Company: Eli Lilly
Title: Senior Vice President of Global Quality
When Johna Norton thinks back about the motivators that led her to the top ranks of the life sciences industry–an industry in which women are not always that visible–she remembers a skeleton of the human body hanging in the kitchen of her family’s Pennsylvania home.
“When I was young, my mother (who was a teacher) went back to school to become a nurse,” Norton says in an interview. “I was in grade school and I remember that skeleton hanging in kitchen, with labels on every bone. I remember her studying. That made a big impression on me.”
The end result is that Norton, in turn, has made a big impression on the people around her: peers, managers and bosses, as well as the people, men and women, that she has mentored in and out of the industry.
Interested in math and science from an early age, Norton came from a family that believed in learning and continuing education. Her father was also a teacher. After initially considering becoming a doctor, she succumbed to her love of chemistry and picked a career where she could indulge that interest and help people.
She became an analytical chemist and landed at Eli Lilly in 1990. During her 27 years with the company, Norton has handled a variety of positions in quality assurance and quality control, providing support to manufacturing and process development at Lilly facilities and sometimes working with the company's contract manufacturers. She has had stints abroad at Lilly facilities in Ireland and Puerto Rico, as well as at Lilly sites in Clinton, Indiana, and at a site in the company’s home in Indianapolis.
She believes it was good fortune that led her to Lilly, a company where she says being a woman was never an impediment to moving up. Her predecessor to the job she took over in April was a woman.
“I never in my career stopped and thought, that is not an area where women can advance. That was never on my radar screen,” Norton says. “I always believed that if you do the best job you can, you can be recognized and I let it go from there.”
She credits her work abroad for stretching her ideas about inclusion. “My time working and living outside the U.S. was also a significant period of growth and development for me. I spent over four years in Ireland and over two years in Puerto Rico. These assignments taught me a lot about diversity and inclusion and how to adapt and have an impact outside my native culture and language.”
When she started at Lilly, the proportion of women to men in top positions was not equal, but she has seen it change to about 50-50 over the years. She attributes that shift to top leaders at Lilly who believed it was important to have an inclusive workforce to be able to develop drugs for a diverse world.
In fact, Lilly has a global diversity and inclusion office that focuses on helping employees understand and bridge differences, whether cultural, ethnic, gender or generational. Norton sponsors a diversity and inclusion team in QA. In addition, Lilly has employee resource groups to help people with different backgrounds–be they women, Afro-American, Asian or veterans–understand and integrate into the global workforce. Norton is the executive sponsor of one of the largest of those groups, the Chinese Culture Network.
She also often mentors women and men. She has found that as a scientist, her approach to mentoring someone will naturally turn to analyzing the situation they find themselves in.
“I tend to be somebody that does not let perceived barriers get in the way,” Norton said. “When I coach someone, I always start with helping them figure out if they are facing a real barrier to their situation or career, or if they just perceive it to be a barrier.”
Norton is quick to say that just because she has not experienced the same difficulties that some women have in moving up in the industry doesn't mean that she doesn’t understand that such challenges exist for many, or that she hasn’t ever wondered if there might not be more opportunities someplace else.
“In my entire career, I might have thought the grass may be greener somewhere else,” she said, “but then I always thought, I must tackle the challenge in front of me first.”