From graduate to chairman: My 30 years in pharma

In today’s world, working at the same company for 30 years is increasingly rare. Yet, that’s exactly what I’ve done.

I began my career as a young university graduate working for PricewaterhouseCoopers. With a passion for numbers and healthcare, I was assigned to work with the company’s healthcare clients, of which Janssen was one. Of course, being from Belgium I knew Janssen’s reputation well and after three and a half years I had an opportunity to join its Beerse team. From there I have not looked back.

With a clear purpose, coupled with the right opportunities and the best guidance, my career has led me to become the Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA) Company Group Chairman of one of the world’s top pharma companies.

How did I get here?

My awareness of medicine began at a young age; in my father’s clinic, actually. He was a physician, dedicating his time to making peoples’ lives better and over the years I was inspired by the impact he had. I knew I wanted to do that too, even though I wasn’t sure how.

A less than stellar record in chemistry, compounded by a fear of needles (which I have thankfully now overcome), ruled out a career as a physician, but it didn’t stop me from pursuing opportunities in the healthcare industry. As a youngster, hanging about in my father’s office, I’d meet pharma sales representatives who would come and tell him about the latest drug research and developments.

My father used to say: “It’s not me who saves my patients’ lives, it’s the medicines I give them”. Over 20 years I saw first-hand how quickly modern medicine evolved and how innovations in healthcare made such a significant difference to the way my father could treat his patients. Joining Janssen was a chance for me to contribute to the system – to help people live longer, healthier lives by making sure they get the best treatment they can, when they need it.

Not long after starting with the company, I also began studying for my Master’s in business administration. It was a busy few years, but I was motivated by the belief that I had found the right company for me and was incredibly proud to be part of the Janssen team.

My purpose, Janssen’s purpose

My personal purpose has driven me throughout my career, and I am lucky enough to be able to fulfil it every day, because it is aligned with my company’s.

The aspiration of Janssen and our parent company Johnson & Johnson (J&J) is to ensure that each new generation is healthier than the last. We do this by investing in people, medicines, and initiatives that will have the biggest global impact in the future. We support the United Nation’s 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, as well as our own Health for Humanity 2020 Goals.

We are tackling the world’s most devastating diseases, such as HIV, whilst also trying to work sustainably by investing in projects that will significantly reduce carbon dioxide emissions. I am very proud to be a part of this.

Alex Gorsky

As Alex Gorsky, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of J&J, said: “The Health for Humanity Report is the story of us. It showcases our commitment to changing the trajectory of health for humanity.”



First, second, and third chances

I have been very fortunate in my career that the right opportunities have often presented themselves at the right time.

Having worked as part of the Beerse finance team and also abroad for several years, I decided to apply for the role of Financial Director for the country in 1997. At that stage I had little leadership experience, a prerequisite for the position, but I decided to put myself forward anyway. I did well during the interview process but the hiring manager had some concerns over my ability to succeed, given I had never held a management role. I explained my frustration but also my willingness to learn to the hiring manager: “I’ll never learn to lead if I’m never given the chance to lead”.

To my surprise, the hiring manager agreed and gave me the job under one condition: I had three months to gain experience in this role, then I would go through a full day of leadership tests in a specialised assessment centre which would determine the final decision. Three months went by; then I failed the test.

I thought that would be the end of my leadership journey. My boss phoned me to discuss the results and I was mentally prepared to accept that I would not be able to continue in the role. But I was surprised again. He didn’t agree with the conclusion in the report. He saw potential in me and was willing to give me a second chance, even though he personally had to spend energy and time coaching me. His faith in me and the time he invested in working with me paid off. Ten years later, in 2007, that same hiring manager took a chance on me once more when I applied to move out of the finance team and into general management to become Managing Director of the Netherlands.

Everyone deserves opportunities

My experience at Janssen is a living example of Our Credo, which says: “There must be equal opportunity for employment, development and advancement for those qualified”.

In my case, I was assessed based on my work, my potential, and my ability, and I was given an opportunity that a standardised test said I didn’t deserve. My credentials didn’t match the job description in both of the examples above but fortunately I had someone supporting me who looked beyond the tick box exercise. This kind of opportunity is exactly what I want for each one of my colleagues – to be considered as an individual, treated fairly with respect and dignity, and to have their merit and potential recognised.

I felt like I should pay-forward the support I had received, and since becoming a leader, I’ve taken risks on several people who didn’t tick all the boxes on paper and almost all of them turned out to be the right choice.

The experience of being given a second chance has made me realise that my failures and successes have made me who I am today. I encourage my colleagues to embrace their failures and use them as an opportunity to grow.

Across many industries, including pharma, opportunities and second chances are not extended to all colleagues and inequality is a topic we still struggle with. When Emma Walmsley was announced as GlaxoSmithKline’s next CEO, it made a splash in the media, because she was the first woman to head up a top global pharma company and brought the number of female chief executives in Britain’s FTSE 100 Index to seven.

Her appointment is a step in the right direction, but the number of women in business leadership remains low – in April 2016, women accounted for just 23.3% of board members of the largest publicly-listed companies registered in European countries. All industries have a long way to go to recognise diverse talent at a leadership level.

Leading by example

At Janssen, we take these statistics very seriously. We want to lead by example in changing leadership trends.

My predecessor, Jane Griffiths – the first female Company Group Chairman of Janssen EMEA – was a fantastic inspiration and I learnt a lot from her leadership style. Around half of my leadership bench in EMEA is female, and our two largest markets have ambitious women at the helm. At a global level we are also led by a successful woman,  Jennifer Taubert,who was named Worldwide Chairman for J&J Pharmaceuticals early this year. In 2017, J&J came joint second in Thomson Reuters’ annual review of the most diverse and inclusive organizations globally.

Our work in gender diversity has a good foundation. J&J started the Women’s Leadership Initiative (WLI) as an employee resource group over 20 years ago – a global movement within the company with an emphasis on networking, mentoring, and supporting women as they progress through their careers.

Today, the WLI run a series of initiatives, including the MAKERS program, focusing on mentorship of future female leaders, as well as the new Scholars Award program, which empowers women in science.

We’ve implemented these programs in EMEA with good results. At Janssen UK & Ireland, the management team is majority female and my female colleagues are open and vocal about equality. They set great examples for our younger leaders.

Emmanuelle OuliesAs Janssen France’s President Emmanuelle Quilès recently said at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Forum: “Today’s fight on achieving global gender equality is about more than policy alone – the new battleground is our behaviour”.


The future is bright

Finding the right purpose, having the right opportunities and the right guidance helped me realise my career goals. For me, Janssen has been the workplace that has afforded me all three for 30 years. I am determined to ensure that Janssen continues to offer purpose, opportunity, and guidance to colleagues with the right skills and aptitudes for many years to come.

About the author

Kris Sterkens has been the Company Group Chairman of Janssen EMEA since June 2017, returning to his home country, Belgium after spending over three years in Singapore where he was Company Group Chairman of Janssen Asia Pacific. Kris has a background in economics and financial management and was Vice President, Finance and Chief Financial Officer for Janssen EMEA before he moved to general management. Kris has been with Janssen for almost 30 years.