Despite studying medicinal chemistry before getting a PhD in molecular pharmaceutics and joining clinical research giant ICON, Ruth Lalor opted for working with people rather than in the lab. She has spent 11 years with ICON in a range of roles and in August was appointed to the new position of senior director of data and analytics business partner.
About Ruth Lalor
Can you tell us a bit about your education and early career?
I studied medicinal chemistry in Trinity, which was designed for people who wanted to work in drug development and the pharmaceutical industry. I then went on to do a PhD in molecular pharmaceutics at the University of East Anglia, which was again very focused on drug development. Although I really liked the area and the industry as a whole, working at the bench in a lab wasn’t for me – I wanted to work more with people.
Following my PhD, I moved back to Ireland and began working for ICON and I’m still with the company 11 years later. I started in the lab but not in a lab-based role. My first job was as a project manager, which essentially involved managing the biological testing component of clinical trials for the development of new drugs. It was a really enjoyable role and I think for anyone starting out in his or her career, time spent in project management is very well spent; you learn a lot of transferable skills no matter what area you end up in.
From there I moved into a people management role that involved managing project managers, as well as focusing on client relationship management.
I also did a couple of secondments, which was a great way of gaining experience in different roles and locations, including a couple of months in one of our New York facilities. About five years ago, I moved into process improvement and became a certified Lean Six Sigma black belt, and two and a half years ago moved out of the lab and into our global process improvement function.
In August of this year, I moved roles again and am now senior director of data and analytics.
When most people speak about their early career, they focus on their professional jobs. I had a number of part-time jobs during my college years that I think really helped shape my overall career and skill set, primarily in the hospitality industry. They taught me a lot about dealing with and leading people from all walks of life, perseverance and relationship building. The importance of these types of jobs is often underestimated but it really shouldn’t be.
Tell us a bit about your current role
It’s a new role within the company so it’s still evolving, but the primary purpose is to better enable the organisation to use data both strategically and operationally. The role is something of a bridge between the data scientists, the programmers, the traditionally IT heavy people and the operations side of the business. I understand what data needs to be surfaced to drive the business forward, and how to present it in a manner that makes it consumable by the business, so they can focus on what’s key in terms of operations and strategy. I work across a number of business units, which promotes shared learnings and alignment across services.
I think every business nowadays recognises the importance of data and using it as effectively and efficiently as possible. ICON as an organisation is, and has been, very focused on this and my role was created with that in mind.
A big part of the role is developing relationships with senior leaders in the organisation, and with their teams, so that they trust me and trust that I’m going to present the right data, in the right way, to achieve the goals of the business. It is somewhat of an independent role in that I partner with the business units as opposed to work directly in them so trust is really important in that.
Why did you do an MBA and how has it helped you in your current role?
ICON has a history of partnering with Smurfit for leadership development, and I completed a two-week ICON-specific programme there about three years ago. The ICON leadership program is like a taster MBA where you learn about leadership, finance and strategy and I absolutely loved it and that really spurred me on to do an MBA. I also had a former manager who completed the executive MBA in Smurfit and I saw the changes in her leadership style and the benefit as she went through it; she was a great role model to have.
The MBA has given me a much broader understanding of business. Having only worked in one organisation, you’re exposed to a certain culture and style of working and organisational norm. Sometimes you can almost forget that every organisation is so different. Doing an MBA, you meet people who work across many different industries and types of organisations – public, private and charitable – and you get a better understanding of how everyone else works. You can learn from that and take things in that you want to bring back to your own organisation– and some you want to avoid.
It has also given me an understanding of the financial side of things. Working in a large organisation, you don’t typically get great exposure to the day-to-day financial running of the business. One of the aspects of the MBA I enjoyed most was definitely the finance aspect – I found it fascinating. If I were to go back in time and start college again as a new student, I would probably do something in that area.
Tell us about your leadership style
My leadership style has evolved over the years. Now, I lead primarily by influencing, both because I work across the organisation and because I don’t directly manage a team in my current role. I rely on people on other teams to help with what I need to get done, so relationship building and influencing skills are really critical.
I’ve managed people in previous roles and what I find works is to give people goals, but leave the detail on how to achieve those goals up to them. My role is to support and guide them, to help overcome obstacles and remove roadblocks, but not to dictate every single step. At the end of the year they’re then in a position to look back and clearly see what they have achieved, so they can say, ‘I delivered this and this and this’, and have a true sense of ownership. I think this is really important for motivating staff and developing them for future positions.
