Caroline Pan of Bright Machines: “Be sensitive when a new leader comes in”

Over the course of my career, I’ve been in organizations where the leader prefers to surround him or herself with others that look and think the same way. In my opinion, this is dangerous as it simply reinforces rather than challenges your own thinking. Business today can be very unpredictable — no one knows when the next […]

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Over the course of my career, I’ve been in organizations where the leader prefers to surround him or herself with others that look and think the same way. In my opinion, this is dangerous as it simply reinforces rather than challenges your own thinking. Business today can be very unpredictable — no one knows when the next global disruption will occur and how it might affect our survival. Having a diverse executive team that is transparent, collaborative, and willing to speak their minds helps bring together various viewpoints and open up the aperture to imagine what’s possible.

As a part of our interview series called “Women Of The C-Suite” , we had the pleasure of interviewing Caroline Pan.

Caroline is a global industry executive and accomplished brand strategist with over 25 years of experience in high-tech and industrial manufacturing. Prior to joining Bright Machines as Chief Marketing Officer, she ran Global Marketing at Honeywell and held leadership roles at Hewlett Packard, Intel, and Ford Motor Company. Caroline holds a bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering from MIT and an MBA from Harvard Business School.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

My father was a nuclear power-plant engineer and instilled in me, from a very young age, a strong appreciation for math and science. (My mother then applied the discipline! They made quite the team.) Their early and continuous emphasis in these subjects ensured that I never felt daunted by complexity — or my male classmates. I went on to study mechanical engineering at MIT, where I happily embraced both the light-filled design studio as well as the dark, underground machine shop full of drill presses, lathes and other heavy equipment. Here, only what you could design and build mattered. After graduating, I joined Ford Motor Company in Dearborn, Michigan and started my foray in what would become a 25-year career in the manufacturing and technology space.

Following my time at Ford, I returned to Boston to attend Harvard Business School and graduated with my MBA degree in the midst of the Dot-Com boom and bust. Undeterred, I moved to Silicon Valley and joined Intel Corporation to cut my teeth in B2B marketing at a global technology leader. I subsequently spent 11 years at Intel, moving through various marketing, strategy, and general management roles. This led to an opportunity to live as an expat in China — which turned into a 13-year stint abroad, first with Intel, then Hewlett-Packard, and finally Honeywell. I became deeply immersed in the nuances of U.S.-China trade, the implications for global manufacturing companies operating in China, the impact of shifting supply chains, and how to “localize” in a world where scale and reach mattered. Finally, in 2018, I repatriated back to the U.S. to become head of Global Marketing at Honeywell.

In March of this year, I joined the executive leadership team at Bright Machines as Chief Marketing Officer. It is an incredible time to be part of this company at this particular inflection point — it is truly a wake-up call for the entire global manufacturing industry and its associated supply chains. If the events of 2020 taught us anything, it is that the sector as it stands today was not built to withstand large-scale, unexpected shocks such as a pandemic or major shipping route blockages. Collectively, we must step back and consider whether there is a better, more effective way forward.

As a former engineer and career executive at multiple Fortune 100 manufacturing companies, I understand the challenges and constraints associated with designing and building products for global reach and scale. As a brand strategist and storyteller, I want to drive broader awareness and understanding around “smart automation” and how it enables greater supply chain resiliency, the ability to create distributed (rather than concentrated) manufacturing networks, and even drive future job creation through workforce reskilling. It’s the opportunity of a lifetime to take this fascinating, but still nascent, brand and make it truly iconic.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

I am only a month into my new role, so it is still early days. Most likely the most “interesting” experience was the process of interviewing and joining the company. Over the course of my career to date, this is the first time I’ve started a new job without ever having visited the company’s offices and without physically meeting a single person! Everything was conducted entirely via Zoom and I have to say, it has opened my eyes as to how effective a substitute video conferencing can be.

Since joining Bright Machines, I’ve been so impressed by the energy that the team here has. Not just a few, but every person I’ve encountered is willing to go above and beyond the call of duty — which also means that the pace and speed of decision-making is extraordinary. One small example: we are in the middle of agency reviews right now and will be going from pitch to proposal to contract signing and kick-off in just a few weeks. Everyone from our marketing team to legal up to the CEO and CFO needs to be highly responsive for us to orchestrate this so quickly. That just wouldn’t be possible at a larger corporation with many more stakeholders, competing priorities, and layers of approvals.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Again, still early into my tenure here at Bright Machines, so thankfully no major mishaps to speak of. Perhaps one snafu to share was a recent copy/paste error with my team — and of course, the lesson here is that everyone is fallible, so it is always prudent to slow down and give messages a once-over before you hit send (not to mention, try to avoid multitasking too much late at night!).

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

Absolutely — there have been so many people who have supported my career development over the years. Some of the standouts for me include:

Early managers like Graham Lockett at Ford, who encouraged me to apply to Harvard Business School, and Pankaj Kedia at Intel, who took a chance that an automotive engineer might be good at B2B tech marketing.

