Jennifer Cook’s 2016 Woman of the Year speech


Jennifer_Cook_HBA 2016Thank you Ian, for your kind words.

And thank you to my family, friends, and many colleagues who have been such a critical support to me over the years.  Importantly, thank you to Laurie and the HBA for this amazing recognition.  I am humbled and honored to be here.

In preparing to talk to you all today, I thought a lot about how I got here and what I learned along the way that perhaps made this accomplishment possible. So how did it happen?

I’ll share my story of how, as an introverted, self-critical perfectionist, I found the nerve to entrust and empower others by getting comfortable in my own skin.

How a belief in the unique value of every individual has allowed me to practice inclusion – which I believe can help close the gender parity gap. And, how all of my experience has helped me to embrace the unpredictable ride that comes with leading by letting go. The thread that ran through all of these experiences and lessons was clear to me: bravery, or courage, has mattered at every step.

When I was growing up, I was shy and very studious, and frankly quite insecure. I have always had a strong regard for authority and was very willing to follow instructions, trusting that the people in charge must know best. It took me a long time to accept that my ideas were valid too, and not only valid, sometimes even better.

An experience in a training course when I was first managing people helped me begin to see that this simple approach to authority figures might not be best. It was a simulation: You are stranded in the desert with a set of supplies. You have to decide on your own, and then as a team, what choices to make. The list of supplies included things like a bottle of water, salt tablets, a parachute… and I happened to have learned that if you have water, put it in your body. Carrying it won’t help you – so drink it! Salt isn’t an immediate need, it just makes you more thirsty. And a parachute – well you can use that for shade and you can catch water in it. So I had some ideas and dutifully filled in my form.

Now, I had a teammate in my group who had served in the military, and he was a very forceful person, shall we say. When we started the group discussion, he completely dominated the conversation and didn’t leave much room for anyone else. I was sitting there thinking– “well he must know what to do, he’s been in the military – he’s trained in this”! So I made some suggestions, got knocked down a few times and trusted that others knew more. When the coach tallied up our scores though, guess what: we died in the desert as a group, while I would have survived by myself! In the debrief of that exercise, the coach helped me see that by withholding what I thought, I was actually harming the team.

And that was such a good way to reframe it for me – to get over my reticence to speak and see it as possibly depriving others of benefit. I had to have the courage to stand up to a louder voice, an authoritative voice. My voice was equally – if not more – valuable in that moment. This was an early lesson that I had to build on: to gradually gain comfort speaking up, exposing myself to the risk of being wrong and being found out.

Because this was one of my deep-seated discomforts: like many high achievers I have known, I thought I had to be perfect; I had to be right if I was going to open my mouth.

But once my jobs got bigger than anything I could handle alone, once I was managing other people and physically couldn’t do all the work myself, at some point I hit a limit and thought, what if I just say “I don’t know”?

Letting people see that I wasn’t perfect and that I didn’t have all the answers meant being more vulnerable. And how could I lead if I was vulnerable? Well, I have learned that perfect is not only impossible, it isn’t even interesting!

Think about this: isn’t one of the most commonly asked questions to leaders, what was your biggest mistake? That’s what is interesting. So as I built the courage to admit shortcomings, to ask for help, and laugh about mistakes – people around me became much more comfortable with me. I became more approachable. My willingness to be vulnerable was an invitation, and a welcome one. By admitting to not having the answer, I could turn my focus outwards and invite other people to be a part of the conversation.

Why does this involve bravery? And why is it worth taking the risk? This feels risky because it defies the iconic image of a leader as the “front of the room” person who has all the answers, but in fact it allows other people to feel valuable and actually deliver value.

They like being asked, and they often have great answers. A good example of this was when I came into a leadership role of a group of about 100 people some years ago. I learned that the team was working in silos, had low morale and had big expectations of me to come in and “fix things.”

It hit me as I addressed the group at my first offsite meeting with them, and I said: “There is one of me and there are 100 of you. I can do my very best with what’s in my head, but in the end I’m only one person – together we could be 100-fold stronger….Don’t you think this will go better if you help me figure it out?” And that’s what we did.

By being vulnerable myself, I opened the door to risk-taking in others. We worked together to identify problem areas, and we formed working groups to address them. People volunteered for these groups according to their interests, and together we drove a whole new direction for the team over the next few years – such that we became highly integrated, much more supportive, and we produced better results.

It was my growing realization that I could let go of perfection that actually allowed me to let go of control – because that was what the perfectionism was about – a (by the way hopeless) desire to be in control.

For me this was an evolution: from thinking I had to do everything and worrying that I would fail, to learning to invite others to contribute — to be comfortable in being just one part of the journey and not taking it all on myself.

So it has been my intention throughout my career to have the courage to just be myself. Sometimes that has created risk for me – what if I don’t get the position because my authentic self isn’t good enough? But to me, being brave is about being genuine and showing your true self.

