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Sue Mahony—Eli Lilly and Company: Success Is Where Passion Meets Performance

Sue-MahonySue Mahony, one of the highest-ranking leaders at global pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly and Company, always knew she wanted to work in the healthcare business. Her mom’s nursing career and her teenage job at a convenience store inspired her start in pharmacy, a foundation that positioned her for tremendous success in the pharmaceutical industry.

Sue joked that her mother was so passionate about her patients that “she would’ve paid to go to work,” forever solidifying Sue’s interest in healthcare. Sue also deeply admired the way a local couple managed the stores where she worked at age 14, and this attracted her to the concept of running a business.

“What I’ve appreciated over the years is that everybody wants to do something greater than themselves,” Sue said. “In my job, we make medicines that help patients with cancer live longer. I couldn’t get up in the morning and not be excited about that. If you do something you feel passionate about, you perform better at it.”

Opportunities Can Surprise and Stretch You

Sue’s performance has truly taken her to the top. As the President of Lilly Oncology, she leads this business unit from the early development of molecules through approval and commercialization. Additionally, as an Eli Lilly and Company Senior Vice President (SVP) and one of the 14 members of the organization’s Executive Committee, she reports directly to Lilly CEO John Lechleiter and is among the few ultimately accountable for the success of the entire enterprise.

Sue was tapped to join this elite group in 2009 as SVP of Human Resources (HR) and Diversity, and has continued to serve in this capacity since being named Lilly Oncology President in 2011. She attributes this opportunity to a mix of performance, her breadth of experience, and the fact that she’s not afraid to speak up—a quality she says is appreciated at Lilly.

She was also quick to recognize the role that mentors and sponsors have played in her success throughout her career. “I count myself lucky that people saw I could do things I didn’t know I could do,” she said. It was often her bosses that offered her the opportunities that surprised her, with a relatively recent example being the chance to lead HR. She didn’t have experience in this arena, but the current CEO approached her directly about what he felt was a great fit for her—and it positioned her for a two-level promotion.

Not only was accepting the job a stretch for Sue, she made the move as Lilly was reorganizing its teams into business units and resizing the organization in the process. Even though it was a challenging period, diversity was always at the forefront. She witnessed how important it was for diversity to be “owned by the business” and “driven from the CEO down.”

Lead Through Others

This wasn’t the only time Sue stepped out of her comfort zone, as demonstrated by her academic and professional path.

Sue was born and educated in the United Kingdom, where she earned both her bachelor’s and Ph.D. in pharmacy from Aston University in Great Britain. She later received an executive MBA from the London School of Business, which she said was a great opportunity to get the formal business and financial training she needed to complement her learning on the job.

Professionally, Sue joined Indianapolis-based Lilly in 2000 after more than a decade in sales and marketing roles in the United Kingdom and Europe in oncology/hematology and cardiovascular medicine for Schering-Plough, Amgen, and Bristol-Myers Squibb. While at Lilly, she has held roles in global marketing, product development, Six Sigma, and general management, including global brand development leader for Cymbalta® and Prozac®. She also led Lilly’s operations in Canada.

“I think there’s a lot to be gained from functional and geographic diversity,” she said. “And, when you aren’t a functional expert in the business you’re running, it forces you to lead through others.”

“This diversity also broadens your view of the business,” Sue added. “You’re constantly learning as you go into different roles or functions, and that’s part of the excitement.”

No Such Thing As Can’t

When asked about her biggest business lesson, Sue recalled getting feedback she’ll never forget as a sales director presenting to her sales team for the first time. Those she had observed in this role in the past were all men, and she tried to present in a similar way.

“My boss told me to never try to be something you’re not,” she said. “People are way too smart. Be yourself, be genuine, and people will appreciate that.”

The other lesson that’s stuck with her came from her “Gran.” “When I thought I wasn’t able to do something, she’d say, ‘There’s no such thing as can’t,’” Sue said. “Whenever I hear doubts, I say, ‘Believe in yourself, set the bar high, and you’ll be amazed at what you can achieve. And remember there is no such thing as can’t.’”

Personal Passions

In addition to her full career, Sue is a proud wife and mother to their 17-year-old son and 14-year-old daughter. She loves going on walks or hikes with them, and vacationing in Florida together.

She also strives to make a difference in her community through a focus on education, and has been a United Way of Central Indiana board member for five years. “I’ve been extremely fortunate in my career and life because of people who gave me chances. I want to give others a chance,” she said.

In her view, work life balance is “purely personal”—only you can determine what “balance” means in your life and prioritize accordingly. She stressed it’s also important to have the right support network, which can include work-life resources from your employer, your team at work, and those in your personal life. As examples, Sue recognized her husband, who has a demanding career in marketing; her nanny, who she described as indispensable; and her administrative assistant, who is her partner in prioritizing it all.

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