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Working Life Interview: Alison Muir, Oncology Product Strategy Director at Roche

Published on 11/11/19 at 01:03pm

You studied biology at Liverpool John Moores University before heading straight to GSK in 1990 as a Sales Representative; was a career in pharma always the plan?

No it wasn’t. I studied biology at John Moores, specialising in plant Pathology, so I was initially interested in horticulture. I’d grown up in a farming community, so I quickly worked out, after a placement year working for the Ministry of Agriculture, that the part I really loved was going out and engaging with the farmers, setting up trials in their fields, and working with the community.

Unfortunately, this was only a small part of the role with the majority of my time spent sitting in a laboratory and counting how much disease was on either the wheat or the potatoes that I was testing. That kind of repetition was something I just wasn’t cut out for, so I realised quite early on that I loved engaging with people and that working in a laboratory wasn’t something I was going to make a career in.

I looked around to see where I could use my science degree, but something where I would also be engaging with people and making a difference. My father-in-law was a GP and we discussed about being a sales representative, so that’s how I came into pharma. At the time GSK, which was then just Glaxo, was recruiting and I joined them.

With your main discipline throughout your career being within the sales space, do you feel your progression has been a logical one, or have you had to take a few left turns along the way to get to where you are now?

The first thing to say is that I’ve never had a rigid career plan, it’s been fluid. My husband’s career took us to Scotland where I worked in a hospital specialist setting. I then had the opportunity to move into a first-line sales manager role, one I absolutely loved. We all moved south for my second-line sales manager role with Schering-Plough followed by a franchise marketing role in Hertfordshire where our family home is to this day. To begin with we moved for my husband’s career, then the pace of our careers was led by the needs of our children, and now we balance my career, the family and his charity work. When MSD bought Schering-Plough, I took an amazing opportunity to move into a European marketing role, and then one in commercial operations soon followed.

You then spent 15 years at Schering-Plough/MSD; what was it about the company or your own goals that kept you there for such a long period?

I think it was the people. They often say that you work for your manager and your colleagues, not necessarily the organisation, and that was very much the case there. I had an inspiring leadership team; my boss was fantastic and I learnt a huge amount from him. Ten or eleven years can go by extremely quickly. During my time we went through a period of massive transformation, moving from a smaller organisation to larger pharma. I’d say what kept me there was the people, the leadership and the variety. If you keep learning then that’s a great reason to stay.

What eventually prompted you to make the leap to Roche?

Roche is the number one oncology house. It has a hugely strong pipeline with massive investment in research and development. I also knew a number of people who worked here. I took an incredibly interesting role as the Business Insights and Operations Director, but it was also an opportunity to be part of an affiliate leadership team, something I hadn’t had before.

Roche is a very decentralised organisation, so it really empowers the affiliates who are closest to the customer to make the major decisions. If you are going to work in an affiliate, they are an amazing company to work for because you have the opportunity to make the decisions that are right for the customers in your locality and execute them.

As a manager, what has been your approach to managing and interacting with your team in order to bring out the best in them?

It’s been very much about always setting a clear over-arching goal, alongside empowering and trusting teams to deliver. We are transforming our own organisation along agile principles, the customer is front-and-centre – we’re always thinking about putting our self in our customer’s shoes. Is what we’re doing every day in service of our internal processes? If so, stop doing it. Is it in service of what our customers and patients need? If yes, do more.

How are you finding your current role compared to previous ones you have held? Did the challenges of your past prepare you for those you face today?

I love working for Roche. It’s all about the people you’re working with. We have so many amazingly clever people, so much great science driving new products and a series of innovative new indications that are coming to market. When I look back in my career I’ve tried to learn from each of my roles; I’ve worked for people whom I’ve absolutely relished working for, and others where I would say it was more difficult but I learnt a lot from them. At every stage of my career, whether it was forwards or sideways, I’ve tried to learn something and bring something to the role.

Oncology is undoubtedly the most dynamic, fast-moving therapeutic area in the industry; what has been your experience focusing on this area compared to your focus in previous roles?

When I first stepped into oncology, I have to admit I was quite apprehensive. I’d predominantly been in primary care or commercial operations, so I wasn’t sure if I would enjoy it. The opportunity to make new molecules and bring innovative products to market that can absolutely transform a patient’s life and bring them hope, is an amazing reason to get up every morning. We’ve all been touched by cancer; I’ve lost friends from it, who were far too young, and just knowing that there are potential treatments available and working with the system to make those available in the UK is such a privilege. But equally, I would say that the oncology market is like many other markets in the way it operates. There are many similarities to the way primary care operates, so I’ve been able to use many of the skills and experiences I’ve learnt from previous roles.

How do you find the balance between work and career in your own life?

There have been moments in my career where I haven’t necessarily had the right work-life balance, and I’m thankful to my family for bearing with me during those times. Now I’ve learnt to bring more balance by finding things outside of work. I really love the theatre, so I’ve joined Amateur Dramatic groups both internationally when on assignment and now I’m back in the UK, sometimes appearing on stage, other times running the lighting or sound, you totally immerse in the production and switch off from work for a few hours.

What achievements or projects stand out to you in your career and why?

The biggest achievement of mine is creating environments where the teams that I’m working with flourish and really deliver. And that’s not just my achievement but the achievement of us all. It’s about enabling the whole team and organisation to deliver, and if I can play a small part in that then that’s fantastic.

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