Women in Leadership, Boehringer Ingelheim
06 February 2018
Sarah Pfeffer

“Build trust and offer help”

At Boehringer Ingelheim, we are powered by our people. We nurture a diverse, collaborative and open environment, valuing and respecting the differences of our people: we are convinced that diversity is an enormous asset. While we focus on diversity of thinking, we have to admit that gender is one of the most visible dimensions of diversity. We strive to increase gender balance in our leadership to reflect our diverse markets and customers: 80% of the healthcare decisions are taken by women.


With our series "Women in Leadership" we want to introduce female colleagues who hold leadership positions at Boehringer Ingelheim, to share their experiences, successes and challenges. With that, we hope that we can inspire our leaders and our talents to continuously strive for development. In the career blog, they tell us about their career path, how they combine work and private life and why our society needs a mindset change. So get to know Susanne Varvaressos, Head of the Manufacturing Support Downstream Unit in the Biopharma Division in Vienna. An interview by Kathrin Stech.


Tell us about your background:What are you doing at Boehringer Ingelheim and how did you get there?


Chemistry and biology were always my favourite subjects, so it made sense to continue on in this path for my university studies. In 1999 I served an internship at BI alongside my studies. Due to my dedication at this time, I was given the opportunity to take part in the startup of the Registration team (CMC part of the submission – Chemistry, Manufacturing & Controls) in the Biopharma Division. After the first few successes, my supervisor at the time asked me if I would like to lead the Registration team. I was very proud and thankful for the trust they placed in me.


Currently, I am Head of the Manufacturing Support Downstream Unit in the Biopharma Division in Vienna. My team acts as the bridge between the Production and Quality Departments. We support two production teams working in 11 manufacturing stations, with about 170 employees.


In this position, I report to two Downstream group leaders. My duties involve growing the team, which includes onboarding and feedback, as well as defining guidelines, processes and structures. The goal here is to fully support the Production team, maintain the GMP (Good-Manufacturing-Practice) status of the stations, and, together with the Quality team, find the best possible solutions for GMP-related issues. So far, the Manufacturing Support Unit has grown from four to 14 employees.


What are the challenges for you as a leader, and as a woman?


The challenges as a leader are maintaining the balance between giving adequate attention to employees, and overseeing intensive projects.


My strategy: I actively delegate topics. My deputy also discusses technical issues with employees. This saves me time, as well as giving my deputy work experience. If anything were to go wrong or requires my attention, I would be notified. Depending on the severity of the matter, I would either intervene directly, or monitor from afar.


I think the challenging part for women is to perform in a self-confident and authentic way. If you know your current position is vital to the success of the business, you will automatically convey competence. Both my supervisors and the unit leaders of the manufacturing plants I’m in charge of are mainly men. Due to our open, direct teamwork and communication, I feel comfortable in this environment.


My advice: At the beginning, get to know your colleagues. Build trust and offer help when needed in order to be recognized as a reliable and competent member of the team or company. Teamwork is based on the “give and take” principle – no matter if male or female.


Be fair and be aware of your behaviour. If you were to look back in a few years’ time, would it still be acceptable? Can you look at yourself in the mirror? When making decisions, be mindful that you may again come across the same colleagues, supervisors, or /employees, but in a different position. This is why it is important to always be respectful in your interactions.


Concerning family and work, especially women seem to be under a certain pressure caused by a feeling of “making important decisions” – how could this be prevented? What role do the employer and the supervisor play?


You need to know what you want – job, kids, both, how much of everything? – and coordinate that within your family. You should talk to your employer and adjust accordingly based on your stage of life. Constant adjustments should be made depending on your external circumstances, for instance your kids grow up and have different needs, your job changes, your goals change.


Additionally, I have learned that the quality of the time spent with my kids is more relevant than the quantity. There are some things you can’t make up for, such as the first day of school, or a performance at a school play. Do not only spend time with your kids just for their sake, but for yourself as well. Enjoy the moments as these will become wonderful memories.


It is necessary that the employer creates a flexible environment for your needs, as it relates to being a parent. You may have to avoid jobs that require numerous business trips, teleconferences and meetings in the evening. The supervisor plays a huge role in this. My boss knows my strengths and my engagements, and accommodates me accordingly, within reason. Our foundation is based on trust and open communication.


How do you handle your life balance and your compatibility between work and private life?


I don’t assume I can handle everything myself. I accept help when needed. You have to ask yourself, what is important? What can be outsourced? My family, especially my husband, father and aunt provide a lot of support for my daily life.For me it is vital that I spend time with my family every morning and evening. That includes talking to my kids, playing with them, and supporting them when it comes to school matters. I also try to go on as many family holidays as possible.


There are only 24 hours in a day, so I have to know what to prioritize. I can delegate when the situation calls for it. My goal is to invest my available professional time and energy where it is important for Boehringer Ingelheim. In general, I see my family and my job as assets in my life. As a result, it makes the balance easier to handle. Many things are about your mindset - with a positive attitude, good things will come.


Is there some kind of a female and male style of leadership? What sets men apart from their female colleagues?


That’s a difficult question. I think that there are various styles of leadership depending on what type of person you are. Women may put more effort into involving stakeholders in order to get a better overview (there are pros and cons to this). Men may be more focused on goals.


In my view, however, balance is the key. Experience, self-reflection, and observation of colleagues and supervisors, are essential factors. For this reason, I find it important that the company employs supervisors that are male and female, young and old, and experienced and inexperienced. We need this diversity, and we need to incorporate it into our everyday lives. We need to listen to and learn from each other.


What role did men play during your career?


Visionary leadership personalities have always had an impact on me. Many times, these leaders were men - since they were and still are in top positions. Currently, I work with mostly men in leading positions. What I like about this: communication is direct and straightforward, which means you know where you stand. That is how I like to work, that’s in my nature.


While there may be issues to overcome at times, I believe men and women complete each other very well. In general, it is important to loosen up - to laugh, joke around, and have fun. You spend a big part of your life at work, so it is important to know when not to take things too seriously.


Do you have a personal advice for young talents, especially young women?


Show enthusiasm for what you are interested in. It may not pay off immediately, but at some point it will. Be brave despite the unknown. There’s always something to learn. Experiences enrich your life. Actively take or reject opportunities – of your own volition. You choose your own path. Regularly question your professional and private situation – are you still working towards the right goals or do you need to change the direction? Change starts in your own mind. Be authentic every day and believe in yourself.

"Teamwork is based on the ‘give and take’ principle – no matter if male or female, says Susanne Varvaressos. "
Sarah Pfeffer
Susanne Varvaressos, Boehringer Ingelheim

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