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How She Got There: Renee Connolly’s Path to Becoming Head of Global Communications and Corporate Responsibility at MilliporeSigma

Renee Connolly (Photo by Marla Aufmuth/Getty Images for Massachusetts Conference for Women)Surviving the loss of your mom when you’re young doesn’t just make you stronger. It also makes you focus on what’s important early on and gives you clarity on your purpose in life when most of your contemporaries are still searching for a purpose. In other words, it makes you grow up pretty quick.

This was the case for Renee Connolly, whose non-smoker mom died from non-small cell lung cancer just as Connolly was about to start her senior year in college. “I wanted to stay home and help take care of my brother, who was in grade school, but Dad insisted that I finish my degree,” Connolly recalls. “It was important to my mom that I graduate since she never had the opportunity to go to college.”

Sticking it out would become a theme to Connolly’s career, as would wiser-than-her-years decisions. Here’s her path, and the lessons she learned along the way, to becoming the head of global communications and corporate responsibility at MilliporeSigma.

Initial Dream Career

“I wanted to be Barbara Walters—I’m a people person and I loved the idea of connecting with people who were in positions of knowledge and influence with the ability to have constructive discussions with them about important topics of the time. So I went to Ithaca College and majored in broadcast journalism with a minor in politics.”

The Epiphany That Set Her on a New Course

“When you’re suddenly faced with a diagnosis like my mom’s, you have to become a doctor overnight. It occurred to me that with my journalism background and communication skills, I could help articulate complex science in a way that people who are impacted could understand. At the time, biotech pharmaceuticals were attracting investment capital, and I felt deep inside that if I could help people understand the next generation of drugs that I could prevent them from going through what I had gone through with my mom—and that seemed like a worthwhile way to spend my career.”

First Job after College

“Despite leaving the interview 20 minutes early so I could make it to a lacrosse game—I was wearing the uniform under my suit—I landed at Noonan/Russo, which was the largest independent PR agency focused on the space of healthcare and pharmaceuticals, as an account coordinator in New York City.”

Moving Up at a Small Firm

“Over the next six years, I was promoted four times, finally to vice president. I was contacted numerous times by other companies, but I was never tempted to jump. I felt that Tony and Susan, the owners, were great role models and they afforded me a runway to learn new things without being micromanaged. I was getting plenty of opportunities—and I had been building internal and external equity with the clients right where I was.”

Surviving Her First Buyout

“At a point N/R sold the firm to Havas Euro RSCG Life, and I went from being a fish in a small pond to one in a big pond. I was nervous at first. You don’t know if the new owner is going to like you or how much things are going to change. But I’d gained such a strong foundation of knowledge, my outputs were strong and I had a number of good clients who liked my fresh thinking. I’m glad I stayed as I learned a lot from the leader there, Donna, and about working in a bigger organization. I learned the value of listening—at a big firm you can learn by ear from people with more experience and different approaches. Ultimately, I was made the general manager of the biotech and pharmaceutical PR practice and stayed for three more years.”

Then Her Husband Was Offered His Dream Job—in Another State

“This was a hard decision, but my husband had moved three times for my career, and it was my turn to move for his. I told work that we were moving to Boston, and they said I could open a satellite office there. But I felt that it was time to try going in-house and seeing what I could learn from that perspective. So I got a headhunter, and after an extensive process involving about 19 interviews, a human resource head, Andrew, who believed in my potential, afforded me the opportunity to be the VP heading US communications for Serono, the largest European biotech company at the time.”

Surviving Another Company Takeover

“After three years, Serono was bought out and renamed EMD Serono. I stayed in this division another three years. The keys to longevity at a company are being willing to try new things even if they aren’t your core skills and not waiting for opportunities to come your way. You have to seek them out and volunteer. That’s where having a strong network can help.”

Current Position: Head of Global Communications and Corporate Responsibility at MilliporeSigma

“In 2013, I got a call from the head of what was then EMD Millipore. They make things like filters that help make drugs, and honestly, I didn’t know if that was an area I wanted be in at the time. It was a step removed from my initial idea of helping explain life-saving drugs to people. It was a move within the same corporation, but a different business and part of me felt, Why leave what I know and where I’ve built equity? But this was a global role and I didn’t have any global experience. To grow and diversify your skill set, sometimes you have to do what’s uncomfortable so you can be comfortable again in your career path.”

Last Words

“Having survived three buyouts and worked at basically two organizations in almost 20 years, I’m a survivor story. I’ve grown patiently with increased responsibility from within. The biggest lesson from my career is that you don’t have to leave a company to open doors, move up or reinvent yourself. Often you can stay where you are, but you need to raise your hand, do good work, be humble and be open to lateral moves.”

▶ Read more from the August 2016 newsletter.

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