When career change equals career growth

How BMS’ Catherine Owen has embraced the career lattice to grow professionally

July 22, 2020     

One thing is incredibly clear: we are living through a time of profound change. On a macro level, it involves adjusting to the reality of COVID-19 and current social movements, while on a more personal level, it’s about managing work from home, remote education for school-aged children and social distancing. 

Catherine Owen, senior vice president, Major Markets

Catherine Owen, senior vice president, Major Markets

These changes are difficult, but they have revealed hidden resiliency, adaptability and potential within people all over the world. If there is one life lesson to be learned from this moment in time, it’s that embracing change is not just encouraged – it’s a necessity.  

Before making a career change, though, there are many dimensions to consider.  

All professionals experience change throughout their careers, but few seek it out regularly. That may be unfortunate, according to Catherine Owen, senior vice president of Major Markets for Bristol Myers Squibb, because “change can be an incredible catalyst for growth.” Owen should know; for her, embracing change in her career has become a mantra.  

During her more than 25 years of experience in the pharmaceutical industry, Owen has worked at three Fortune 500 companies – AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson and BMS – and has held 17 titles spanning a variety of therapeutic and business areas.  

“Diverse experiences allow you to become a more agile leader who can manage through change,” Owen said, “and that will always be important because this industry changes so frequently.”

Owen’s career began at AstraZeneca where she was a pharmacist in manufacturing. Although her initial plan was to remain in that part of the industry, she found herself drawn to other aspects of the business.

“My mind was set on dispensing and formulating pharmaceuticals, and the notion of marketing and selling never really occurred to me. As I learned more, the commercial space began to sound more interesting,” she said.

To shift careers, Owen was faced with a crossroads; she would need to learn an entirely new field and earn her master’s degree in Marketing to be competitive in the marketplace. She decided to take the chance to see where it led her. 

"Diverse experiences allow you to become a more agile leader who can manage through change."

After three years, Owen transitioned to Johnson & Johnson, where she became a primary care and hospital sales representative. Over the next 25 years, she remained at J&J and challenged herself consistently to leave her comfort zone. That led her to opportunities in multiple therapeutic and business areas, including commercial sales, marketing, R&D, digital governance and corporate development, and included moves between two continents and across both the pharmaceutical and medical device sectors.

Owen’s career growth -- through a lattice instead of the typical career ladder – proved to be a strength for her. Bristol Myers Squibb CEO Giovanni Caforio has a similar perspective about pursuing opportunities to expand his knowledge: “I believe that, particularly as you begin to grow and develop as a professional and then as a leader, you have to have a really broad base of experiences. I’ve always asked myself, ‘What is it that I have not done?’ and looked at that as an opportunity, not as a challenge.”

Last fall, Owen joined BMS to lead a global integration in markets across Europe and Asia. The chance to replicate her success in another company, with a different business model and while it was in the midst of a merger, was an exciting prospect. Her decision was not made lightly and involved balancing her long-term career objectives with the needs and opportunity for her U.K.- and U.S.- based family. 

As she evaluated her options, Owen called on her mentors for their insight and their thoughtful, honest feedback. “It’s important to have mentors who can give you an objective view, coupled with their unique perspective of your professional and personal needs,” she said. 

Today, as a manager and mentor herself, Owen encourages her colleagues to embrace the career lattice mindset and to consider lateral moves that offer differentiating experiences and allow them to grow their skillsets, become better-rounded and collaborate with a diverse pool of professionals.

For Owen, one theme stands out: If you embrace change, take risks and push yourself to learn, your career will pivot in unexpected ways.

Four reasons to embrace career change 


  • Cultivate curiosity and learning opportunities: A career should never be about achieving one goal. It is a continuous journey of growth and change and can be a great catalyst. Seek out the resources available to you, innovate within your current role, ask for stretch opportunities and use volunteering to learn new skills.
  • Embrace risk: An internal Hewlett Packard report found that men confidently apply for a job when they meet only 60% of the qualifications, but women tend to apply only if they meet 100% of the qualifications. Applying for a job does not mean you will get it or that you will accept it, but it can help you shape your story, build your network, understand your strengths and identify your areas of growth
  • Reputation matters: Your name is only as good as the lasting impact you have on your team and peer colleagues. Being known for your dependability, partnership and ability to deliver on your goals and objectives will encourage others to seek you out for new opportunities. As you expand your experiences and your network, you will see the benefit that a diverse knowledge base will have on your career. A diversity of career experiences also differentiates you from the crowd.
  • Lattice over ladder: Traditionally, people look at their careers like a ladder. However, this mode of thinking is outdated and limiting. Before deciding you need to transfer to a new company, it’s worth exploring other lateral, out-of-the-box opportunities at your current organization. This strategy is often referred to as a “career lattice.” As a method of increasing employee retention rates, and employee competitiveness, forward-thinking organizations have begun to adapt and encourage the career lattice. By seeking out alternative career paths within your company, you can build a diverse arsenal of skills that will unlock future jobs and opportunities. 

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Bristol Myers Squibb is a global biopharmaceutical company whose mission is to discover, develop and deliver innovative medicines that help patients prevail over serious diseases. As global citizens, we work sustainably and responsibly to create a positive impact in the communities where we live and work.