Roundtable Review

Hightable with Harriet Fear: On women with careers and One Nucleus
Posted 08 October '13
Harriet Fear, CEO of One Nucleus

Harriet Fear, CEO of One Nucleus

Ever found yourself in an environment that filled you with nerves? Harriet Fear, the CEO of One Nucleus overcame her anxiety during these times by recognising and believing she had the ‘right to be there’. Leaving school with just O-level qualifications, Harriet rose through the ranks of government and is now the CEO of the largest membership organisation for the life science and healthcare sector in Europe, One Nucleus. OBR’s Hephzi Tagoe had the privilege of chatting to Harriet about her life’s journey. This is what she had to say.

Firstly, you’ve had a very successful and diverse career. Is there a secret to your success?

That’s very kind of you to say that. I’ve been extremely fortunate in my career and had some amazing opportunities, not least in my current role. I guess having worked in 17 countries and with a wide range of cultures, ages and experts, often in challenging circumstances, I’ve learned to be adaptable, realised that clear communication is so important and to fly by the seat of my pants! My only secret (and it isn’t really a secret as it permeates all the time through the One Nucleus team) is to make sure that whatever I do, I keep the “customer” in mind – whether that’s been a British citizen in distress when I was at one of our Embassies overseas, a keynote speaker who I want to make feel relaxed and welcome at one of our Conferences or our members on a daily basis.

Do you have any mentors or role models you look up to and why?

In my current life there have been and are several people who immediately jump to mind as mentors – although I am not sure they would describe themselves as such. Rather more friends I guess. In particular Soraya Jones, the CEO of Cambridge Wireless. We work together on a range of initiatives but what I value the most with her is our catch-ups every three months or so when we can be entirely frank, relaxed and open about where we are at (on a wide range of subjects – some of them definitely not suitable for printing!) and know that we will give each other some good advice, and have fun in the process.

Regarding role models, there are lots of people to admire in Cambridge/London and further afield in the sector. I particularly admire Andy Richards, the serial entrepreneur, for the gusto with which he seems to live his life, ever passionate and enthusiastic about the sector but importantly a realist too, and for being the only person I’ve ever seen break the rules in the Foreign Office Map Room (a fine, fine room full of beautiful tapestries and priceless maps, the latter all beautifully laid out in drawers saying ‘Under no circumstances should these be opened’). The vision of Andy customarily working his way through all of them while I waited to open the meeting he was there for will stay with me for a very long time!!

It is often said that a glass ceiling effect exists for women when it comes to top leadership positions. Do you agree with this?

I don’t. But perhaps I should qualify that! I think the same opportunities exist for men as women but I think it often takes longer for women. And that is partly because of the fact that women often take time away from the workplace to nurture and grow their families. Men do too of course but if women (very) generally are out of the workplace for longer, it will naturally then take longer to prove their worth in the catch up. This is of course an emotive subject and I don’t claim to be right! I do think that the structure in this country is too inflexible in terms of for example: paternity leave. I know several men who would love to take more time than they are legally entitled to, to be the primary carer at home, which would enable the Mum to return to work but our system is not yet as flexible as that of eg: the Danes. If there were more of a level playing field with the sexes from a policy perspective I think we would see a greater balance of leadership positions between men and women.

Did you face any obstacles in your career as a woman and have you ever felt discriminated against?

I honestly haven’t faced any obstacles because I’m a woman. Or at least not that I’m aware of! I have to say I’ve just got on with the job in hand and never stopped to think perhaps I shouldn’t say or do something because it might not be seemly as a girl! That’s not to say I’m not diplomatic but I think sometimes (and I’ve seen it with friends who are female) it is too easy to think that A or B has happened because you’re not a man! I haven’t felt discriminated against either but both these good twists of fate may be down to me having quite a thick skin! Having worked with the Army, the SAS, the intelligence services and the life science community (J), I’ve had many edges that may have been there that were well and truly knocked out. That said, I do still find it a surprise and something of a shame, when I am (most times) the only woman in a room full of guys. Conversely I do think there have been occasions when I have been positively discriminated ‘towards’! It cuts both ways. There have been times, particularly in the Foreign Office when I have been listened to more because I was the sole female in the room – although hopefully not seen as a novelty!

What would your advice be to young women attempting to rise to the top of the career ladder in generally male-dominated industries?

I would say a) don’t get too hung up on the impression you make because if you stifle your natural self too much, you’ll just end up being exhausted and people will see a ‘plastic’ version of you and b) celebrate your difference. It is obvious that men and women are different and I do believe that (very generally) the optimum that can be achieved from most interactions is where there is a healthy balance of gender and age in a team. Rather than feel perhaps inhibited by talking in a group of fellas, make the most of the fact that you have the floor, but importantly do make sure you know your stuff!

