Dr. Kathrin Schönborn-Sobolewski is Vice President of Merck Serono’s Global Clinical Operations organization. Prior to this role she held various leadership positions of increasing responsibility within the Merck group. She is also a highly active volunteer with the Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association. She co-founded and developed HBA in Germany and currently serves as Director Business Operations Europe. In 2015 she received an HBA Luminary award for her work at Merck, to recognize her successes, leadership and role modelling for women.
Kathrin, tell us about your first experience as a leader in difficult times:
One key aspect of leadership is to start with leading yourself, especially in times of uncertainty. This is where many people struggle. When I think about myself in this context, I realize that it was very much the case in my early years. I was the first in my family to finish high school and go to university and then I went on to complete a Ph.D. But I had no one to go to; no parents or mentors to ask for advice. This led me to my first lesson: to lead myself through this period and times of uncertainty. I had a clear vision and goal and this became my driver.
So do you see this as the starting point in your leadership journey?
Yes, and this experience probably also triggered me to immediately volunteer as a mentor when I first came across a mentoring program. I would have loved to have a “go to person” when I was younger, so I wanted to offer support to younger people and enable them to have this wonderful experience and resource. Mentorship has always been very important to me on my professional and leadership journey, both as a mentee and a mentor, throughout my career. You can learn so much from other people, if you are open to feedback and new ideas and thoughts. Contributing to the growth and development of talented people and investing in their future success is very rewarding and it’s an important leadership skill.
Can you tell us a little more about leading through change in difficult times?
Absolutely! Providing direction, ensuring alignment and mobilizing for change are all at the heart of the art of leadership in uncertain or difficult times. From my point of view, one critical element is to truly know your own and your company’s vision and goal, believe in them, and also be clear about your values. These are important ingredients for authenticity and consistency and these in turn are key to leading yourself and others through difficult times: communicate, be available, and communicate… Over the years I experienced several situations where my teams went through major change. I always took the time to be with the team, to be visible, and explain the reasons behind the change, but also to show that I really cared about people and their personal situation. I also shared some of my personal experiences when going through change, and I tried to help wherever possible.
Change is clearly an important topic for you. Can you share with us how you anticipate and respond to change?
Personally, I would say that I am inspired by new experiences. I am a very flexible person, and challenges also motivate me. But that is not true for everyone, some people are afraid of change. This is where leaders need to act in accordance with each situation, although always keeping the bigger picture and clear strategy in mind.
Conflict is also a challenge. What advice would you give about managing conflict?
Let me share my learnings from my first job as a project leader. I have realized that the majority of conflicts in project teams seems to be content related, but in fact, it is usually caused by conflict between individuals. So it is important to focus on the individuals: understanding people’s objectives, concerns and personalities to make it possible to guide the team towards the common goal. Once the shared purpose is clear and each person knows how they can best contribute, it is much easier to become a high performing team without conflict.
Is there anything else you would like to share around our topic today?
Of course. I need to mention the Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association, this great network of women leaders. The HBA offers excellent leadership development opportunities, where volunteers can learn, grow and practice in a safe environment. In addition, the HBA is, just like MPI, a wonderful platform to build and accelerate your network within your environment. And you meet many inspiring women and role models.
Interview by Maguy Sicuro (Managing Director SICURO EVENTS, VP Membership MPI France-Switzerland).
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