Yoko Saiki studied agricultural chemistry at university before joining Tomen Corporation (now Toyota Tsusho Corporation) in 1996. She was assigned to the Bio-Industry Department, the company's agrochemical sales division for the Japanese domestic market. In 2001, the life science businesses of Tomen Corporation and Nichimen Corporation (now Sojitz Corporation) merged to form Arysta LifeScience Limited, and Yoko held successive posts in marketing, business development and corporate planning. After joining Astellas Pharma in 2009, she had a role in strategic planning as well as the formulation of the company’s code of conduct, the “Astellas Way,” as part of the Corporate Planning Division, and was appointed as the Executive Director of Corporate Development at Astellas Pharma US in 2015. She has been working in her current position since April 2017.
Please tell us about how you started your current career in the life science industry.
YOKO SAIKI: I originally studied agricultural chemistry while I was at university; after graduation, I joined a trading company dealing with chemical and biological pesticides and was assigned to a role in the sales field. After subsequently working in business development for a new company following a merger, I gained experience in areas such as launching new businesses and overseas expansion, so I became interested in positions allowing me to think about long-term corporate growth.
At the time, I heard that Astellas Pharma was searching for people who could act as change agents as a means of investing in new growth, so I decided to challenge myself in the pharmaceutical industry. After making the move, I was initially surprised at each employees’ awareness that pharmaceutical companies are institutions for the public, and that there was a strong ambition throughout the company to contribute to the health of everyone in the world. This was incredible motivation for me and I felt the sense of reward that it offered.
It is said that there are still fewer women active in the life science world than men. Have you ever felt that being a woman has been a disadvantage in your career?
YS: Life science is very rewarding work; you feel that you are contributing to people and society. In Japan, there are actually many women in research; however, MR (Medical Representatives) in the sales field tend to face a lot of relocation through the nature of the job, so there may be disadvantages for women when work overlaps with life events.
However, the environment is changing. Personally, I think that I was lucky that people around me were very understanding. The fact that women stand out in male-dominated environments and the swelling social movement to proactively appoint women have helped me push my career to where I am now. But we must not forget that we largely owe it to women from past generations who fought to create this environment. I feel I have the responsibility to pass it on to the next generation.
How have you overcome the barriers that you have faced in your career? Were there any people who guided and assisted you at those times?
YS: In 2015, I took up the challenge of going to the United States and taking the position of executive director of corporate development. An executive who was a mentor to me at the time said to me:
“You should clearly express your intentions in regard to what you want and the work that you want to do. That's what I did to get to where I am.”
It takes a lot of courage to say what you want, but when I actually did it, it was received a lot more openly than I expected and I was given the opportunity of a new challenge in the position I wanted. Of course, to do this, you need to have accumulated the achievements that back up your aspiration. Nevertheless, this experience taught me how important it is to express your own intentions to those around you rather than keeping them to yourself.
How do you feel about the importance of networking in business success? How did you actually develop your own network?
YS: Personal connections are essential and you should always have your antenna up. It is a basic concept, but within a company, when things are unclear, you have to go to someone with experience and ask for their opinion. In addition, when you are asked to do something, it is important to never take a negative attitude.
I do not always expect my relationships with people to be give and take; I don’t mind just giving. In my experience, nothing is pointless; I believe that having connections with people provides new opportunities for growth.
In addition, it is also important to build a relationship of trust so that when you have differing opinions, you can clearly express your own views to the other party at any time.
In my free time, I actively participate in hobbies that are not related to work. Meeting people who you do not usually interact in everyday life can be a lot of fun and expands your outlook.
How do you balance work with your private life, free time and family? Have you ever felt that you had to sacrifice one of those to build your career?
YS: I have never had a mindset where I am making a sacrifice or choosing one or the other. I happen to not have children, but I am sure that even if I did, I would work with the same passion that I do now. Of course, the steps to get here would have been different.
There is no such thing as a definitive way to do things in a marital relationship; it is different for each person, so I think balance is important. My husband and I respect each other's pace of life. As we love traveling, we enjoy going on holidays abroad and we go roughly once every couple of months.
Being able to take a vacation so easily is another great aspect of my current workplace. In the last few years, work-style reform has advanced thanks to a commitment from senior management. There has also been a high level of awareness of the need to reduce overtime. Our company has instituted what is known as “Family Friday,” where almost all staff leave the office by four o'clock.
What do you think your personal strengths are? How have you developed those strengths?
YS: I think of myself as a “super generalist”; my strengths are having a sense of balance and the ability to look at the big picture. To maintain those abilities, I always try to engage with people who I usually don’t have the pleasure of interacting with and learn about unexplored areas of interest in order to keep improving myself.
As a leader, what kind of strengths or qualities do you expect the members of your team to have? How do you encourage and advise them?
YS: I lead the division responsible for planning the overall business strategy, so the first thing I look for in team members are wide-ranging perspectives and the ability to make proposals. It is difficult to constantly grasp things from a perspective higher than your own and then put it in words, but you can learn to do so through conscious effort. This ability is useful in any position in any field.
In the current era, change is fierce and every organization needs to transform itself, so I want my members to be able to think on their own feet as much as possible and make independent proposals. Even if someone fails, it is always a learning experience, so I tell my members to take up challenges without the fear of failure because I will always support them.
What is your message to the following generation who will be responsible for society in the future?
YS: Regardless of gender, I do not think that there is a need for everyone to aim for an illustrious career; however, I want to be a person who encourages those who feel lost and want to try something but do not know what to do.
It is important for young people to discover what they want to do as soon as possible. When you are young, thinking about what you want to do is stressful, but you really have to take a good look at what you are currently doing and ask yourself if it is truly something that you like doing. It is okay for your aspirations to change at some point, but if you think that what you are doing now is wrong for you, then you should quickly find another path. Once your aspirations become clear, you need to keep learning in order to achieve them. There is never a shortcut; you just have to make steady progress.
There will most likely be plenty of occasions where you get stressed about difficult bosses and personal relationships. When this happens, that relationship will feel like it is the only thing that is important, but that is never the case. The situation will not last a lifetime and there are more people around you than you think. It is important to focus on broadening your horizons and not fixating on troublesome relationships.
As long as you are working, you will spend a great deal of time at work. That is why it is important to enjoy your job and bear in mind that there are a million ways to make it exciting for yourself.
This blog is part of a series that focuses on individual journeys of the women in life sciences who are driving change to how we develop and deliver better patient outcomes.