Welcome to the Woman of the Week podcast, a weekly discussion that illuminates the unique stories of women leaders who are catalyzing change throughout the life sciences industry. You can check out all our podcast episodes here.
Michelle Marlborough could probably best be described as an accidental “data-ist.”
She launched into the technology sphere of pharma when she took a job as a data manager for what was then Glaxo Wellcome in the UK. Her interest in science — she had studied to be a pediatric physiotherapist — and an aptitude for technology turned out to be a “match made in heaven,” and opened a path for her to do meaningful work for nearly two decades.
Now the chief product officer of an AI company called AiCure, Marlborough says her career working in clinical trials and technology has been punctuated by a bit of “luck.”
But you don’t get to the C-suite without having the chops to back up the work that needs to be done.
“My role is at that intersection of understanding the challenges that people are trying to solve and being able to translate them in a way that means that the brilliant people around me can solve them,” she says. “It’s one of the coolest jobs in the world. I get to do all of the fun things.”
Accustomed to often being one of the only women in the room among a sea of male colleagues, she takes the responsibility of being a role model in tech seriously. To address the gender gap issue, she proposes taking a scientific approach to create a lasting solution.
“One of the reasons we’ve had some of the massive scientific breakthroughs over the last few years is because of years and years of fundamental research,” she says. “I think the same process should be applied to problems like this. It’s about getting the fundamentals right. So, it’s not just how to get more women into STEM, it’s what we do in the early stages of their careers so we don’t lose them along the way.”
One of the solutions, she says, is creating and nurturing a solid network and building relationships for the long term.
“As women we need to make sure we find time to build those networks, those relationships, and to think about this as work and not something that we’re doing instead of work,” she says. “Michelle Obama pointed out that men have been playing golf for years and calling it a business meeting, and we need to find our own equivalent.”
In this installment of our Woman of the Week podcast series, Marlborough, a PharmaVoice 100, shares more on the work she and AiCure are doing to ease the patient journey in CNS and other hard-to-evaluate and treat therapeutic categories, along with highlights from her “accidental” career, leadership lessons and her vision on how to draw more women into technology.
Welcome to WoW, the Woman of the Week podcast by PharmaVoice, powered by Industry Dive.
In this episode Taren Grom, editor-in-chief emeritus at PharmaVoice meets with Michelle Marlborough, Chief Product Officer, AiCure.
Taren: Michelle, welcome to the WoW podcast program.
Michelle: Hi, Taren. It’s so great to be here. Thanks for having me.
Taren: It’s good to be with you again. It’s been a while since we last connected. Before we get into your career journey can you share with us what you believe are the greatest possibilities for AI in clinical trials? Since that’s what AiCure focuses on.
Michelle: Sure. So I’m not even sure that you really want me to start here because we might be talking about this until like next Wednesday. Or Tuesday, whatever day of the week it is. I think for me one of the challenges is AI is such a broad label. So the possible applications across drug development and clinical trials is just as broad, basically. You’ve got people doing everything from using natural language processing to extract information directly from patient health records so that we can get more into real world evidence through looking at ways of recruiting better, all the way through to looking at fully assimilated trials.
For me, and I think this is where the AiCure focus comes in because this is where we’re really looking at the moment, is that there is a really big opportunity for AI to start to really help us better understand the patients’ experience and response to treatment. I think that’s so valuable when we’re evaluating a drug’s impact. We’re focused on a very sort of specific area of AI, which is around the use of predominantly computer vision to understand how patients are responding to treatment. So to really look at how you create a more objective endpoint that can be taken all the way through not just clinical trials but into understanding how a drug works in the real world.
Taren: Michelle, you say objective endpoints. So we’re really looking at diseases that require that kind of specialized understanding. Are there some categories that are more applicable for this kind of focus than others?
Michelle: I think there are. I mean, it’s not necessarily disease categories, although when you’re into the areas of kind of like CNS and neurology it’s very specific. There are different symptoms of disease across the board that there really aren’t good objective measures for. Where we have our best understanding of disease are where there are traditional biomarkers, things that you can sample in the blood. You know how you’re doing if you have diabetes because you can take a blood measure and read it. In things like fatigue and depression and schizophrenia there is no objective measurement of how someone’s doing so we rely on these really subjective measurements where you’re relying on a human’s interaction to be able to try and quantify something that is actually tangibly measurable.
