Female leaders in the C-suite: Interview with Lisa Rich-Milan

Article written by Lauren Harris, Director of X4 Life Sciences.

This week I had the opportunity to interview Lisa Rich-Milan, who became a CEO in her late 20’s and is now CEO for the 3rd time at Caligor Coghlan Pharma Services (CCPS), with 30+ years’ experience working in the pharmaceutical and biotech sector.

Lisa Rich-Milan is the CEO at Caligor Coghlan Pharma Services, a global clinical supply service provider, focused on pre-clinical, clinical and post clinical trials offering Comparator Sourcing, Packaging and Labelling, and Early Access Medicine Programs.  Lisa leads a team of approximately 100 US and international based employees and provides leadership in the development of continuous evaluation of short and long term strategic financial and business objectives.

Check out the full interview below.

You have such as impressive career history working at several cutting-edge pharmaceutical companies, what attracted you to this sector?

In pharma and biotech, we developed drugs so there has always been clinical trials at the forefront to develop and bring to market innovative drug solutions to diseases and patients in pharma and biotech.  This is an industry that I have worked in all my career.  My position at Caligor Coghlan Pharma Services allows me to lead in supporting the development and innovation of new drugs.  Whereas before I was on the commercial side involved in sales, marketing and the launching and selling of the drug. What we call the commercialization of a new drug to patients, providers, and the market.

I now get to work behind the scenes to partner with pharma and biotech companies to help them develop an innovative drug to bring to the market that helps the needs of their patients.

I worked for large and medium size companies, and with my CEO experience I continue to work with larger organizations, but CCPS has a focus on medium and small size companies that need full service clinical trial support with their innovative asset.

In a small business every leader is really involved in all aspects of the business and you can develop and fill in any gaps that you did not have experience in before. For me it was operational experience and understanding what’s involved with regulatory, imports and exports, the packaging line and getting the drug into a bottle and out the front door for pre-clinical trials.

This is the 3rd time having the honor of serving in the CEO role.

What qualities do you have that have been key to your success as a leader?

Having the ability to see through the fray and create a vision, mission, and strong strategic plan for the company.  Leadership is also critical in the role of a CEO.

You need to have a strong vision and understanding of where you want the company to go in 3 to 5 to 10 years down the road and know what that looks like, where you need to be and how you need to get there.

Having an effective strategic business plan behind the vision is essential. It’s important to be able to see where you need to be as a company and then build a strong plan with your leadership team and implement that flawlessly with check points and the ability to adjust your plan while executing.

You need a leadership team that is high performing to move the organisation forward and as a CEO, you must have a track record of leading a strong leadership team.

If you don’t have that leadership experience and can select and develop strong leaders, you have to go find the experience and the job that will give you that skillset you need to make you a strong leader.

What’s one of the key leadership lessons you have learned along the way?

Your people are the key to your success along with your vision. If you don’t have the right people in the right role, moving in the right direction, then you’re not going to have the culture that you need, or the vision and alignment that you need to be successful.

Has it been a challenge to get your leadership team on-board with your vision?

It can be a challenge. As a CEO you must have a history of hiring, firing, and developing strong high performing teams. It’s critical for leaders that are progressing to get experience in the individual contributor role, the manager role, the director role, the senior director role, VP role, and then a few roles that are lateral along the way, to give them the experience they need before they go into the C-suite.

The higher you go into a company, it’s less about what you know and your skill-set that gets you to the table, it’s how you can take what you learn and get people to follow you because they want to, not because they have to. That’s leadership.   There is a difference between a leader and a manager. A manager is someone who tells you what to do and then manages you.   A Leader is empowering your people to a vision and to a goal and setting them free to do what it is they need to do.

What kind of improvement, change or growth are you trying to achieve at Caligor Coghlan?

We look for year over year growth, we are approximately a $80M company and would like to grow to over $100m in revenue in the future focused on company efficiencies and new technologies.

We want to make sure we have industry leaders within the specialist areas of clinical trials, packaging, and labelling, as well as comparator sourcing.  Hiring people that know that area and can sit with the client and meet their needs is critical.

