MSD’s Ger Brennan: Embracing diversity is a powerful catalyst for success

20 Sep 2018

Ger Brennan. Image: MSD

This week on Leaders’ Insights, Ger Brennan of MSD tells us how he leads his team in the industry of innovative medicine.

Ger Brennan is the managing director of MSD’s Human Health business in Ireland. He has a wealth of experience across MSD’s global operations, having held various international roles in regional marketing, regional commercial operations and global marketing.

Coming from a background in nursing, Brennan joined MSD in 2010 as business unit director and took on his first global role in Switzerland in 2013 as the immunology regional marketing lead for mid-Europe.

A leading healthcare company, MSD Ireland was first established here more than 50 years ago. It employs more than 1,800 employees across four sites in Tipperary, Cork, Carlow and Dublin. Last February, it announced 350 new jobs as part of a new biotech facility called MSD Biotech, Dublin.

‘I feel truly privileged to work in an industry that positively impacts the lives of patients daily and continues to strive to meet unmet medical needs and challenges’

Describe your role and what you do.

My role is to oversee the Human Health business for MSD in Ireland. I’m also the head of the country leadership team, which aims to grow MSD’s presence here by being a valued and trusted healthcare partner, a great place to work for our employees, and by developing new and innovative medicines that will increase the quality of life for patients around the world.

How do you prioritise and organise your working life?

Working in a dynamic company such as MSD, there are many demands on my time; therefore, prioritising my day to ensure I focus on the key priorities for our business is critical.

I have a really strong leadership team who are empowered to lead their business areas and identify key opportunities and projects. Knowing that I have such a strong team leading the business means that I can then focus on the longer-term strategic opportunities.

What are the biggest challenges facing your sector and how are you tackling them?

Ireland has become slow in adopting and providing access to new innovative medicines. What this means is that patients in Ireland aren’t getting the same level of access to medicines that have been introduced in many countries across Europe, and this has an inevitable negative impact on health outcomes and quality of life for patients here. MSD is committ­ed to working in partnership with Government and other stakeholders to address this situation.

Another challenge facing the pharmaceutical sector is recruitment of highly skilled employees with specialist STEM capabilities. To be successful in recruiting employees, an employer must offer exciting career opportunities mixed with other work-life benefits. That’s what we aim to do at MSD.

With the Irish Government’s clear ambition to make the pharmaceutical sector a cornerstone of economic growth, it’s important to consider every aspect of a country when it comes to looking at how easy it is to do business, from quality of life for employees, to infrastructure and investment cost.

Education and skills development is also crucial. It’s important that ‘Ireland Inc’ continues to nurture and foster the sector, such as creating policies that encourage the best and brightest talent from across the world to take up careers here.

middle-aged man with grey hair wearing navy suit and white shirt, smiling broadly, with arms folded.

Ger Brennan. Image: MSD

What are the key sector opportunities you’re capitalising on?

It’s an exciting time to be doing business in Ireland, particularly in the pharmaceutical sector.

Recent announcements about our exciting expansion of our footprint with the opening of MSD Biotech, Dublin, is down to a number of reasons, including access to a highly skilled talented workforce; positive working relationships with Government agencies such as the IDA and Fingal County Council; and ongoing partnerships with key third-level institutions.

Another area that we have invested in significantly in recent years is the area of clinical trials. This year alone, MSD has approximately 34 clinical trials underway in Ireland compared to just two in 2014. These highly regulated trials play a hugely important role in the development of new treatments and innovative approaches, ensuring we can properly measure the benefits to patients of a particular medicine in treating a condition.

What set you on the road to where you are now?

Growing up, like a lot of people, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. I always enjoyed working with children and adults with special needs, and did a lot of voluntary work. This steered me towards my first career, working as a nurse in St Vincent’s Centre, Daughters of Charity in Limerick.

