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Behind the Career: Cynthia Collins

Position: The new president and chief executive of GenVec, a Gaithersburg company that specializes in creating therapeutics and vaccines.

With a love for science, Cynthia Collins discovered early in her career that she had a passion for business and developing products for the marketplace. So she decided to get her MBA while working in a laboratory. Collins then went on to help start the first oncology business at Baxter Healthcare, closed a financing of $35 million for Sequoia Pharmaceuticals and established strategic partnerships at Beckman Coulter.

What did you discover early on were your strengths?

I’m a very strategic thinker. I have a talent for seeing an opportunity and being able to realize that opportunity. I was in a number of strategic roles over my career at Baxter where I was able to determine which programs were going to deliver the best value for the company.

Such as?

I was asked to create an oncology business for the company. We really didn’t have a strong view on how to do that.

There was belief by some in the company that we had a few products that were used to treat oncology patients and that maybe we should just put those products together and create a business around that.

That didn’t resonate with me because when you market products to clinicians, you really need something that is going to grab their attention and going to allow you a 15-minute conversation with them, and that differentiates you from competition. I just couldn’t subscribe to the fact that we could put together a group of existing products and say we have a business.

I was really convinced that we needed to go out and do an acquisition and bring in a set of products that were commercially acceptable and allow us to have a real meaningful conversation with oncologists.

How has your leadership evolved since your first managing position?

I enjoy working in diverse teams with people who have different backgrounds that are willing to challenge the status quo and challenge me. Having said that, I’m not a consensus manager. I can be very decisive. And I can move pretty quickly but I will always ask my team for their input.

What do you look for in a team?

I’ve seen people who surround themselves with people who are just like themselves, and that can really be a pitfall. It’s really important to assess talent. I think that’s another area that I’m good at. A lot of people speak well and manage up well. But it’s really being able to ascertain whether someone has the experience or the capability to do the job.

What’s the key to that?

Assessing talent is one of the hardest things that any one of us do. The way I think about it is, I try to look for subject matter experts and not so much generalists. In most cases, I’m looking for people that have the depth, and not just have made a lot of quick moves through their career.

Reading any business books?

One of the authors I read the most is Ram Charan.

— Interview with Vanessa Small

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