Honesty the best policy for MA boss

By Megan Brodie 1 year ago | In Industry, People
  • 1 year ago

13 February 2023

Medicines Australia (MA) CEO Liz de Somer will hit a major milestone in April when she will have served five years at the helm of the innovative medicines industry association.

For those who remember the turmoil that came under de Somer’s immediate predecessors, the past five years have been extraordinarily stable both from a Board and executive perspective while the association has grown and flourished under de Somer’s leadership.

While her tenure to date has not been without its challenges, de Somer has managed to steer MA with empathy and confidence. It is indeed a credit to a formidable woman who was raised in boarding school before becoming a highly accomplished nurse, but perhaps it is also this background that gave her the very qualities for which she is renowned.

A holiday romance leads Downunder

The third child born into an English Army family, de Somer spent her teenage years in boarding school after both her parents accepted overseas postings. While she initially wanted to study medicine upon graduating, the young woman was instead directed into nursing but after completing her training, briefly explored a career with the British Forces Broadcasting Service in Gibraltar.

While she soon returned to nursing, a holiday romance with an Australian Army Officer stationed in Gibraltar at the time has since proven to stand the test of time with the young English nurse soon following her Australian Officer, Greg, back to Australia where they married. Army life meant life on the move, Liz taking various nursing roles in towns where they were stationed and raising their two children as Greg rose through the ranks of the Australian Defence Force.

“I’ve always been interested in health, patients and people, along with what we can do to make people healthier,” she tells MedNews. “With the military we were moving every few years, so I tended to take whatever nursing work I could get and continued to reinvent myself.”

From clinical to regulatory

One of the jobs she took along the way involved clinical trials and sparked a lifelong interest in drug development and discovery that led her to complete a Masters of Medical Science at UNSW run by Orin Chisholm, the breadth of the three-year course adding an interest in regulatory affairs that then led to a role in a radiopharmaceutical company.

“It was right at the cutting edge of developing and manufacturing and creating quality standards,” she said. “But when a job in regulatory affairs at Medicines Australia came up, I jumped at the chance to again work with multinational pharma companies doing cutting-edge research and discovery, especially as some big scientific advances were starting to come through at that time.”

When de Somer joined MA in 2007, the industry was facing extraordinary challenges. Former Pfizer MD John Young was Board chair, Ian Chalmers was CEO and Andrew Bruce was Head of Health Economics. It was, perhaps, a baptism by fire for the newest recruit but clearly an environment in which de Somer excelled.

She recalls the initial 2010 Memorandum of Understanding inked with the Gillard Government as being “our first lesson in what an agreement is and isn’t, and what is its intent”, saying while there was strong dialogue and trust between the industry and government at the time, there were still discrepancies in how the MoU was implemented.

“The leadership of MA from John Young to Will Delaat and Brendan Shaw was trusted by the Government, and they had open conversations. That was the policy environment in which I was educated – build trusted relationships, be open and honest, act with integrity, listen to other people’s views and have a conversation,” she says.

“When you’re trying to shape policy, you actually want it to be a mutual benefit where you lift all boats. It’s trying to find that balance where you take out the transactional elements and find mutual benefits, or benefits for a broader group than your own self-interests.”

In this hotbed of policy and diplomacy, de Somer continued to rise. In 2012, she was appointed Director of Health Policy and Research at MA and in April 2018, following a turbulent period for the organisation, was appointed interim CEO and shortly after the role was made permanent.

There is no doubt de Somer has brought stability and corporate memory to the CEO’s position while overseeing a period of growth for the association. She stares down her critics who argue the latest five-year agreement inked with the Government is not good for the industry.

“This latest agreement was negotiated at the end of one government’s term, the change of government introducing the opportunity for things to be reinterpreted that should have been clear,” she says. “It was also negotiated off the back of a pandemic that changed the financial and fiscal environment into the foreseeable future.

“After every agreement we’ve gone back and looked at what worked, what didn’t work, and how we would prepare in the future. My experience is that there are always going to be different views as to what the agreement is and isn’t, what people’s expectations are, and whether the spirit or intent of the agreement is met. There is always the potential for different interpretations.

“The challenge is, the more you look to close ambiguity, the more opportunity there is to introduce ambiguity somewhere else. I don’t think we’ve got it perfect yet.”

Building a winning team

One of the challenges for MA has always been attracting talent – and keeping it. While many opt to work in the association, invariably they soon move into industry where the pay is better, but de Somer also sees this as a positive.

She points to the extraordinary talent that has come out of MA from local legends like Andrew Bruce, Brendan Shaw, Kieran Schneemann and the TGA’s Andrew Simpson to the younger set of Sam Develin, Larissa Karpish, Kristin MacLaren and Jaime Snashall.

“All these people are populating our environment and have insights into the industry that you just don’t get unless you’ve worked in this kind of organisation,” de Somer says. “One of its greatest strengths is the people that have come through and gone on to do other things in the health environment.”

The current executive team is one of the strongest in memory and de Somer is clearly chuffed at the level of talent she has been able to attract.

“This is the most amazing team,” she says proudly. “We’ve focused on making sure the culture of the organisation is right and it’s delivered stability, which is a strength, while our external engagement has also been a real strength.”

De Somer refers back to her background in nursing and the influence of former MA executives, as well as current chair Anna Lavelle, for helping her develop her own unique brand of leadership but says it all comes down to one value in particular.

“Honesty is my watch word,” she says. “What you see is what you get. I always want to achieve more and am driven by excellence, but it’s on a foundation of honesty and integrity. I think that has been important for the organisation and in building my relationships in Parliament and across different departments. People know I’m honest and not going to sell them a story I don’t think is true.”

Asked what will drive her forward into the next five years, de Somer says the Health Technology Assessment (HTA) policy and methods review is “critical to the survival of the industry” which, along with patients, needs Australia to be a first launch destination.

“We’re not naïve to the environment and that the government doesn’t want to spend more money,” she says pragmatically. “We know we need to be persuasive and compelling about the broader benefits of being a first-launch country and investing in medicines early on for the benefits they drive, whether they be economic, social or societal.

“I want to look back at the HTA Review and say we achieved major reform. The bigger challenge is for the community to understand the broader value of medicines and clinical research, and the role of industry in research and commercialisation.”

As for the future of MA, de Somer says the organisation “is in a really good place” but needs “a continuum and a plan” if it is to continue to deliver for current members and future members, adding, “If you can see there is a plan and that there is opportunity, that gives you continuity”.

When asked when she herself may consider moving on, de Somer laughs and says no time soon, but also says when her ‘Jacinda Ardern moment’ arrives, you will still find her working in healthcare – and delivering for patients.

“I will always be working in this sector – this is my passion,” she says. “Whether that’s in drug discovery or development, this is where I want to be.”

©MedNews 2023

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