Activating the Sustainability Agenda: Q&A with Deborah Dunsire

Leadership StrategiesSustainable LeadershipLeadershipBoard and CEO AdvisorySustainability OfficersBoard EffectivenessTeam Effectiveness
min Interview
May 18, 2022
15 min
Leadership StrategiesSustainable LeadershipLeadershipBoard and CEO AdvisorySustainability OfficersBoard EffectivenessTeam Effectiveness
Healthcare Leading Forward
Sustainable Leadership in Action


Dr. Deborah Dunsire is President and Chief Executive Officer at Lundbeck, a global pharmaceutical company specializing in brain disease, based in Denmark.

Deborah joined Lundbeck in September 2018. Trained as a medical doctor, she has held management positions for a number of biotech and pharmaceutical companies over the past 30 years. She was previously President and CEO of XTuit Pharmaceuticals, Inc., FORUM Pharmaceuticals Inc. and Millennium Pharmaceuticals, Inc.

Recently, Deborah spoke with Diana Horn, Senior Consultant in the Leadership and Succession Practice at Russell Reynolds Associates, and Lars Rønn, Managing Director and Senior Consultant in Healthcare Nordics at Russell Reynolds Associates. She shared how Lundbeck is increasingly bringing its production processes, supply chain, people management processes, and patient assistance programs into alignment with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.


Lars Rønn: Deborah, thank you for being here with us today. Our first topic is social responsibility and sustainability. How would you summarize Lundbeck’s position on these important topics?

Deborah Dunsire: For Lundbeck, social responsibility and sustainability are central to how we think about the company and how we run the company.

Our purpose is very clearly defined: we are tirelessly dedicated to restoring brain health, so every person can be at their best. That is our “north star.” After that, it is a question of how we do our business, and how the strategy incorporates both the sustainability agenda and mindset.

We have grounded ourselves in the United Nation’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals, anchoring our work in the ones we believe we can make the most contributions towards. For instance, our purpose and our mission anchors into goal number three “Good health and well-being.” We serve over seven million people in 100 countries every day with our medicines which treat neurological and psychological related diseases. A key initiative is making sure that our medicines are widely available and accessible. We are exploring how do we make medicines affordable in the countries in which we operate, and how do we provide patient assistance programs and patient support programs? We are also working on solutions for countries where we do not have a direct presence.

Then there is a question of acceptability, which is also part of the UN’s principles on health. Across the world, mental illness has been treated very differently than physical illness. If someone comes forward saying they have diabetes, nobody blames them. If they come forward saying that they are depressed or have an anxiety disorder or schizophrenia, sometimes people are blamed; they are thought to be weak. There is a stigma in coming forward. There is a stigma around seeking help for mental illnesses, and there is also a lack in parity of care. In many cultures and countries, there is much more support for treating physical disorders and less access to care and treatment for mental disorders. Therefore, Lundbeck focuses effort around making sure that we act to reduce stigma. We work with patient organizations as well as policymakers to change the dynamics of how mental illness is recognized and treated.

Another component of the UN principles on health is quality – a high standard on quality – and of course, we drive that throughout our entire supply chain, not only within our own factories, but also with all our suppliers. We make decisions not solely based on profits, but we will, for example, also select suppliers that may cost us more, but fulfill the goals of giving their workers adequate wages and safe working conditions. These efforts fit under goal number three “Good health and well-being,” and they also fit, in terms of quality, with some of the other goals, such as good working practices and safe workplaces.

We also think about access in a different way, in terms of whether people have access to medicines in a non-discriminatory way. Do women get access? Do disabled people get access? We think about that for our own business too, and that ties into our diversity and inclusion agenda. It impacts goal number five “Gender equality”, and it impacts goal number ten “Reduced inequality,” which speaks to the need to assure that there is non-discrimination and no racism. We are focused on this within Lundbeck, to ensure that we drive an inclusive culture. One of my fundamental personal beliefs is that we do some of the most complex work in drug discovery and development. I had a Chief Scientific Officer who used to say that it is the most complex team sport in the world. And, truly, it has been demonstrated again and again that innovation and creative solutions to complex problems are better driven by diverse teams. Diversity is not only the right thing to do from a social aspect or a community aspect, but it is the right thing to do for business, and I believe that very passionately.

There is the people aspect of providing medicines to people and creating workplaces that are right for people, but we also need to think about our planet. Front and center are carbon emissions [i.e. goal number thirteen “Climate action”], which we have been able to reduce by 68 percent in the last decade. We are committed to the Danish climate agenda that the new government brought forward, reducing all the way to 70 percent. We have also reached out to our value chain to determine carbon emissions that can be further reduced. We have already done a lot through changing our energy requirements, reducing the amount of energy we use and accessing renewable energy sources.

The other way that we impact our planet is through production processes [i.e. goal number twelve “Responsible consumption and production”]. Creating medicines is a process that demands a lot of organic chemicals. We deal with over 1,000 tons of ethanol a week in our production facilities. One of our key initiatives has been to modify our production processes, so that we use less organic chemicals, less-toxic organic chemicals and then recycle them. It is amazing to visit the different production plants in Lundbeck and find chemists that are looking at well-established production processes and seeing how they can be changed to reduce the amount of chemicals or reduce the type of toxic chemical that might be used. That involves us going back to regulatory authorities and getting production processes re-approved – it is a risk we need to take, to act on something we believe in, so we do it. We have also created processes that allow us to recycle over 4,400 tons of our most used chemicals, so that they can be cleaned and re-used, and that equates to roughly 145 road tankers full of chemicals that we do not have to buy each year. We are constantly looking at how to continuously evolve the process to become as climate-friendly as possible.

