Meet Serena Chow of Johnson & Johnson

As Senior Director of Government Affairs & Policy, Johnson & Johnson’s Serena Chow must juggle the interests of many different stakeholders. Yet during her more than 30-year career in the pharmaceutical industry, she has picked up quite a few tricks of the trade, skills she says were developed with the help of J&J’s abundant resources. She also champions collaboration and working with the company’s partners to come up with win-win solutions.

Serena connected with TOPICS Senior Editor Jeremy Olivier in November to discuss the value of a general business degree, the challenges – and rewards – of working toward improved market access for pharmaceuticals, and her support for talent rotation as a means of helping team members move forward in their careers. An abridged version of their conversation follows.

What did you study in college? How did your degree help you prepare for your eventual career?

I got my degree in business administration, a major that gave me a general background in business and business theory. In that program, I got to learn a lot about finance, accounting, marketing, business strategies, and international trade. Another area I really delved into was insurance, which I think provided me with some insight and understanding about Taiwan’s National Health Insurance system.

Those who study business administration can fit into any industry, even very specialized ones like healthcare. Of course, it takes time to learn the specifics of the industry you’re interested in. However, this major – and college in general – lays a good foundation for a career in business.

Although you began your professional career in IT, you quickly moved into the pharmaceutical industry, where you have been ever since. What was it that drew you to that industry?

To be honest, the reason I left the IT company I was working for was that I met my husband there! We decided that it would be better for us to work at separate companies, so I made the move to the pharmaceutical industry, starting first at Glaxo (now GlaxoSmithKline). I chose that company because I had previously used their dermatological products, which I found to be very effective.

I also had an unforgettable experience soon after I joined the company. A cancer patient’s wife asked me why I chose to work in a pharmaceutical company. There was no cure for some severe cancers at that time, but new drugs could help sustain the life of a patient while they waited for a cure. My conversation with this woman helped me discover my purpose for working in this industry – to contribute toward saving patients’ lives and improve their quality of life.

Changing industries was a real eye-opening experience for me. During the time I worked for Glaxo, the company made two major investments in Taiwan, building manufacturing sites for its products. I was really fortunate to work for that company at that time. It gave me so many opportunities to explore different kinds of work within the industry and to build connections with external stakeholders as well.

In the two decades you’ve worked at J&J, you have served in several different roles. How would you summarize your experience at the company?

I joined J&J’s pharmaceutical subsidiary, Janssen, in 2002. I was tasked with establishing a new department, which included corporate communications and public affairs, but also market access and government affairs. I was the first employee and leader of this department. Eventually, I recruited more team members, including communications managers and a market access team.

Back then, market access as a profession was just starting to take off in Taiwan and there were very few such professionals on the island at that time. I therefore decided to recruit people from other areas, including medical affairs, as they were experienced in conducting clinical trials and collecting evidence. That background gave the team a good foundation for building up market access capabilities, which involve compiling evidence data and working with other teams to come up with a strategy for promoting a product, as well as determining the target patient group. Once that group is defined, we discuss how to work with the government and use the evidence collected to demonstrate the value of the product.

Improving market access for new pharmaceuticals is a major and ongoing issue for multinational healthcare companies in Taiwan. How have you approached this challenge in your role at J&J?

There are two facets of this approach. One is at the product level; it involves devising a strategy for communicating with the regulators, figuring out the most workable approach to getting them to support our arguments and grant approval to our products. We then send our proposal/dossier to the regional team to ensure it is aligned with the company’s global strategy.

The other facet is government affairs, in which we identify and address policy issues with our government partners. For example, Taiwan’s government has stated that the growth rate of its global budget is decreasing every year. We thus need to come up with ways to operate in such an environment. Price is a big issue for our industry, but there are ways the government can set prices more transparently or make more room for industry to participate in the decision-making process. Of course, we can’t force the government to allocate more of its budget to reimbursing our products, but we do see ways to work together toward solutions. After all, health is the foundation for many important things, including economic growth.

What characteristics and skills does one need to become a successful government-affairs professional? How has working for Johnson & Johnson helped you develop and hone those skills?

I believe that every professional, no matter their job description, has a responsibility to their relevant stakeholders, whether those be internal or external. In this role, you’re not just working to achieve your own goals; you’re also helping others get what they want. And here is where trust-building and maintaining a win-win mindset is so important. We may not always totally get our way, but at least we can move forward together.

Patience is a virtue, too. Many times, government policy takes years to change. Just take, for example,  the patent linkage system and the Medical Device Single Audit Program (MDSAP). Each of these took several years to see a breakthrough.

Working at J&J has definitely been helpful for developing my skills in this area. It is a big company, and there is a wide range of products that we must learn about, but also a lot of resources to gain that knowledge. And we have excellent government affairs professionals in every market we operate in, experts who we can go to for advice or training.

Do you have a particular style or philosophy of management that you follow? What do you consider your strengths as a manager? What would you most like to improve?

I am not a micromanager. I give my colleagues the freedom to do their work, as long as it is aligned with our purpose and our objectives. After we agree on strategy at the beginning of the year, we have a regular check-in to make sure things are going smoothly and address any issues that come up.

I do encourage team members to collaborate, especially with colleagues in other departments. I really don’t want to learn that my team members are not being cooperative. I think our time and energy should be spent in good places, such as on positive discussions about how to engage more external stakeholders and improve productivity.

My biggest challenge as a manager is learning how to improve focus and time management. It’s so easy to become involved in many different areas, but I have to remind myself that I’m still learning. I think it would be better for me to prioritize, first focusing on the top two or three areas of interest, and expand out from there.

What do you find is the best way to motivate your team? How do you cultivate talent and leadership potential?

I think that talent rotation is a really essential part of motivating people and moving them along in their careers. Over the years, I’ve helped with the rotation of a few employees from my team. These colleagues really benefited from the experience and now have their choice of next career step. I encourage our talent to move around, to learn, and to come back with more sophisticated experience and knowledge, as well as leadership potential.

What do you like to do in your free time? What helps you get “recharged?”

Over the past two years, I have been learning how to scuba dive. I’ve now dived in Green Island, Penghu, and Xiaoliuqiu, where I got to see beautiful coral reefs and diverse marine life. I thank J&J for subsidizing my PADI training fee.

Also, this year I became a sponsor of the Open & Out program, part of J&J’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiative. Open & Out’s most recent activity was Global Ally Week, a worldwide celebration of individuals that accept and support each other, and who are willing to build a more inclusive environment. It’s a very interesting project and I’ve found the taskforce team to be full of highly energetic and enthusiastic people.