What motivates you?
Learning definitely motivates me. It doesn’t have to be something that has a qualification at the end of it but if I’m not in a role where I’m learning I just stagnate and get bored. I’ve tended to change roles every two to two and a half years and that keeps me fresh and keeps things challenging. You’re always working with new people, different ways of working and learning new skills. I’m also motivated by making a difference, and seeing the needle move in the right direction in whatever area I’m involved in – I’m very results focused.
Who or what has influenced or inspired you?
There’s no one person who I would say is a real inspiration or sole influencer to date. I do however think I’m like my dad in that he’s very motivated by a challenge and is always open to trying new things. For example, he began his research master’s the same year that I started my PhD, which is somewhat unusual for an Irish farmer, and he started learning the piano when he was 60. He definitely has been inspirational in terms of always wanting to challenge himself and be doing something slightly outside his comfort zone.
The other person who stands out is a former manager who was the first manager I had who was truly a leader rather than a manager. I saw the breadth of influence a leader can have and the impact they can have on an organisation. To me she was a real role model in how I try to be as a leader in terms of thinking of the bigger picture and always what’s best for the business, not necessarily your own team. She was really skilled at bringing people along with her, and very effective at changing mindsets.
What has been your biggest achievement so far?
That’s a tough question, I don’t know that there is any one thing in particular that stands out, but maybe the most meaningful was when I was at home in Westmeath for the weekend with my parents a couple of years ago and we were watching the Late Late Show. There was a panel of cystic fibrosis sufferers and their families on the show. They were talking about a drug that had just been approved in Ireland and the positive impact it was going to have on their lives. It was a drug that I’d worked on as a project manager in the lab and it was great to see how my day-to-day work positively impacted the lives of those people.
From an MBA perspective, being part of the team that won the John Molson International Case Study competition in Montreal earlier this year stands out. We competed against teams from 35 other top business schools from 19 countries over five days, and it was the first time a team from Ireland had ever won the competition.
Any failures you want to share?
There are many situations that didn’t work out as I expected them to, and that I have learned from. I wouldn’t necessarily call them failures because I do think if you learn from them you can actually benefit more in the long term than from some of your successes.
What are your tips and advice for success?
I would say in this day and age you need to be data driven. Always support your message with data where possible.
Say yes to opportunities even if they are unknowns. That being said, there are times when you need to say no and being able to do so is really important. You have to know your own limitations and the limitations of the situation. However you need to know why you’re saying no; don’t say no because you’re scared, say no because it’s not the right thing to do.
Don’t get complacent. If you’re not being challenged in your job, if it’s become too easy, it’s time to move on and challenge yourself.
Be transparent with the people you’re working with and the people you meet.
What are your plans for the future?
Professionally, the world we live and work in is changing so fast I don’t think you can really have long-term plans. I’ve just started a new role so I want to make it a success over the next few years. And beyond that I think it’s a case of see what happens and how the business and the industry evolve and how I evolve as well.
What do you enjoy doing outside work?
Until very recently it was primarily spent on my MBA so I didn’t have much spare time. Since I’ve finished that I’m getting back into the gym and exercise – I’ve just taken up running – and catching up properly with friends and family. I love to cook, particularly to bake, and my husband is looking forward to me getting back to that!
What is your fondest memory from your time in UCD Smurfit School?
Having the chats with the class about anything and everything.
How important is your UCD alumni network to you?
The network was valuable during my MBA. I hope it remains important as an alumna but it’s too early to tell.
Tell us something most people don’t know about you.
I’m such a bad singer my piano teacher used to make me whistle during my exams, instead of singing.
What piece of technology can you not live without?
Probably my phone.
What is your pet hate?
Who’s your favourite writer and/or what’s your favourite book?
This is ever changing, as I love to read. I am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes is one of the best books I’ve ever read. My favourites from the last few months are Skin Deep by Liz Nugent, The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris, and Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman.
What’s the last play you went to that you loved?
An interactive version of The Great Gatsby in the Gate, which was like attending a party in Gatsby’s house. It was so much fun we’re going again this year.
What is your favourite dish to cook?
Probably an old-fashioned roast with all the trimmings but I prefer baking, in particular decorative cakes (I made my sister’s wedding cake).
What is your favourite place in the world to visit and why?
I love New York – there’s always such a great buzz there, and always something different to do everyone time I visit.
What charities or causes are closest to your heart?
Temple Street, Laura Lynn and Irish Motor Neuron Disease Association.