The New Face of Leadership: Robin Kumoluyi
Three generations ago, a university degree granted admission to a well-paying 40-year career at a single company whose end point, often as not, was an engraved watch. Today, things are different. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average worker can expect to hold ten different jobs before age 40. Nor is today’s job-hopping—essential to learning, growing, and advancing in a career—much different in other parts of the world.
This new normal is best exemplified by the career trajectory of Robin Kumoluyi. Over the course of a 30-year career, Robin has journeyed through eight pharmaceutical companies plus one intriguing non-pharma sidetrack. But more about that later.
If Robin represents the new normal in trajectories of careers, there is a critical factor that is unusual: Robin is a woman. While more women than ever before are reaching executive positions—at GlaxoSmithKline, Emma Walmsley will succeed Andrew Witty as CEO in 2017, making her the first woman to head a big pharma player—the pace of change is glacial. For the most part, the upper ranks of business in all sectors remain the preserve of men. Only 24 women, or 14.2%, hold CEO positions among the S&P 500. Dipping into the next four executive positions below CEO, the percentage barely ticks up to 16.5%.
Leader Vs. Boss
Reflective, circumspect, highly rational, and measured in her words, Robin has thought long and hard about the moments in her past when a door opened, and a new opportunity for growth and advancement appeared. The willingness to work hard, take bold chances and grasp timely opportunities also figure into her thoughts. After three decades of increasing responsibility for ever-larger teams, she knows that success lies in being a leader rather than a boss.
“Like many women leaders in pharma, my career has never been about the title,” she says. “It’s always been about growing, learning, and meeting challenges. I’m always looking for new ways to do things, new ways to contribute and grow.
“As for my leadership style, I believe in helping those entrusted to my leadership to do their best work. If you want to be a leader, you should take care of people. Rule number one is to respect the people that work on your team.
“So it’s not about being a boss. It’s about developing people, so they give the best of themselves for their own careers and the company. It’s about managing talent and energy. If I’m leading and no one wants to follow, there will be no results. I work for the people on my team, not the other way around. I enable them and support them: That’s my job as a leader, and I love doing it.”
First Doors Open
Robin’s first role in microbiology was working for a contract testing laboratory. She explains that while she has always been committed to and diligent in any job she accepted, this was the first true lesson in how hard work pays off. Robin got her first promotion after the lab director noticed that she was clocking out and staying after to sanitize all the lab benches on her own time. The laboratory was in its early days and could not afford to pay overtime. Robin was staying so that all her paid work time could be devoted to assuring all the samples were tested. The promotion provided more technical skills in microorganism identification, which gave her a solid foundation for microbiological quality control work.
Robin landed her first pharmaceutical job as a microbiologist at Block Drug, now part of GlaxoSmithKline. Over the next several years she worked in and managed microbiology quality control labs, eventually landing at Warner Lambert in microbiology R&D. Her timing turned out to be serendipitous. Warner Lambert’s corporate audit group needed help in microbiology quality assurance, and she fit the bill.
“Corporate audit was actually looking for a microbiology subject matter expert to support auditing contract labs,” she explains. “This was exactly my background; it was a symbiotic relationship: they were leveraging my microbiology expertise while I was acquiring new skills in the auditing process.”
A door had swung open, and Robin had her first glimpse of the world of quality assurance. The prospect was immediately attractive, but she also recognized that to make quality assurance her world she’d need a new set of skills. Characteristically, she set her sights on the end goal and mapped out her most efficient route: “I performed a gap analysis on what I’d have to do, so I decided to return to school for a master’s in quality assurance and regulatory affairs.” Robin earned her master’s degree from Temple University in 1999.
Well on her way at Warner Lambert with support from the corporate audit group, her first big opportunity was in the consumer sector quality group, which needed a standard protocol for microbiology methods transfer to contract labs. Robin volunteered and made it happen. If anything, the experience confirmed that quality assurance and compliance was where she wanted to be. She reflects, “It was a perfect amalgamation of work and my education put to good use, and I sensed this was going to be my trajectory.”
Next, Robin made what she now says was a “bold move,” and asked to meet with the senior director of Warner Lambert’s consumer sector quality assurance group. In retrospect, she admits the move was not just bold, but perhaps a little presumptuous: Once in his office, she announced, “Sir, I want to work for you. Tell me how to get on your team.” Two months later, Robin was on the team.