My Intel marketing gurus, Don MacDonald and Federica Judica, who taught me the power of branding and the hard work that goes into developing a clear and consistent brand strategy that serves as a foundation for growth.

Incredible executive sponsors like Bill Siu at Intel, Todd Bradley at HP, and Shane Tedjarati at Honeywell, all of whom had the confidence to put me in big roles, leading big teams — and then empowered me to do my best work.

And last but not least: my parents, who supported my education and career decisions (even when it meant moving overseas to China); and my husband and daughter who lift me up even on the most difficult days.

In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?

I think the best way to manage stress is through what I call the “3 P’s” — Preparation, Practice, and Positive mindset. No matter how experienced you are, how senior you become, there is no substitute for doing your homework and coming prepared.

I recall a few years back when I was asked to participate in a panel discussion at the Wall Street Journal’s CEO Council Summit in Tokyo. It is an incredibly prestigious event and I suddenly found myself as a young executive sitting alongside veteran luminaries like Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Ambassador Charlene Barshefsky, former U.S. Trade Representative under President Clinton. Carlos Ghosn, former chairman and CEO of the Renault-Nissan, participated in a fireside chat about the future of the automotive industry.

The topic of my panel was “Tech Nationalism,” and my fellow panelist was James McGregor, chairman of Greater China at APCO Worldwide. Jim is what we call an “old China hand,” having first moved to Taiwan and then mainland China in the late 1980s as the Bureau Chief of the WSJ. He’s authored several books on China and is well-known as an expert on U.S.-China business relations. I saw that even Jim, who opines frequently on this topic and who can command a room single-handedly with off-the-cuff remarks, prepared pages of notes and speaking points. Similarly, our moderator, Andy Browne (former WSJ Senior Correspondent for China and now Editorial Director for Bloomberg), corralled us for several pre-event prep meetings to brainstorm and riff on potential themes and arcs for the discussion. Then all that was left to do was to relax and enjoy the being in the moment. It was in so many ways a surreal, but highly memorable, experience.

As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?

Over the course of my career, I’ve been in organizations where the leader prefers to surround him or herself with others that look and think the same way. In my opinion, this is dangerous as it simply reinforces rather than challenges your own thinking. Business today can be very unpredictable — no one knows when the next global disruption will occur and how it might affect our survival. Having a diverse executive team that is transparent, collaborative, and willing to speak their minds helps bring together various viewpoints and open up the aperture to imagine what’s possible.

As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.

Embrace diversity not just of race and gender, but also of thought, opinions, and cultural backgrounds. Don’t be afraid to look far (outside your state, country, or region) for great talent. Harness the power of global teams — even if they are distributed. I’ve been leading geographically dispersed teams for more than 15 years, even before video conferences became ubiquitous. We managed — through frequent calls, emails, and regular team offsites — to stay in lock step and bond together despite the distance. My best memories are those times when we’ve finally been able to meet up in one of those far-flung locations, whether Shanghai, Singapore, or Bucharest, not just to get work done but also to enjoy getting to know each other more personally over drinks and a good meal.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?

At the C-suite level, “the buck stops with you,” as they say. Leaders in the C-suite need to take a holistic view of their company or organization to make the best decisions they can with the information they have at hand. It is critical to weigh both inputs from their team as well as other external (market) factors, but generally you never have perfect data, and most decisions have their pros and cons. It is then when the leader relies on their experience and intuition to make the call.

In addition, I would say that in these types of roles, especially at a startup or smaller company, you really must act like an “owner” of the business. I always ask myself — does this make sense financially for the business at this point in time? How will this help us grow and become more profitable? Will it be accretive over the long-term?

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?

One persistent myth is that we have all the answers, or that our ideas are the best ones. Sometimes our ideas are just ideas, floated like a trial balloon, and meant to be debated. The best executives I have worked for will readily admit that they hire people who are “smarter than they are.” What that means is that they want to surround themselves with others that also have deep but complementary experience — for example, expertise in a particular function, or technical area, or industry segment that they themselves may not have spent as much time working in. It is not to say that these executives don’t understand these areas — since most likely they have had an extensive career by that point — but they are humble enough to know that no one person can claim to be an “expert” in everything.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

It is still rare to see women in traditionally male-dominated fields like manufacturing, so there is inherent bias to overcome. Data shows that female employee presence is strongly correlated with female leadership presence. As female representation in decision-making roles continues to increase, I believe more women will feel it possible for them to have a seat at the table too.

I’ve spent my entire life working in male-dominated industries and have found that the more experience you have being the only woman (and sometimes the only minority) in the room — the higher your comfort level, the more it doesn’t faze you. And as I mentioned before — I’ve been very lucky to have a number of mentors and sponsors (many of whom were men) who served as amazing sounding boards and supporters at various transition points in my career.

In general, I think women still face different obstacles than men do in considering how to balance their career ambitions with their personal life. I ended up delaying some life milestones, like getting married and having children, which meant that it was easier to make career choices like moving to China with Intel when our division relocated the headquarters to Shanghai. This may not have been an option (or even desirable) for some women, especially those in dual-career households. Note that most of my male counterparts at the time simply brought along their wives and children (thus the common expat term, “trailing spouse”). Things are changing, but this kind of freedom is still often taken for granted.

