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Sanofi’s Michelle Carnahan: “You are never as great as they may tell you on your best day, and you are never as bad as they tell you on your worst”

…you are never as great as they may tell you on your best day, and you are never as bad as they tell you on your worst. Basically, don’t believe your own press. Luckily for me, I learned this one early, at least in part. It was always easy for me to not take in […]


…you are never as great as they may tell you on your best day, and you are never as bad as they tell you on your worst. Basically, don’t believe your own press. Luckily for me, I learned this one early, at least in part. It was always easy for me to not take in all the good and always question myself, but, early on, I took criticism right to the heart. Once I got those things in balance, I gained a lot of courage.


As a part of my series about strong female leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Michelle Carnahan, North America Head of the Primary Care Business Unit for Sanofi. At Sanofi since 2018, Michelle is responsible for commercial operations in the United States and Canada, which includes sales, marketing, operations and market access. Throughout her career, Michelle has focused on two areas: being a passionate, patient-centric leader who drives the companies she works for to achieve better outcomes and experiences for patients; and being a recognized champion for women’s issues and education. Before joining Sanofi, she worked at Eli Lilly for 25 years, where, as the chief operating officer for international business, she was responsible for driving commercial operations and strategy and served as an executive sponsor of Lilly’s Women’s Leadership Network. She currently serves as one of Sanofi’s ambassadors for the Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association Gender Parity Collaborative, as well as an advisor to the JBW Women in Management Center at Purdue University. Michelle also sits on the Board of Directors for Onduo, a joint venture with Sanofi and Verily Life Sciences dedicated to helping people living with diabetes, and she also serves as the Chair for Sanofi’s U.S. Country Council. Michelle earned her Bachelor of Arts in Economics from DePauw University, and she currently serves as a member of the DePauw alumni board.


Thank you so much for doing this with us Michelle! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I was attracted to the pharmaceutical industry because I loved the intersection of healthcare and business. I loved the idea of being able to help people live longer, healthier lives. I am not sure at 21 that I knew exactly what that meant, but there was something about being in the medicine business that called to me.

However, 20 years into my career, I really came to know what that meant. I had the chance to lead a team that worked on a drug that significantly cut mortality for people with diabetes. By that point in my life, my father-in-law had passed away from heart disease as a complication of diabetes. He died before he could ever meet my son, his grandson. So as my colleagues and I sat in a room looking at the unblinded study data, I realized this career was exactly what I had been looking for. The work my company was doing would allow grandparents to meet their grandchildren. I have a unique job where I get to make this type of broad impact, and I try not to take it for granted.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Our company puts the highest priority on global health — and our ability to impact it. Some companies just look at the biggest markets, but Sanofi looks at all markets to identify where the greatest need is for both our research and commercialization work. We reach 170 countries with our medicines and vaccines. And the health of the people in each one of these countries is something the people of Sanofi take very seriously.

For example, Sanofi has partnered with international organizations to provide more than 6 billion doses of the polio vaccine to countries around the world, which has resulted in a 99% decrease of polio cases globally — meaning polio is nearly eradicated. It is our passion and desire to serve our global community.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

I find digital health to be energizing. One project I’m working on that particularly excites me is Onduo, a joint venture between Sanofi and Verily, a Google health sciences company.

Onduo created a virtual specialty diabetes clinic that includes online, targeted wellness coaching so patients have support outside of the doctor’s office. I’m on the Onduo board, and it is amazing to see what can be accomplished when we use technology in health care.

If you think about the digital revolution thus far, think about, for example, how it has completely changed our music and TV habits. Imagine what it can do in health care. The reach and impact for patients can go well beyond what is possible today.

What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?

I like Daniel Pink’s book Drive. In that book, he shares that people are most engaged in the workplace when they have autonomy, mastery and purpose. I have tried to put my own spin on these principles when putting them into action. So, I would advise female leaders to:

  1. Give your team the right amount of autonomy by holding them accountable to the big picture and not micromanaging.
  2. Let your team be masters of their work. By that, I mean do not think you must always be the expert on everything; the higher you go many times you will not be. I always like to surround myself with people who are smarter than me and more knowledgeable in their area of expertise than I am.
  3. Always, always know your purpose and give the team a higher purpose. Know what drives them individually and collectively.

