Ilse van Hensbeek, Medical Director AstraZeneca: “Medical leadership”


Ilse van Hensbeek, AstraZeneca’s Medical Director, boasts over 25 years of leadership experience within the industry. She held national and international positions and covered both the medical and commercial aspects of multiple pharmaceutical companies. Today, she shares her experience with her medical team’s development. How does she keep taking her team to the next level? And how did we support her in this?

What does your role involve?

Astra Zeneca is dedicated to creating truly innovative medicines and improving access to them. About 4,5 years ago, I joined AstraZeneca as Medical Director. I’m responsible for all medical affairs at AstraZeneca in The Netherlands, which range from supporting clinical research programs to launching medical innovations to monitoring patient outcomes. I oversee a team of about 50 experts focusing on various therapeutical areas, such as cardiology, oncology, immunology, and respiratory diseases.

What is the biggest challenge in your role?

As a pharmaceutical company, connecting with your stakeholders is key. To listen to the needs of patients, doctors, and policymakers. To share our contribution to solving society’s issues. I believe it’s essential to address difficult questions too. 

What kind of questions?

In the Netherlands, our healthcare system is under strain, with a 100-billion-euro healthcare budget moving towards a growing and ageing population. Did you know only 8% of the Dutch healthcare budget goes to medication? Other European countries spend much more. While cost control is important, it poses challenges, such as stricter (financial) criteria for new oncological treatments, limiting access to cancer patients and impacting the 166-million-euro budget for clinical research yearly.

That’s indeed a challenging question.

This is where medical leadership comes into play for me. From my time working on the commercial side, I learned a lot about communicating with healthcare providers, insurance companies, and patient representatives. I wanted to introduce this way of thinking to the medical side too. Besides, the mindset of us as a team needs to change; from being supportive to far more proactive. Evolving our knowledge and skills towards topics like innovation, access & sustainability. To achieve this, I reached out to Patrick Filius to establish a medical leadership program.

The mindset of us as a team needs to change; from being supportive to far more proactive. Evolving our knowledge and skills towards topics like innovation, access & sustainability.

Ilse van Hensbeek

What did the program entail?

Initially, Patrick and his colleagues, Daniel Brouwer and Malou Bok, worked with our medical leadership team to define our vision and ambition. AstraZeneca has clear goals for 2030, and we needed to align them with our medical team in The Netherlands. What is our dot on the horizon? We all have our ideas, images, and words when we think about the future. By listening closely and asking the right questions, Patrick and his team helped us define a shared vision for 2030. We identified 5 strategic themes: evidence, access, innovation, landscape, and sustainability. Subsequently, we devised a comprehensive program to guide our team on this journey.

How did you involve the rest of your team?

We presented our vision to the total medical team, discussing how the changes would affect them and identifying necessary capabilities. The consulting team created new job profiles, incorporating the 5 strategic themes, and our team members were involved in reviewing them. The team, supported by our Learning & Development Business Partner Jan Buitendijk, also initiated a baseline measurement of their capabilities to understand everyone’s current status and hosted a series of personal leadership workshops to address mindset and behaviour. They organised guest lectures about sustainability, AI, and innovation to motivate and inspire our people too. Also, the team made sure we celebrated our successes.

What were the outcomes of this programme?

We have a distinct understanding of how our local ambitions align with AstraZeneca’s global strategies, which proves helpful. Across the organisation, there’s a sense of ownership. This new way of working and thinking is embedded at all levels. Medical leadership has become an integral part of our daily routine, with a structured rhythm for team activities, manager check-ins every quarter, and progress assessments every six months. In the first year, the medical leadership team together with the consulting team led the way. The next year, Jan Buitendijk, took over the lead, with the backing of the medical leadership team.

How does your team respond to the programme?

It’s become ingrained in our ways here. When newcomers join us, their manager and colleagues bring them up to speed with the programme. I’ve seen a lot of individual growth, even from those who were initially unsure. I firmly believe that if you’re not progressing, you’re regressing. That’s why participation in the programme isn’t a choice. Nowadays, our team has a completely different mindset, especially when interacting with our stakeholders. They no longer avoid tough questions, and they are inspired to think beyond boundaries.

What is the secret behind this success?

It’s a combination of the ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ side of change. Clearly communicate your destination, involve your team, and empower them to take responsibility. Now, our global medical team is considering adopting this approach. That fills me with pride, and I believe every company should implement such a program.

“It has been a joy to work on this programme with Ilse and her team. It proves that having a clear and inspiring vision can motivate your team greatly. And that fostering an environment where people learn new leadership skills, leads to tremendous progress. This is not an overnight process, though. It is a journey that requires clear guidance.”

Patrick Filius, chief impact steward

Curious what we can do for you?

Patrick Filius

Chief Impact Officer

Chief Impact Officer