Emma Charles, General Manager, Italy

Asking ‘What if?’ can open the door to possibilities

March 16, 2021
By Emma Charles, general manager, Italy

About the author: Emma Charles, general manager, Italy, has broad experience in a number of disciplines in the biopharmaceutical and vaccine industries, and across regions that include the European Union, Southeast Asia and the U.S. Charles started her career with vaccine manufacturer Pasteur Merieux in a regional position in Asia and shortly after that took on global responsibilities. She later moved to the pharmaceutical industry where she has held a range of positions of increasing leadership and responsibility. 

Charles joined Bristol Myers Squibb in 2016 in her current position and serves as a mentor to a number of colleagues. Under her inclusive leadership and, together with the Bristol Myers Squibb leadership team, the affiliate was named one of Italy’s Best Employers for Women for its ongoing work in the area of diversity and inclusion and support for the Bristol Myers Squibb Network of Women (B-NOW).

Early in my career with a large vaccine manufacturer, I accepted a position that took me hundreds of miles away from my home in France to Southeast Asia. I lived in Bangkok, Thailand, for the next five years and worked as the marketing lead for the region. I loved everything about the job and the location – it gave me valuable leadership experience, I traveled throughout the region and I even learned how to speak Thai!

Over the course of my career, I made several moves that, to an outside observer, may have seemed sweeping and even unpredictable. I moved back to France, relocated to the U.S., back to France again and then to Italy, and also crossed over to the pharmaceutical industry. 

I was fortunate that I was able to look at all of these changes in a positive way. Change can often be seen as negative and may be accompanied by self-doubt. It may even raise questions that, for me, could have sounded like, “What if I don’t have the skills?” or “What if I can’t adapt to a new country and learn the language?” 

But just consider the totally different outlook and positive mindset that follows when those questions are turned around: “What if I can learn the skills?” “What if I can speak the language?” “What if I do have the competencies that this position/role/company needs?” 

I have found that asking “What if?” is a powerful tool that leads to positive and innovative thinking and I have used it consistently over the course of my career. It’s now part of my DNA. 

In my role as a leader, I encourage my team to use “What if” as well. The Innovation Room at our Rome office is equipped with the tools that are useful in imagining all the possibilities of a situation. The modular space includes a slate board and a digital board for brainstorming and, based on the memorable and best-selling book that encourages critical thinking, Six Thinking Hats by Edward de Bono, six different colored hats. 

I have found that asking “What if?” is a powerful tool that leads to positive and innovative thinking.

We use this six hats technique frequently for scenario building, to pressure test ideas and when we want to see situations from all angles. Basically, each of six colored hats is associated with a different personality and, based on the color hat you’re wearing, you must evaluate an issue according to what personality you are – negative, emotional, factual and so on. It’s become one of the ways we work through a range of possibilities and view things from different angles. 

I am constantly asking myself “What if?” and going through scenario building, and I believe it has made me a better leader. When someone comes to me for advice or needs to make a decision about a job move, for example, I first try to put myself in their shoes; then we work through the process of finding a solution together by asking questions and exploring as many aspects of the situation as possible. My consistent advice is that whatever the outcome, they have nothing to lose if they consider it an opportunity for feedback that will help them grow. 

When others ask me for career advice, I most often find myself encouraging them to explore the possibilities that come up by asking “What if?” Over the course of the past five years, we have exported many talents to the U.S. and throughout Europe; to me, that’s a clear sign that asking “What if” has opened the doors of possibility.