Express Pharma

People should know what they want to achieve

Suneela Thatte, VP and Head – R&D, India, Merck KGaA, in an interaction with Ashwini Prakash, Managing Partner India, Asia Pacific Lead-Pharma, Healthcare, Life Sciences and Consumer products, Stanton Chase India talks about the importance of enriching one’s career

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With over 20 years of experience in drug development and clinical research, what kept you engaged and motivated to pursue in this field?

In one phrase, it is the sense of purpose. I believe drug development professionals are privileged to be able to bring hope to patients with “unmet medical needs” and to their care givers. No matter what role we play in clinical development, drug development and pharma, we all contribute to this cause and the pandemic has proven to be a classic example of it. For all the medical and scientific advances we were proud of, the pandemic took us by surprise and completely swept us off our feet. Developing an effective vaccine in limited time was the only hope for human society to see some normalcy in our lives. Astonishingly, the world came together and worked towards the goal with such less turnaround time.

I started in this field 25 years ago with an intent to explore and see what clinical research and drug development holds for me and my future. It was a business of science set on very strong foundation of ethics and it presented immense learning opportunity. I got into this field with a mindset of getting to learn something new and being part of scientific advances. What further intrigued me was another aspect of R&D, where you are not actually doing lab work but managing a process which goes into that wider aspect of the research. Drug development as a field gives you opportunities to meet and discuss scientific merits and demerits of a certain drug with key opinion leaders. A combination of all of this ensured that I stayed on.

You have worked across clinical research, operations, business management and policy advocacy in the biopharma industry. How did you transition within these roles and how did these experiences shape your overall professional career? Were you proactive or reactive in exploring these roles?

When I started working, it was more of reactive approach where people noticed my capability and assigned me more responsibilities. I realised later that if I just leave it to others then I am not doing anything actively about my own career and letting others to shape it. This led me to think – what organisation wants me to do and do I want the same thing? Or, do I need something else at this stage of my career to further enhance my professional excellence? I decided to explore multiple channels and started actively seeking different roles and responsibilities. I was fortunate to have incredible mentors, who helped me shape as a professional. From my mentors, I learnt that no matter which profession you are in, being multifaceted is the key.

The ability to switch and adapt to different situations is important when you have to work with different folks and processes. Whether you are managing people, chasing deadlines, looking at profit and loss statement, trying to drive strategic initiatives to improve profitability, or working on policy advocacy – having a broader perspective helps you to grow in your profession. I always looked upon people who were doing these things reasonably well and tried to emulate these traits. I also learnt from my mentors the art of motivating people, communicating effectively and the importance of not losing the sight of probability while doing business. It is a continuous learning process and I am still on that journey.

You have contributed towards making and advocating policies in biopharma industry. Would you like to quote few instances where you were able to influence and bring about major changes impacting the lifesciences sector at large?

The clinical research industry is a highly regulated industry, and given that, we are dealing with human life; there is no room for error. When advocating for regulations or policy in drug development, it is important to understand and bring forth each stakeholder’s point of view on the table. It is important to understand where the regulators are coming from and analyse the reason why the regulations were made the way they were, understand the perspective of participating investigators and doctors in the clinical research and the ethics committees and what are their challenges. However, the one voice which often doesn’t get heard is the voice of the patient. With my colleagues, I made sure to bring the voice of patients to the forefront and work towards designing and shaping all policies after considering all facets.

Pharma and lifesciences as a sector have fewer women leaders, especially in functional roles like R&D, supply chain and manufacturing. What, according to you, are the key reasons for this scenario?

Women are passionate communicator and have an instinct to nurture and provide care. This is why women tend to ace in the field of communications and human resources. However, if you look at roles like sales or business management, finance, business development, etc., which requires work related to travelling and putting longer work hours, it is perceived that women cannot be effective managers and leaders. Women need to fight with these perceptions of not being able to cope with the high pressure, travel, long hours, etc.

