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Women Leaders in UK Healthcare: Liz Henderson

Merck UK & Ireland’s MD on her ‘non-linear’ career and the importance of mentoring

Liz Henderson

Merck UK & Ireland’s managing director on her ‘non-linear’ career path and the importance of mentoring

What led you to a career in the pharma industry?

I have always loved science and after I did a chemistry degree at university, it was a natural progression to start my career in the pharmaceutical industry, starting my career at Pfizer and Amgen, before moving to Merck. It’s an exciting industry to work in – I love seeing how science is translated into patient benefit and it is so rewarding to work with inspirational people who can turn ideas into life-changing therapies.

Your career hasn’t been very ‘linear’ – you’ve moved between lots of different companies and functions. Is that something you’d recommend? How does that come about?

Yes, I would definitely recommend trying lots of different jobs, especially early in your career.

The skills you pick up along the way are invaluable and I have always taken a role because it will help me develop my portfolio of experiences, not because it was a linear progression – sideways and even backwards moves can be just as rewarding.

I believe thinking only in the linear can really curtail your career aspirations, so I have always taken opportunities when they have come my way and have never regretted taking roles outside my comfort zone. Women are sometimes inclined to think they are not ready for the next challenge, so I always encourage my colleagues not to be risk averse and to be comfortable with perhaps not being the ‘expert’ – so many skills are transferable, and the toughest part is often taking the decision to jump forward to the next challenge.

Once there – and with the right mentoring and training – people are often surprised by how quickly they can shine.

How far have things advanced in terms of women in leadership roles in pharma, in your view? What are the big issues which remain as obstacles?

Belen Garijo

At Merck, our CEO in Healthcare is a woman, Belén Garijo (above) and we have a lot of other fantastic female leaders in the business, both here in the UK and globally. It’s also great to see outside Merck that women are also progressing in other companies too – like Emma Walmsley at GSK – which gives women the inspiration that they too can achieve the top job.

My experience is that things have advanced a great deal and that the opportunities are out there for those who want to take them.  Of course, issues do remain – the biggest challenge for all businesses is to make the work place as flexible as possible so we can enable all our employees to have the right work/life balance.

I also think it’s incumbent on all leaders to mentor and sponsor women to get to where they want to be in their career – and I believe this is a real strength at Merck.

Fields like pharmaceutical manufacturing have been male-dominated until recently. What advice can you give to women in those environments?

I would say that authentic leadership is crucial in any role – it’s important to be who you are and lead with integrity and honesty. I don’t believe anyone should have to change their leadership style to ‘fit in’ – in fact, we need to champion the fact that women have different skills and capabilities to offer than men. An inclusive and collaborative approach to leadership is also important to inspire people to achieve.

Merck is proud of the fact that currently already 30% of its leadership roles are held by women. This percentage has been growing over the years and we anticipate a further evolution in the number of women leading our company soon.

Do you think women need to exhibit the more ‘masculine’ traits of ambition and self-confidence as Sheryl Sandberg advises in her book Lean In, or should women look to champion a different, more ‘feminine’ approach to management?

Lean In

In my experience, management style is not influenced by gender – your own personal leadership style is much more important than whether you are male or female. Again, being authentic to yourself and accepting that different people have different leadership qualities is vital.

In our business, we have a variety of leadership styles and this leads to a healthy level of debate and challenge which I believe is essential to a successful business environment. I also agree with Sheryl Sandberg that mentors can and should be both senior and junior people who you look to for advice, guidance and support. Sometimes, by only looking upwards for mentors, you can easily overlook the unique viewpoints and experiences that the younger generation can bring to a leadership role.

One of the themes in PME’s Women leaders in UK healthcare is how healthcare stakeholders – especially the pharma industry and the NHS – can better align themselves to advance patient outcomes. What is Merck doing in the UK on that front? What’s your personal view on how this can work?

Merck has evolved from a mid-sized chemicals and pharma company to become the pioneering science and technology company with specialisations in biopharma, life sciences and high-tech materials that it is today.

We make a positive difference to millions of peoples’ lives every day. Our constant curiosity and specialist approach drive our partnerships and bring new ideas to life. We pride ourselves on being a solutions-focused partner to patients and the NHS.

For example, in our Endocrinology franchise, we are using digital technologies to help healthcare professionals manage and improve patient adherence and, as a result, help our patients achieve the maximum potential of our treatments. In Fertility, we have developed services for fertility clinics to support patients – on average, it can take three rounds of IVF to achieve a clinical pregnancy and our services are designed to help clinics support their patients throughout the fertility journey.

We are now playing an active role in supporting trusts in their communication with the new genomic hubs to ensure that there are no delays or limitations in the new testing environment. We are also working with a number of patient groups across the business to help build alliances across therapy areas.

Another major theme in advancing women in leadership roles is mentorship. What’s your experience of mentorship? Is it especially crucial for women?

Yes, mentorship is really crucial – I have  been fortunate to have had some amazing mentors in my career, both men and women.

I do feel that women perhaps need this more than men. In my experience, women are less likely to push themselves forward for a new role – especially early in their careers – and may need the extra support a great mentor can provide in giving them the confidence to apply for a new role or ask for that promotion.

What are the best and worst things about working in pharma industry leadership?

The best things are working in a fast-paced environment, seeing science and innovation changing patients’ lives and working with a bunch of inspirational, sharp and fun people.

Like any industry, the challenges are around bureaucracy and slow systems which can impede our ability to progress – which is especially frustrating when it means that patients are not getting the medicines they need as quickly as we would like.

How do you relax and re-focus away from work?

I have a young son, so I love spending time with him. He’s at a great age, with so many questions so life is never boring! I also like to get outside and exercise, both walking and running – and I have recently discovered yoga which is a great way to relax after a busy day in the office.

Who’s your pharma/healthcare/all-time hero/heroine?

Rosalind Franklin

There are so many it’s difficult to pin it down to one individual, but I would say Rosalind Franklin (pictured) who was a groundbreaking scientist, instrumental in the research of DNA.

She only received the recognition she deserved in recent years – and was famously overlooked for the Nobel Prize – so it’s fantastic to see a resurgence in support for Franklin’s work now and the belated recognition that she deserves. I hope it will inspire a new generation of female scientists in our industry.


Liz Henderson is Managing Director and General Manager of Merck UK & Republic of Ireland, a post that she has held since September 2018.

Prior to this, Liz was Executive Vice President, Head of Global Manufacturing & Supply for the Biopharma business of Merck.

Liz’s career spans more than 20 years in manufacturing and supply in the healthcare and life sciences industries. She joined Merck in 2009, initially as European Environmental Health & Safety Director for the company’s life sciences business sector and subsequently became Site Director for Merck’s manufacturing plant in Cork, Ireland. Before moving to Merck’s Healthcare business sector, Liz was leading the Separations Technology Cluster of manufacturing sites across the US and Europe. Prior to Merck, Liz worked at Pfizer and Amgen for over ten years in a variety of manufacturing leadership roles.

Liz holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Analytical Chemistry from Dublin City University, Ireland.

20th June 2019

20th June 2019

From: Healthcare



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