May / June 2020

Industry Leaders: Mission-Driven Leadership

Paul Cumbo
Pam Cheng

Pam Cheng is Executive Vice President, Global Operations & Information Technology, at AstraZeneca, a United Kingdom–headquartered pharmaceutical company with more than 60,000 employees. In this role, she combines her expertise as an engineer with business savvy and seeks opportunities to lead her company and her industry forward in innovative ways.

The path that brought Cheng to this leadership role is a vocational journey inspired by a comprehensive skill set coupled with a genuine love of learning. Among several other influences, Cheng credits her father for encouraging her to pursue a scientific vocation. “He wanted me in STEM fields,” she explained, and he used reverse psychology to convince her. “To challenge me, he said, ‘One thing I do know is that you won’t pick a technical major like engineering, because girls can’t make it.’” Cheng described how, years later, she’d say to her father “You know, Dad, it’s a good thing I really do like it. I don’t know how I would have forgiven you if I hadn’t.”

Before joining the AstraZeneca team in 2015, Cheng served as President of MSD (Merck) China for four years. Prior to that, she held other leadership roles in global manufacturing and supply chain at Merck/MSD. Earlier in her career, Cheng worked in engineering and project management positions at Universal Oil Products, Union Carbide Corporation, and GAF Chemicals.

From Engineering to Business Management

Cheng has undergraduate and master’s degrees in chemical engineering and an MBA. “I knew I wanted to further my studies after my master’s and working professionally. My immediate desire was to pursue my PhD in chemical engineering because I’ve always wanted that ‘Dr.’ title next to my name! But I was working in the petrochemical industry at the time and loved what I was doing, and I didn’t want to disrupt my work by pursuing a PhD.” After briefly considering law school, Cheng realized that an MBA was the right next step for her career.

“Business school taught me about different ways of thinking,” Cheng said. “With engineering, there is often a very technical approach—how to get from point A to point B, and how to solve problems. Business school was my first exposure to genuine diversity of thought and different forms of creative problem-solving.” Cheng discovered an affinity for business operations and a new level of enthusiasm for her career options. “It’s a little bittersweet that I never earned that PhD, but if I had, I would have gotten into deep technical research roles, and I would have taken a completely different career path.” Cheng believes that openness to these kinds of career crossroads is vital. “I often say to the younger talents that come to me for coaching, ‘You just have to go and try it out. You won’t know about a direction or what you can do until you take a risk and do it.’”

Vocation and Mission

Cheng believes deeply in the fundamental purpose of her work, and that of the pharmaceutical industry as a whole. “There are many ways to earn a good living, but being able to make a living with a mission is a privilege,” she said. The industry “has an undeserved [negative] reputation—indisputably, it saves and improves lives.”

She appreciates the tenacious work ethic and pursuit of excellence demonstrated by her industry colleagues. “This industry has taught me the importance of relentless focus and innovation, as well as what great science, technology, and committed people can do,” she said. Asked about the role of leaders in this mission-driven context, she emphasized the importance of setting the stage for individuals and teams to maximize their potential. “The role of leaders within the industry is to foster an environment of inclusion and diversity, setting clear objectives and boundaries while allowing passion-ate and committed professionals to unleash their creativity and capabilities,” she said.

Industry 4.0 Challenges and Opportunities

The Fourth Industrial Revolution is transforming every industry, and pharmaceuticals is no exception. As a business leader, Cheng has an integral role in the ongoing process of adaptation and innovation such transformation requires. “Every company in and out of the biopharma industry is wrestling with the Fourth Industrial Revolution and digital transformation,” Cheng explained.

“There is no mistaking that we are living in a digital era,” she said, but the pharma industry tends to move slower than some others “because there’s so much at stake. Discovering, developing, manufacturing, and supplying medicines is traditionally a lengthy, costly, and risky process.”

Although Cheng understands why innovation in pharmaceuticals takes time, she is also open to questioning the traditional assumptions that contribute to the slow pace of change. “Does it have to be this way moving forward? We are seeing an unprecedented explosion of new technologies and digital innovations that can change what we do, and how we do it. This includes the way we discover, the way we develop, the way we manufacture and supply. Data generation and availability are increasing at an amazing speed.” Cheng believes that people, not technology, are the key factor in Industry 4.0 endeavors. “The companies that put people at the heart of the transformation will have a higher success rate. It’s 10% technology, 90% people!”

Many industry leaders are finding this to be true and are realizing that the human element is integral to innovation. In a 2019 white paper, “Leading Through the Fourth Industrial Revolution: Putting People at the Centre” (https://www.weforum.org), the World Economic Forum stated that “responsible leadership of the production workforce—now and in the future—is predicated upon a human-centric mindset.”