One of the greatest compliments I got was from someone I used to manage, whom I saw years later, and he said, “you’re still just the same.” I loved that. I encourage all of you to consider whether you are working on being someone others think you should be, or whether you are committed to being your best self? Do you have the courage to look in the mirror and say, “this is who I am”? Can you say it to others? I’ve always thought, I can only be me, and as Oscar Wilde said, everyone else is already taken. So this takes us to a core focus of mine — the value of the individual.

When I first managed a group of 600, a sales and marketing team in the US, I was overwhelmed at the thought of leading a team of so many. I felt distanced from this nameless crowd. But over time, as I met the team and got to know people one by one, that crowd of 600 strangers became a group of colleagues, real people with real lives and real talents that I could appreciate and connect with. The same has happened as I’ve managed Europe for Roche –28 countries and 6,000 people — I’ve gone to each country and spent time with the teams: I was with the Israel team at their league basketball tournament, cheering with their families; I walked through Prague on a freezing night with members of the management team, sharing stories about our kids. Over time, by connecting with individuals about their business and their life, the barriers for all of us have come down.

And in valuing the individual, in having a real curiosity about what matters to people, I have learned the meaning of inclusion. It takes us beyond the concept of diversity that’s been emphasized now for years. Because diversity is about differences, and differences alone make us uncomfortable.

Six years ago, I interviewed a talented African-American woman for a leadership job on my team: she challenged me with an observation, she said, “I look around, and I look up in this company, and I don’t see people who look like me.” I realized then that as leaders we are seeking diversity, because we know it’s good for the business; but as individuals we seek affinity.

I have been the only woman leader on multiple leadership teams, and while I became used to it, it wouldn’t have been my preference to be “the only one” of anything in a group. And I would guess every one of you has at some time in your life felt what it’s like to be “different”– is that feeling of being set apart something you’d want to intentionally inflict on others?

Inclusion adds a new element that invites every individual to participate; if you are genuinely interested in the contributions of each person — without a label — if you are asking for their input and listening to their ideas, you create an environment where the differences are not the focus – the comfort to contribute is. By pushing only for diversity we are fighting against strong natural tendencies to choose what is familiar, and asking people instead to accept being uncomfortable because someone tells them it’s the right thing to do.

After 15 years managing people, I’ve come to a few pragmatic conclusions. One of them is don’t expect people to work against their own comfort in any sustained way – they can’t do it. They won’t do it.

As I said before – it takes courage to be yourself, and it is inclusion that lowers barriers and enables people to bring their best self forward. There is another important aspect to this that relates clearly to our focus here on achieving gender parity. I believe inclusive behavior is crucial to speeding up progress there as well. Any behavior that singles out one group and excludes another runs the risk of being divisive. Instead we have to create a positive alternative – and inclusion is a rising tide that lifts all boats.

Now these “courage milestones” I’ve mentioned –- breaking through my fear of failure, learning to let go of control, and counting on the value of others — bring me to the way that I try to lead. Too much of management still seems to be based on the command-and-control, top-down approach that’s more suitable to an assembly line. This style can sometimes be seen as “strong” or even brave to some. But I don’t agree.

Our work is dynamic, and our world is fast moving and full of ambiguity. We need every one of our employees to be a problem-solver in their own domain. We all got the memo to “hire the best and brightest,” but once those people are through the door, many managers proceed to tell them what to do. I believe that people do their best work because they want to, not because we tell them to.

And the more talented they are, the more we will get from asking them what they think. So as a leader I try to create an environment where people can be inspired, valued, and included, so they will want to bring their best.

Even in a region as large as Europe, with so many differences and a broad array of business challenges and opportunities, this approach has resulted in strong business results, with increasing growth every year. I am convinced the two are related. We all know the extra mile is run out of desire.

When I think about the hurdles we face as a healthcare industry, I am convinced we have many extra miles to go. I’ve been in healthcare for my entire 30-year career, and I’m proud of the work I have been able to do in the service of patients. I have been inspired for decades by the passion and commitment of my colleagues who are driven by the mission to improve people’s lives.

Yet our industry’s reputation has plummeted, and the common understanding of what we do is far from the truth, influenced by a handful of highly visible bad acts. But if I take the concept I have spoken about with you today – the value of every individual as a unique problem solver – I would ask that every one of us do what we can do to bring healthcare’s reputation and value back on track. Every one of us is a face to the public, every one of us is an ambassador for the work we do for patients — all 2,500 people in this room and watching remotely — from multiple disciplines in the field. Imagine what we will accomplish if every one of us is running that extra mile, bringing their best self forward and encouraging our colleagues to do the same.

So in closing, I’ll ask you this question inspired from a Sara Bareilles song:  How big is your brave? Are you brave enough to choose to be yourself, not what someone else defines for you as success? Do you have the courage to be curious about who your colleagues really are and what motivates them, to invite them to share more and do more? Are you ready to take the bold step to embrace the confidence you have earned to make all of that possible

How big is your brave?

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