As a part of our interview series called “Women Of The C-Suite,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Liz Barrett.
Ms. Barrett holds an MBA from Saint Joseph’s University and a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Louisiana.
Liz is the Chief Executive Officer of UroGen Pharma, a biopharmaceutical company dedicated to building and commercializing novel solutions that treat specialty cancers and urologic diseases. She led the company in bringing Jelmyto®, the first and only FDA approved treatment indicated for adult patients with low-grade Upper Tract Urothelial Cancer (LG-UTUC), to market.
Liz Barrett is a highly regarded industry leader with extensive experience in leading business organizations and Fortune 500 pharmaceutical companies. Prior to UroGen, she was CEO of Novartis Oncology and a member of the Novartis Executive Committee. She previously served as Global President of Oncology at Pfizer Inc., where she held numerous leadership positions, including President of Global Innovative Pharma for Europe, President of the Specialty Care Business Unit for North America, and President of United States Oncology. Prior to Pfizer, Ms. Barrett held positions at Cephalon Inc., where she was Vice President and General Manager of the Oncology Business Unit, and at Johnson & Johnson. She started her career at Kraft Food Groups, Inc.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this career path?
As I think back on my career path, the first thing that comes to mind is that it wasn’t purposeful. I grew up in a small town in Louisiana, where my father ran his own business and taught my siblings and I early on about responsibility and the value of working hard. When I was 14, I started working with my father, which is when my love for business and learning grew. It wasn’t a given I’d go to college, and I’m proud to say I was the first in my family to attend.
After graduating, I took a sales position with Kraft Foods and moved positions rather quickly, ending up in Philadelphia, one of Kraft Foods’ divisional headquarters. That was a defining time in my life as I learned to navigate a new world of corporate business while living in a big city. I took it all in and took advantage of every opportunity to learn and contribute. From there, to expand my knowledge of business, I enrolled in a part-time MBA program and eventually moved into marketing, which became my true passion.
Kraft decided to close the office in Philadelphia so instead of relocating, I joined Johnson & Johnson’s consumer division, working on adult incontinence and oral care products. But being exposed to the healthcare side of the business, I sought opportunities to transfer to one of the pharmaceutical divisions. While I loved what I was doing, the idea of having a greater impact on society was very appealing to me. I was able to move into J&J’s pharmaceutical and healthcare business and have never looked back. I will admit what I learned in consumer really helped me differentiate myself on the pharma side, as I understood what motivates key stakeholders to make their purchasing decisions. Couple this with the satisfaction of making a real difference in someone’s health, and I quickly realized that the pharmaceutical industry was the perfect fit for me and where I would spend the rest of my career.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
It’s between launching a new drug right as the world shut down due to the pandemic or when I had to present at J.P. Morgan — the biggest healthcare conference in the world — three days into the job as CEO. Both presented challenges and were anxiety inducing, but thanks to our great team, both were huge successes.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Like all of us, I’ve made mistakes in my career — no matter your level, there’s always something to learn. I’m not sure I would call it funny, but I think that the most important thing I had to learn was how my desire for everything to be perfect impacted those I managed at every level of my professional career, from manager, to director, to CEO. I developed a reputation for being difficult and for wanting everything to be perfect. I had to learn that not every detail is necessarily mission critical and that you need to be willing to let go of certain things and focus on the things that are most important. And I did, thanks to feedback and coaching from people who thought enough of me to help me become a better leader.
None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
It’s impossible to name all of the people that have impacted my career. I look back and realize over the years that a small gesture here or there has made a big impact on my career, but there are two people that took a chance with me that changed my career trajectory. The first person is Tom Amick. I was introduced to him through my friendship with his wife, Lisa, and they opened the door for me to join the pharmaceutical division of J&J. At the time, it was rare for people to move from the consumer division to pharma, especially for someone who had no experience in that industry.
The other person was also at J&J — Gary Reedy — who went on to become CEO of the American Cancer Society. Gary was willing to put me in a leadership position of running my first business franchise even though I had not “checked all the boxes” for the job. He was also the one that called me out on my impact on others. He taught me to approach things differently, and I could get the same impact without the negative reaction.
For these reasons and so many others, it’s important to me that I pay it forward in terms of giving people chances, even when they don’t have all the experience the job requires. Everybody wants to put you in a box, but it’s our willingness to take people out of boxes, really see them and their capabilities, and give them opportunities to become great at what they do that realizes their potential and their calling.
In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?
I am not a “off the cuff”-type of presenter, so before a large presentation or meeting I will take the time to prepare, write out my remarks and spend the time to really learn the material. I find I am less stressed and nervous about the situation when I am the expert. I also like to take a few minutes to myself right before the event.
