Anne Whitaker, Synta Pharmaceuticals

Anne Whitaker
Embracing the authentic

Company: Synta Pharmaceuticals
Title: CEO and director

In a July 9 post on the Sanofi company blog, Anne Whitaker expressed her concern about the U.S. pharma industry's inability to accept women for who they were and give them top roles where their natural skills could pay off for their companies. She was president of Sanofi's ($SNY) pharmaceutical business in North America and part of the company's global leadership team, but in general she found the industry lacking in that regard.

"There's also a business case to be made for organizations that embrace the natural strengths of their employees and in particular, women in decision making, collaboration and innovation ... Unfortunately, the U.S. is not broadly making significant progress in terms of the percentage of females on executive teams. I also don't see progress in establishing cultures where women can be truly authentic leaders."

A month later, she jumped ship and left Sanofi for the oncology-oriented biotech Synta Pharmaceuticals ($SNTA), where, as CEO, very little should stand in her way from creating a culture that allows "authentic leaders" to thrive.

Authenticity is a concept that comes up often when Whitaker talks about her strengths as a leader. She is certainly authentic. She is unembarrassed by the hint of the accent from her Alabama upbringing, for example, and willing to say that she doesn't expect to be the most talented or smartest person in the room. What she is exceptional at, she says, is building successful teams.

'What I am good at is getting people to be the best they can be," she tells FierceBiotech. "One of my strengths as a leader is to assemble teams of people who are strong individually, but collectively, even more powerful."

She does that in part by letting people see the real her, but she admits she was far along in her career, already at the vice president level at GlaxoSmithKline ($GSK), before she realized that she didn't come off as sincere. A mentor and a boss gave her a review, acknowledging she had hit all of her objectives, and that the only thing he had to offer was that people wondered: "If they cut you, would you bleed?"

After getting over the shock, she set out to understand. A communications coach taped her doing one of her PowerPoints and then talking about her children. She was stiff and buttoned up in one and relaxed and comfortable in the other. From that point, she let the character fall away and let people see the real her, "warts and all."

The real Whitaker grew up Anne Michelle in Alabama, daughter to a Flowers bread salesman and an administrative assistant to a NASA worker. An early mentor was her uncle, a rocket scientist at NASA, who directed her toward science. She thought she wanted to be a doctor. But after graduating from the University of North Alabama with a chemistry degree, she wasn't really looking to spend another 8 years in school. She took a job with her sorority traveling to 32 states in 9 months, speaking to women leaders around the country. That gave her enough exposure to realize there were other pathways to helping people through healthcare besides medical school. It didn't take her long to find her way to a sales job at Upjohn and then eventually to GSK.

During her 20 years there, she said she had an unconventional trajectory, taking jobs that she liked and where she thought she would make a difference. "I have no traditional experience in marketing or market research. I have not been a product manager."

But people recognized her ability to inspire those who worked with her and some were willing to be mentors, even though she didn't always think she deserved their attention. She was a senior VP when she left in 2011 to take the top pharma job at Sanofi in the U.S, the biggest pharma market and one facing huge challenges as three Sanofi blockbusters, Plavix, Avapro and Eloxatin all lost patent protection there. Still, the U.S. operation was able to report growth on the net sales line.

In her three years there, she also helped Sanofi diversify its product portfolio and revamp its approach in diabetes, adding a range of new diabetes devices and apps, such as the iPhone-connected glucose monitor iBGStar.

While she was not unhappy there, she said she knew she would be looking for an opportunity to again "stretch" her leadership reach. And Synta came with that opportunity. The company has struggled to get a product to market and had to overcome an early setback in 2009. It halted a Phase III trial of a melanoma drug when deaths among those taking it outstripped those getting the standard care. But it has another drug candidate in trials, ganetespib, to treat a number of cancers, and that drug looks promising.

Whitaker was impressed with what that drug might be able to do for people and with the passion and the smarts of the people who have dedicated themselves to making that happen. Now she wants to bring to bear her skills to help them fully realize their passion.

"If you look at my career, the people who have hired me will tell you I am a change agent, someone who likes to build teams, establish a vision and rally a team," Whitaker said. "I am very driven about being patient focused, bringing better solutions. The opportunity at Synta was a perfect fit."

For more:
Special Report: The 25 most influential people in biopharma today - 2013 - Anne Whitaker - Sanofi
Former top Sanofi exec Whitaker nabbed by Synta to shuttle cancer drug to market

-- Eric Palmer (email | Twitter)

Anne Whitaker, Synta Pharmaceuticals
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