Talking Head Interview with Sarah Marshall – VP/Head of Legal (International & Japan) for Alexion, AstraZeneca Rare Diseases - Laurence Simons

Talking Head Interview with Sarah Marshall – VP/Head of Legal (International & Japan) for Alexion, AstraZeneca Rare Diseases.

Sarah Marshall Alexion

Developing the next generation of legal leaders

Sarah Marshall Alexion

Sarah Marshall is the Vice President and Head of Legal for International & Japan at Alexion Pharmaceuticals, now Alexion, AstraZeneca Rare Disease, following AstraZeneca’s acquisition of Alexion earlier this year. Sarah originally qualified in New Zealand and has 25 years’ international experience in private practice and in-house positions in the U.K., Switzerland, and her home country. She leads a diverse team across different locations, in a complex, dynamic, and fast-growing business. In this Talking Head interview, Sarah shares with Angela Floydd her leadership journey and passionate approach to developing the next generation of legal leaders into skilled, effective business partners, from theory to practice.


Angela Floydd (AF): Hi Sarah, it’s great to talk to you today – thanks so much for participating in our Talking Heads series. Could you start by giving us a brief introduction of yourself?

Sarah Marshall (SM): Thanks so much for the opportunity Angela!  As you know, I’m a New Zealand and English qualified lawyer. I worked for leading law firms in New Zealand and the UK before moving in-house in the pharmaceutical sector over 13 years ago. Around 10 years ago I relocated from the UK to Switzerland. 

I love working in the life sciences industry. It’s a very special and fun place to be a lawyer due to its complex, highly regulated nature. I especially like the exposure it gives me to multiple experts in various scientific and business fields. I’ve been at Alexion since 2014 and lead a superb team who work across Europe, Canada, Japan, Latin America, and the Australia/New Zealand region.

I’m a strong believer in building the next generation of legal leaders. It’s a critical part of any legal leader’s role to develop not just great technical lawyers but emerging leaders, by encouraging them to uncover and develop their own leadership style and voice. I think this can be especially impactful for in-house lawyers. To be constructive and proactive legal business partners in cross-functional teams, lawyers need an agile skill set, a strategic outlook and an executive presence. But what does that mean, exactly? In practice, it can be difficult for lawyers to develop these skills without some help, especially early on in their careers.


AF: How did your passion for developing the next generation of lawyers originate?

SM: I’ve always been intrigued by leadership development, and I’ve come to understand that leadership really is an ongoing journey rather than a destination. My own journey was enriched by my participation in an excellent leadership programme at Alexion in 2019. This ‘Purpose-Driven Leadership Program’ opened my eyes to the importance of my own story in my leadership development and how I show up as a leader. 

Most in-house lawyers want to contribute to the business beyond typical lawyer tasks. We want to help achieve business objectives and we take pride in our shared goals. You may want to be an independent trusted adviser and proactive business leader who helps to shape strategy. But how do you get there?  

We expect in-house lawyers to be technically excellent, and we also tell them to ‘be strategic’, to ‘be a  business partner’, to ‘step back and look at the big picture’, to ‘develop executive presence’ and so on. But we don’t say how to do that, nor explore why this is easier or more natural for some lawyers than others. So, I was inspired to kick-start leadership capability development in our Alexion global legal team. Working with FiveandCo, we created a programme tailored to our legal leaders, with two different streams: one for ‘Emerging’, and the other for ‘Experienced’, leaders. The programme was also designed to enhance peer-to-peer connections in our teams across different countries, encouraging connection in small groups and creating a safe space for folks to share their own stories and experiences, and help each other. 


AF: What set this programme apart? For example, how did the ‘Experienced’ and ‘Emerging’ streams differ?

SM: The programme was specifically designed for our global legal team and the roles of Alexion lawyers. The two different streams worked well. The Emerging Leaders’ content was focused on the beginning of the leadership journey. These teams talked about the concept of leadership and building self-awareness practically and insightfully. They also talked about effective communication, in general and also with specifics, such as giving legal advice or difficult conversations. The idea was to optimise different spoken and written communication styles and flex between them. These teams also covered stakeholder management: building connections, prioritising stakeholders, developing tools to manage multiple people and task demands.

The Experienced Leaders group learned about the concept of Enterprise leadership and how this is different from legal functional leadership. This group also explored what it means to ‘hold the room’ – capturing attention and influencing behaviour through effective communication and presentation. The Experienced leaders group also spent time diving into their own stories to build clear narratives about their own personal impact on the business beyond their functional legal expertise.  


AF: Why do you think a tailored programme for lawyers is so important?