What we’re looking at is can you use technology that’s in a patient’s hands, something like a smartphone, to capture small assessments. Whether it’s them taking their medication or mirroring an interaction that a clinician would have with them in the clinic, asking them something like how they’re doing. Then recording small snippets of audio and video that can be used by AI to actually measure things that if you’re a clinician you’re also looking for.
If you’re talking to somebody and they’re depressed you know that they’re depressed. The way they move is different, the way they speak is different, the way they maintain eye contact is different. They’re all things that as a person, as a doctor you’re trying to subjectively measure and then quantify over time. They’re are actually things that using computer vision and some of the advanced audio AI, things that can be really tracked objectively. So you can start to see just with these little, tiny check-ins a much more sensitive measure of how a patient’s actually doing.
Taren: What has been the reaction from the physician or clinician community? It seems a little science-fiction-y to me.
Michelle: Science-fiction-y, yeah. So I think it’s really interesting. They know there’s a problem. I think what we’re not trying to do is replace clinicians. The way I think about this is if you think a doctor today doesn’t try and get how your diabetes is doing, they take a lab report and they look at it and then they apply their magical knowledge to the data that’s in front of them. What we’re trying to do is the equivalent of that lab report. Can you give clinicians more precise, sensitive data for them to then make their medical diagnosis? We’re not trying to kind of replace it, we’re not trying to diagnose on their behalf, we’re trying to provide that additional layer of data that allows people to make better decisions in a way that is less subjective and actually becomes more equitable across the board. They actually respond really well to that and are pretty excited about the opportunities.
Taren: That sounds exciting, and I can’t wait to see where this all goes. As the Chief Product Officer this is your job to make these products go. What’s at the top of your priority list for 2022? Also, tell me, what does it mean to be a Chief Product Officer?
Michelle: Chief Product Officer is interesting because it’s a relatively new C-title. I think what’s happened over the years is product management is now a real career. When I started it wasn’t in the same way, people weren’t going to university and then going, ‘You know what I’m going to do? I’m going to be a product manager.’ Most of the PMs of my kind of age, we got here by accident. In other words it’s a career that’s sort of evolved.
I think what it really means is being at that intersection of understanding the challenges that people are trying to solve and being able to translate them in a way that means that the brilliant people around you can solve them. It is very much a job of kind of more the brilliance happens around you and making sure that you keep everything on track and you can set that why clearly. I think it’s a role that has recently become seen to be as important as the technical counterpart.
At AiCure we have a Chief Technology Officer and a Chief Product Officer. We’re basically joined at the hip, sort of understanding of what we’re trying to do, how to break the problem down, what will matter and then somebody that’s a technical expert that can then kind of do the architecture.
So that’s what I spend my life focused on. It’s one of the coolest jobs in the world. I get to do all of the fun things. I think for us our focus is really on how we take what AiCure has been doing for the last ten years, which is really building up this incredible expertise in how to capture and handle really unique types of very sensitive PHI data. And our ability to use that data to create these novel AI algorithms and how we make that something that’s accessible in a way that we can help our customers solve whatever problem they’re trying to solve.
This year we are focused on how we expand our platform perspective in a way that our customers can come to us and it’s not AiCure saying, hey, we’ve already got the answer to everything. It’s us saying you’ve got the scientific knowledge and an understanding of a problem you want to solve and we have the technology platform and the technical and AI expertise to partner with you in a way that will help solve that problem. Rather than us building very specific point solutions for everything, really focused on how we evolve our capability in a way that becomes a platform to allow other people to do this very fast, iterative development of algorithms that are focused on really understanding a specific symptom about a disease.
Taren: It’s exciting stuff. Obviously, AI is having a moment, or has been having a moment, for quite some time. It’s the perfect time to ride this wave to make a different for patients. As you said, it’s that sensitive patient information and making that connection to the clinician. Very exciting.
I’m going to touch on something. You were very humble. You said it’s a career, you arrived here by accident. But I know that’s not true because I know you and I know that your career has been very deliberate and it’s been very smart, it’s been very strategic. So let’s walk through some of those areas, if you don’t mind. We’ve talked about the fact that oftentimes you’re at a technology conference and you’re maybe one of five women there.
