“People of accomplishment rarely sat back and let things happen to them. They went out and happened to things.” – Leonardo da Vinci
We are all shaped by the context in which we are raised, but we are not bound by it. I was born and grew up in a small town in Denmark, about as far from the capital of Copenhagen as you could be. In a time before the internet, social media and CNN, I knew little about the world as a child. Yet today I am proud to be MSD’s first female President of Asia Pacific, a region that encompasses operations in 12 major markets with more than 7,000 employees, striving to make a difference by improving the health of nearly a third of the world’s population.
My journey has been shaped by the pursuit of a purpose-led career, one that gives the opportunity to make an active contribution to society – an opportunity that I believe the biopharmaceutical industry is uniquely placed to offer, especially in these turbulent times.
Yet I was not born for this role – I firmly believe that leadership is a privilege that must be earned. That requires a willingness to make conscious choices and a sense of responsibility for your own self-development.
But those who achieve it can — indeed must — extend the ladder of opportunity to everyone.
If women participated in the global economy identically to men, global annual GDP would increase by $28 trillion by 2025. Moreover, women in leadership positions can enhance organizational performance in measurable, quantifiable ways. For example, of the world’s 500 largest companies, the 25 companies with the best record of promoting women to executive positions were 34% more profitable than the median companies.
It’s a powerful business case, but realizing it requires talent who can demonstrate value to their organizations and become effective leaders.
In pursuit of purpose
At University, I first studied Pharmacy, followed by a further Diploma in Business Economics and Marketing. Upon graduating in 1997, as I considered the paths available to me, I recognized that the biopharmaceutical sector was and is a growth industry, one of a few truly global industries with international career opportunities and long-term prospects. However, my choosing this path was ultimately a question of purpose, knowing that every decision the industry makes and the medicines and vaccines we bring can improve the lives of millions of people around the world.
At MSD, we have defined our purpose by invention. That means we welcome those who love to be challenged and feel a calling to make a difference, working to address critical healthcare issues today, and tomorrow. That motivation to invent, to have impact, and to inspire has been a cornerstone of MSD’s success. As an organization, we also firmly value the importance of fostering diversity to nurture future leaders and so we ensure that we do not put limits on career growth opportunities.
That career has so far taken me through 12 different roles spanning more than 20 years at MSD, beginning as a product manager in Denmark to roles in external affairs and marketing/sales, before progressing to managing director of Denmark and Iceland, then on to regional roles in Europe and a global commercial role. At every step I made a simple commitment to do my best, focusing on performance and making the most of it.
Ultimately, in 2017 the opportunity arose for me to come to Asia Pacific. I recognized that this would be an exciting new challenge, taking responsibility for leading one of the most diverse and fastest-growing parts of the world. I also saw this as an opportunity to lead the charge to make a difference in the region, and so I relocated to Singapore.
Though I have spent most of my career with one organization, working with a leading company in the pharmaceutical sector has enabled me to have a whole series of careers, moving across business lines and progressing from operations to local leadership to regional and global roles. This sense of progression and the ability to realize our company’s purpose in many ways has kept me motivated. I still get excited about the science behind our products, and I feel responsible as President of Asia Pacific to get those products into the hands of the patients in need. It’s a role that feels especially meaningful given there is so much critical unmet healthcare need in the region.
Developing a leadership mindset
Assuming a leadership role can feel like a daunting challenge. Yet in each role I have held, I always felt I had the best job – and then a new opportunity would come along to keep moving forward. An essential part of advancing in any career is a commitment to education and self-improvement. Indeed, one recent study showed that successful top leaders read more than 60 books per year, which underlines how curiosity and continuous learning are key to career development. This is especially true in today’s world where education resources are more accessible, from skill training to capability building, to pushing yourself to embrace opportunities beyond your industry or day-to-day job.
As a woman in a senior leadership role myself, I am often asked about the qualities necessary for others to succeed. Yet I do not believe that good leadership skills can be attributed to a specific gender – they are universal. For those aspiring to become more successful leaders, I would share this advice:
More than anything, it is up to you as an individual to take responsibility for your own career. You need to decide what you want to go after and work decisively towards your goals. A career at a senior level requires prioritization and planning, discipline and adaptability, for both women and men. That means taking responsibility to perform and deliver results, as well as making tough choices to advance.