“Digital transformation poses great challenges to people at all levels of their careers,” Cheng said. “The estimated half-life of acquired skills is approximately five years. This means what we learn today, chances are will become obsolete in less than five years. How can we help ourselves? By adapting a more agile and flexible mindset, being more open to learn at every stage of our career, and staying connected.”

Cheng encourages industry leaders to support their employees’ development. “We must foster a culture of lifelong learning. We don’t need to restrict employees by their formal job description. We should allow and encourage them to experience and learn from different areas. This way, we can unleash people’s experiences and insights to solve problems and move business forward, regardless of their role.”

“This industry has taught me the importance of relentless focus and innovation, as well as what great science, technology, and committed people can do.”

Cheng’s desire to empower her employees has led her to leverage the notion of a ”gig economy” for talents. “I was talking to someone in a particular role at AstraZeneca. He said, ‘Well, this job only taps into about 20% of my knowledge and experience.’ It was an ‘aha’ moment. I knew he loved his job, but he wanted to use that other 80% to contribute to what we do.” Cheng thought about the success of companies such as Uber and wondered whether there was a way to “deploy the notion of the gig economy within the workplace” to help employees connect and go where they are needed. To achieve this goal, she began using Workplace, a Facebook platform for companies, to facilitate and encourage cross-departmental connections to solve problems.

She offered an example of the system at work. “We had a technical challenge at one of our sites,” she recalled, “but we didn’t have folks with the technical skills readily available. So we used the network and searched based on key skills. We built a team quickly, and it was made up of people from a range of roles in the company—people who normally wouldn’t work together directly.” Cheng explained the immediate and secondary benefits: “It solved a problem, and it got people out of their normal rhythms and enabled them to bring different skills to the company. That gave them real satisfaction. It gave a hint of a potential situation where people can add value beyond their job descriptions. I can also connect more experienced people and newer employees; they can benefit from each other’s perspectives by working together.” The challenge now, she commented, will be to scale up more broadly within the organization.

This emphasis on dynamism is central to Cheng’s leadership philosophy. “People get complacent. They find their jobs and they settle in for life. Given the half-life of skills we find today, we have to help our workforce. I employ more than 18,000 people globally. Do I fire half of them when their skills become obsolete and rehire? Or do I drive a culture of lifelong learning? Of course, the latter!”

Women as Leaders

Cheng is an advocate for expanded diversity in the pharma industry. “I’m working with some of the best and brightest in the technology and science areas, both women and men. More and more women are excelling in the technology and digital space. It is a fact that more diversity in companies brings more innovation, creativity, and business success: not only gender diversity, but diversity of thoughts, experiences, and ways of working.

“Although there are clearly more women in top technical jobs, statistics would tell us that we still have a ways to go to achieve a good balance. I’ll repeat that notion of 10% technology, 90% people—and women leaders can play significant roles in driving organization transformation in thoughtful ways,” she said.

Cheng is proud that women hold 45% of senior roles at AstraZeneca. “It takes conscious and thoughtful actions to support and foster female leadership,” she said. “We promote based on merit, but we recognize that providing the right support, coaching, and encouragement throughout their careers is critical in developing female leadership. A balanced leadership team has direct impact on the company’s performance.”

Knowledge-Sharing and ISPE

Cheng believes in the power and importance of knowledge-sharing among members of the industry, and she sees ISPE at the center of these efforts. “ISPE has always been the industry leader in connecting pharma knowledge, focusing on all aspects of manufacturing and supply chain,” she said. It was key to her own career development as well. “I’ve found that ISPE is where the knowledge resides for me as I’ve matured in engineering. It facilitates collaboration among the companies, sharing of good practices, and connecting on key regulatory and technical insights. Such collaboration and sharing are key to the success of the industry. When it comes to women in engineering, Women in Pharma® at ISPE promotes growth at all levels.”

Excitement for the Future

Cheng’s energy and enthusiasm for her work are hard to miss as she speaks about the industry’s future. “We are faced with unprecedented opportunities to up our entire value chain, from discovery to supply. Imagine enabling new medicines for unmet medical needs in one-half, or even one-third, of the time it takes today. Imagine building the factory of the future enabled by digital technology. Imagine the ability to not just ‘treat’ patients but also make a difference in the entire patient journey from awareness and diagnostics to treatment and to wellness.”

“In general, I’m excited about what data and digital technology can do, but like anything else, we have to be thoughtful,” she emphasized. Her knowledge, skills, and experience give her a balanced disposition—an essential quality for key players in such a high-stakes industry.

About Industry Leaders

The Industry Leaders series profiles the lives and careers of individuals who are changing the face of the pharmaceutical industry. This profile is the latest in the ongoing series. Please see the introduction to the series, “Introducing Industry Leaders,” and profiles of other leaders in January-February 2020 Pharmaceutical Engineering, as well as the Member of the Year profile in March-April 2020 Pharmaceutical Engineering.

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