The only question Christi Shaw said she needs to ask herself is: Where is the most important place I need to be right now?
Her answer in April led her to step down as U.S. country head and president of Novartis Pharmaceuticals Corp. in order to care for her older sister, Sherry, in her battle against bone marrow cancer.
“People have told me how my decision was courageous and brave, but for me, it was not hard and certainly not one I have regretted,” Shaw said.
She has, however, been surprised at the continued interest in it.
“Thirty years in the industry and not once was I ever written up in Fortune magazine,” Shaw said. “Then, when I made a decision to leave work, I was suddenly very popular.”
Shaw climbed the ranks in the pharmaceutical industry with companies such as Eli Lilly & Co. in Indianapolis and Johnson & Johnson in New Brunswick, with the overarching desire to help as many patients as possible.
In her six years at Novartis, Shaw not only championed groundbreaking trial programs such as “Signature” — which matched investigational cancer therapies to specific genetic alterations found in patient tumors — but also led an award-winning leadership team comprised of 60 percent women and 40 percent minorities.
As Sherry awaits a bone marrow transplant from their younger sister, Shelley, in January, Shaw has been working with them both to create a foundation entitled “More Moments, More Memories,” in hopes of helping to fund the costs of transportation, housing and food for patients and their caregivers when traveling to clinical trial sites.
“Two and a half years ago, we thought we would lose my sister,” Shaw said. “In August, she walked my younger sister down the aisle for her wedding as her matron of honor.”
NJBIZ met with Shaw to discuss how others, too, can feel empowered to make such necessary decisions for themselves and their loved ones.
NJBIZ: Let’s start by talking about the decision to leave Novartis.
Christi Shaw: I knew that my sister would need a caregiver for the time that she was going through the clinical trial. We needed her husband’s medical insurance to cover what we needed to cover, my younger sister was engaged and planning her wedding, and my older sister had taken care of and moved in with my mother when she was dying of cancer. This decision did not take a lot of thought — it was simply my turn.
NJBIZ: Was there ever talk of appointing a president ad interim and taking a leave of absence?
CS: I probably could have. But when you get to be president of a corporation, you need also to step back and consider what is best for the company and for your leadership team. To put someone else in that role for a short period of time, especially at a time when we were working on major launches, would have been difficult of me to ask of them. Plus, I would still be talking to the ad interim all the time, and I needed to focus on my sister and my family 100 percent.
NJBIZ: What sorts of reactions did you receive outside of Novartis’ support?
CS: My business contacts were surprised that I would make such a decision without having a plan for my next step, having just reached my peak level, and women in general tended to be surprised that I just did what they had been thinking of doing. ... (I’ve received) so many messages from people saying they wish they would or could have made the decision that I did. They think, ‘Should I have done that? Can I do that? If I did that, will I get back on track?’ I don’t know enough stories of people who have not actually gotten back on track in their career — I’d love to see data that says it is actually happening and at what pace. How much is fear versus reality?
NJBIZ: What sorts of recommendations do you typically give those who find themselves in similar situations with regard to their employment?
CS: I mentor two, three, sometimes up to six times a week, just trying to help women, especially, who want to understand how I made my decision. … I say, ‘Look at yourself 10 years from now, or even at the end of your life, and ask what decision you wish you would have made without regret.’ Whatever it is, you need to figure out how to do it now. If you want to stay with your company, try to create a plan with them. If that doesn’t work, make sure you have a great network to tap into when you are ready to come back to work. For example, even though I have been with my sister, I still talk to recruiters and other companies. I am still networking. I did not go silent. How would you keep your networks in place? … Then, I often ask, what percentage of the 60 to 80 hours that you worked this week were spent networking for your career or evaluating whether this is the right role for you or not? Is what you are doing right now the most important thing?
“People have told me how my decision was courageous and brave, but for me, it was not hard and certainly not one I have regretted.”
NJBIZ: You talked about a moment in your life in which your father’s passing, your sister’s hospitalization and your role as a vice president at Johnson & Johnson weighed heavily on you. What is your advice to others on how they can take care of themselves when so many, by choice and by necessity, take care of others?
CS: I did not have enough self-awareness at the time to realize how much burden and stress I was carrying until someone I used to work with pointed it out to my younger sister. Had I to do it over again, I should have asked for help. I should have gone part-time or I should have hired someone to help me manage my personal life. I just thought, I can do it all. I can have a 2-year-old, I can renovate my house, I can be the executor of my father’s will and clean out my dad’s multiple farms in Iowa, and I can be a vice president at a global job under a new boss. This time around, that played very heavily into my decision to step down from Novartis. I said, my health is more important to my son than is trying to do it all. I hope other people can learn from that.
NJBIZ: You said that women, especially, think about their kids and their families and how their decisions will impact everyone else but them. How do you counteract this tendency in order to be the role model you want to be for your son and for others?
