As a first-generation American, I often took trips back to the Philippines to visit my grandparents. While visiting, I always asked my parents questions because I was curious about how their experience of growing up there during and after World War II was different from my own childhood. As I listened to everyone connecting in both English and Tagalog, I realized there is more than one way to say or do something. I also realized that our family life was different from the lives of everyone around us.
Nowhere was that more apparent than with my mother, who earned her medical degree in the Philippines and practiced there for several years. But she wanted more. In 1968, she boarded a plane from Manila to Los Angeles, carrying one suitcase and a heart full of dreams. While repeating her medical training in the U.S., she met and married my father, also an immigrant from the Philippines. They settled in Rhode Island, where she built a practice as an internal medicine physician.
It was a huge risk, and nothing was easy about her journey. But she built her practice into a great success as one of the few female physicians in Rhode Island at the time. Her situation was so unusual that the local newspaper wrote an article about her and how she juggled all her responsibilities.
My mother taught me so much. I recall the night before I left for my freshman year at Tufts University, we sat together on the front stairs. She impressed on me the need to put in the hard work to take full advantage of this exciting chapter of my life.
Unlike material possessions, she said, “Your education and these experiences are something that no one can ever take away from you. Make the most of your education, always look for ways to learn and always stay curious.”
I have carried this advice throughout life, and it has been fundamental to my approach to leadership and my success.
Curiosity in the face of daunting challenges
I joined Bristol Myers Squibb after graduating college, and my first role was as a sales representative. I had no sales experience and was only 22 years old.
But I reminded myself that if my mother could fulfill her goals, then anything was possible for me. After a few different roles in sales, I found myself leading a hospital sales team in New York City — and at 32, I was the youngest person on my team. This was my dream job, and I was so nervous at my first team meeting. Would they follow a leader who had less experience than they did? Would they take me seriously?
This was a pivotal moment in my leadership journey, and where my curiosity helped me to gain the trust of my team. I approached the challenge by sharing what we could learn from one another. We had different experiences and styles, and I focused on what each of us could bring to the team. Together, we began to see amazing success.
When faced with a crisis, you learn what leadership really means. September 11, 2001, was that crisis for me personally, and for the entire country. Our team was suddenly at the center of a life-and-death situation. Was my team safe? Were their families safe? What did they need? And how could we ensure that patients would receive the medicines they depended on?
There was no playbook or best practices, so I leaned on the skills I had developed as a curious leader — to listen and to be open to new approaches as we made it through the days and weeks that followed.
Building a lattice, not a ladder, around the world
As my goals evolved from sales leader to business leader, I needed to learn new skills. I looked for roles and projects that would help me gain experience with increasing levels of scale and complexity.
However, I did not get every role that I sought, and, although disappointing, those moments opened new doors that led to even better opportunities. While trying to make sense of my development and career, I had the opportunity to have lunch with a senior leader, who became a mentor. He counseled me to focus my energy on building a lattice, not a ladder, as a way to grow in more than one direction and build skills for a variety of possibilities.
One path was going after global assignments — requiring an open mind, curiosity and courage.
Roles in Australia, Austria and Switzerland accelerated my career development, in part because I continually nurtured my curiosity. I am grateful to Bristol Myers Squibb for the support and investment in me — as a leader, a mother and wife — to move my family around the world.
My whole life, I have known what it is to be “different.” So when I ventured to new countries, I was eager for my teams to teach me, to trust me and to co-create with me, so that we could all be successful. By building a team culture where everyone felt valued and included, we were able to achieve more than anyone thought possible.