Let’s talk about the struggles of being a woman in a tech field, and then let’s talk through some of your career highlights if you don’t mind. So what does it feel like to be the only woman in a sea of men when you’re at a tech conference? And how do we change that?
Michelle: So I’ll start with one massive positive. There is never a queue for the bathroom.
Taren: Never a queue for the bathroom. Okay, a silver lining, good to know.
Michelle: I clearly remember being at AWS in Vegas I guess maybe four years ago and turning around and I just walked in. It was like one of these palatial casinos, just me. Then there’s a queue a mile long for the men’s. I was like, okay, there’s an upside to this. But you might want to edit that part out.
Taren: Listen, we’ve got to look for a silver lining anywhere we can.
Michelle: For me, and I think about this a lot, I’ve been lucky in a lot of ways in my career in that even though I have been often the only woman in the room I have largely felt kind of respected. But for sure it comes with I think a certain loneliness and you find yourself I think hiding who you are to some degree, trying to make sure you fit in. I’ve been thinking a lot, especially after I found out I was going to come chat to you, about that question about how we change it, how do we draw women to the field.
I sort of got thinking a little bit, this is slightly crazy, but a little bit like scientific research. One of the reasons we’ve had some of the massive breakthroughs over the last few years in some areas is because of years and years and years of really fundamental research. The bench science that’s been happening has led to some of these disease breakthroughs. I think it really is the same for problems like this. It is so much about how we get those fundamentals in place and then how we nurture them through. So it’s not just how you get more women into STEM, it’s what we do in the really early stages of people’s careers so we don’t lose them on the way.
I think a big thing for me is how we do that in a way that really lets them turn up as themselves. Because I think the worst part of it is that you end up trying to work in a way that’s just not in line with your personal values and you end up manipulating your behaviors to fit into this male dominated space. Eventually that becomes exhausting.
Then I got thinking more about them, so how would you do that, how would you stop somebody in this space feeling really alone from the start? Because that’s kind of what it’s like. You’ve got a problem, you don’t know how to address it and you don’t necessarily have somebody that looks like you to go and chat to about it. It really does come down to networking and connections.
I think one of the challenges that we really have as women is that we spend so long striving to prove ourselves, especially in the tech world where there aren’t many, you just don’t feel like you can let people down. You just don’t take time out to form those relationships and networks.
I was on a webinar a few weeks ago actually with Michelle Obama talking and she really focused on that as an area, that as women we need to make sure we find time to build those networks, those relationships, and to think about it as work not as this thing that we’re doing instead of work. She pointed out that men have been playing golf for years and calling it a business meeting, and we need to find our own equivalent. She’s so right.
For me organizations like the Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association, which I became a member of last year, really has started to open my eyes I think into the importance of finding other women that you can talk through those challenges with. Mentorship is different, I think, to having that sort of trusted network of folks that you can just pick up the phone to and say, “Hey, this happened, have you got experience in handling it?” I think for me it really is about that as much as anything.
Taren: I think that’s an excellent point, the networking piece of it. They often say you need to build your network before you need your network, and you need to nourish your network, as well. That can be challenging, especially for women who may be more introverted than other women. I consider myself to be an introvert, I’ve had to work to be an extrovert, so I understand how difficult that can be. It’s a challenge. It doesn’t come naturally to me.
Michelle: No, and the absolute same for me. I think it’s something I’ve shied away from for my whole career. I’ve been so focused on I need to do the very best of what is in front of me that you forget the importance of just taking that moment. That’s something I’ve been really thinking about over the last year. I think actually the move to remote made it even more stark and in some ways a little bit easier to do the networking. Because it isn’t all are you confident enough in a room full of people? It’s a little bit easier to reach out and have a quick conversation over Zoom or chat a little bit by text. I think I’ve actually found as much as I’ve missed the human interaction, some of those things have given us ways of finding time to do things that we wouldn’t have done previously. You felt very much that you had to find time in your day to do something, whereas now you can have a quick chat like we are today.
Taren: Excellent point. I hadn’t thought about that but you’re right, the pandemic has provided us with some opportunity that we wouldn’t have had previously. Again, we need to look for those silver linings amidst all of this sadness in some ways. So let’s go back to a little bit about your career. You started off in pharma and you have been all about the data since day one. What is it about the data that drew you in?
Michelle: The short answer is it’s entirely accidental. There’s a little bit of a story if you want the background.
