27 July 2018
Jacqueline Berlin

Be courageous!

Your career doesn’t always have to be “higher, faster, further” – and certainly not “everything right here, right now”. In your career development, you may take detours and even sometimes say “no”. Women especially need to realise this, thinks Christiane Wijsen, Head of Pharma France at Boehringer Ingelheim. In this interview, she reveals her personal experiences and insights on the way to senior management and outlines what she expects of her employer.

Ms Wijsen, is the road to success always a straight one?


From my personal experience, no. In the late eighties, when I started studying pharmacy in my home country of Belgium, I had no idea where the journey would take me. After university, I began working as a trainee in the Quality Management division of an international pharmaceutical company. After that, I had a wide range of roles in different companies and divisions, from regulatory affairs and marketing & sales, to market access and public affairs, as a consultant as well as in management and leadership positions. Therefore, overall, it was a real colourful mix of positions before I arrived where I am today, as Head of Human Pharma at Boehringer Ingelheim France.


What did you learn from those varied areas?


During my career, I came in touch with many issues of crucial importance for the pharmaceutical industry, and that has given me a holistic overview of the industry, which, to this day, still helps me to better understand and evaluate the challenges I encounter. My own horizons expanded enormously as a result of dealing with a wide range of issues, and even more so, with different people, positions, companies and points of view. One of the biggest insights I gained was that you should always remain open to new experiences, and to step out of your comfort zone. I truly believe that change is an opportunity.


What challenges did you face as a woman?


As a mother, I had decided to remain in Belgium until my children were older – even though there were regularly appealing job offers abroad. I worked for several companies in Belgium, one of them being Boehringer Ingelheim. After 13 years at Boehringer Ingelheim, I reached a point where it was difficult to develop further; and going abroad was not yet an option. With a heavy heart, I made the decision to leave Boehringer Ingelheim, a place where I felt at home, so that I could develop both personally and professionally and still remain in Belgium while also being able to take the next step up. It took courage to do this, but it was very rewarding and rich for my personal development. When I received the opportunity to return to Boehringer Ingelheim, five years later, I felt well prepared for the role of general manager.


As a woman, what are, and were, your expectations of your employer?


The employer has a crucial role to play in enabling employees’ development and a healthy work-life balance. The employer must create a flexible environment able to accommodate both family and career. Working occasionally from home would have simplified my life when I had small children, but it wasn’t possible at that time. I am very happy that times evolved and I am able to offer that flexibility to my collaborators.


A culture of open communication is also important. Being a mother with two small children, I had a very frank discussion with my employer on how to organise myself, before moving into my first management position. This was important, as it meant that we could both avoid any unpleasant surprises. My conclusion: it always helps to discuss things openly and in detail, and this applies by the way to your employer, as well as to your partner.


Your partner?


Regularly, I hear from female collaborators that their home life is still a quite “traditional” one; one in which the woman puts her own career behind that of her husband. Some women are happy with that situation, and of course in this case, no worries. But regularly female collaborators express the wish to invest more in their career but don’t discuss this at home. It is important to share your professional aspirations with your partner, and to discuss together how to achieve them.


What makes for a healthy work-life balance?


A work-life balance is very personal; each one has to find his best way to keep in balance. Looking back, I am glad that I didn’t jump on the first foreign job offer that came my way and instead looked for new opportunities in Belgium. This enabled me to respect the wish of my family to stay in Belgium, whilst developing myself in my home country. Right now, the children are older, and new professional opportunities are opening up, also abroad. Things don’t always have to happen there and then. I am very happy that I’ve been able to develop my personal and professional life - and to have done so at a time and place that were right for me and my family.


Do men have a different leadership style compared to that of women?


If you’d asked me ten years ago, I’d have answered with a resounding “no”. But, with more experience, I do actually see some differences, although I don’t wish to resort to stereotypes here. Women tend to focus more on team success than on individual achievements. And they concentrate in general more on how to achieve those goals. In other words, they don’t just focus on the achievements, but also on the way those results were realised.


What advice would you give to your young female colleagues?


Be courageous! Even if you’re not 100 per cent certain that things will work out in the way you expect, just give it a try, step by step. Every new experience, even a difficult one, will teach you something, and makes you stronger. If you push yourself out of your comfort zone, amazing things will happen!


Authors: Ann-Katrin Schmidt and Julia Löffelsend

"“If you push yourself out of your comfort zone, amazing things will happen,” Christiane Wijsen is convinced. "
Jacqueline Berlin

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