Spotlight on Leadership: Interview with Jacqueline Johnson North – IAOCR

As CEO and co-founder of IAOCR, Jacqueline’s eclectic career has led her entrepreneurial mindset into making a real difference in the clinical research industry. Passionate about Doing the Right Thing, Jacqueline is excited to be involved in driving a significant and positive change to the improvement of the clinical research industry.

What do you enjoy most about working at IAOCR?

I love going into work and being with the team. Everyone is genuinely passionate about doing the right thing and driving positive change. The team is very like-minded, but we have different competencies and backgrounds so although we share the same values we approach things in different ways and often challenge each other.

When we work with client partners, everyone is focused on the best way of doing things and sharing ideas on how we can make things better, faster, etc. Creative thinking is encouraged as is thinking big and not being limited by the status quo.

IAOCR is in a unique position to be able to facilitate and drive change. We are neither sponsor, CRO, regulator nor Government department. We are nimble and neutral so we are able to bring people together to have the conversations that need to be had and share ideas and new approaches. It’s a really exciting place to work!

What was your career pathway?

I’ve had quite an unconventional career journey. I started out as a trainee accountant and then had an eclectic career working in a number of different commercial roles across different sectors both as an employee and as a consultant. Everything you do and learn becomes part of your toolkit.

I’ve always had an entrepreneurial mindset and enjoyed helping people build enterprises and solve problems, however I think it’s important that businesses are ethical and a force for good. When I first met Martin we had similar values and a shared goal for driving positive change within the clinical research sector, but very different skillsets (Martin having a scientific background). We worked well together and decided to set up IAOCR – it felt like the right thing to do.

What advice would you give to someone starting their career?

The workforce of the future will be very different to the workforce of the past. People will need different competencies and mindsets to be successful. With the advent of new technologies, people who can think creatively and build relationships will be very valuable.

Gaining a broad picture of the industry (and benchmarking from other industries) is really important. Rather than taking a linear career path, look for opportunities across organizations to build skills and wider awareness and competencies.

Build and nurture your network. The people you start work with today will be the leaders of future. Be kind to people and help them to develop, grow and find new opportunities. Do the right thing by others, even if it’s challenging.

Invest in continuing education – you can never learn too much. Increasingly organizations will need to move at a faster pace and to do things better than the competition. To keep ahead and do well it will be essential for people to evolve and grow their skillsets and proactively adapt to change.

No job is beneath anyone – do what it takes to get things done. Believe in yourself and enjoy the journey.

Describe yourself in 5 words

Tenacious, innovative, inclusive, catalyst, loyal.

To what/whom does IAOCR owe its success?

In summary, I’d say doing the right thing, being tenacious and getting on with things.

Doing the right thing is one of our core values and our mantra at IAOCR. When we are faced with a big decision or a challenging situation we always ask ourselves what the right thing to do is. Doing the right thing isn’t always the easy thing. There have been times when we have had to stand our ground and say “no” to clients for example. Ultimately, we see ourselves as trusted partners, not transactional service providers so we have to look after the best interests of our clients and partner organizations within the context of the wider industry. As the accrediting organization for the international clinical research industry it is essential that we maintain our quality standards and do not waiver from them.

We consult widely across the industry and also look outside our sector to see what is happening, but we aren’t weighed down by committees and politics. When something makes sense we get the necessary people around the table and make things happen. We are very pragmatic.

There have been some tough times. However, the IAOCR team has got through this by staying focused on our mission and doing the right things in the right way. This has enabled us to stand the test of time and win trust and respect.

What have been your biggest challenges whilst working at IAOCR?

As you might expect, launching and growing any organization isn’t easy – about 50% of new businesses fail in the first five years and it takes a lot to weather the highs and lows and to keep going. Looking back there are three main challenges that come to mind:

1 – Educating an industry – as someone entering the clinical research industry from the outside, enhancing business processes through competence and professional standards seemed to be common sense.

I completely underestimated what it would take for our industry to understand the essential value of competence, both at an individual and organizational level. A couple of years ago a prominent industry leader attending our Industry Leaders Think Tank told me that he had observed IAOCR making progress and changing the industry quicker than a number of large multi-million dollar funded initiatives. This was very gratifying and I think this is down to our ability to just get on with things.

Several years on most business leaders, regulators and membership bodies now do understand the essential value of competence as an embedded business process. However there are still companies out there that don’t have a focus on ensuring their people and processes are fit-for-purpose. In a highly regulated environment this seems incredible to me.

As our important message has spread we have seen the emergence of a number of organizations, claiming to do the same as IAOCR. In the most part this has helped to reinforce the importance of competence verification and to speed up adoption across the sector, however clinical research organizations do need to be careful that they are implementing approaches that are robust and add value.

2 – Intellectual property theft – we formed a partnership with a well-known membership organization a few years ago. The leadership team of both organizations built a great relationship and we were working together to provide a joined-up industry standard. Unfortunately several months into the partnership a new CEO was put in place and their approach changed. The organization started using proprietary information that we had shared with them under a non-disclosure agreement to compete directly with us. They also used our competency frameworks to develop their own and refused to recognize us for the work we had done. To this day they still claim credit for everything and it’s very frustrating.

The IAOCR team has a strong belief in doing the right thing and behaving ethically so there was a big morale drop in the team and we all felt very let down. However it hasn’t put us off partnering – ultimately we’re focused on transforming the world of clinical research, through the enhancement and advancement of the global workforce. We can’t do that alone, but we’re now a little more cautious.

3 – Myself – as someone that has worked in a number of different industries, I could clearly see a number of anomalies when I came to work in the clinical research sector. Martin (IAOCR co-founder) and I both shared a passion for improving the industry and helping organizations to do things better. However, in the beginning impostor syndrome certainly held us back. It’s taken me several years to stop questioning if I’m the right person to be driving change in the industry – sometimes the little voice inside your head can make you doubt yourself. Until Martin and I launched IAOCR nobody else was talking about competence or professional standards in any meaningful way. I now see how far we have come, what we have achieved and how people and organizations are benefiting. I feel proud of what the IAOCR team has achieved and humbled because we are trusted by some amazing people and organizations. I feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity to take this journey and I’m really pleased I did.

How has the industry changed since you started your career and how can we be future ready?

I often hear that clinical research is a fast moving industry. However from a commercial perspective clinical research is extremely conservative and slow to embrace change in comparison to other industries.

Ultimately I believe people want to do the right things, but they’re often reticent to change and much of this is to do with the way we develop people as they progress through their clinical research careers. People at the coalface of clinical research need to be focused on detail, follow protocols and maintaining the status quo. However once people move into positions of leadership, different skills and mindsets are needed and, as an industry, we haven’t been good at developing competencies in our leaders. This will cause us challenges as new entrants come into the clinical research market space and challenge traditional paradigms.

The world is changing fast and our industry as a whole needs to be more nimble – we have been complacent for too long. We need to look at how we can best utilize people, processes and technology to do things faster, more efficiently and better. To do this we need to develop strong leaders throughout our organizations that have the ability to look outside of our sector, be confident in taking calculated risks and making bold decisions. Companies slow to develop these new leaders will miss out, the world is a very different place now to what it was even ten years ago. As an industry we need to be prepared!

What are the next steps for IAOCR?

Widespread global disruption and long-standing complacency across the sector is ultimately going to lead to new challenges and new market entrants. We’re proactively building meaningful partnerships to jointly shape the future of clinical research. There are exciting times ahead!