Female Leaders in the Spotlight – Susan Jennings, AbbVie

Thursday 1 June 2017

Article by Amy Hefford


Throughout her career, Susan Jennings has always had an instinct for an opportunity and where there were barriers she would always find another way.

In another life, she might have been an Air Force fighter pilot, or a professional cricketer – she certainly had those ambitions.  However, access to opportunity when she was starting out was often limited by the fact she was female. How things have changed in the 30 years Susan has been in the workforce!

As the Director of HR for global biopharmaceutical company AbbVie, Susan says she feels she is now in the right place to develop talented men and women, creating a culture for personal and professional performance, and leading the way for other women to achieve equal opportunity in the workforce.

Her path to the healthcare and pharmaceutical sector is an example to all of us, in how to build a career beyond your initial aspirations and ambitions – by undertaking your own personal talent development.

Susan began in education as a science teacher and, seeking career advancement, went into adult education and on to the CSIRO promoting science and research in schools. As doors opened, she joined UNSW in facilitating science curriculum and testing projects across Asia and she could see her future unfolding in learning and development, sales force excellence and organisational development.

Susan had chosen to play to her strengths – and Human Resources gave her access to opportunity. People, talent development, and leadership would provide her with her most satisfying work. It’s that career experience, she believes, which can be imparted to her AbbVie team, to ensure they make the best of their own opportunities in a changing, diverse, innovative workforce of the future and meet their own career goals.

A priority for Susan is the employment and empowerment of women in the workforce, and doing more to support and promote female talent.  “Let’s get serious about it,” she says.  “We need to support younger women to take the initiative, learn networking skills early in their career and not be afraid to put themselves forward for roles when they become available.  Senior mentors and sponsors within organisations as well as robust talent management and succession plans help.”

As she says:  “We need more of the decision makers to be women, or to be supportive of women being in the top roles. We have reached a tipping point and once we get more women into those senior roles, more will follow.”  It’s all about getting the best talent, she says, into senior roles and linking this to better business outcomes.

Flexible workplace practices, says Susan, do not provide the whole answer and must include men as well as women. Many women are out of the workplace with young families at the time in their life where high potential cohorts are often selected. Therefore a key focus must be on supporting women as they return to work. “Equally important are flexible workplace practices for men and a culture where it is accepted that men also take time off to support their families,” she says.

Susan believes another challenge for workplace planning in the next 5-10 years is our ageing population, where we’ll see a generation struggling to care for elderly parents as well as young children. If that caring role falls primarily to women (rather than being equally shared) it will be a further challenge for working women and will impact access to workplace opportunity.

She is inspired by people who lead by example and show great resilience when things don’t go so well and she is grateful for several mentors who have guided her ongoing development. An international figure she holds in high regard is Mary Robinson, the first female President of Ireland and a former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.

In summary, the Susan Jennings career story has been one of access to opportunity, making brave choices when opportunities present, and along the way ensuring her own leadership brand is all about people and performance. As for the future, Susan looks forward to continuing to have a positive impact on people’s lives at AbbVie, a company that is addressing some of the world’s greatest health needs.

Susan’s key learnings

As you build your career:

- Be courageous – put a plan in place but know you can change your mind and direction
- Be resilient – there will always be knockbacks but these are simply points in time
- Hold onto success and learn from your mistakes – always move on and don’t dwell on them
- Extend your networks – get involved in professional associations, use LinkedIn
- Most importantly – find senior people to mentor and support you.

As a leader:

- Know that most people are good people who want to go to work and do their best, every day
- Clearly communicate organisational goals and support people to contribute to those goals
- Set clear expectations and support people to meet them – it is a key to success and leads to effective teams
- Listen and learn from others, be flexible, admit when you’re wrong, and learn from experience
- Build your empathy and emotional intelligence
- Tap into the power of introverts – for far too long, being extroverted has been seen as a sign of leadership. You can’t listen while you are speaking!

Amy Hefford is Head of External Affairs for AbbVie ANZ, and is a member of AmCham’s Women in Leadership Committee in NSW. 

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