What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?

I’ve held many marketing roles before, including running Global Marketing at Honeywell, so the type of work and responsibilities here at Bright Machines are very familiar. Also, our executive leadership team boasts industry veterans from well-known companies such as Autodesk, Adobe, Seagate, and Flex — so the caliber of talent, the level of discussion, and the professionalism are quite similar to my prior experiences. What’s markedly different is the culture — how fast-paced and high energy it is, how full of enthusiasm and optimism we are for what the future has in store. Everyone works incredibly hard, but not to make themselves look good. They work to get things done, to make things happen, and move the ball forward. It really is exhilarating to be a part of.

Certainly, not everyone is cut out to be an executive. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?

Personally, I think a well-rounded career — gaining broad experience early on by working in different roles and across different functions — sets a great foundation for executive leadership. It creates understanding and empathy for the various types of challenges that teams can encounter. Second, being open to new experiences, especially working in a different country and learning new languages. That open-mindedness serves leaders well in finding ways to create commonality among teams and work collectively towards mutually advantageous solutions. And finally, having a spouse or partner whom you can rely on and who supports your ambitions. In fact, having the right partners in both life and business affects how easy or hard your days can be. Choose wisely!

What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?

Support your teams by looking out for their interests, protecting them during trying times, and enabling them to do their best work. Get to know their personal side too — their family, culture, aspirations. And make sure to carve out time for coaching and help them push past roadblocks or solve thorny problems — they will return the favor in spades.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

Like others before me, I really enjoy mentoring others, whether through formal or informal mentor relationships. I take great pride when these “mentees” go on to achieve success, and I will go out of my way to help past employees with references and job introductions. I’ve also spent time advising young entrepreneurs through a local startup incubator; and previously volunteered at the American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai, where I led their Entrepreneurship Committee and hosted dozens of panel discussions and events for the local community.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. Be open to adventure — and be ready to jump when it presents itself. Many friends and colleagues thought I was crazy when I said I was moving to Shanghai on an expat assignment as a single woman in her 30s. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would end up working in China for 13 years, with 3 different companies — not to mention also meet my future husband, get married, and have my daughter while I was there.
  2. You never know what path lies ahead — with every role, every company is a new stone along that path. My career was not a straight line. I worked in multiple disciplines (engineering, marketing, strategy, general management), in a variety of industries (automotive, semiconductor, PCs & printers, industrials). However, every role taught me something valuable and each one of those experiences add up to my being able to do the job I am in today.
  3. Take care of your employees and treat people with respect. Organizations that take care of their people have better morale, more engaged employees, and higher retention rates. Be human, be kind.
  4. Be sensitive when a new leader comes in — someday it may happen to you. I have certainly had points in my career, especially earlier on, when I was “layered” in an organization. I know what it is like to feel frustrated, thinking that you are just as deserving and capable, if not more, than the person who just became your boss. It is a difficult situation for both sides but there is always a reason why that leader was hired. It is important to recognize and appreciate their strengths and look for ways you can complement their expertise.
  5. Work hard but have fun! Everyone is working long hours these days, especially in the new era of “Zoom fatigue.” Spread some cheer with your colleagues! Our team recently had a post-work, virtual happy hour where we shared some personal stories over homemade cocktails. A few kids even crashed our Zoom party and we all had some good laughs.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

Having spent so many years working abroad in China, I saw how many manufacturers (in particular, Western companies) embraced a “global supply chain” strategy. It was simply cheaper and easier to outsource their manufacturing and then ship finished goods to wherever their end customers might be. Over time, many of these companies lost not just their ability to make products, they lost the capability to innovate as well. One of the aspects of the Bright Machines solution that I find so compelling is that it can enable broad workforce reskilling and job creation. Companies now have the ability to “reshore” production back home, closer to their end consumers, and in doing so, can create more highly skilled, better paying jobs. We call this “Moving Manufacturing Forward,” and I’m optimistic that it will indeed inspire a movement that brings about another American manufacturing renaissance.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

One of my favorite quotes is one that I heard very early on in my tenure at Intel. It is: “You own your own employability.” What it means is that you can’t sit back and expect things to simply happen for you — you yourself are responsible for your professional development, you are the one who needs to decide which roles to go after, which to take, and how they will shape your career over time. Yes, your managers will support you, your executive sponsors may even open doors for you — but ultimately your success depends on your talent and hard work. I’ve never forgotten this saying, even though it has been over 20 years since I first heard it. It’s what I always tell recent university graduates or younger mentees when they come to me for career guidance. It is the voice I heard each time I reached out to someone I didn’t know for an informational meeting, or when I took a call from an executive recruiter, or contemplated a career change.

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

I’d love to meet Kamala Harris and hear the story of her personal and professional life, in her own words. As a child of immigrants, as the first female and person of color to take the office of U.S. Vice President, she has had to fight critics, overcome prejudice, and blaze a trail where none existed before. “You may be the first to do many things,” her mother is quoted as saying. “But make sure you’re not the last.”

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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