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Working Life: Kris Sterkens, Company Group Chairman, Janssen EMEA

Published on 12/04/18 at 10:11am sat down with Kris Sterkens, Company Group Chairman of Janssen's EMEA operations to discuss nearly three decades at the company, and what continues to drive his work.

How did your father’s profession as a physician and your early life influence the career path you eventually chose?

Back in the late 60s and early 70s, general practitioners and physicians were very well respected, and I could see the admiration that people had for my father – that intrigued me. As I was growing up, I saw nicely dressed medical reps in the waiting room and I would ask my dad, “why are all these people here to see you?” Just the fact that my dad was somebody who helped people to get better, gave me a sense of pride that always stuck with me. I didn’t end up becoming a doctor myself because I was never that good at chemistry or physics, and on top of that I had a fear of needles, so I took a different direction.

How did you find your way to Janssen?

I first started studying economics and worked at PwC, where I was assigned to one of the biggest clients we had: Janssen Pharmaceutica. Doing the audit for Janssen allowed me to see the other side of healthcare and pharmaceuticals, and shortly after I heard they had an opening for a Financial Analyst. I applied for the role and ended up getting it! I was very happy to have the chance to work in healthcare in a profession that wasn’t a doctor. I thought the avenue was closed, but in the end it all came together.

You’ve now been with Janssen for nearly 30 years – what’s the secret to maintaining success at one company, and what benefits do you think that kind of loyalty brings?

I never really questioned it because it always felt natural to me. Janssen and Johnson & Johnson has been very good to me – it’s a very people-focused company. I’ve always wanted to be respected for who I am, as a person, and not just for what I’ve accomplished. My career, for the most part with one or two exceptions, kind of happened to me because of my actions; people have given me further opportunities based on their observations of my work. That belief in me, and the fact that my colleagues gave me an environment where I felt I could thrive, really made me stay with the company. It’s a marriage that works in both directions; I’d like to think that I have been good to the company too. 

There was one point in my career that I had a boss that I really did not get along with, and I did one or two external interviews, only to find out that their cultures wouldn’t work for me. They didn’t have the same kind of true passion, it was much more about the business aspect and how you would deliver the numbers. So I decided to stay, and I’m very happy that I did!

How has the company developed in that time?

The company certainly has changed, but if you stay as long as I have, you might not see it because you’re so much a part of the change. If you talk to millennials you do clearly see that the company has evolved. We used to be very decentralised, where much of the decision making was left to the local companies in each country. While I think this was unique and very attractive in terms of having that kind of decision power, thus giving you a lot of chances to be entrepreneurial, we came to the conclusion that it wasn’t a model that would work any longer in today’s fast-paced environment because you could go in so many different directions and not benefit from any synergies. We moved away from this and I think we struck a good balance. There’s always trade-offs but I see it as a necessary evolution.

When I was coming from Antwerp, and when I started here in Beerse in 1989, 95% of the people working here lived less than three miles from the campus. If you walk around the campus now, you will see all kinds of nationalities and the main language is English – it used to be Flemish back then. I think this kind of diversity is a fantastic positive evolution which you will also see in our sites across the world.

You’ve progressed through a lot of roles on the career ladder – how did you manage to consistently climb to positions of greater seniority?

I’m a product of the 80s, and if I look at my children, they have a very different expectation of what a career should look like. Now, it’s much more about balancing work and family life, for all good reasons. Back then it was all about your career, and I certainly made some sacrifices, but I always tried to do my very best and I did get noticed. I think people saw my passion and energy to try to make a difference in what I do. I never saw my role being confined to finance; I always tried to look at the broader picture, and I think that eventually got people’s attention.

Then I wanted a career change, because I could keep progressing in finance but while it would be bigger it would also be more of the same. I wanted a new challenge and I thought I could try to make a difference in other roles. I believed I had it in me to lead an organisation and create followership behind my vision. I had many conversations with my bosses, and one said “I’m willing to take a risk on you if you’re willing to take a risk on yourself”. This lead to me agreeing to a new leadership role to lead a small country – the Netherlands at that time – as a Managing Director, even though I had to take a step down in paygrade and where I was in my career. This was a major career switch and I was definitely outside my comfort zone – I had to quickly learn so many new skills that I’d never done before, but from there my General Management career took off.   

You’ve now been in your current role since June last year – how are you finding it? What challenges does it present to you?

I’m certainly enjoying it, it’s a fantastic role, in a region I know very well. Coming from my previous role in Asia-Pacific, it felt like coming home. This role, geographically, is bigger and it’s also a region where the advancements in innovation and the healthcare environments are ahead of many other parts of the world. I think the first big challenge was that I had big shoes to fill; the Company Group Chairman that I was following was one of my own role models, Jane Griffiths. She has been an incredibly inspirational leader for this region and she did so many fantastic things over her six years in the role. So I needed to ask, how can I be my own leader but live up to the legacy of a leader like Jane? I approached this the same way I always do: I have to be myself and not try to be someone else. Nine months in and I think I got off to a good start – Jane left the region in really good shape, so we’ve enjoyed a very strong cycle of success.

I always say that business success contains the seeds of its own destruction – it’s easy to become complacent and think nothing negative can happen because everything is going so well. So one of the key challenges that I want the organisation in EMEA to realise is that what makes us successful today might not be sufficient to guarantee us success tomorrow.

What do you find continues to drive you in your work?

I’m not going to kid around – business results are important. We are a Dow Jones company. But in the end, business results come to be forgotten, so to me it’s about the legacy you leave and who you do it for: the patients. My dad has Alzheimer’s, and he was lucky to find a medication that worked for him at first, but after three years things went downhill quite quickly. Every disease is cruel in its own way, and it’s extremely painful to see the man you admired become a shadow of his former self, but it makes it very real. Working in this industry allows you to see the impact that modern medicine does have, but at the same time it’s clear how much more there still is to do. That is what keeps me going – the fact that you can really make a difference if you put your mind to it. 

Is there any figure, inside or outside the industry, that has inspired you throughout your career?

I’m a huge Beatles fan and John Lennon used to be my idol – of course because of his musical genius, but also, in all of his naivety, he truly tried to make the world a better place. One thing I have taken from him is that you always need to have 7% rebellion; I would hate the day that I became completely ‘corporatised’. It’s a reminder to challenge the status quo, to keep you grounded in reality. He has helped me become who I am today. 

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