Integrity is a critical trait because it is all about being honest, having strong morals, and adhering to a strict code of ethics. It requires one to be truthful and transparent in their actions and decisions. Being in a leadership role requires one to be able to make difficult decisions that are best for the business and to stand up to others even when it.
We are living in the Renaissance of Work. Just like great artists know that an empty canvas can become anything, great leaders know that an entire organization — and the people inside it — can become anything, too. Master Artists and Mastering the Art of Leadership draw from the same source: creation. In this series, we’ll meet masters who are creating the future of work and painting a portrait of lasting leadership. As part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Susan Whitehead.
Susan Whitehead is the President & COO of PACT Pharma, whose mission is to engineer T cell therapies by directing each person’s immune response to eradicate their individual cancer. Susan’s lifelong motto “Believing is Achieving” has fueled her belief and mindset towards creating greater health equity — from the lab to the clinic to the population served. In keeping with this principle, PACT Pharma is currently developing an HLA inclusive platform to treat patients of all ethnicities battling HPV+ cancers.
Thank you for joining us. Our readers would enjoy discovering something interesting about you. What are you in the middle of right now that you’re excited about personally or professionally?
Growing up, I often felt like an outsider because of my biracial background. Not quite fitting into any ethic group had a great impact on who I am today. Because of these experiences, I feel passionate about helping others, particularly those that come from disadvantaged backgrounds. I hope I can serve as a role model proving that we can all overcome our circumstances given the right opportunities. I am excited to share I am currently pursuing a board role with a non-profit dedicated to educating and promoting STEM careers in the biosciences to underserved communities.
We all get by with a little help from our friends. Who is the leader that has influenced you the most, and how?
My mother, Kong Ae Whitehead was my number one influencer. She taught me to keep getting up no matter how many times I fell down (or life pushed me down) and to never give up, no matter how hard something seemed if it was something I believed in. My mother was an immigrant from South Korea and faced multiple hardships and discrimination and always held her head up high. She ensured I got a good education and even though English was her second language, that did not hold her back from helping me excel academically. My mother was beautiful both inside and out. Truly relentless when it came to what she believed in and not afraid to stand on her own when others did not agree with her. She highly cherished her family and was a tenacious protector and supporter of those she loved. Having a front row seat, my mother taught me to have grit. I most certainly would not be where I am today if it was not for the life lessons I learned from her.
Sometimes our biggest mistakes lead to our biggest discoveries. What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made as a leader, and what did you discover as a result?
My biggest mistake as a leader was early on in my career when I did not take the time to make meaningful connections with my team. I was too worried about people wanting to get to know me on a personal level and casting judgment due to my past experiences since I was often the only one who looked like me in a room. Therefore I avoided the small talk whenever I could and focused on sticking to the business at hand. This type of transactional interaction I found was not what builds trust or allows a person to get to know their team or what truly motivates them.
Instead, I discovered that it helps to take time to connect with everyone’s deeper motivations and that requires a high level of emotional intelligence. Through these interactions, I realized that everyone, no matter what their ethnicity is or their socio-economic background has their own set of fears they are dealing with. Learning to lead by inspiring others to believe in my vision requires an understanding of what motivates them and sharing what is motivating to me. By showing a commitment to hard work and accountability I learned that as a leader I can inspire others to do the same.
The work ethic I demonstrate helps set an example for others. I learned to reassure others that progress comes from upsetting the status quo, and that I’m not afraid of failure. In fact, it gives meaning to the work I do and makes me want to try harder. That type of genuineness goes a long way toward building great professional relationships.
How has your definition of leadership changed or evolved over time? What does it mean to be a leader now?
Early on in life I focused on overcoming challenges by tackling things head on as they came. To prove to others that I could do what they thought I couldn’t. Now, as I devote my time to striving to have an impact on the lives of those living with cancer, I find that my motives are more personal. There is an opportunity at the intersectionality of diverse backgrounds and leadership styles. Many of the strengths and qualities developed through a lifetime of being ‘different’ are foundational to who I evolved into as a leader. Today, being a leader means being courageous, intentional, and inspirational to the teams and organizations that I lead.
Success is as often as much about what we stop as what we start. What is one legacy leadership behavior you stopped because you discovered it was no longer valuable or relevant?
I stopped expecting too much from my team members because my personal standards are extremely high. I learned over time that this can lead to others viewing me as idealistic or thinking I’m unrealistic. In addition, I learned that micromanaging my team to ensure everything was done according to my standards was not beneficial. People value their autonomy and micromanagement is demotivating and counterproductive. Instead, real leadership is about communicating clear goals, providing resources and supporting their team and trusting them to achieve their objectives.
What is one lasting leadership behavior you started or are cultivating because you believe it is valuable or relevant?
My personal experiences have really shaped my leadership style. I would describe myself as an inclusive and intentional leader who strives to build trust while inspiring and motivating others. I am not afraid to take on new challenges and make difficult decisions. Throughout my education and my career continuum in biotech & pharma, first, as a chemist in the lab and later transitioning into program management, I experienced being one of a few women of color. I know how it feels to be invited into the room, but not included in the discussion.
