Maureen O’Shea

LS International

On this episode of The Career Success Podcast, LS International speaks with Maureen O’Shea, Global Product Supply Senior Director for Biotech and New Molecules at Merck.

We discuss with Maureen how she adopts Nike’s “Just do it” slogan in her approach to decision making and how it has led her to having successful hands-on experience in end to end supply chain across manufacturing, sourcing, logistics, CMO management, planning and contract negotiation. “It’s a very fast-moving world, we have to be brave, we have to be agile, we have to jump, and we have to remember that the only strategy the customer sees is execution.”

During the podcast, we discuss:

  • The three actions or strategies a company can adopt to move into a new direction in Supply Chain
  • The top three differences Maureen perceives between Pharma and FMCG
  • Her approach on leadership
  • How Maureen implements decision making when it comes to execution

Daniel: HI, I’m Daniel Torres and welcome to this episode of the career success podcast. Today we’re joined by Maureen O’Shea, Global Product Supply Senior Director for Biotech and new Molecules at Merck. Maureen is a strategic and creative thinker with a decisive and action orientated style and a passion for change management. She believes in enabling her teams through a servant leadership style. She has hands-on experience of the end to end supply chain across manufacturing, sourcing, logistics, CMO management, planning and contract negotiation. Her high learning agility and international experience has enabled her to be successful and across the differentiated industries of FMCG and pharma. Welcome Maureen.

Maureen: Good morning Daniel, pleasure to be here.

Daniel: So, there’s a lot of talk going on about the changes happening in supply chain. Essentially, it’s moving from a cost cutting center towards a competitive advantage to companies. What three actions or strategies can a company adopt to move into this direction?

Maureen: I think that’s a fabulous question Daniel. It’s actually, sort of, a pet topic of mine. Those of us who have been in the supply chain for a number of times, a number of years, we’ve seen a lot of cost cutting, gone through a lot of budget exercises, we’re experts in squeezing blood from the stone. But that is not a sustainable way of adding value. Now, if we really look at the future, for the supply chain to be relevant it needs to be a competitive advantage. And there are really, from my point of view, three key steps the organizations need to take to move in that direction. The first one; the critical one, is develop a customer centric organization. Every member of your team needs to know: who is my customer? Do I understand my customers’ needs? And am I consistently delighting them? Those three (3) questions can form the drumbeat, as it were, to a lot of what we do in supply chain. And it shifts the whole team focus outward towards the customer because that’s where you generate competitive advantage.

Maureen: The second step is really understanding your market. Today every market is a developing market. Even the US, Europe, digital is having a transformational effect there. So, all of our global markets are now becoming more and more unique. So we have to design our supply chain from that customer demand backwards, versus the old fashioned process of from the manufacturing process outward. So, again, it’s back to end and size to customer need. And then the third leg, and I say third because it must be done after the other two (2) are completed, is partnership with commercial. Once your organization is focused on the customer, once you’ve built your supply chain coming backward from customer need. Then you must partner with commercial to drive the value because it’s through commercial that the value and competitive advantage will be gained. We in supply chain have amazing tools in digital like advance analytics. We have perspective on a customer’s operations that commercial don’t have, and commercial have skills that we don’t have and have to translate those into a real benefit for our company. So those are the three (3) steps: customer centric, market understanding and commercial partnership. Together they drive competitive advantage.

Daniel: That’s really interesting. And you actually, during your career, made an industry change moving from P&G which is an FMCG or CPG company to Merck, which is a biotech and pharma player. What top three differences you perceive in this change?

Maureen: I can give you more than three (3) probably Daniel.

Daniel: I’m sure you can

Maureen: I think anyone that changes industry would know this. The cultures are very different. And I probably went from an extremely fast FMCG to quite a traditional family owned Pharma business. So the difference in speed is one of the first things you notice, risk tolerance is of course very different in Pharma than of FMCG and the cost pressures are completely different and a high margin versus a low margin business. However, I would not put too much weight on the differences because, even moving within the industry, every company says that “we’re different”. But there’s more similarities. So, if you take the paradigm that the differences are interesting, as things that you learn from, but the fundamentals are the same. Then I think that takes some of the fear out the move.

Daniel: Okay, yes, that makes a lot of sense. And, actually, for yourself, for your career and as a professional. What value has it added?