The jump into quality assurance and the senior director’s orbit also gave Robin that rare asset—a mentor who would stick with her for the long haul. Today, she calls him “a lifetime mentor. For any subsequent job, in any company, I’d always call and he’d ask, ‘Why are you taking this, where will it take you?’” The reality check with a trusted mentor—a kind of career GPS—has proven invaluable to Robin time and again.
Robin eventually became a senior quality manager of quality operations and contract facilities, and worked on developing policies and processes for some 70 partners. She also began to build a reputation for collaboration, working with and supporting sites to craft policies for both site and corporate levels, rather than centralizing decision-making and ruling by decree. For most leaders, collaboration and consensus building is hard work, but it’s also the kind of leadership that gets noticed, and Robin was soon tapped for Warner Lambert’s CEO mentoring program. She was 34.
Scared But Strong
The next big door swung open when she was offered the opportunity to join the quality leadership team in Puerto Rico as a senior manager of regulatory compliance. As Robin noted at the Women in Pharma session at the 2016 ISPE conference, she was “scared to death” at the prospect. It was 1999, after all. “There really weren’t many women VPs in quality at the time,” she says. Women in senior positions were still a rarity—let alone women willing to undertake a significant relocation.
Characteristically, her hesitation and fear were short-lived, and she got on with the job. In Puerto Rico, she managed quality systems with a team of 32 colleagues both at the manager and specialist levels, and was charged with implementing a regulatory compliance program. Warner Lambert had been operating similar programs in Europe for a couple of years, so Robin was invited to Paris to observe and benchmark their systems.
“It was very exciting for me,” says Robin, “and my French colleagues offered a lot of support.” Grateful for their help, Robin wanted to do something special. During her time in Paris, she got to know the director of regulatory compliance, who had expressed admiration for the impressionist artist Monet. Robin bought a card printed with a Monet reproduction and wrote a heartfelt note of thanks. “I even tried to use a few French words,” she laughs. “The director was very touched. They were somewhat of a new group and felt they weren’t being recognized for the value they brought to the company.”
Sometimes even the simplest gesture can generate unexpected ripples. Based on the European office’s recommendation, six months after returning to Puerto Rico, Robin was asked to become director of regulatory compliance for the Americas. Did her simple gesture in France tip the balance?
“I really think that saying thank you and appreciating people makes a difference,” she says. “There were others who could have done the job and were equally qualified technically. But at a certain point, it’s all about how you work with people, rather than just your technical abilities.
That is a big part of my leadership—really respecting people.”
Robin spent the next 10 years at various director-level jobs. This included three as director of global manufacturing compliance–contract operations, during which her responsibilities grew to include manufacturing compliance for 470 external contract manufacturers, which was a $2-billion-plus product portfolio at the time.
The next stop, at Schering-Plough, as director of worldwide quality supplier management, followed on the heels of that company’s consent decree. She says she amassed “tons of experience as the process owner for the supplier management system, ensuring deliverables under the consent decree work plan. Companies enter into a consent decree to address FDA’s apparent belief that the organization is not capable of complying with good manufacturing practices,” says Robin. “The FDA has most likely determined that the company is not sufficiently managing itself at this point because of the number of violations. Supplier management was part of the work plan, and there was a lot of work to do to meet the deliverables under that work plan. Through collaboration at the corporate and site levels, we successfully met our work plan obligations.”
A "Crazy Decision"
At this point in her career, Robin says she made “a crazy decision”—heading up quality assurance and regulatory compliance for a Colorado-based biotech company. This meant heading west with her one-and-a-half-year-old son while her husband was still working in Long Island, New York. For the next few months, as Robin juggled baby (with help from her mother-in-law from London) and career, her husband took red-eye flights to join them each weekend.
“That was a tough time,” recalls Robin, but the fire that drives her tempered the fatigue and doubts. “It was also an opportunity to run all aspects of the quality (GxP) from R&D quality assurance to commercialization. ” she says. “This was a small start-up biotech, so I got to wear many hats and utilize all my previous experience. I developed the overall quality and compliance strategy along with the associated processes and systems.”
While she really enjoyed the arduous work of building the quality unit, this was not the best for her young family: “My husband was still taking red-eye flights, and I needed something that was a little more stable,” she says. “The regret was that I did not stay long enough to enjoy the fruits of my labor. The company did exceptionally well when it went public.”