Another reason is the absence of role models who can guide and mentor women to balance pressures of professional and personal life. Organisations also need to go that extra mile and create policies and conducive environment for women where they can flourish. This definitely takes a concerted effort – but if the organisation takes this path, the reward is unmatched employee engagement and commitment. If I have to forget gender and just look at it purely from a business point of view, having a diverse team where people bring different attributes to the table, adds phenomenal value to the business.

Can you share your initiatives and contribution towards enhancing the diversity ratios within organisations you have been engaged with and what impact it had on women workforce?

The key aspect is flexibility – this helps employees to balance their professional and personal commitments. The pandemic has normalised working remotely now, but I actually started this as an experiment in my previous organisation in 2008. Though it was predominantly for women, the experiment proved to be highly effective for talent retention. We worked with our IT team to create the infrastructure and provide necessary support to make remote working effective. Of course, it was not easy. There was a lot of opposition and people were sceptical about the effectiveness of remote working and its impact on productivity. We designed a robust process with the extended business metrics and parameters to support the employees who had good track record and started this experiment.

Another factor is flexible timing and from a diversity and inclusion point of view, it plays a huge role; especially today, where you work with other geographies across different time zones, giving flexible working hours that will motivate employees to operate better. Giving flexibility where you can, with right policies, encourages people to change their working style and adapt to changes and continue with the organisation.

The other initiative I started along with some of my other colleagues was building a professional network where we can support aspiring women. Our motive was to introduce women to their role models or mentors with whom they can connect and have specific sessions – arranging small focus group discussion for them and having helplines in place where they can reach out to other women and seek advice about their experience on steering through difficult times in leadership, how to communicate effectively, how conflicts can be resolved, etc. because these are the areas where all upcoming leaders need support. Some of these initiatives have really helped our women workforce and this is something I would like to continue to build on.

A frequently asked question to a woman professional who has made it to the leadership ranks is,’ how do you balance your professional and personal front?’

Today, women are in a position where they can have the best of both worlds. When I look at my mother, who was also a working woman, she had much less flexibility. Compared to her generation, today’s women professionals are fortunate. So many organisations are talking about diversity, equity and inclusion and coming up with women-friendly policies to foster the cause and promote gender parity at the leadership position. But, one thing that women have to be mindful of is “time.” There will be a limitation on time that you spend with your children, friends and family, and that’s where you have to learn the trick on how to make the most out of it.

Moreover, my advice to all young mothers would be not to feel guilty on quantity rather focus on the quality and give special attention to make your kids independent as you are nurturing the future leaders. We should teach our kids not to bifurcate chores based on the gender. Make the right use of time by teaching your children the necessary day-to-day life skills, celebrate small things and grab the fun moment with family whenever possible.

What advice do you have for young aspiring women entering the industry with a long-term career plan?

First and foremost, they should have a plan for their career. Know what you want to achieve and what career track do you want to pursue. Take on the roles you land upon and learn from experiences. Ask yourself what skills and expertise you need to acquire to achieve your aspirations. Keep abreast with all the new information, new development, new trends as industries are evolving and today’s skill may not be good enough for tomorrow. Make sure that learning never stops. Keep enriching your plan.

Secondly, don’t feel guilty if you have to take care of your personal commitments or if you have to take less challenging assignment for three or four years for going through certain phases of life. Focus on your goal and have a plan in place to bounce back. Stay connected with your network as this makes coming back easy. Believe in yourself and speak up. Don’t wait for people to notice your work and do something for you rather take a more proactive approach towards it. It is about enriching the career and not just growing in one job.

Besides having a thriving career, what are your other pursuits and passion?

Undoubtedly, my profession is my passion. But, I am also a nature enthusiast and enjoy appreciating nature’s beauty. I like travelling to the places close to the nature whether it is forest or the mountain. A little manifestation of that is there in my little garden which I like to nurture. I am a passionate animal lover and have my pets. I owe a lot to them because from them I have learnt to love and to give unconditionally.

My other hobby is music. I have been learning vocal music for many years and I still continue to do so because I do believe that no matter how busy one is professionally, everybody needs that little break to unwind. Breaking away, going and following whatever your non-work-related passion is, and coming back to the work is a healthy cycle and helps you to be more efficient.

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