SM: In my opinion, it’s absolutely crucial! There’s a natural expectation that lawyers should act as business partners when they move into an in-house role. Being able to influence without authority is essential for in-house lawyers, but we don’t always tell lawyers how to do that, or what it even means. In short, it’s the ability to make others act, think, or behave without having any formal power over them. For an in-house lawyer this could mean asking that a business project be modified or even stopped to manage legal risk; or leading a cross-functional project or initiative.

The unique nature of the in-house lawyer’s role requires an excellent technical expert who is independent and objective and protects the interests of the company, but who has also established and maintains close connections with their business partners. This can be a fine balance. These days, many general counsels and CLOs are recognised business leaders as well as legal leaders. But these people already operate at the highest levels of companies. I believe that we should do more to cultivate business leadership capability for lawyers much earlier in their careers.


AF: Self-awareness is key here and being receptive to feedback. We don’t always know our own blind spots! At Laurence Simons, we’ve used Lumina Learning, a psychometric tool that our CEO introduced to our business. It’s been a fantastic tool for us internally and in our search processes, as it helps us understand different personas at play.

SM: I totally agree – uncovering some of my own blind spots has been part of my own leadership journey! With FiveandCo we used the ‘5 Voices’ methodology. This is a simple framework for self-awareness in leadership which has been widely used across teams at Alexion. The 5 voices rank in ascending order from ‘quietest’ to ‘loudest’, and they represent personality types and working styles: empathetic/nurturer, visionary/creative, rational/guardian, persuasive/connector, and ambitious/pioneer. We all possess all 5 voices, but one or two will be more dominant. We had a lot of ‘guardians’ in our team which is common amongst lawyers as this voice is detail-orientated, structured, reliable. But we also had connectors and pioneers, and this made for some great debate. I like the 5 Voices framework because it starts with looking inward: what are my strongest and weakest leadership voices? It also looks outward: how does my voice impact my interactions with others? What is it like to be on the other side of me?


AF: Lumina uses colour to represent these different approaches. “Blue” is conscientious, discipline driven energy and where we often see lawyers have a strong aspect, which corresponds to the guardian voice. The most effective legal leaders know how to utilise their other aspects too and not be dominated by one approach which can lead to overplaying a strength.

SM: Absolutely, a combination of these capabilities is necessary for leaders as well as the ability to draw on the other voices and flex leadership style in different situations. In the same way, a combination of different voices can help to create a high performing team.  

Lawyers operating at executive management level must have excellent hard legal skills but also excel at an interpersonal level to build lasting trust-based relationships. A lot of this is based on instinct, and individuals’ on-the-spot ability to alter their approach for different tasks. So, as we’ve said, self-awareness is vital.  

I also love the idea that self-awareness enables us to uncover our greatest strengths, not just areas for improvement. If someone is really good at something, could they become world class at that? Knowing our strengths reinforces positive outcomes and helps build influencing skills.


AF: I couldn’t agree more, opening up and having transparent internal communications and positive connections is a must. Do you think that a lack of focus on leadership development early in careers can be a blocker for junior lawyers to develop into senior leaders?

SM: I do, yes. We need to break down barriers to entry that can stymie junior lawyers by demystifying the skills that are used at the top of the legal profession. I think all of us, but especially new in-house lawyers, gravitate towards tasks we feel comfortable doing. Many junior lawyers prefer the ‘happy place’ of research and contract drafting and don’t think that building connections and developing influence are just as much a part of the job and critical to success over the long term. I think legal leaders owe it to these lawyers to show them how to do that in practical ways to help them develop executive and strategic skills early on.


AF: It sounds like the essence of this strategy is tone from the top with the most senior legal leaders acting as role models, and ‘walking the talk’.

SM: Absolutely – that is exactly what we are aiming for! We created this programme and made it a priority for our teams. We tried to keep it simple and engaging with a structure that would build a peer network and develop tools to cope with leadership challenges along the way. Leadership is a journey and our teams will continue to develop as lawyers and leaders, starting with this excellent foundation.


AF: What’s next as part of the ongoing development of your team?

SM: We have had some fantastic feedback from the team about the programme so far, and we are eager to build on this foundation. I’m especially keen that we help the teams to keep and grow their internal peer to peer connections with the other members of their generation of leaders.

The next topic I’d like to explore with these groups of legal leaders is self-care. All too often in-house lawyers are helpful, hard-working, and committed to always doing their best. I’d like to equip our legal leaders to manage their workloads, priorities and stakeholders for a happy and sustainable life that allows them to focus on what’s important at work (high risk items, development opportunities) and outside work (their true passions!). I’m excited to get into this topic with the teams!


AF: Thank you so much for your insight and your time discussing this issue today – I look forward to future updates!