Torres: Career challenges prepared her to take reins at McNeil

Denice Torres
Denice Torres

When Denice Torres took over as president of Johnson & Johnson's McNeil Consumer Healthcare business in 2011, she did so at the height of criticism over the company's handling of a series of recalls for some of its most well-known OTC brands.

But it was other challenges that Torres says shaped her role as a leader. She talked about her decision to leave a position at a well-paying law firm for a job with a 50% pay cut, the painful decision to tell her parents she is gay and what she learned from raising a daughter with cerebral palsy. She also isn't afraid to tell Johnson & Johnson CEO Alex Gorsky when something is nonsense. (Gorsky's retelling of that story used a more colorful descriptor.)

Torres shared her views on her leadership at McNeil as well as with J&J's pharmaceutical and biosurgery businesses and during her tenure at Eli Lilly at last week's Healthcare Businesswomen's Association lunch, where she was honored as the organization's woman of the year at the New York Hilton Midtown.

Her advice to the women in the room? “Be badass. Be bold,” she told them.

Torres also discussed the challenges women face when incorporating the leadership they often easily express at home into a workplace that has traditionally limited both pay and growth for female leaders. Women make up about 75% of the healthcare workforce, but only 4% of women hold leadership roles, according to one study cited during the event. 

“Barriers still exist,” said Wendy White, senior vice president of rare diseases at Dohmen Life Science Services and the 2015 HBA president. White's story about being inspired by her daughter, who was told she would never walk up stairs, brought the room to a stand when her teenage daughter joined White on stage.

Other honorees included Stuart Sowder, Pfizer's vice president of external medical communications, who was named honorable mentor. Nearly 75% of his team at Pfizer is made up of women and 60% of the team's leaders are women.