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Working Life: Marco Avila, Vice President of Medical Affairs, Teva Europe

Published on 01/02/18 at 10:29am met with Marco Avila, Vice President of Medical Affairs at Teva Europe to discuss his life in the industry, his work ethics and the lessons he's learned throughout his career.

How did you begin your career in the pharmaceutical industry?

I’ve been in the industry over 20 years now. I’m from Costa Rica and a physician by training, so I’ve been close to the practice of medicine and patients from a very early age. I’m a person who always likes to approach different challenges, and I’m always looking for environments that are dynamic that can stretch me to achieve more. For that reason, I jumped from the practice of medicine into the industry. I was convinced I was making the right step, even when my family had concerns. I prefer to move into the unknown than never knowing what could have happened.

My first job was as a sales rep, and it’s one of the experiences that I will never forget. Going into sales shaped me a lot because it helped me to understand the real goal of a patient when they are facing a doctor. It even helped me to see my friends and colleagues in a very different perspective. We all have different targets or objectives, but in one shape or form, we have to deliver results, and when I was there I learned that everything in life is a sale: I need to convince people, I need to convince my wife, I need to convince my son that what I do is meaningful and is valuable, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

What experience have you gained from working across different continents and cultures over the course of your career?

After my third year in the industry, myself and my wife moved to the US and we were there with Eli Lilly for three years. It gave me the opportunity to go from a relatively small country in Costa Rica to a very big geography with almost 300 million people – a very advanced market and a completely different and new environment for me.

Going from different countries, for instance, from the US to China, was one of my first massive challenges – not just because of the size but also because of the cultural change. However, it enabled me to advance as a leader, as a person, as a communicator in a culture that has so many differences from the West. When I was in China, for the first six months I tried to understand the culture and this allowed me to be more culturally sensitive and aware – to affect people and deliver results, and there was also the massive benefit for my family and me.

After that, we moved to Europe, and when I joined the European office of AstraZeneca I remember I went into a meeting with respiratory professionals, and all of them had white hair – I was the only guy with black hair. I was surrounded by scientists from the R&D side in Sweden and the UK, and little by little I was able to adapt to the European cultural environment. Now I can say, after eight years in Europe, the way that I deal with a person from Spain is very different from the way I deal with a person from Sweden or Germany.

What would you say was your most valuable take away from that experience? 

To be impactful. If I can walk the walk then people see that I have made an effort to understand the culture, rather than just remaining with my own background. If I want to be effective and grow, get out of my comfort zone and leave a legacy, I first have to demonstrate that I am willing to understand the reality and to adapt myself before I ask others to adapt to me.

You’ve been in your current role for just over a year – how are you finding it so far, and what challenges have you faced?

I really see my role as highly dynamic, diverse, challenging, deep, and broad because we have a broad portfolio spanning speciality medicines and generics. Leveraging the strengths of that portfolio is part of my learning, as well – I love to learn.

One of the key challenges, if I can highlight one, is the pursuit of talent. One thing is to manage our internal talent, but also refreshing that talent and attracting and developing talent from outside. It’s my challenge, but it’s also the challenge of the industry as a whole. The way we are approaching that challenge is two-fold: we have a strong programme that retains and expands the experiences of the people that we have in-house.

Secondly, from an external perspective, we have a lot of assessment from the outside so that we can anticipate the people outside Teva that could potentially be key players, both now and in the future. And, of course, I am always trying to find people better than myself – if I’m the smartest person in the room then I am not surrounded by the right people. Trying to find the right mix of science, passion for patients and an understanding of the reality of our commercial environment is what I would call an art form. It is not a straightforward game. 

What advice would you give to junior colleagues who come to you seeking guidance on their career or looking to step into the pharmaceutical industry?

Firstly, make sure you invest your energy, money and time in securing a solid academic education – that, to me, has been very important. Secondly, don’t be afraid to get out of your comfort zone. Why do I say that? Because when I reflect on situations when I have consciously decided to either take the road less travelled or to face the unknown – those are the situations where I have learned the most and been challenged the most, and have contributed the most to my growth as a person and as a leader. Thirdly, believe in yourself; believe that you are here with a specific purpose. To me, the purpose in life is that I can achieve and positively impact the lives of as many people as I can. 

How do you still manage to push yourself out of your comfort zone in your current role at Teva?

On a daily basis, one of the ways is I try to understand areas beyond my own. I consider myself an enterprise leader; I don’t consider myself just a medical leader. What do I mean by that? I’m always seeking to understand more – for example, the commercial element of the organisation.

The job that I do depends a lot upon others. In order to be impactful, I see it as a spider web that runs throughout the organisation. One of the things I do is push myself to get closer to areas that are not in my backyard in order to understand all of it so I can be more effective.

As I believe with any leadership position, I spend a lot of time with front-line colleagues, with medical scientists and sales reps in the field, trying to understand: “What are your obstacles? What are your hurdles? Are we listening to you? Are we doing what is relevant for you, or not?”

And as I get closer to them, I get closer to doctors. One of the key ways I get out of my comfort zone is to ask doctors: “How is Teva relevant for you? Are we relevant enough to your daily practice or not?” And when I do that, I hear, at the beginning, polite answers, and then people see that I am listening attentively and respectfully, so they say: “Maybe Teva can put more emphasis here or there, or approach this clinical programme in a different way.” Asking the questions that we sometimes don’t want to hear the answer to gets myself and my team out of our comfort zone.

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