Taren: I do.
Michelle: When I was a teenager I had this really, really clear career goal. I was going to be a pediatric physiotherapist. It was the only thing I wanted to do. My mom was a physio, I loved working with kids, I volunteered in respite care organizations, I did everything. I was so sure. Physio is a really hard area to get a place in at university, there’s a lot of competition. I got my spot, everything was great and then I messed up one of my A levels.
So the day after my A level results, and this is all above board and legal because you can have a drink at 18 in the UK, I woke up a little worse for wear to a call from the math department at Coventry University. They were like, “Hey, so you didn’t get into a physio course but do you want to come and do a math degree?” Which in all honesty was about as far away from what I wanted to do with my life as you could possibly get. So I was like, “No, I do not want to do a math degree.” They were like, “Well, what about joint [inaudible 16:35]?” I was like, “Well, I guess?” At this point I was lost, I was like I guess I’ll go, I’ll do my degree and I’ve got a couple years to figure out what I’m going to do with it.
The really nice thing about Coventry is they offer an industrial placement year. So you do two years of your degree, you spend a year working in industry that they help setup, and then you come back and you do your final year. So I get to my gap year, my industry placement year, and there was an advert for data management at what was then Glaxo Wellcome. I applied, got it, I turned up, I was one of the first students they placed that didn’t have a pure biology science background but had a little bit of the tech. It turned out to be a match made in heaven. You’ve got someone that’s interested in science, likes that side of it but has got some of the logical smarts, the sort of stuff you would use to write, for example, and you can program the early versions of EDC and that sort of stuff.
I turned up and I just found this clinical trial space. I knew nothing about it, just so fascinating. Everything from the design of the experiment, how you think about the data you capture, all of it. That combined with I was lucky enough to work in a team that was full of the sorts of people you just wanted to turn up for every day. A diverse, passionate group that had fun while they were doing it. And we were close to [inaudible 18:08] not that early, but the HIV drug research work. And all of a sudden I just realized that there was this field that you could work in that would make the difference in people’s lives. You could work on something that you weren’t directly with the patient in the clinic, but there was this world where actually you could work on things that were going to affect millions of people. I fell in love with it. I cannot see a day when I work outside of it.
Taren: Look at what a gin and tonic led to, my gosh, woman. That’s amazing! Thank you so much, that’s a great story, thank you for sharing it. Those are the anecdotes that I love to get to because look at where that, as you said, that accidental moment has turned to where you are impacting the lives of thousands, if not millions, of patients through your career. That’s wonderful, thank you so much for sharing that, Michelle. That’s great.
That was the early days, and then I know you moved on to Medidata. Which at the time was just at the beginning of its upward trajectory. What were those early days like?
Michelle: It was a roller coaster of an experience. Medidata was an incredibly special place to work back then. I was super lucky. I actually met them as one of their very earliest customers. I was studying as a data management technology leader at AstraZeneca at the time and we were trying to move away from an in house EDC. I met them very early on, worked with them while Rave was still kind of up and coming. I got to know a lot of them really well, including Glen.
I had this moment one day where I was so frustrated about the fact that we were trying to make this amazing bit of technology do something the same as paper, rather than changing our process. I was like, “I have to do this. I want to go work on that side of the fence.” I gave them a call and I was like, “Hey, got no tech experience but any chance you’d take people from industry?” They were like, “Apply for a job.” Okay, applied for a job. Don’t poach from customers.
I applied for a job and I was lucky enough to get it. I joined them in 2005. I was one of the first ten UK employees. It was a crazy ride. There were things that stick out from it that I think I’ve carried with me for all of this years, going onto 20 years. It really is about the people you work with. I think if you’ve got a group of passionate people that care and believe in what they’re doing they’re going to go above and beyond to make it a success. The way you make that possible is everyone really being bought into the same end goal. Call it what you will, call it a cult, call it drinking the Kool-Aid, but the end result of it is that everybody is pulling in the same direction. That direction is very clear and unwavering.
Glen and Tarek and Ed back at the start had a very clear view of what they felt they were going to do in the world and they were not going to deviate from it. Medidata did a very good job from the moment you walked in the door of you understanding that mission and the part you played in it and making sure you felt connected to it all of the time. There was sort of their cultural side of it.