A lot of clinical companies tend to think of clinical trials as an operationally focused business and it is but it is so much more especially when you are consulting with your clients and uncovering their unmet needs.  You need to understand what a pharma and biotech company goes through when they are developing a drug and what they are looking for in terms of getting into the market. The end result is to get an effective drug to the market that is safe and effective with the disease that’s out there that we don’t have an answer for, or we have an evolved drug that gives a better solution.

Understanding the unmet need of the market and the client is very critical.

What achievements are you especially proud about?

My first CEO role was when I was in my late 20’s. I did not expect to be a CEO that young in my career and I was fortunate to have great mentors and great leaders that trained me to have the opportunities and learned skills that I needed to be the leader I am today.

I think what I am most proud of is accelerating my career and being the leader that I need to be and delivering on what I promise to do.

7.4% of the companies on this year’s Fortune 500 are led by female CEOs. As a female leader, what has been the most significant barrier, if any, in your career?

There are some companies that say they are diverse and aren’t.  They don’t represent the diversity in thought, diverse populations, and the clients they serve.  In life sciences and healthcare, we service a very diverse population, all different cultures and backgrounds and experiences. Our leadership team and employee base should represent that.

As you build a strategy and go to market a service, you must understand your end user and their thought process and experiences.  You can’t do that if you are “mono-thought”.  This happens when businesses all think one way because the leadership team hired in the likeness of the he/she and they all walk and talk the same language.  No diverse thoughts, no safe place to challenge respectfully, no platform to share ideas and take risks.  They hire people who are just like them.   You don’t get that diversity of thought.

With companies that are like that, you can see it. You can see from their leadership team, even from the VP down, or across their C-suite levels – if they are not diverse you can see what type of company they are.

Sometimes you have to move yourself out of that culture. If it’s not the culture you can thrive in, you have to look for another company. Not all of my career moves have been promotions.  Some have been lateral movements to gain experience in a new industry or area.

How do you maintain a healthy work-life balance?

As women we need to prioritise. I have a daughter who is 26 this year and I travelled a lot when I was progressing through my career.   But I have only missed 4 of her events as she was growing up in that entire time. The reason for that is because of the support I had from my spouse and my bosses. I made sure the company I worked for valued my homelife/work balance, and children as much as I valued their work and working for the company.

Your job can be replaced tomorrow, you cannot replace your family, so you must have that balance. Earlier in my career I did not have that balance, I was a workaholic. Then when I moved into the director level, I really had to balance family and work.

How important has it been to your success to have mentors supporting you?

I had bosses that identified my skillsets early who said, wow, this is someone who can be greater than they are. I was always trained that you hire 2 levels above what you are hiring for so when you do that, you want to make sure they have the resources to be successful and you have a pipeline for potential leaders.

My supervisor allowed me to have a mentor, and I would always reach out to people who had the job that I wanted, or had roles that what I wanted to do to give me their view of what it took to be successful in that role.

Often we have people approach us because they only want a job, and when you are in search of a mentor, you need to find that mentor before you want a job so you can truly understand what it takes to be that leader. You may think you’re ready for a certain position when you are not.

A good mentorship is a very confidential one that occurs between the mentor and the mentee. It’s one that’s built on trust and true communication that if there’s a gap, that mentor can tell them and shape and develop them to be the leader that they want to be.

What advice do you have for women aiming for leadership positions?

Know the roles you want to go into. When I have spoken to women about what they want to be when they grow up, a lot of them would say they are not sure. If you are not sure, how do you know what goals to set and how to get there?

It might be 2-3 different paths. You must have a plan for each one of those and then go and find mentors that can help you get the skills that you need to get there.

One question I always ask is “do you have a job description of the job that you are interested in?” Do you know what is required of that job? If you get a job description, you can do a head to head comparison to know what your skillsets are today, and what you need in the future, take those gaps and do what you need to do to help you develop those gaps into strengths.

We might think we need to be perfect to go for that job but that is not true. You might have 70% of the skillsets and still go after the job, it is about having the ability to learn the rest – we have to be open to that.

Understand what the job takes, have good people around you to mentor you, and go for it.

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