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The art of leading finance in life sciences
An interview with Robin Washington, executive vice president and CFO of Gilead Sciences, Inc.
John Maddalon, principal in Deloitte Consulting LLP’s Life Sciences practice, sat down with Robin Washington to discuss how she has strengthened finance’s business partnering by working closely with research and development, commercial operations, and other areas to align the planning and budgeting process to their needs and offers her take on how women can advance their careers in finance.
From Deloitte Insights for CFOs
John: What is your role in supporting Gilead’s expansion into global markets?
Ms. Washington: The decision to expand our footprint globally is driven by the unmet medical needs of the population in a specific geographic area, and subsequently by its local, regulatory requirements. Once we decide to expand into a particular market, finance’s involvement comes in supporting the business model we will deploy via the business planning cycle. This entails finding the right balance between supporting the local operation and having the local know-how on the one hand and on the other hand, maintaining our highly leveraged business model, which utilizes outsourcing and centralized support in different areas so that we can focus on our core competencies of R&D and commercialization of novel products.
Even for small operations—offices with just a few employees—we put a lot of effort into hiring the right type of experienced talent because we know that we can grow quickly, which means we will need the people who can grow with the company and evolve their own roles. For example, when we hired our finance director and controller for Japan, we had 10 to 15 people there; we now have several hundred supporting the Japanese market. Given how different Japan’s culture is compared to cultural norms and assumptions in the United States, we knew we needed a finance team that not only possessed language skills and local know-how, but who would be capable of challenging and communicating with us regularly to ensure we were adapting to the local entity needs as they arose. I’ve found that ensuring cultural fit both locally and globally is critical to operating effectively as a finance organization. It’s important to hire local talent that is capable of managing local requirements, collaborating with the business, and supporting the local GM and president, as well as being capable of communicating and providing local business knowledge and information to us here in the US.
John: What approaches to recruiting and managing talent in overseas operations have you found to be effective?
Ms. Washington: When we’re initiating operations in a new market, I find it’s absolutely critical to be on the ground, and even if I can’t be there physically, to have appropriate face time with brand-new finance leaders whom I may not have a lot of chances to interact with on a regular basis. That’s especially important when I’m trying to communicate how we operate and how we need to adjust for the local culture and business environment. It’s critical to do that early on because it builds rapport. For example, I’ve been to Japan twice since we established operations there and I’m planning a third visit. We also assigned a senior level finance manager from the US who speaks Japanese to work with the local team on a regular basis, including frequent travel to Tokyo. He was able to act as a liaison with corporate and the local Japanese team, ensuring the right areas of focus were getting appropriate attention and helping the local team understand how to operate and get things done within the framework of Gilead’s culture.
Even with more established overseas operations, either I or one of the members of my leadership team visits our key overseas markets on a quarterly basis. We also invest time upfront in training our overseas finance hires on Gilead’s culture because we want them to understand how we do things.
John: How has Gilead’s global expansion impacted the way finance partners with the business?
Ms. Washington: We invest a lot of time and resources thinking about how finance supports the commercial business in various markets and how we can continuously improve. Just recently, for example, Gilead reorganized the European operations group, so we re-aligned finance to support the new structure as best and as rapidly as we can. With our geographic expansion, we have also leveraged our finance shared service centers to support the new operations and limit local investment to the most value-added activities that need to be accomplished on the ground in a particular country. That allows us to scale more quickly and efficiently and to ensure that we utilize consistent operating practices where we can. Utilizing shared services this way is critical for our internal controls and to achieving our aim to leverage a single instance environment for all our ERP systems.
We also found that our global expansion and growth have increased the need for us to leverage our long range planning processes. When I first joined Gilead, our chief scientific officer told me, “Robin, the budget isn’t very useful for me because it has a short term focus and doesn’t support my operations and clinical time frames which can span multiple years.” So we have attempted to find that balance, establishing a multi-year planning process where we work with the business units to understand not only what they are doing now but also what longer-term investments are needed two to three years in the future—and sometimes even longer. We’re not looking at just the numbers. We’re talking about operational issues, opportunities, and risks to those plans. That challenges both the finance and operational teams to think about what information they should be providing and communicating throughout the organization to ensure we have alignment.
John: What were some of your biggest challenges when you joined Gilead?
Ms. Washington: For any incoming CFO, it’s crucial to take a 360-degree approach to understanding your company, as well as the industry, what the competition is doing and what shareholders are thinking. That means getting out of the office, immersing yourself in the business and operations.
Gilead is scientifically focused, so I invested time to learn and understand our scientific portfolio. I knew I’d need that understanding to work effectively with R&D and commercial and to communicate with the investment community. I started with commercial first because it was something I could more easily relate to. I got to know the head of commercial, went out in the field with him and sat in on the scientific portfolio reviews. I did the same thing with our head of business development because that gave me a good sense of the areas in which we were strategically looking to develop expertise.
Because an effective CFO must also be a continuous learner, I still commit time to field visits and interactions with doctors, so that I can ask questions about and get feedback on the programs that support our patients. I couldn’t do that unless I had a great finance team. My leadership team is focused on the analytics, business planning and all areas of statutory compliance so that I can focus on what’s happening and changing in the business and articulate that back to my team.
John: What is your approach to developing finance talent and leadership?
Ms. Washington: I want to develop the next generation of CFOs even if they don’t end up as CFO of Gilead. During my career, I had the opportunity to get broad-based experiences in various aspects of the businesses I supported, including an expatriate assignment, which provided me with a more strategic mindset. I want to do the same for my team, by exposing them to the myriad of areas you have to understand to be a successful CFO and challenging individuals to work in areas outside their comfort zone. Our employee development programs are focused on developing breadth and depth in various areas through multi-year job rotations. We move people to roles in different parts of the business, take them out of accounting roles and put them in FP&A roles and vice versa.
Through our annual leadership forum, we expose finance leaders to different aspects of the business. For example, we invite board members to speak and give the team an opportunity to interact with them. I also put a lot of effort into familiarizing the board with the finance leaders and their teams. Once a year we discuss finance talent with the audit committee. I also ensure the audit committee gets exposure to individuals two to three levels below my direct reports by having them present current topics at the audit committee meetings and meet with our audit chair on a regular basis.
John: Having risen through the ranks in two male-dominated industries—technology and life sciences—what career advice would you offer women?
Ms. Washington: Have confidence in your work product and capabilities. Get out there, put in the time to develop relationships and build your network within your company and within your peer community in your industry. I never hesitated to ask someone to lunch, have them tell me a little bit about what they do. That’s been very helpful to my career. Sometimes women have a tougher time doing that, reaching out to build their personal networks and find sponsors. Within Gilead, I’ve established a women’s leadership forum, where senior level women from Gilead and other companies I’m affiliated with come together to discuss a variety of topics. It creates a safe environment for women in the organization to ask questions, network and build relationships. I’ve also helped establish a professional women’s networking forum within the Valley to help women broaden their professional networks and give them an opportunity to share among each other in an informal environment for a few hours after work.
"Hiring and developing the right talent is both the biggest challenge and the critical element to meeting the evolving needs of a company whose market cap has grown to $125 billion from $15.7 billion in 2004."
— Robin Washington