Tackling Mount Kilimanjaro and your career journey

May 20, 2021     
By Siyuan Chen, general manager, Bristol Myers Squibb Mainland China and Hong Kong

About the author: Siyuan Chen, general manager, Bristol Myers Squibb Mainland China and Hong Kong, is a leader with a passion for people and patients. Her rich experience in China and across international markets is helping propel BMS China to become a biopharma leader, by reinforcing its innovation in key areas including immuno-oncology and immunology.

Chen joined Bristol Myers Squibb in her current role in 2019. Prior to that, she held a range of senior management positions at GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), including vice president and head of Respiratory and HIV, GSK China, and vice president and head of Commercial for Asia Pacific markets, for ViiV Healthcare, a GSK company. Before that, she was with Novartis, where she held senior management positions of increasing responsibility. Chen has been a dedicated mentor throughout her career, sharing her guidance and insight as a business leader with talent across geographies and functions. She is the recipient of Shanghai Daily’s 2020 Women Leadership Award.

Ten years ago, on a warm summer evening, I sat down with my husband after a long day at the office. We discussed our respective days at work, and the discussion shifted toward life plans, goals and projects. I don’t remember exactly how the conversation turned in that direction, but when it was over, we’d decided to climb one of the highest mountains in the world: Mount Kilimanjaro. 

Located in Tanzania and standing a whopping 5,895 meters (19,341 ft.) above sea level, Kilimanjaro is the highest peak in Africa. Over the past few years, it has become the focus of environmental research because of its shrinking glaciers and vanishing ice fields. My husband and I are both keen hikers, so the idea didn’t come completely out of the blue Kilimanjaro fit the bill: it was high, it was interesting and it was doable (with significant training, of course!). 

That climb was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life: a limit-testing expedition that was also a true journey of self-discovery. Since then, I often find myself reflecting on the similarities between our professional paths and such challenges. I’ve mapped them out into three simple categories that can be applied as career advice, or life advice: setting goals and preparing; facing surprises and imponderables along the way, and having a guide — not only to lean on, but to help you soak up the learnings. 

Preparation and Goal Setting 

I frequently tell my teams: the most challenging thing in life is to a have a vision, a clear view of the direction you want to take. The rest is execution. When thinking about life and career goals, these should be challenging, but achievable. Many of you are probably thinking: how do you know if a goal is achievable until you start execution? You’re absolutely right. Trust your gut and your expertise that your objectives are challenging but doable, and then start. The first step is the most important one.

There will be times when you want to run and others when you will need to rest and regain your energy, which is the fuel for critical thinking. My advice: establish the pace of your journey. Decide when you want to walk, when you need to run and how you’ll choose your rest stops. You need energy to get to the end, but you also need to see progress along the way. Prepare for each step, but expect the unexpected and welcome it. 

The biggest takeaway when it comes to preparation and goal setting is to always put things into perspective. Celebrate every achievement, even the small ones. Before the climb, I thought the toughest part would be the physical exertion, the exhaustion of walking hours on end and having to restart the next day. In the end, the hardest part of the climb ended up being the scarce access to clean water and air, heavily rarefied as we climbed higher and higher. But we had prepared; wen hardship came in multiple ways, we addressed it and moved on. Although it was important to reflect, over-thinking our steps would not get us any further. 

The most challenging thing in life is to a have a vision, a clear view of the direction you want to take. The rest is execution.

Handling surprises and imponderables 

When I looked at maps and travel plans, the journey actually seemed pretty linear. From point A to B to C. However, that was not always the case. Weather conditions forced us to change paths many times. When changing paths wasn’t possible, we had to pause and wait for the chosen route to clear. In some cases, we had to take a much longer path to reach the same goal for the day. 

At one point in my career, I was leading a large commercial organization of 200 people. My role was interesting; I was progressing every day and was set to move to a bigger role, leading an even larger team. However, my manager at the time had different plans: my next career step was to again become an individual contributor in a different organization. I was doubtful but also knew that I would be placed in the middle of a large acquisition deal, which I hadn’t gone through before. I took a deep breath, said yes and trusted the journey. I was under significant pressure but made sure to observe how other leaders managed the situation, how they paced their decisions and influenced the outcome for the greater good of the company. It was a formative experience and I continue to draw from it.  

Professional careers are similar — sometimes complex, with lateral and even downward moves. If these bring new learnings and allow you to broaden your skillset, don’t pass up the opportunity. Keep an eye on your mountain peak. You’ll get there eventually.  

Lean on your guide. Then become one yourself. 

I could never have climbed Kilimanjaro without a guide. His role was crucial to the success of the entire enterprise. He set expectations, supported us in the face of difficulties and cheered us on when the path was too steep and the air too rarefied. Most importantly, he had climbed the mountain himself many years ago, under the supervision of a different guide. Moreover, since then, he had climbed it over and over again, always with a new group of climbers, with new doubts, new concerns and new preconceived ideas. 

In your career journey, find someone who has seen it all before and who has the experience to pass it on. Ideally, lean on more than one person for different points of view. Each journey is unique and how we go through it changes us forever. Your guides, your mentors, exist to be sounding boards on the key steps and important decisions you need to make. Be open to learning and to listening carefully to advice. One day, you’ll be paying it forward. 

My career guidance is this: If you’re at a stage in your career where you’re planning to stretch and challenge yourself, on finding your big mountain, start by being clear with your goals. Then find a guide and sketch out your plan. Stick to it when you can. But have the agility to ignore it and pivot. Have confidence in your skillset and trust the team around you.

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