Last January, in beautiful Jersey City, New York, the 1st Annual US Pharma PPM Toolbox kicked off and it was our first big step in the US. One of our exceptional speakers was Leigh Shultz, Executive Director Project Management for Merck. She is an energetic and joyful woman with a strong devotion to science and arts. I called Leigh some time ago and we talked about music, chemistry, and her true passion; people management. When I asked about her day so far, she said: “The weather here in the East Coast is great and beautiful so it’s really disappointing that it’s not Friday and we still have one more day till the weekend”. I couldn’t agree more.

You are a soprano if I am not mistaken. How come you ended up with a Chemistry degree?

Growing up, I always had an interest in maths and science but from a very young age, I wanted to be a musician. I played the piano and the violin for a little while and when I got into high school, I started to be really active academically. School musicals, choirs and all those artistic things. But the time arrived that I had to start thinking about college. So the question was: Would I go for a science degree or should I go to a music school? The answer came from my mother.

“If you go into science, you can always do music as a hobby.
But if you go into music, you are going to have a much harder time doing science”.

I really liked that idea because that way, I could have it all.

So why did you choose to work at Merck?

I started studying engineering but I ended up in Chemistry. In graduate school, I was doing all mechanistic studies. I started to discover how chemical reactions happen at the molecular level. I was looking at all different kinds of chemical reactions and how small organic molecules like ethaline can be polymerized in order to make plastic bags and all sorts of plastic things. I just really liked to know the mechanism of them.

After graduation, I had two options. Be a chemistry teacher or work in a corporate environment. I love teaching and it is one of the reasons why I love speaking. What I didn’t love was the US academic system and the fact that you work for many years and have to put all family plans on hold. So my skills landed me in the corporate environment and after I had an interview in two different industries, oil and gas and pharmaceuticals, I decided that waking up in the morning and knowing that my work would eventually help patients, is my real passion. There are a lot of pharmaceutical companies, just like Merck, that are interested in pure science. I started in the labs, doing formulation work using my chemistry background and it didn’t take long until I was working in a team environment and contributing data to regulatory filings. I ended up in project management because most of all, I always like to tell people what to do. (Laughs) No, I am joking. My love of teaching and learning was the main reason. In project management, we get to see it all. I get to see the breath of development and I learn so many things from people who had completely different majors than I did. I’ve been working in Merck for 12 years and it feels like I found my home. The different parts of the ecosystem of pharma always fascinates me.

Tell me more about your session on our event.

When Kristina (EBCG’s Conference Producer) called me and asked me what I would be interested in speaking about, I discovered that I usually speak about the science of project management (risk management etc.) but I never had the opportunity to put my thoughts together and speak or teach about how we can manage project managers, which is something I currently do. I felt it would be easy for me to have something valuable to share since I have a passion around it and my presentation was on how to select project management talents, how to evaluate them and how to manage people.

 In what way did the event help you and how do you think our potential attendees will benefit from it?

What I really liked about the event was the eclectic group of people that attended. The biggest value for me – and I suspect for other people as well – was the information sharing and networking. Being able to have that focused table networking after the presentations rather than the standard Q&A, was an amazing feature. People felt more comfortable and had the time and space to ask their questions without being afraid that they are going to be judged. The flow of information was something I really liked and the format of the event was really unique and valuable.

I met interesting people from other pharma companies with whom I could share my knowledge and experience and vice versa. There are always small things that you can pick up from others about how they manage and deal with complexities, how their company structures a team or how they manage a global team. They help you re-frame a problem or think about something different or even challenge your company’s “this is how we always done it” culture.

What are your expectations for next year’s event?

I liked the format. It was a brilliant opportunity to get to talk to people on the cocktail reception over a glass of wine in a more informal way. My suggestion would be to even start the Happy Hour earlier! (Laughs) As I just had my presentation that day, it was really valuable to get a lot of feedback and interaction during the cocktail reception. Oh and the venue was fantastic. Even though it was in New Jersey, the view of Manhattan was breathtaking!