CS: I don’t have any big secrets except to ask, am I where I need to be right now for what’s most important? Are my husband, Mark, and I a team so that my 8-year-old son is growing up in a solid environment? And then last is the tactical piece of who is doing what and how we will manage to get stuff done. When you are in a rush, that piece often mistakenly comes first. … I have already been talking with my son about going back to work and why that is important, and he knows it is to help patients and do something that I love.
NJBIZ: How can companies and organizations help to relieve some of the pressure?
CS: When my mother died of breast cancer, I was gone for a month. When my father was sick, I was gone for three weeks before he passed. Both companies worked with me and said, ‘Go do that.’ … There are more people getting sick now than there are people that can take care of them. The companies which have on- and off-ramps, I believe, will be the most successful. People are going to want to go to the companies that have empathy and care about their employees — not just the work that they do. … I do need to get back on the ramp at some point so I can help others, so that I can be an influence for organizations to say, ‘We must do this for men and women who need to care for the citizens of the world.’ How can we take time to focus on what we need to so that we can come back and do even better than we did before?
NJBIZ: That is really important for caregivers and new parents to remember. So, is it all on the company to help a returning employee get back on track?
CS: I always coach women on this: Every time you get a new job or promotion, that is the time to negotiate equity in pay, to say, ‘Two years ago, I took maternity leave, but in this new job, I want to be equally paid amongst my peers. I don’t want to be behind.’ That is something I have done with every job I’ve taken. Put it on your boss’s radar before you take a job and then remind them of it each time you take a promotion. You want to make sure that you are paid for the equity of the job and not based on what you have done previously. You should be paid for the position that you are in.
NJBIZ: What else do you believe companies can do to further women and minority leadership roles?
CS: One reason that I want to get back into Big Pharma is to help further diversity and inclusion — taking women and putting them in a course is not women’s leadership. We need to hold CEOs and boards accountable for diversity and inclusion. We have women with experience and we are not giving them the jobs. For example, I was one of only two women in sales, and, for over seven years, from Day One, I wanted to get promoted but never got it. A marketing manager asked me, ‘When are we going to get you to move to Indianapolis?’ I said, ‘When you ask.’ And he said, ‘Well, we were told you couldn’t move.’ That was a big trigger for me to say, ‘OK, I have to be in charge of my own career because I can’t expect that my boss will be doing what is best for me. … Also, for women to advance, we need men to do more at home. The more companies that can help facilitate that, the better. For example, I see more men now saying that they have to take off to help with child rearing, and we’ve made some progress in paternity leave, but the companies that offer more will have much more loyal employees and better retention and recruitment rates of high talent.
NJBIZ: What first inspired you about the pharmaceuticals industry?
CS: My father, a businessman, was in heavy equipment, cranes and excavators. My mother was a philanthropic stay-at-home mom. I enjoyed chemistry and science. I just thought, what a great way to combine both philanthropy and business, by helping hundreds of thousands of patients at a time. ... Being president of Novartis gave me a chance to make sure that everything that we did, every decision that we made, was for the patients that we served. For example, we changed all of our financial reporting from dollars to patients at Novartis. Every meeting that I had, we would discuss, how many patients have we helped? When we thought, would a patient really want us to spend this dollar? We spent less. And, we actually exceeded dollar expectations when we focused on that.
We also conducted simulated patient journeys so that our employees and even external (industry forces) could have more empathy and understanding for the patients themselves. What is a patient in the U.S. going through? How does bureaucracy often hurt them by causing pain to them and their family? How difficult is it to have to choose between paying the co-pay at the pharmacy for drugs or for groceries that week?
NJBIZ: You have said that you would like to be a voice of change for the nation’s health care system. What do you believe the top issues are?
CS: I lost my mother at age 51 to breast cancer. I lost my father at age 67 to a rare infection. It has been such an up-and-down journey with my sister. … If a doctor prescribes a drug and you have been paying insurance for your whole adult life, why is it so difficult to get what you need? We have a lot of businesspeople making patient treatment decisions. We need to give more of the decision-making authority back to the physician. … We also need data that shows where value is added and where it is extracted. Who is bringing value into the system? Maybe there are a lot of drugs that are not worth (their cost). Maybe there is a lot of money being taken out by companies in the middle such as distributors, pharmacy benefits managers or insurers. If we knew, we would then be able to streamline approaches because there is a lot of robbing Peter to pay Paul in our health care system.
NJBIZ: In addition to your foundation, ‘More Moments, More Memories,’ is there anything else on the horizon for you?
CS: I looked at perhaps taking on a leadership role at a small biotech company, but going through the process with my sister has taught me that, right now, there are just so many more patients that I can help if I stay in Big Pharma.
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This interview also contains select quotes from Christi Shaw’s fireside chat with Debbie Hart, CEO and president of BioNJ, at BioNJ’s second annual “Inspiring Women in STEM” conference on Dec. 2.