Then I think the other thing that really sticks with me and I think we’re probably going to experience some of this at AiCure and the trajectory we’re on at the moment is when companies grow fast there’s always going to be challenges and things that go wrong but it’s how you handle them that counts. Medidata were always very, very open with our customers. Very humble, prepared to admit that we’d made a mistake with something that happened and really be up front about what we were going to do to make it right. For me that led to this incredible community of our customer base and our users. That in the long term sustained them because it drove the sorts of conversations and just constant sharing of ideas that drove some of their innovation.
My favorite moments were sat in quiet corners at the end of a conference or an event, like you were saying with a cocktail or whatever, and just geeking out with like-minded people about what could or should be possible with technology in the world. Over time we made a ton of that stuff an actual reality and I think they’re not the only company that works like that but I think in those early days they really did drive a lot of the innovation and the spark that’s seen us get to where we are today.
Taren: Agreed. I remember Rave 1.0, to be quite honest. So that’s how far back I go. For our listeners when you talked about Glen it’s Glen de Vries and it’s Tarek and it’s that whole group. You’re back full circle.
Michelle: I’m back, we’re reunited.
Taren: You’re back with Ed again. That’s an interesting full circle.
Michelle: It’s amazing. Again, I think it’s testament to the work that we’re doing at AiCure, as well. Ed did not need to come back to this kind of job. I think he’s been very happy doing a whole lot of incredibly cool things, like there’s a whole world about Ed Ikeguchi, you could do an entire podcast on the things he’s achieved. He joined us two or three years ago now as Chief Medical Officer because we were doing something unique.
The big pull for me, as well, is technology in the hands of the patient. You’ve got this really direct connection that you can do something very unique. It was less about exactly what we were doing at the time and as much about this big drive to how you can make these very simple assessments and data capture that can really start to change your understanding of disease and really target things that don’t have meaning. I think Ed took a look at what we were doing and was like this is super interesting. It’s been wonderful to be reunited with him. He’s an incredibly great CEO. He’s kind, compassionate, he trusts his team to do their jobs. I’m having a lot of fun.
Taren: That’s great. It sounds like you’re having a good time. You touched on something earlier, too, about surrounding yourself with really good people and letting them do the things they need to do. You’ve been very successful at building some pretty smart teams, high-performing teams. What are those characteristics you look to when you are looking to build out those teams? I know you said earlier when you were at Glaxo you really enjoyed that diversity aspect of it. Tell me today what does that look like for you?
Michelle: It’s a real cliché, but the only thing that does matter are the people. We’ve got one and two questions. The only question there’s one right answer for and that’s what’s important to you in a job. The only right answer for that is the people. I think I learned relatively early on in my career through some not particularly nice experiences that brilliant people with a bad attitude really are more harmful to a team than helpful. Honestly I don’t want any place in it. I don’t care how good you are, if you’re not fundamentally a good person then there really isn’t any room for that.
That doesn’t mean that everybody needs to be the same, it doesn’t mean we need to believe the same things, but I think if you bring a diverse group of and I say smart very specifically, not intelligent, because I also feel that there’s a focus on what school did you go to or how book smart you are. I don’t care about that stuff. I’m a good example of somebody who is not academically strong, who has just worked hard but has job smarts. I’ve found the right thing for my brain. I want to find people that have got those incredible job smarts, that care about what they do and are passionate about it.
And then I think if you take a group of people like that and you setup an environment where they can take accountability with confidence, you’re transparent with them about how decision making works and you’ve got that core drive towards the same mission ultimately it all just works together. Because you basically get the best people for the job when you trust them to do their jobs.
The other thing for me that I think I focused on a huge amount in this incarnation of my career over the last five years is that I do want an environment where people can be authentic to themselves. And the people around them have understanding and empathy. I remember a fair while ago now I was sent to a women’s leadership training course. They spent a long time explaining to us that as women leaders the path of acceptable behavior was much narrower than it was for men. And teaching us on how to stay within those boundaries. I remember walking away from that thinking ...
Michelle: Yeah, no, I’m like why aren’t we focusing on making that path as wide as possible? As wide as possible not just for me as a white woman but as wide as possible for every minority, underrepresented person, somebody that turns up that’s having a bad day. Whoever you are, how do we make these paths as wide as possible so that anyone can follow them. I think I’ve focused a lot on trying to create an environment where people can be authentic to themselves, where it’s safe to turn up for work and say this is happening in my life, I need to take a moment. You don’t have to hide what makes you unique and valuable.