Today as a Senior Executive, I can focus on giving others the opportunities and feedback that will facilitate their growth helping them to do their jobs more effectively. I encourage everyone on my team to take a seat at the table. It’s not about hierarchy, and it’s not necessarily about function. I genuinely want to hear all voices. Fostering an environment where everyone is engaged enables us to tackle problems through different perspectives.
What advice would you offer to other leaders who are stuck in past playbooks and patterns and may be having a hard time letting go of what made them successful in the past?
There is much we can accomplish through leadership in service by sharing the power and holding ourselves accountable for the growth and success of others. We cannot create change, or in the world of healthcare, find cures to life threatening illnesses by stifling creative solutions, and worrying about fitting in, riding on connections, or aligning with the wrong agendas. If things don’t go according to plan, we can all move on thinking about all the things that should have been done differently, but it’s too late. Rather than working to serve leaders, we can serve others through our leadership in a collaborative effort to make a lasting difference.
Many of our readers can relate to the challenge of leading people for the first time. What advice would you offer to new and emerging leaders?
Approach each new opportunity with the mindset that you are part of a larger group. Empower others and remember your title does not make you a leader. The role you play along with the contributions you make in the success of others earns you the right to be a leader.
Based on your experience or research, what are the top five traits effective leaders exemplify now?
1. Integrity: Integrity is a critical trait because it is all about being honest, having strong morals, and adhering to a strict code of ethics. It requires one to be truthful and transparent in their actions and decisions. Being in a leadership role requires one to be able to make difficult decisions that are best for the business and to stand up to others even when it.
2. Courage: Courage is another essential leadership trait. People who demonstrate courage can motivate their teams to take on new challenges while being bold and creative, and to persevere through challenging times. As a leader you will be forced to make tough decisions and to take calculated risks. To do this, one must step outside their comfort zones to try new things, even when they know there is a chance of failure. In addition, leaders who demonstrate courage are willing to speak up for what is right even when it is uncomfortable to do so. They have the courage to stand up to injustices and advocate for those who may not have a voice. By speaking up, leaders set an example to their teams to do the same and create a culture of advocacy and equality. By demonstrating courage, leaders can inspire others to challenge the status quo and achieve great things.
3. Inspiration: Inspiration and leading by example are two important leadership traits that can help motivate and guide others towards a shared goal. When one leads by example, they set the tone for behavior and actions that align with the values and goals of the organization. A leader who leads by example demonstrates the behaviors and attitudes they desire from others and in doing this, it can be a powerful motivator for their team.
4. Inclusion: Improving healthcare equity is an important goal that refers to the concept of ensuring everyone has access to the same level of care, regardless of their race, ethnicity, income, etc. As leaders, we need to identify and address these disparities in healthcare and work to improve equal access to care for everyone. As a minority, I have personally experienced these disparities. Inclusion is so important in this setting because it promotes patient-centered care which is an approach to healthcare that puts the patient at the center of their care. Inclusion is important in this context because it allows healthcare providers to understand the patient’s unique needs, preferences, and values, and to provide care that is tailored to the individual.
5. Resilience: Fortunately growing up with an incredibly strong mother who repeatedly overcame adversity, I learned this important lesson early on. The definition of resilience is the ability to bounce back from challenges, adversity, and setbacks. It is the ability to adapt, recover, and move forward in the face of difficult circumstances. In the context of leadership, resilience is important because leaders face many challenges and obstacles that can impede their progress and the progress of their teams.
Here are a few reasons why resilience is important in leadership:
• Helps leaders navigate change: Change is inevitable, and leaders who are resilient are better able to adapt to new situations and help their team adjust to change.
• Enables leaders to stay focused: Resilient leaders are better able to stay focused on their goals and priorities, even when faced with distractions and setbacks.
• Promotes creativity and innovation: Leaders who are resilient are more likely to approach challenges with a positive attitude and find new, creative solutions to problems.
• Builds trust and credibility: When leaders show resilience in the face of adversity, it inspires confidence in their team and strengthens their credibility as a leader.
• Supports emotional intelligence: Resilience is a key aspect of emotional intelligence, which is important in building strong relationships with team members and creating a positive work environment.
American Basketball Coach John Wooden said, “Make each day your masterpiece.” How do you embody that quote?
Through a personal journey with cancer, I was able to refocus my drive to seeking out the toughest challenges (i.e. training for and competing in Ironman triathlons), to realize that every day is a new day, and no matter how small the steps may feel, that we are making progress and the journey is just as important as the destination. It’s important to embrace the journey and look to find the beauty even during the times of the storm.
What is the legacy you aspire to leave as a leader?
I hope to be remembered for creating change through courage and always doing what’s right. Applying my skills to lead an organization to deliver a new cure for cancer. Creating a path for change in standard of care treatment regimens that are less toxic, more personalized and improve quality of life — first and foremost. In addition, enabling change in the way an organization thinks or tackles problems on getting treatment options into the broader population.
How can our readers connect with you to continue the conversation?
To make a connection, please follow me on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/susanwhitehead/
Thank you for giving us the opportunity to experience a leadership master at work. We wish you continued success and good health!