Maureen: Oh, I think it has been by far the biggest value adding move of my career. So, I spent 16 years in Procter and Gamble and they are fabulous company and they do wonderful development. I was fortunate to have many different roles and to gain a lot of experience. But moving to such a different company with such a different culture moved me completely outside of my comfort zone and as we all know outside of your comfort zone is where you grow the most. So, of course, there’s the obvious part that you learn new business areas, you get more perceptive, you broaden your technical base. But, for me, the key skill has been around culture. At the most senior level everything you deliver is through people and through influence. In Procter and Gamble, Unilever and any of those big companies that hire straight from college, there’s a relatively narrow profile. I mean, everyone is fabulous, but there are similarities and people have all been in the company for quite a long time. So you know the culture very well and I would say it is a narrow temperature range on the thermostat. In moving into, then, a very different company with a very different culture and a culture of bringing in people in from many different places, that temperature range is much greater. So, the key skill was learning how to enter a room, read that room quickly and adjust the thermostat. In terms of assertiveness, in terms of listening, in terms of pace of the conversation, to suit who was in the room at that time. So, it was really a huge broadening skill for me on communication and engagement, which have been really valuable.

Daniel: Yes, and actually linked to that in terms, and for you Maureen as a person that is managed teams for some time; seeing the world changing very quickly and that we’re in a world where volatility, change, uncertainty and ambiguity our par the course. Which have you found, like in your experience, to be the best way to lead teams?

Maureen: I think, Daniel, that is one of the single most important questions, because the pace of change I think is exponential. Every year we think “this is the most change we’ve ever seen”, and next year it’s more. So, how we adapt and evolve and thrive in that environment, and enable our teams to thrive, is critical. And I think the key words from your question is “lead”. The days of managing a team are over, it is about leadership. Our teams are living through this volatility as well and we need to lead them through that, we need to support them, so that they can excel in the changing world. A key learning for me over the last few years has been: you really have to let go of your assumptions. And you have to be very much building on your past knowledge, but future facing. Again, another point, due to the speed of change, you have to develop a bias for action, you need to encourage that all the way through your team. Except the mantra is: done is better than perfect. Because if you wait for 100 percent certainty you’ll never make a decision or move forward because everything’s changed so quickly. And then, back to the first point, through all of this you must focus on your people. The speed of change can be disorientating and our job as a leader is to provide that comfort for our people. No matter how good your plan is or your strategy is, if your team don’t trust you nothing great can be achieved. The quote that I love says that “reason leads to the conclusions, but the motion leads to action.” In a volatile phase, keep that focus on the team.

Daniel: And how do you actually, and to the last point, where you mention action. Wow do you implement actually this decision making when it comes to execution?

Maureen: And that’s another critical point because, again, theory doesn’t drive any change. So as we were in this highly volatile world, for me the key thing about decision making is “do it”. The NIKE slogan, “just do it”. It’s a very fast-moving world, we have to be brave, we have to be agile, we have to jump and we have to remember that the only strategy the customer sees is execution. So we need to be relentlessly focused on making decisions and driving execution forward. Strategy won’t get us there. And that involves a certain element of accepting there would be some risk because we will be taking decisions quickly, we will be working on an 80 for 20 basis so we’ll move forward. But like that great old movie “Scent of a woman”, Al Pacino goes: “There is no mistakes in the tangle. If you get all tangled up, just tangle on”. And I think that’s very true; that forward momentum is what will drive you forward and drive your team forward and deliver the business result.

Daniel: Okay, interesting. Also, you’re originally Irish, so you’re an Irish citizen, but you’ve lived in Spain and you’re currently based in Switzerland. Do you see the fact that you’ve lived in different geographies as competitive advantage?

Maureen: Absolutely, and personally and professionally I think moving and living different cultures is a massive enabler of growth. In our modern world, we think we see everything from behind a keyboard, but culture is culture. You need to live with people of different, different everything. And understand them fundamentally, if you ever wish to be customer focused. I would say for a native English speaker it’s even more important because, in many places, the business language is English. And if you’re a native speaker you have an unfair advantage. So, if you don’t, early in your career, go abroad and learn to work in another language, you will never understand the perspective of 80 percent of your global team. If you haven’t had the experience of working outside your native tongue, you’re lacking crucial prospective on communication and on how the global team work. And it was very it was a very good growth exercise for me to have to sit on the other side of the table, feel when my language abilities were getting in the way of my ability to communicate my point and I’ve become a much better communicator in those group forums, much better at understanding when it’s a language barrier rather than a knowledge barrier that’s impacting on someone’s contribution and helping them to get that out. So, I think that very, very good. I would also, to anyone who asks, say the earlier the better. The younger you are the more portable your life is, plus the more malleable you are. So, I would absolutely, I would take that international opportunity the first chance you get. And, yes, it will be scary, but jump, you’ll learn things from that you could never have expected.

Daniel: Well that’s a good point, I think Maureen, and thanks a lot for being our guest today.

Maureen: It was my pleasure Daniel.

Daniel: And thanks to our listeners and I look forward to next month career success podcast.