We’ve done a lot of that just through honestly it’s the lead by example thing. We share. We encourage other people to be. I think once you get that environment of it’s okay to put your hands up and say something’s going on I need some time, or hey I feel like this. It doesn’t have to be a lot, it’s just the little standards of empathy and understanding where people’s core values come from. You actually can give people an environment where they’re spending all their energy on doing amazing things and not on worrying about did they turn up right.
Taren: I love that analogy you used, widening the path. I probably would have had the exact same reaction, why are we following such a narrow path when there’s so many opportunities that are available, and why not make the most opportunities available to more people, right to your point. Would it be fair to say that you are a reluctant role model? But yet you are a role model. How does that feel to you?
Michelle: For sure reluctant. I think there’s a large part of me that hopes to some degree I’m not. I look at some of the sacrifices and decisions I’ve made along the way and I hope the next generation don’t need to. I think there’s part of me that hopes that a part of what you would look at and say is role model worthy becomes obsolete really, really quickly. There are things that I’m incredibly proud of. I think I am a good example of finding something you love and just working incredibly hard in a field that you’re passionate about, and how far that can take you. I haven’t had a crazy career outlined in my head. It has largely happened by accident. I think it’s been about taking the opportunities that have been put in front of me and making the most of them.
I think I’m also a good example of somebody that a long time ago realized that having it all doesn’t mean that you do it all. And you certainly can’t do it all all of the time. And that you’re going to have to be prepared to make tradeoffs. You probably, once you make them, need to be proud of them and not apologetic about them. It’s not easy. You get judged along the way. But it is the only way and you have to make the decisions that are right for you, your family, your loved ones, the people around you. And kind of not care what other people think is right or wrong.
We made a decision, I lived away from my husband and kids four to five days a week for four years. Because that was the only way it was possible. It gave them an incredible life where they lived and stuff like that. But we made difficult decisions to balance it because you just can’t, you really can’t have it all.
Taren: You can’t have it all all the time. What it all is changes at different points of your time in your life.
Michelle: It really does.
Taren: That’s great. Great insights and great advice. Speaking of advice what is some of the best leadership advice you’ve ever received? And what is the best leadership advice you give?
Michelle: I don’t think I have anything Earth shattering here. There was a couple of really simple pieces that for me helped me early on and I think carry on helping me today. One is I’m someone who worries a lot about if I’ve done the right thing. I’ll obsess about a conversation from three weeks ago and whether I got it right and things like that. I’m terrible, I know you’ve put your head in your hands. That actually used to cause me a lot of stress.
My mentor at the time, he said to me, “Just ask yourself a simple question. Did you make that decision because it’s best for the business or the customer or the company? Or did you make it because it’s best for you?” If the answer’s the former it’s the former so you did it for the best of whatever, then there is no guilt. You leave that baggage at the door, it doesn’t matter what it was.
That, to me, has been a really useful tool on a lot of fronts, including am I letting my ego get in the way, is this because I like you or I don’t like you, am I doing it for the right reasons. As fundamental as that is it is a really good check and balance.
The other thing that someone said to me once and I was so mad at the time, and I felt bad because that’s fairly good and true, is that you can choose how you react to something. Now, you can’t – in the first micro emotion you feel you cannot control, it’s just how you feel. But you can’t make a decision about what you’re then going to do with that feeling. It doesn’t mean not being authentic, it doesn’t mean that, but you can choose not to be offended by something or to take a breath and do something. As somebody who is quite – I’m very level-headed but also I definitely feel things, I get the feels. That was a really important one to say, okay, acknowledge that initial feeling and now think. Just take a breath, think and decide what path you want to take in the interaction you’re having.
That’s really helped me, as well, to not carry baggage with me, to go into interactions with people that maybe haven’t gone well previously that I have to try and leave. I think with women we do carry that expectation of how an interaction’s going to go with us sometimes. They’re little things. I don’t know if they’re leadership advice or just personal pieces, but they really help me through having difficult interactions.
Taren: I think those are two really great key pieces of advice because you’re right, you can choose how to react. You can’t choose how you feel, but you can choose how you react at the time. Sometimes your emotions or your feels get the better of you and it’s a way to kind of think through all of that. That’s great. As we get older that’s a really good piece of advice because it’s easy to just go.
