One of pharma’s top female leaders shares the career advice she wishes she’d gotten when starting out

It’s rare to find women in top executive positions within the pharmaceutical industry.

Women make up about 21% of the executive positions at Fortune 500 healthcare companies according to Rock Health. At the CEO level, GSK CEO Emma Walmsley made headlines in 2017 for becoming the first female CEO of a global pharmaceutical company.

This makes Christi Shaw a bit of an anomaly. Shaw is the president of Lilly Bio-Medicines, the business within the pharma giant that comprises neuroscience and immunology. Prior to taking time off in mid-2016 to care for her sister who was diagnosed with cancer, she was the president and US country head of Novartis, and held executive positions at Johnson & Johnson before that.

Shaw returned to pharma after her time off in April 2017, rejoining Lilly where she started her career almost 30 years ago.

“I just felt like I could impact so many more people in big pharma than I could working for a smaller company or even working part time,” Shaw told Business Insider. Lilly Bio-Sciences plans to launch four new medications treating 10 disease areas over the next decade, including treatments for migraine and forms of chronic pain.

Looking back on her career, Shaw says there are a few pieces of advice she wish she had when starting out.

“You always heard the term, ‘Don’t let success go to your head,’ but the second piece of that is to not let failure go to your heart,” Shaw said. Women in particular have a fear of failing, she said, not just in the workplace but also at home.

Along those lines, Shaw said she’d give others career advice about the power of risk-taking.

“Leadership isn’t knowing the direction, it’s about being able to make a decision when the direction is uncertain,” Shaw said.

“I would tell myself ‘Don’t be so worried, because if you don’t have a job or you have to take time off or you can’t make that meeting because of a personal thing, just do it. What’s the worst that could happen? You’re going to get fired. What if you get fired? You’re going to get a new job or you take the time off,'” she said. “I wish someone would’ve said to me, ‘Go ahead and take the risk and do what you think is right versus what you think other people think is the right thing to do.'”

For example, after Shaw’s sister died in May, she took two additional weeks off and a vacation with her family rather that go back to work.

“It was the most cathartic thing I could have done versus throwing myself right back into work,” Shaw said.

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