Title: Head of R&D transformation office and R&D communication
“The transformation office started with me, myself and I,” she said recently. “There’s no playbook for what we’re doing to follow,” and “no single day is like any other days is the best way I can describe it.”
The global large-scale, industry-unprecedented shift, announced in September 2016, involves Takeda transitioning its drug development, marketed product and post-approval needs to the Raleigh, North Carolina-based CRO. About a third of the company’s R&D employees changed either locations or jobs.
The vision was clear—it was not about cost savings, but was about rebalancing Takeda’s attention, to focus on building a robust pipeline in key therapeutic areas and raising the bar on innovation, and to optimize its global footprint and make its products more accessible. Some elements that would undergo changes were identified. No one, however, was sure how to execute and achieve the vision, it was uncharted territory, and that’s what Kovacs was tasked to figure out a month after the transformation was announced.
“That meant that our culture also had to change because the way we worked, the routines, what we paid attention to, the mindset, all had to evolve; and the infrastructure, our operating models needed to adapt … this meant that some functions, including procurement, legal and IT had to evolve with us as well … and I was also building my team in parallel,” Kovacs explained. “It felt like putting together this complex puzzle.”
The transformation also includes turning Takeda's site in Japan's Shonan Health Innovation Park into a startup incubator. Kovacs' responsibilities later expanded, as the $5 billion Ariad acquisition was announced about three months later, and the transformation office was responsible to conduct the integration; then a few months after that, the R&D communications function was also added because of the close link it has with the company’s cultural transformation.
Kovacs invoked a Takeda analogy, “building the plane while you’re flying it,” to describe her job. She thinks her 17-year experience in the biopharma industry, which followed receiving a Bachelor degree in biochemical engineering from McMaster University in Canada and an MBA from the University of California, Los Angeles, helped her get the complex job done. After all, you cannot change the way how a big pharmaceutical company like Takeda performs R&D, challenge the status quo and apply the right judgement without a deep understanding of how drug development works; and it also requires business acumen as many of the solutions within the transformation involve building business models.
Kovacs also thanked her “highly talented, empowered, motivated team” that had spent the last year defining the details of what the transformation would entail. Building teams and developing talent is also something Kovacs is passionate about.
“The most critical success factor beyond the scientific expertise and the business experience is the ability to build teams,” Kovacs said. “Finding opportunities where I can meet a business need in an area that really motivates the person, leverages their strengths and enables them to grow is my recipe for building high-performing teams.”
When building a team, Kovacs cares about diversity, but not necessarily in terms of attributes one can visually assess, such as age, race or gender. “When I think of diversity, I think of that ‘thought’ diversity, bringing together people that are looking at situations and thinking uniquely different.”
Besides Takeda’s internal mentorship program and some informal relationships where people go to her for advice, Kovacs also puts efforts in nurturing talents outside of Takeda. She participates in Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Undergraduate Practice Opportunities Program (UPOP), which is known as a “career success accelerator,” where mentors like Kovacs spend a week coaching students under a formal curriculum developed by MIT professors.
That’s her way of giving back, since she also greatly benefited from her mentors. Kovacs said the best piece of advice that she has ever received in her career, and at the time was also the hardest to ever have to hear, was to turn down a significant promotion.
“The rationale that was given to me was, earlier in your career you have this fantastic opportunity to take lateral moves easily, [and by doing that] you will build your understanding of the enterprise which will develop your leadership by enhancing your judgment, showing how an action in one area will have a cascade or ripple effect in another.”
Kovacs said she was very thankful for that suggestion, and instead of taking the promotion, she took on assignments in other sectors. “As a result of that experience, I am far better a leader today. So my advice to people earlier in their career is, take the time to really diversify your knowledge. It’s such a complex world that we’re in, take that time to learn and you’ll reap the benefits of it.”