This approach will not only help drive a successful career but will also enable you to create your own opportunities to find purpose. Alongside my primary role, I have become an Executive Ambassador for MSD for Mothers, a 10-year, US$500 million global corporate responsibility program focused on creating a world where no woman dies giving life. To date, MSD for Mothers has helped improve access to quality maternal healthcare and family planning services for over six million women across the globe, and I am proud that I have been able to play a part in supporting those efforts.
Leaders have the responsibility to drive change on diversity & inclusion
While women can take the initiative to develop their leadership capabilities, there are no simple solutions to improve diversity and gender equality in the workplace. Alongside the efforts of individuals, it requires support from the government to enable women to participate fully in the workforce, and from responsible leaders to break down visible and invisible barriers that prevent such talent from achieving leadership positions.
I feel privileged that at no point in my career with MSD have I felt constrained by my gender, because as a company we understand that diversity and inclusion are fundamental to our success and core to future innovation. My personal perspective is that diversity in the broad sense is a valuable goal, but not just because it is the right thing to do. It also creates better business results – the evidence is unambiguous. We are in an industry where having diverse perspectives is a necessity – patients, customers and labor markets are all evolving, and a team of varied backgrounds will ultimately be better equipped to understand and adapt to that change.
That is why, as a leader myself, I take responsibility to foster a culture of inclusion and belonging where all employees feel welcomed and valued, and where we regard every individual as a valuable resource in our larger mission of saving and improving lives. That has led me to become a sponsor of Diversity & Inclusion in our MSD Women Network and act as a mentor to young female talent.
It requires a nuanced, active approach. At a personal level, I have put education in unconscious bias on the agenda for my leadership teams because it is critically important to be aware of the unconscious barriers that are in play. Similarly, when I am presented with candidates for leadership positions, I demand a diverse, short list, and then I choose the best candidate. But if the list only consists of candidates with the same background, you do not have a meaningful choice.
While diversity is a continual work in progress, I am proud that MSD in Asia Pacific has managed to achieve an almost equal gender split in our workforce in the region. Even more importantly, more than 50% of our Cluster Leadership team are women, and over half of all external hires within the last 12 months were women. I passionately believe that the biopharmaceutical industry provides incredible opportunities for women to not only pursue purpose-led careers, but also to rise to positions of leadership. In doing so, true innovation can be achieved through the powerful intersection of ideas from employees across a range of diverse backgrounds, while also continuing to drive positive change within our companies, industry and community.
Ms. Mikkelsen is President of MSD in Asia Pacific (AP). The AP region includes 7,000 employees across 12 markets: Australia & New Zealand, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Korea, Philippines, Singapore, Malaysia, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam.
Ms. Mikkelsen joined MSD in 1997, holding several roles across Europe with increasing responsibility, including head of Denmark & Iceland, Scandinavia & Ireland, Nordics & Baltics, and mid-Europe. She also helped establish MSD’s fertility business in Europe & Canada. In 2016, Ms. Mikkelsen moved to the company’s U.S. headquarters, serving as Senior Vice President for Diversified Brands, a global business line that included mature brands and life-cycle management center.
Ms. Mikkelsen has served a leadership role in several industry associations. She currently serves on the Board of Directors for several organizations, including Falck and the US-ASEAN Business Council (USABC), the premier advocacy organization for U.S. corporations operating within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). She also serves on the Nomination Committee for USABC. In November 2019, Ms. Mikkelsen was named one of the 100 Most Influential Women in Denmark by Berlingske. In 2020, she was named to the Business Insider list of 100 people Transforming Business in Asia. Ms. Mikkelsen is an Executive Ambassador for MSD for Mothers, a 10-year, $500 million corporate responsibility program focused on creating a world where no woman dies giving life.
Ms. Mikkelsen holds a Master of Science in Pharmacy from the Royal Danish School of Pharmacy and Diploma in Business Economics from Copenhagen Business School.