Career advice for future biotech leaders

When the next career milestone for Christine Cournoyer was to become CIO of IBM’s software group, she realized that she wasn’t excited about the company’s mission. “And that’s when I realized I couldn’t lead any more,” she said. “The only way I can inspire others is to feel inspired myself.”

Cournoyer, now CEO of the leading personalized cancer care company N-of-One Therapeutics, addressed the challenges and rewards of being a leader in the drug discovery industry last Wednesday evening at the sixth event in Northeastern University’s Women Who Inspire series.

She was joined on a panel by fellow female CEOs Deborah Dunsire of Forum Pharmaceuticals and Adelene Perkins of Infinity Pharmaceuticals. Ann Taylor, global head of the program office at Novartis Institutes of Biomedical research, moderated the discussion, which was hosted by NIBR.

The event drew more than 250 people from the region, including Northeastern students, faculty, and staff as well as researchers and professionals 65 leading biotech and pharmaceutical companies.

The Women Who Inspire series is designed to promote the advancement of women and inspire the next generation of female leaders in technology, engineering, science, and sustainability. Kate Carleton, who created the series and serves as a special adviser to the senior vice president of university advancement, framed the evening’s discussion in opening remarks: “We have some very inspiring and talented leaders on the panel who all understand that the vision is the reason their company was born and leadership will be the reason it thrives.”

During a networking event following the talk students had the opportunity to talk with Deborah Dunsire (center) and the other panelists. Photo by Alec Chvirko.

Vision and mission were common themes throughout the discussion, which focused on providing invaluable advice for the next generation of biotechnology leaders. But, the panelists agreed, the mission is only the starting point. For that mission to be successful, one needs to assemble a good team and keep them inspired.

After all, Taylor said, “Success in this business is really about how you work with other people.”

“The beauty of our industry is that we all realize that we can’t accomplish what we want to accomplish on our own because there is no one discipline that is adequate,” Perkins added. “The right decisions require getting the right team of people.”

That team, Dunsire said, drives innovation-oriented companies like her own. “How those people feel about the job they’re doing and the company they’re with is what allows you to gather the resources that allow you to win against the problems,” she said, adding that it is incumbent upon members of the senior leadership team to instill a positive work environment.

On the flip side, the panelists said, employees must find organizations where their own values and goals align with those of the company. “Is your boss serious about your success?” Dunsire asked. “If the answer is they’re not, then it’s time to find a new boss.”

During the Q-and-A, audience members asked the panelists to elaborate on how they achieved career success. “It wasn’t the school and it wasn’t the degree,” Cournoyer responded. “It was perseverance, it was confidence, it was taking risks, it was embracing challenges—it was all the inner qualities.”

Perkins noted that while all of those qualities are indeed important, success also requires recognition of one’s talents and then putting them to best use. “As long as you’re living up to those gifts that you have, I think that’s success,” she said.