We engage our board and our executive management in our sustainability goals, and we have regular, ongoing discussions around sustainability goals within our business.

Diana Horn: Deborah, you have done some hugely impactful things for mental health globally, around issues that a lot of people are dealing with. When it comes to your background, you have not always been in this particular organization; you have had multiple experiences globally and in different business contexts. When did you feel that you found the interest in the sustainable aspect of business goals – or has that always been an interest?

Deborah Dunsire: I think my interest in sustainability is driven from growing up in South Africa in the Apartheid era, understanding that inequalities existed, and inequality really determined opportunity. If you were one of the unequal, if you were a Black person, you did not have access to opportunity – hence, my passion for addressing inequalities, which the Sustainable Development Goals do, is deeply rooted. I also feel strongly around the need to drive gender parity, because when we elevate women, we elevate children. If you educate women, families get educated. For me, that was so deeply ingrained from not only growing up in Zimbabwe and South Africa but also from working in the healthcare system as a physician and seeing the impact of those inequalities.

Another impact from my African roots – when you live in Africa, you live with drought. Globally, drought is increasing, becoming more frequent, and is much worse than before. The starvation and the disease driven by drought, on top of already existing inequalities, activated my interest in sustainability. Focusing on the sustainability of the planet is something that I am passionate about.

Business, to me, is the driver of development. Businesses create innovation that drives development. Businesses provide jobs. Jobs provide opportunity. I do not think I ever made the leap per se into sustainability; it was such a natural part of business – an organization must understand how it will contribute to the global community because businesses are so vital for advancement.

In our business, we get frustrated at times because people believe that medicines come from purely academic research. Academic research provides enormous insights, but without the business component, new medicines are not developed and distributed. If there is anything we have seen from COVID-19, it is the laser sharp focus on the pharmaceutical industry to provide us with vaccines and therapeutics – and to provide it immediately. This is the business component; businesses can respond. Businesses can innovate; they are critical, they are a huge part of the fabric of the globe. Without businesses contributing to sustainability, there is no chance of us getting there.

Diana Horn: When it comes to Lundbeck right now and where you are at on the journey of integrating this into the whole business, what do you feel has been your biggest personal success?

Deborah Dunsire: A lot of great things are going on within Lundbeck. We are watching our carbon emissions go down in line with all of the initiatives we are taking at our production facilities and sites. Each time I visit our plants in Lumsås and Padova, I come back excited by what I see. We recently included some facts and figures in a corporate presentation and began to talk about it publicly. I received feedback from an employee who said: “My husband was at your presentation and he told me that Lundbeck does all of these things that I did not know about.”

I do not own any of the hard success of making the carbon emissions go down, but I own the fact that we are giving it a platform.

Diana Horn: If I gave you a magic wand and you could affect your whole industry in terms of sustainability goals, what would be your primary wish in terms of what every organization within the life sciences industry would start prioritizing?

Deborah Dunsire: I would wish that the attitudes and the level of focus on sustainability goals, particularly in Scandinavia, would infect the rest of the world. In the US, it is just not spoken about at the same level, and I think the US is behind in terms of understanding. It is short-sighted to think of today’s profits if you are not taking care of tomorrow’s ability to generate business. My magic wand would encourage all leaders to own this as a shared understanding.

Diana Horn: What about up-and-coming leaders – people who aspire to be sustainability champions and who want to make a huge impact in the industry and in the business; what would you say to encourage them?

Deborah Dunsire: Your time has come, this agenda is rising, great – speak and use your voice. Volunteer to participate, seek out companies that talk about and act on sustainability goals. We all talk a lot about how to attract millennial talent, for instance, and now we are moving onto the next generation after millennials. They are choosing companies by asking questions, such as “What is the work/life balance?” and “How does this company contribute to society?” Companies want to attract the best talent, so we need to have an active sustainability agenda, with goals and demonstrated actions, that have weight in society. This is what will attract young, up-and-coming people, who want to impact sustainability. Use your voice – pick your company and tell people why you picked it.

Lars Rønn: If you look at your current executive leadership team and the up-and-coming leaders, what leadership behavior and traits will you look for in order to identify whether these are, in fact, sustainable leaders?

Deborah Dunsire: One of the things you can look at in their track records is the diversity of the teams that have worked for them. Unfortunately, there are still male leaders who have all-male teams; all their senior leaders are male. That is one relatively easy metric to get at as to whether these are sustainable leaders.

If I am interviewing someone, I obviously cannot actually see their business ethics, but it will come out in referencing. We ask questions, such as “When it does not seem like the year’s goals have been achieved, what lengths will this person go to close the gap?” I love to hear a reference say “I know this leader will never compromise their integrity. I know that they would rather fail to meet a goal than compromise their integrity.”

If I were hiring external leaders who have managed programs, products or various processes, there would be a variety of characteristics to discuss – I could look at the activities they implemented or engaged in to have clarity on how they think about the sustainability of the planet. For people coming in from other functions, such as finance, how would I know what their view on sustainability is? One way is to ask about their previous organizations – what have these companies done in sustainability? Or, to ask what their view is around the benefits of investing in sustainability.

I think that agility and the ability to seek new paths are also important indicators of a sustainability mindset.

Lars Rønn: Deborah, thank you so much. This has been truly inspiring and on behalf of Diana Horn and me, we would really like to thank you for participating in this podcast. It has been exciting to hear your personal story as well as Lundbeck’s journey. We hope it will be shared with many others through this podcast. It has been a pleasure to speak with you.