Working directly with patients, I got to see first-hand the huge impact new medicines had on not only patients but their wider family and support network. It was an area I was hugely interested in and therefore I pursued a career in the pharmaceutical industry. I joined the industry as a medical representative in 1999, moved to MSD in 2010 and took on a global role based in Switzerland in 2013, returning to Ireland as managing director of Human Health in 2016.  

I feel truly privileged to work in an industry that positively impacts the lives of patients daily and continues to strive to meet unmet medical needs and challenges.

What was your biggest mistake and what did you learn from it?

Early in my career, I made some mistakes. Mistakes happen and unexpected challenges arise; it’s how these are addressed that is the important thing.

Past experiences have showed me the value of immediately acknowledging a problem and seeking to address it with a team rather than by yourself. In one particular case, I immediately went to my managing director, who assembled a cross-functional team to help support me and resolve the situation. It’s an approach that has very much informed my management style and how I support my team when they need me.

How do you get the best out of your team?

I am very clear in my expectations of my teams and what my strategic priorities are for the year ahead. I work closely with my teams to ensure we are aligned but also then empower them to progress with their plans without micromanaging them. We have a very non-hierarchal approach in MSD and work in an open-plan environment, which fosters strong collaboration in an informal, real-time setting.

STEM sectors receive a lot of criticism for a lack of diversity in terms of gender, ethnicity and other demographics. Have you noticed a diversity problem in your sector? What are your thoughts on this and what’s needed to be more inclusive?

As is well documented, the statistics on diversity in STEM are stark and the percentages of technical careers being filled by women are far too low. Embracing diversity and inclusion is a powerful catalyst for success, and the diversity of our people is part of what makes MSD a great place to work and helps us to do what we do, better.

We have a very active MSD Women’s Network in Ireland, which proactively identifies ways for us to create a more inclusive workplace across all of our Irish operations. We also host ongoing events and initiatives to highlight this very important area. For example, Dublin recently played host to MSD’s 2018 Women in STEM conference, which was attended by 80 key MSD staff from across Europe.

We’re also taking some practical steps to ensure we are doing what we can to encourage more women into the workforce. When we are recruiting for a role, we ensure we have an even representation of candidates. We also offer staff a wide range of flexible working arrangements, both short- and long-term, which allows us to support our teams and their personal needs in a proactive, structured way. This is definitely an area that we need to continue to focus on, but we in MSD are fully committed to ensuring we proactively tackle this issue and take steps that positively impact the diversity of our workforce. 

Who is your role model and why?

I have many, and many of them work in MSD! If I have to nominate one person whose approach to business I admire, it would have to be Steve Jobs. Not only do I really enjoy the products he made, but I also very much admire the self-belief and determination he showed throughout his career. He had the courage to progress his plans in the face of huge resistance and the resilience to ensure his vision was realised. This ultimately led to the success of his company but also had a massive impact globally – changing and enhancing the way we communicate, interact and even how we work. What a legacy to leave behind!

What books have you read that you would recommend?

I’ve read a lot of good books recently but I’m going to highlight two in particular that I enjoyed, for very different reasons.

The first is The Battle by Paul O’Connell. It’s an impressive insight into one of Ireland’s most iconic sports heroes and really illustrates the physical and mental resilience of the man in question. His focus and relentless pursuit of his goals is truly impressive but I was also impressed at the mental evolution he underwent over the course of his career, and his flexibility to adopt new ways of thinking and approaching training and matches. It’s a compelling read that I’d recommend for sports and non-sports fans alike.

The second book I’d recommend is Red Notice by Bill Browder, which is a true story regarding a case of financial corruption and political intrigue in Russia. It’s actually very hard to believe this isn’t a fictional account given all of the twists and turns, but what I really enjoyed was the underlying theme of resilience, courage and relentless pursuit of justice by the writer. A great holiday page-turner.

What are the essential tools and resources that get you through the working week?

As you might have guessed from my business hero nominee, I’m an Apple fan and I use their technology every day to help me across all aspects of my life. From my Mac to my iPhone, iPad and iPencil, I’m a very proud Apple geek!

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