When I was running North America specialty care for Pfizer and we were launching our JAK inhibitor, the entire executive committee was coming to the launch meeting, so it was a big opportunity for me as I was still fairly new to Pfizer. I was running the entire first day, but our CEO came in early and invited me and others to dinner, but I decided to decline the invitation. My boss was shocked I turned down dinner with the CEO, but I knew I needed the time to prepare and review my script for the next day. I don’t think either of them understood the magnitude of the session, but it all went very smoothly and they commented, “Now I understand why you passed on dinner”. That’s who I am; I am committed to doing the best job I can in any situation. That will always come before networking, which I can say has its plusses and minuses.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
There are two parts to that question: what I do day-to-day and how it’s different than other leaders. On the first, every day is different. One day I might be focused on tactical operations, but the next, making multi-million or billion dollar decisions. The difference is the buck does stop with me. There are people like me who are motivated by and enjoy that level of responsibility and accountability, but you do have to accept both the good and bad that comes with it. As the CEO, I have a responsibility to many different stakeholders, and I answer to them, but I also must do what I believe is in the long-term best interest of the company, and that can be hard and lonely sometimes. It’s important that a CEO is the face of the company because people want to believe in and trust the person that they have entrusted with their health and their resources.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
The biggest myth is that it’s glamorous or that I’m a really big deal. I love my job, but I laugh all the time when people say to me, “Oh my God, I didn’t know you’re a CEO,” but that is what I do; it’s not who I am.
When I was working for Novartis as CEO of oncology, I had a car service and access to our aviation department. Yes, it’s a nice way to travel, but it’s a necessity when you need to travel around the world and be accountable to deliver. The work doesn’t stop because you are away and dealing with multiple time zones. I started calls some days at 6am. My family is important to me, so being away so much can be hard. Don’t get me wrong, there are perks and they are nice, but you mostly see meeting rooms and airports. And there is nothing like sleeping in your own bed!
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
It’s an interesting question because if I were a male executive, you would not be asking me this. The biggest challenge that stands out for me and it probably always will, is how behaviors are interpreted. Women can have the same behaviors or say the exact same words as men, but they are perceived and received differently. If you’re aggressive as a woman, if you’re assertive as a woman or if you’re direct as a woman, you get labeled very differently. A man can say exactly the same thing in exactly the same way and unfortunately it won’t be viewed the same.
It’s human nature to see men and women differently and there are “accepted norms” that have been around for decades. I think it will be a long time before that changes, so women will continue to over-compensate in this area. Until the day when we stop labeling female executives women executives, this will likely continue. No one refers to male executives as a man executive, he’s just an executive. I wonder what it would be like if I said, “he’s a successful male executive”. Funny to think about.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
The biggest difference for me is the work as the external face of the company. You’re the spokesperson for the company. When I thought about being the CEO, it was more around the operational and strategic pieces of doing the actual job. The reality of it is telling the world about your company is my priority. That’s where I spend a lot of time, and it’s important because stakeholders want to see and know the CEO.
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
Bring your authentic self to work, to your job and to your team. You don’t have to be like other people, and don’t underestimate your value. You’re in this role because you’re good at what you do, so believe that, and have the courage to stand up for yourself and have the courage to stand up for your team. I think if I’ve learned anything, one of the reasons I’ve built loyalty over the years is I have had the courage to stand up for my team and am willing to go to bat for them.
What are your “Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
1. Let things go. As a reformed perfectionist, it caused issues early in my career because it created tension within my teams and reports. There is this fine balance between setting high standards and focusing on the things that are most important and impactful.
2. It’s okay to say no, both at home and at work. I am a working mom and have raised three kids. I was always juggling work and family commitments, but it was important that when I needed to be at work, I was at work, and when I needed to be home, I was at home. And in the end, your kids will be fine and so will the business.
3. Recognize the impact you have on others. I always think I’m like everybody else. But as I advanced in my career, I realized that if I say something, I might not be creating an environment for others to speak freely. As I grew in leadership, I learned to take a back seat and to let others speak first, so that they get their view out because mine might not be needed. The best leader builds a team that works cohesively and successfully without them.
4. Try to take the emotion out of it. I’m a very passionate person, and I think that’s part of what has made me successful, but it can also cause issues. Over the years, I remember two things someone told me:
“When you increase emotion, you decrease logic.” And the other is: “You can be right, but not effective.” Those are reflective on how you say things and how you do things, rather than what you say and what you do. If you react with too much emotion, they never even hear what you say, because all people hear is the emotion.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
It’s important to accept people as they are. Everyone is different and we should appreciate that difference rather than judging it. I feel like many of the issues we have in our world today, and in our country today, are because people don’t accept others that are different from them. Everyone has something to bring, and if we just realize that and celebrate those differences, we will live in a much better world.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
This is a portion of a larger quote that resonated with me: “I am convinced that life is 10% what happens to me and 90% of how I react to it. And so it is with you, we are in charge of our attitude.” I talked earlier about some life lessons– including that you can’t control other people, but you can control yourself.
My other favorite one is: “You don’t have the right to the cards you believe you should have been dealt. You have an obligation to play the hell out of the ones that you’re holding.” I think that describes my life and my life advice to others!
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
Queen Elizabeth of England. I have a lot of admiration for her because she has given her whole life to service and to the service of others and it has not been without challenge. It shows in the way that she presents herself — she’s very calm, yet she’s had so much on her shoulders. She’s the longest reigning king or queen in the world. I think she would be very interesting as she has lived her entire life for others, and she is the epitome of calm under pressure.
The other one is Mark Zuckerberg. I have a difficult time understanding him. I would love to have lunch with him because interested in knowing who he truly is and what he really believes in and stands for; he has so much power and opportunity to influence, but I can honestly say I really don’t understand him. I’d love to know what makes him tick.