North American pharmaceutical business and sits on the company’s global leadership team, spoke as part of the CEO Lecture Series hosted by Dean Glenn Shafer and the Rutgers Business School Board of Advisors. Whitaker was the seventh executive to appear as part of the series.

During a talk entitled “Change Agility in a Dynamic Industry,” she provided the audience with a glimpse into one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies and offered some insights into an industry that represents a vital part of the New Jersey economy. Rutgers Business School has turned its close proximity to the greatest concentration of pharmaceutical companies in the US into a top MBA in Pharmaceutical Management

Whitaker said Sanofi has proved its own agility in a number of ways, including its decision to acquire Genzyme and its strategy of becoming a diversified healthcare company even as some of its biggest competitors began spinning off parts of their businesses to focus more resources on developing new medicines.     

“Most companies are not change agile,” Whitaker said. “They are companies that manage change. They are companies that react to change. An agile company is proactive. They don’t wait for change to happen.”

Dean Glenn Shafer introduced Whitaker to an audience of mostly students and faculty gathered inside the Bove Auditorium in Newark. The CEO Lecture Series was created as a way of providing students with “a unique opportunity’’ to hear top company executives speak about timely topics, Shafer said.

After her talk, Whitaker answered nearly a dozen questions from the audience. Sarah Kruse, a first year MBA student, said she was struck by Whitaker’s unassuming manner. “We expect (CEO's) to speak at such a high level,” Kruse said. “I was impressed by how down to earth she was.”

Whitaker spent 19 years with the British pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline before she joined Sanofi last year. Based in France, Sanofi has operations across the U.S., including New Jersey.

 “I came to Sanofi because I believe in where Sanofi is going,” she said. "The company has been very proactive in moving to a healthcare company."

Before her talk, Whitaker agreed to answer some questions about how the pharmaceutical business is being revamped by healthcare reform, the widespread use of lower-priced generic medicines and the new demand for differentiated medicines. She also offered some insight into the challenges of being a top manager during a time of dramatic change.

Anne Whitaker


Tell us about some of the forces at work changing the pharmaceutical industry.

“The pharmaceutical industry is going through major change right now, actually, unlike anything I’ve seen over the past two decades that I’ve been in the industry. A lot of that change is being driven by healthcare reform being enacted and the fact that state governments are challenged with their budgets and paying for health care. We’re seeing generics that are coming into the marketplace. We’ve reached a point where many of the companies are facing patent cliffs so 70 percent of the prescriptions that are written today are for generic drugs, leaving 30 to 20 percent that are branded products. In addition, we’re seeing the physician groups consolidate and payers becoming more important in the marketplace on top of the fact that patients are becoming much more empowered with technology today and their ability to get information on their disease and their ability to make requests of their providers. So there are a number of forces coming together that are really pushing us to think about our business model and not only how we engage with our customers but also with patients.”

How is the business model changing?

“It depends on the company and the strategy they’re deploying, but one big shift I see occurring with the business model is that no longer is it going to be acceptable to just focus on the clinical outcome for a product from a clinical trial. Today people want to know what the clinical output is, but they also want to know what the economic output is and they want to know what the patient’s experience is like on the product. So that’s really pushing us to think about doing our trials differently, thinking about who we need to engage in that process and then as it comes out how do we then engage with providers and payers to really present that value that we’re bringing. In addition, it’s also really changing the way we do research and development. We recognize that the speed of science, because of technology, is a lot faster than it was before and you don’t have all of the right answers within one company or one single entity so it’s forcing more partnerships --  partnerships with academics and partnerships that are public private -- so that you can get the best minds around a disease. It’s also pushing companies to think about moving beyond just being one part of the solution and thinking about how to be part of the total solution. Sanofi is approaching that especially in diabetes. We have insulins but we also have a blood glucose management system because we want to surround the patient with a diabetic solution.”

What are some of the challenges of being a manager in an industry that is changing so quickly and so dramatically?

“It’s a challenge to really make sure you’ve got a solid strategy that’s sustainable and then to be able to make the tweaks you need quarter to quarter to stay relevant and to ensure that your strategy stays on course. I think having that focus and having your organization focused and not distracted by the changes and staying the course on your strategy is important. In addition, because of the difficult economic times, it can be challenging to keep your employees engaged. That’s critically important. The employees are your greatest assets and with layoffs that have occurred, with reduced resources that are provided, people are working harder than ever and, perhaps, being rewarded less for it, so how do you really engage their hearts and minds to be there for the cause.”

“That’s how I spend a lot of my time, really looking at how I can create an environment, a culture, where our employees can be fully engaged. That happens, I think, through leadership that really tries to connect and genuinely connects with their employees in a conversation. It’s not just one way communication and telling them where we’re going. It’s giving my view and engaging in a dialogue with them, really listening to what their concerns are, listening to what their ideas are and engaging them in the solution. And so, then once you’ve really got a plan, aligning them around it, aligning them in a way that you have to make some difficult choices, you have to clear away some of the work to make room for innovation. That’s sometimes hard for people to do. It’s hard for them to let go of the work they’ve done in the past and what’s made them successful and then step forward to innovate, but you’ve got to create that environment so they can take those risks.”

How can business schools better prepare students to be agile and to be ready to be in an industry that’s transforming?

“One way business schools can really prepare students to come into the healthcare industry, and the pharmaceutical industry being a part of that, is to learn from other industries that have gone through real transformation. If you look at the auto industry, the energy business, telecommunications, they’ve gone through massive transformation over the years. In the healthcare industry, we are on the cusp of going through that kind of transformation, so there’s a lot to learn from how leaders led through those transformations of other industries. I don’t think it does a lot of good to look back at the history of the pharmaceutical industry to prepare for the future because I think it’s going to be so different. The margins are going to be different. The way we go to market is different because our customers are very different.

And then, it’s just like you train an athlete to be agile. They have to be dropped into new situations so really challenging them to address big problems, new situations, in a team environment where they don’t necessarily have history to rely on, but they have their intellect, they have other people there who they can collaborate with and put them in situations where they have to take risks because they will learn that agility, they’ll learn to learn fast and move on.”

What do you draw on – what lesson, what advice, what experience – to mold your leadership style?

“I’ve been very fortunate in my career that I’ve had incredible mentors who have opened doors for me, who have taught me lots of lessons, sometimes in easy ways, sometimes in hard ways. One lesson I learned that was most valuable was from one of the former CEOs who I worked with before I came to Sanofi and that was about the power of being authentic as a leader.”

“If you’re willing to really be authentic, then you have to be a little vulnerable because you’re letting people see how you really are, warts and all, but you can also really connect with people if you are authentic. We spend a lot of energy trying to be something else if we’re not being authentic. If you let go of that, you can spend all that energy on your people and your business. When I learned that from him, it was scary to really open up and be myself. I thought a leader was supposed to be something else but when I got comfortable with that, it was incredibly powerful and rewarding to see that I could be authentic and be the kind of leader I wanted to be.”

-Susan Todd


About Anne Whitaker

In 2011, she became president of Sanofi's pharmaceutical business in North America and part of the company's global leadership team.

Before joining Sanofi, she spent 20 years with the British drugmaker GlaxoSmithKline, where she as a sales representative and held various positions of leadership. In 2001, she became vice president of Critical and Supportive Care, a division of GSK based in Pennsylvania and in 2008, she was appointed senior vice president of Leadership and Organization Development in London. Since 2009 Whitaker was a senior vice president and head of GSK's cardiovascular, metabolic and urology business.

She began her career at Delta Communications and moved to the Upjohn Company in 1991 to work as a metabolic disease specialist.

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