Back to you: How have you found the transition from government to science?

That’s a really interesting question. To be honest, I see it more as a transition from Government to the sharp end of business! Which is exactly what I was looking for when I applied for the role as CEO. Whilst One Nucleus and I operate in a scientific industry, our focus is very much on helping our members maximise their global competitiveness and that means by offering practical, tangible member benefits including helping them make the right connections, find the right funding and garner the right intelligence.

One of the things I love about this role, which is markedly different from my time in Government, is the speed with which things can and do happen in terms of running the company. Whilst we never rush headlong into anything at One Nucleus (everything is beautifully thought through of course!) there is a real buzz to coming up with new ideas, running them by our members and then making them become reality. Whereas within Government, there were so many constraints, people to crosscheck ideas with and “sign-off” with to get from further up the chain. That meant that by the time the idea had been thoroughly chewed through, it was almost too late to implement!

What advice would you give to non-scientists looking to join the science industry?

I think the life science and healthcare sector is one that holds huge further potential – both in terms of benefit to humankind but also economically for the UK and globally. But it is also shrouded in a certain amount of mystery for those who haven’t worked at the bench or been through the PhD/Postdoc route. My advice would be to be very clear about why you want to work in this sector and that will help focus your mind on the difference you can make and the work you will have to do to bring yourself up to the standard the sector expects. Very importantly I would also strongly advise the need to be honest about your skills and experience. I have never pretended to have anything more than O level biology (showing my age now!) and when asked to write scientific articles for major publications, I always politely decline because I have no wish to sign something off as mine that is created by another member of my team and because I am confident in what I know I can do and deliver, and confident in what I can’t! Credibility with our members and with our wider stakeholders is very important to me and honesty is vital.

At the same time it’s vital to know you stuff, do your homework, know why you are involved in something and what your role is and when presenting (which I know lots of folk hate) think of yourself as an imparter of intelligence.

How was your experience of the merger between ERBI and London biotech, which resulted in the birth of ‘One Nucleus’?

It was a fantastic experience. Very hard work and lots of extra hours put in along the way by both parties, but a wholly positive step in the right direction. When I joined ERBI I was very keen to do my bit to de-duplicate efforts among membership organisations – this was something our members told me was vital for me to address. So what better way (and to show I meant business!) than to merge two strong member groups into one.

I was hugely fortunate in that Tony Jones, the then Director of the London Biotechnology Network (LBN) and I had (and have) a very similar view about the benefits of collaborative working and so in partnership we worked on the ‘deal’ for the benefit of all our collective members and merged in April 2010. It was a natural and appropriate progression to have a new company name, a new vision, mission and strategy. And Tony became One Nucleus’s Director of Business Development, and I can think of no-one I would rather work alongside in that role, or who knows the sector better than him.

What advice would you give to young organisations looking to form a merger?

I’d suggest that the key is to be very clear about what you both want from a merger – and ideally to have similar aspirations. Business (and successful business) is so often about the characters involved and how they work together and communicate – or not! If it is to be a genuine merger rather than a ‘take over’, then hearts and minds have to be won – especially if staff are going to ‘TUPE’ across to the new organisation and the last thing you want is disagreement, confusion or concern in the team. So be clear from the outset about why you are merging, who’s going to benefit and what success will look like.

You launched a new service this year “Ask One Nucleus”. What drove the initiative and what has been the response to the service?

We did. One of the joys of the merger was taking a good, hard look at the services both organisations offered and enhancing some and taking some out – really doing what our members wanted which was de-duping and providing the best possible offer, focused and professional.

At One Nucleus one of our key roles is providing our members with critical intelligence. Whether that be by them attending an event and bringing themselves up to date with the latest developments in a therapeutic area, or reading one of our Insights reports or being introduced to a contact who can help them or something else. Ask One Nucleus provides our members with a one stop shop helpline for easily accessible advice from approved experts across a variety of specialist areas.

In a nutshell, it makes the network available 24/7. By submitting a query online, our members can seek the sort of rapid expert guidance you would expect to get when asking an expert in person at a network meeting or conference. It also provides news feeds and updates from our experts to stay abreast with industry developments such as regulatory changes, funding calls and new services.

We’re delighted with it and feedback has been great – information when our members want it, personal to them, at the touch of a button.

Finally, what does the future hold for ‘One Nucleus’?

The future is bright, the future is purple!

Our main drivers are to provide the best service we can to our members, to continue to actively seek out and work with others who have a similar desire to work collaboratively for mutual (member) benefit around the globe and to continue to grow the membership so that the network is the strongest, largest and best in class in the world.

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