Women Leaders in Pharma Interview Series

Women Leaders in Pharma Interview Series

Interview With Karin Shanahan

About Karin

Karin joined Merck & Co on May 1, 2018 as Senior Vice President of Global Biologics and Sterile Operations. In this role, she oversees the end-to-end supply chain for biologics, such as Keytruda.

Karin began her career in the pharmaceutical industry at Bristol-Myers Squibb in their corporate Global Procurement organization before moving into Global Supply Chain and then Operations, leading two manufacturing sites in Massachusetts and Italy. Shortly after moving back to the US she joined Becton Dickinson and Catalent Pharmaceuticals before joining Teva Pharmaceuticals where she led a network of 25 sites in Canada, the US, Latin America, and Europe. She later became COO of Global Operations before joining Merck in her current capacity.

She graduated from Rutgers University with her BA in Political Science International Relations and earned a certification in Business German. She is now pursuing a Masters in Pharmaceutical & Device Law at Seton Hall.


What risks have you taken in your career that have paid off?

  •  I can think of two specific risks that have had a positive impact on my career; both taken early in my career. First, was when I joined Bristol-Myers Squibb’s newly established Global Procurement organization. In my role, as a business analyst, I was afforded the opportunity to see various parts of the company, which at the time included beauty care, nutritionals, wound care and orthopedic devices in addition to the pharma business. This served as a valuable education in organizational design and change management, while also helping to develop a diverse and global network. More importantly, because I was able to interact with all functions and all businesses, I learned how to connect the dots between different parts of the company, which has proven valuable throughout my career. The second risk was moving my family to Italy to lead a large, API and drug product, manufacturing site 70 km south of Rome. This was my second site leadership role, but my previous site was self-contained and relatively small. This new site was connected to the entire network and fraught with compliance and supply issues… and I didn’t speak Italian. Given the site’s history, I was expecting the worst. What I found was a fundamentally good site, with an inexperienced, but smart and dedicated leadership team, in need of direction. I learned a lot about leadership and myself; and I have carried those lessons with me.

How do women lead differently?

  • According to a 2019 article published by Harvard Business Review1, data shows that women score higher than men on 84% of key leadership traits, such as learning agility, collaboration/teamwork, communications, resiliency, and building relationships. The same article points out that women may not gain confidence in their own leadership capabilities until later in their career; which may contribute to our under-representation at the senior-most levels of leadership. The data tells us there are differences in leadership traits between men and women. From personal experience I know that my leadership style is different from others in Manufacturing Operations, though I am not sure whether that is because I am a woman.  I made a mid-career move from supply chain into operations, which affords me a slightly different perspective. In times of crisis, I appreciate the technical expertise of my teams and they appreciate my enterprise-wide perspective. Over the years I have evolved a leadership style that is centered on collaboration and empowerment; it suits me and has been appreciated by my teams and peers. What is not clear to me is whether I lead differently because I am a woman or because I chose a different path?

1 Zenger, J. and Folkman, J. (June 25, 2019), “Research: Women Score Higher Than Men in Most Leadership Skills”, HBR.com, https://hbr.org/2019/06/research-women-score-higher-than-men-in-most-leadership-skills.

What advice would you give to your younger self?

  • Speak up! Do not assume that because nobody is articulating your thoughts, that you are the one missing the point. When I first came into operations from supply chain, I assumed that my thoughts and ideas were not as relevant as others because I did not follow the same path as others. What I have learned along the way is that my thoughts are valuable because I followed a different path. I provide a unique perspective, as do each of you. I would tell my younger self that one only contributes by adding to the discussion and that it is OK to be different.

What do you see as the future of women in the Pharma Industry?

  • The landscape around the pharma industry is changing. New technologies, new competitors, pricing challenges, and an ever-evolving regulatory landscape to name but a few of the drivers. Traditional Pharma companies need to transform to remain relevant. Driving this transformation will require new and diverse thinking.  Driving change requires leaders who can inspire and motivate others. Driving change requires leaders who are inclusive and collaborative.  Driving change requires leaders who are powerful communicators. A 2019 Harvard Business Review article highlights key leadership traits that women are more effective at than their male counterparts.  Some of those traits include: inspiring and motivating others; strong communications; collaboration and teamwork; and valuing diversity.1 Traits that are correlated to driving change. According to a 2005 study by Caliper, amongst other qualities, female leaders tend to be inclusive, building teams to solve problems and drive decisions.2 Women have the leadership traits necessary to bring about the necessary changes in pharma.

1 Zenger, J. and Folkman, J. (June 25, 2019), “Research: Women Score Higher Than Men in Most Leadership Skills”, HBR.com, https://hbr.org/2019/06/research-women-score-higher-than-men-in-most-leadership-skills.

2 Lowen, L., (2019, July 25), “4 Important Qualities of Women Leaders”, ThoughtCo., Caliper Study.

Final piece of advice:

  • Assume you are in your role because you deserve to be there. Many years ago, I was speaking with the head of Quality, a woman I greatly admire because she always seems so “put together” and confident. As I was expressing doubts about my own leadership capabilities, she shared with me that she often felt like an imposter, in fear of someone realizing that she did not belong in her role.  That stuck with me. In conversations with other women on the topic of leadership, this seems to be a common theme. Women working hard to prove their worth, to prove they are deserving of their current role, let alone the next role. I encourage you to occasionally take stock in your value. Write a list of things you do well, contributions you have made, ideas you have brought to light and people you have influenced. Then sit back and allow yourself to bask in the glow of your awesomeness… and hold onto that thought for the next time you feel doubt.