Michelle: It is, and I think that leads me into what I’ll say to other people. To me it’s like it’s possible to be kind and be a strong leader. Being kind doesn’t mean you won’t make hard decisions. It doesn’t mean that you can’t make hard decisions. It just means treating people with respect and humanity. Part of that comes from saying, “You know what? I got that wrong.” When you don’t make that right decision and you react poorly to something actually just putting your hands up and saying, “You know what? Actually that wasn’t a good interaction. I’m sorry.” And being able to own your own shortcomings, admit the things that you’re still working on.
Every one of us, no matter what position we’re in, still has some area that we can develop in. I think being transparent about that to the people around you, especially folks that are early in their careers, is really helpful. Then people feel they can do the same, and that’s how you get an environment of people that are not just working on improving themselves but are prepared to take feedback and you get that open exchange of things. I want nothing more than someone on my team to say to me, “When you do that it doesn’t feel good.” Obviously I don’t want them to say those words, but if it happens.
Taren: It’s being humble, it’s being open, it’s being authentic, it’s being accountable. Those are those things. Yes, people make mistakes, we make mistakes, but sometimes those mistakes lead to greater learnings. It kind of circles back to what you were talking about, those early days at Medidata when you’re having those customer conversations. Sometimes those things that didn’t go right turn into some of the greatest innovations and solutions. I think that’s great advice.
Because this is our WoW podcast program I do need to ask you what is that wow moment of your career that either changed the trajectory of your career or has left a lasting impression on you?
Michelle: There was a conversation with Glen de Vries many, many, many years ago now. I think not long after he persuaded me that I wanted to – rather than going directly home from California after two years I was going to stop off in New York. I was sat with Glen one evening, I can’t remember what event it was after. We just sat having a martini at the end of the evening just kind of decompressing. I looked at him and I said, “You know you’ve done it again, right? You know that you’ve just asked us to do something that is just impossible in the time frame. You do this all of the time. You’re forever asking us to achieve things that aren’t possible.” He looked me straight in the eye and he said, “Yeah, Michelle, every time you achieve more than I thought was possible.” He didn’t mean me personally, he meant me and the team.
I just looked at him and you have those moments where first of all you think bad things about the person because they’re basically a genius. But it was the moment that said to me if you don’t share these big, hairy, audacious goals and you don’t challenge people we’re never going to move fast. If we spend all our time thinking about why it’s not possible to do that that quickly we’ll take forever to do things. It was the day where I was like all right, okay, I get it now. It was, you look at what you manage to achieve and if you focus on what you achieved and not the bits that you didn’t and you just keep pushing we really can change the way we do things.
I think in this industry that is somewhat challenging because obviously we’ve got to do it in a safe, regulated, compliant way. But I think we have to just keep believing that the impossible is possible and just striving every day to do what we can to get there. I think for me that was the thing where it’s like actually it’s okay for me to sit down with the team and say, “All right, we’re going to go do this,” and then look at me like I’m crazy and me not go, “But don’t worry if we can’t do it all.” It’s just like no, let’s focus on this is where we want to get to, let’s go for it. And not tell ourselves we’re five years too early. Not come up with all of the reasons why you can’t but just go after this thing that we believe should be possible and make it reality.
Taren: Thank you for sharing that. We have to acknowledge our friend who’s gone.
Michelle: We do.
Taren: I know, we’re both having a moment. But what a legacy he left and how he inspired you and you’re going to continue to inspire others. What greater gift than that? Okay, on that note.
Taren: For our audience, we lost Glen de Vries at the end of last year to a tragic accident just after he had gone up into space, fulfilling one of his lifelong dreams. So it’s just a moment to recognize his greatness and his genius. So thank you, Michelle, for that story. That was great.
Michelle: He meant a lot.
Taren: Thank you for being part of our WoW podcast program. I so appreciate it. I loved all of the insights you shared, I love how authentic you are and I want you to keep going for this big, hairy, audacious goals. You’re fabulous. Thank you so much.
Michelle: Thank you. It’s been so nice to catch up with you.
Thanks for listening to this episode of WoW, the Woman of the Week podcast. For more WoW episodes visit PharmaVoice.com.