Robin has learned and grown at every stop in her career because she looks carefully, performs the necessary benefit/risk analysis … and then leaps in with both feet. “If you’re ready to take a chance, positive things happen,” she says. “So yes, I tend to go for it.”
Whether her next role supplied the much-needed stability Robin was seeking is debatable. What it did supply was excitement and professional growth. Offered several opportunities in the pharmaceutical industry, she opted instead to go sideways, taking an interview in Atlanta, Georgia, for the head of quality audits with Coca-Cola.
“I went for the interview and was offered the position of director of global quality audits. This was on a Friday,” she says. “I was very happy with that. But they called back on Sunday and said they’d been looking for a couple of years for someone to be director of analytical services and my background fit. It’s a bigger role, and we’d be happy if you’d consider it. Needless to say, I took it on.”
Coca-Cola’s global footprint meant managing quality control labs on several continents while building new analytical labs in South Africa, China, and Mexico, an experience that Robin describes as “awesome … I’m so glad I took it because it’s sometimes good to get out of your element.”
Indeed, adaptability is among the many lessons she picked up. At first, her buttoned-down “pharma ways” didn’t quite click at Coca-Cola.
“I remember making a presentation, and they’re all looking at me strangely,” she recalls, laughing. She admits she had to start at square one when it came to PowerPoint and much else: “Coke sells a lifestyle, they sell happiness, so I had to be more animated, less corporate.”
After two-and-a-half years at Coca-Cola, implementing a global lab strategy, understanding the business and what goes into “selling happiness,” Robin decided it was time to return to her roots. She was thriving but was starting to miss the pharmaceutical industry. She also recognized that two-and-a-half years is a long time to be away from any industry—especially the pharmaceutical industry—and that it might be a barrier to resuming where she’d left off.
The Opportunity To Use It All
“I was at the opening ceremony of one of the new labs I was overseeing, which we had just built in Pretoria, South Africa, when the call came in from Novartis,” she recalls.
The career door was opening again, and Robin was soon global head of quality for Novartis’s animal health division. This was a big step up, to vice president, reporting to the division president. “A whole different ball game,” she observes.
Robin says her experience at Coca-Cola proved invaluable at Novartis and for her subsequent career: “At Coke, it was all about using quality as a strategic advantage, it was about learning the business, about presenting to senior management—all of which was helpful to me at Novartis. I was also very fortunate to have a woman on the Novartis animal health executive leadership team, someone in marketing, who also helped me.”
After three-and-a-half years at the animal health division, Robin joined the Novartis Group Compliance and Audit team as vice president and global head of audit, before ascending to her final role with the company as vice president, global head of group quality, third-party operations.
When Pharmaceutical Engineering spoke to Robin, she just had been recruited a week earlier for a position at Johnson & Johnson Quality and Compliance. “I’m already very impressed with the team here,” she says.
“At J&J, I have seen an impressive number of women in senior level roles. We are committed to Our Credo and practice what many call servant leadership. I was grateful to find that this is authentically the J&J way. This really drew me to the company because it resonates with what I believe as a leader.”
As usual for Robin, her job is still about the people around her. “I love managing people,” she says. “Which means I like bigger roles where I can work with and support even more people.”
Robin is now also a “lifelong enabler,” noting that she continues to talk to and mentor friends and individuals she managed at organizations where she worked over a dozen years ago. “I’ve had the opportunity to be mentored so, definitely, I should give back. Which means I now have people calling me to discuss their next career move.”
Her generosity is not just about taking phone calls and dispensing advice. It’s about digging deep to understand what makes someone tick and how they can improve.
“I can see how people grow incrementally, and I like to encourage this growth,” she says. “I had a young woman on an improvement plan, and we decided to perform a strength-finding exercise with her. After the exercise, we realized that, given her strengths, she wasn’t going to succeed in her current role. So we moved her into a more suitable one. The following year, she was an ‘A player.’ That’s what I find most fulfilling—helping people find their flow. I don’t believe in fixing weaknesses but rather building on strengths. We still keep in touch.”
She also recalls, with some emotion, an encounter at Novartis before she left. “I mentored a fellow from France who was on my animal health team. He said, ‘You not only say that you will help colleagues, but you actually do it.’ This really touched me.”
If leadership’s ultimate purpose is to serve others, as Robin’s career has demonstrated, it’s a purpose shared by the pharmaceutical industry. The industry’s fundamental job is also about improving lives. Indeed, as Robin’s son recently reminded her, “Medicine is important; it helps people.”