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Lessons in Confident Leadership From HBA’s Woman Of The Year

May 26, 2016

by admin


How does a self-confessed introvert come to be recognised for her outstanding leadership skills as the 2016 HBA’s (Healthcare Business Woman’s Association) Women of the Year?

Jennifer Cook’s journey from a shy person unable to speak up with her professional opinions to one of the most admirable leaders in the world is a lesson to all of us (introverted or not.) As a long-time employee of Roche, Cook climbed the ranks of the company to European head of Pharma over a period of 20 years, learning about leadership along the way and crafting a leadership style known for her highly engaging style and passion for people.



There are some great lessons to be learnt from her astonishing leadership journey, some of which she spoke about at the recent HBA Woman of the Year presentation in New York.


Cook’s Lessons in Confident Leadership

1. Let go of fear of failure.

a. Be heard. Understand that your contribution is of benefit to others. If insecurity is holding you back from offering your input, then consider this: what if you are right, and they are wrong? Isn’t it your obligation to offer your viewpoint in case they hadn’t thought of that perspective? If a project or product fails because you didn’t speak up, then you will feel terrible and everyone loses. The worst thing that can happen is that your idea is not adopted, but you will have the peace of mind that you at least put the idea out there.

b. Understand that you don’t have to be perfect. Leaders are commonly held back from greatness by the false perception that every idea they have has to be perfect, inspirational, and flawless. This wraps them up in a self-imposed culture of fear of failure, from which little is risked, and little gained.


2. Let go of control.

a. Don’t try and force things. Cook believes that people can’t be forced to care about something, and that the best work you’ll ever get out of people is the work they want to do, rather than work they’re obligated to do. Get to know your people in order to understand what drives them and how they will be fulfilled and enabled to do their best work.

b. Allow yourself to show vulnerability. Acknowledge that you don’t know everything and that you will make mistakes. When you do make mistakes, welcome them as part of the process and learn from them. By admitting that you are not perfect, you are creating a genuine rapport and understanding with your team that also allows them to admit their own mistakes, trust you as a genuine person, and seek assistance when they need it. This lesson came from personal experience for Cook- one year into her first management role, employee feedback revealed that she was perceived as aloof and difficult to approach- when really she was just shy and fearing failure.



3. Count on the value of others.

a. Trust that your employees can do great things. Often leaders feel isolated and heavily burdened at the top, feeling they have to be responsible for every single detail if the team is to succeed. Leaders also often struggle to trust that others are capable of success at the level they’re looking for. This brings in high stress and a culture of micromanagement, and stifles the creativity and engagement of the team. If you welcome others’ ideas and encourage skill development in a genuine fashion you’ll be surprised at just how much potential and incredible ability lies within your team.

b. Focus on inclusion rather than diversity. The buzzword in a globalised workforce may be diversity- and little wonder, as diversity of skills and cultural values makes our workplaces better. However, Cook believes that the idea of diversity- that is, welcoming difference, is contrary to much of human behaviour, and that forcing people to accommodate difference tends to be a policy that many struggle to genuinely adopt. Instead, Cook recommends tapping into what all humans do share- and that’s a desire to be included and to contribute. In this way, by focussing on the uniting force- inclusion- and everybody’s individual contributions, employees begin to genuinely appreciate the other different skill sets/cultural values/behaviours as being helpful, rather than feeling they’re being forced to get along.

c. Don’t underestimate the importance of workplace culture. Cook considers workplace culture vital- so much so that she instituted company-wide surveys when she was tasked with turning things around at Genentech, and then used the information gathered to transfer ‘ownership’ of the company culture to the employees. Huge success followed, although not without a fight- many employees initially resisted the change, calling it ‘Jennifer’s culture’. They came around in the end though- underlining the importance of leaders not giving up on what they believe in.



d. Have one-on-one conversations wherever possible. Cook sees her leadership success stemming from her desire to talk with people and understand ‘what’s going on in their heads’. She encourages one-one-one chats over large meetings to create a human and engaging rapport between leadership and employees.


Jennifer Cook is one of the great success stories of leadership in life sciences, and the fact that her famously engaging and inclusive management style had its genesis in a shy and apparently aloof person makes it all the more inspiring! Which of these leadership tactics do you already use…and which ones do you think it’s time you tried?

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