What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?

First and foremost: Be yourself and allow the team to bring their full selves to work. The one time I really failed big time in leading a team was when I tried to emulate my boss. We were entirely different people. His style was one that was very different than mine. I felt that to be successful, I had to be like him. I ended up losing confidence in myself and did not follow my gut and my head. The team sensed it and did not feel inclined to follow an inauthentic leader.

The world needs more than one type of leader. The biggest takeaway for me was that being someone else took away from what mattered to me: my team and my customers. It takes way too much energy to be someone who you are not, and you are probably not very good at it.

Which brings me to my second piece of advice: Make your customer your partner and your true north. In my business, the ultimate customer is the patient. When bureaucracy gets to be too much in our business, I often ask, “would a patient with heart disease care?” I found that asking this one simple question got my team and me back on focus.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

There are so many people who have given me boosts along the way, but my most important partner — professionally and personally — is my husband. First, he is super-smart and gives great advice. He knows when to take my side, but he also knows when and how to tell me I am wrong. Finally, he is an incredible dad. I was very lucky that we never had gender roles and we just do what it takes to get things done. We both know that is a real gift.

I am also beyond grateful to my female tribe. Everyone needs a tribe: people who make you better, lift you up and have your back. For me, I found my tribe in a group of female co-workers. It was this group of women who encouraged me to take on new job opportunities and be authentic with myself and my team. Without their constant encouragement, I would not be the leader I am today, and I would certainly not have the confidence I have. But, most importantly, my journey would never have been as fun and rewarding as it is.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I try very hard to encourage women in the workforce. We are a long way from gender parity, particularly in health care, where women make the majority of decisions as family members and caregivers but are not the majority in leadership roles in the industry.

My priority is to help women see the best in themselves and encourage them in their careers. I also try to make myself available for mentoring. But I also want to look beyond just gender equality in the workplace. I try to reach out to women outside of the business world to help all women believe fully in themselves and what they are capable of. Who knows where that little girl with the cure to Alzheimer’s is?

What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience” and why?

First, you are never as great as they may tell you on your best day, and you are never as bad as they tell you on your worst. Basically, don’t believe your own press. Luckily for me, I learned this one early, at least in part. It was always easy for me to not take in all the good and always question myself, but, early on, I took criticism right to the heart. Once I got those things in balance, I gained a lot of courage.

Second, it is not about the falling down, it is about the getting up.

Third, it takes too much energy to be anyone but yourself, and you probably will not be very good at it anyway. I learned this one the hard way. In one of my first senior roles, I had a supervisor who thought I did not exude enough “executive presence.” I was too informal and too transparent. He was right, I am very transparent and probably a little too informal, but ultimately it hasn’t stopped me from growing in my career. In every piece of feedback, there is some truth, but you have to be true to yourself to achieve your goals.

Next, always look for people who are different and smarter than you and let them play their role.

And finally, the joy of the journey is truly in the lives that you touch. I left a company after 25 years, and while there were plenty of business success to be found in managing billion-dollar brands and contributing to share increases, what I really took with me were the personal successes — the lives I touched and those that touched mine. I was never one to think that those personal successes would matter most to me. I like to win, so it was surprising to realize that the victories that mattered most were driving people to achieve their big-picture goals and not my own or just the company goals.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

I would love to see a movement that strengthened diversity and inclusion in the workplace and, in turn, the world. I believe we need to look for differences and create equality and opportunity. That is what makes us stronger. In the workplace, ideas that come from diverse and equitable teams may be the ideas that close a sale that might not happen otherwise.

Across the globe, it means helping to create a world that not just allows but empowers that one little girl in Afghanistan to discover a cure for Alzheimer’s. There are a lot of big issues we are facing as a global community right now, even just in the field of health care. We need to have every single person participating in finding solutions. The bottom line is that we can no longer can afford the luxury of deciding not to engage with whole segments of the world.

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