Take risks, even when you don’t feel “ready”. I never felt “ready” for any of the roles I took on, but I had confidence in my ability to learn quickly and work with the people around me to help fill in my gaps along the way. I never had a pre-planned career path, and instead I sought opportunities that would give me the chance to learn and develop in a new way and had the potential to open more doors. I have not made these moves without considerable and careful thought, however, my mantra has always been if I can live with the worst-case scenario then I should take the risk. For example, I left my job as a marine biologist to help start a stock broking company — without ever having invested in a stock in my life and having no prior business experience. I ended up trading stocks, being a compliance officer, accountant and secretary of the board all at the same time and realized my passion for this type of work and led me to go back and do an MBA.
As a part of our series about strong women leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Teri Loxam.
Teri is the current Chief Financial Officer of SQZ Biotech, a clinical stage biotechnology company developing cell therapies with the potential to impact patients across a wide range of diseases. She is a strategic leader with over 20 years of experience spanning Investor Relations, Strategy, Finance and Communications. She has previously held leadership positions at various companies, including SVP at Merck, Executive Director of Investor Relations at Bristol-Myers Squib, and VP at IMAX where she helped the company execute an IPO of their China business on the Hong Kong exchange.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! 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?
I have had a pretty winding and unconventional career path that led me to where I am now. Right out of school, my love of science jump started my career as a marine biologist — a world I still love. But when an opportunity presented itself to me to help start a stock broking company in San Diego, without ever having invested a stock in my life, I saw a huge opportunity to learn and grow a new side of my skillset. This was my first foray into business, which led me to go back to school and get my MBA. I’ve since pivoted a few more times in my career, leading investor relations for IMAX films and eventually landing back in the sciences with positions in Strategy, Investor Relations, and Communications at Merck and Bristol-Myers Squibb. Now I am the CFO of SQZ Biotech. I never had a pre-planned career path. I always allowed my passions and interests guide me and I pursued opportunities that gave me the greatest chance to learn and be challenged and provide the most value to the company. I am always willing to take risks, which is how I landed where I am today, in a job I love with a wealth of experience to add to the team.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
This entire past year as CFO of SQZ Biotech has been incredibly interesting and at times, unpredictable. I jumped right in, learning as much as I could about the unique science while diving into the company’s finances to better understand what resources we would need as we ramped up our first clinical trial for our novel cell therapy in cancer. But this last year has added an interesting twist for every company, hasn’t it? SQZ Biotech successfully dosed its first patient in January, right before COVID turned everyone’s world upside down. While I had already been doing scenario planning to ensure flexibility in the event of good or bad times, a global pandemic had not been part of the scenarios that we planned for! We needed to quickly figure out how we could keep our business running, keep our employees safe, and continue to get our treatments to patients in our trial. As others experienced as well, these were crazy times, and we often needed to make quick decisions with limited information and work closely as a team to navigate. Through the dedication of our incredible employees and the fantastic physicians and clinical sites we partner with, we were able to continue to enroll patients in our trial, sometimes having to get fairly creative to get the treatments from the manufacturing site back to the patients. We also continued to keep the investment community updated, helping them understand the potential impact our science could have on patients, and, in the height of the pandemic, we were able to close an important round of financing. Layering on the inherent risk in developing novel treatments for serious diseases along with the uncertainty with the pandemic definitely increased the importance of scenario planning, which looks to continue to be an interesting part of my job over the coming months!
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?
Early on in my career, after completing my MBA, I was working at Bristol-Myers Squibb, a large healthcare company, and I was slated to give a presentation to a large group, including the senior management team. I had done smaller presentations before, but this was going to be my first on stage in front of a big audience. I spent time preparing and practicing ahead of the big day, but I was still nervous. I took a deep breath before going on stage and managed to get through the presentation fairly well. However, what I didn’t realize until after was that my nerves had gotten the best of me. While I was presenting, my nervous hands had been buttoning and unbuttoning a couple buttons in the middle of my shirt! After walking off the stage, I noticed one of my buttons undone and my shirt all crumpled from my sweaty hands. Luckily, I had been standing behind a podium for the presentation, so I was hoping that I’m the only one that noticed, but I was mortified! I learned many lessons that day. First, I stayed away from presenting in buttoned shirts for many years! But more importantly, that experience prompted me to prepare for presentations in different ways… to be as conscious of my body and hands as I was about my words and slides. I started to practice using my hands and body to complement what I’m saying, which allowed me to stop hiding behind the podium and give more impactful presentations. I still get nervous, but that experience taught me that I can get through any presentation.
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?
My father was the person who helped get me to where I am today. Growing up, anytime I would say that I couldn’t do something, he would stop me and say “Never say I can’t. Always say I can.” I heard it over and over again to the point where “I can’t” was removed from my vocabulary and replaced with “I can.” My father showed me that with hard work, confidence, and perseverance I could do anything I set my mind to, whether it be in school, in sports, or in my career. I didn’t have to be the smartest, strongest or most experienced, but I became very good at learning quickly, being resourceful, and honing my skills and adapting for any situation. It’s never been easy, and I’ve had to work really hard, but I can’t think of a time when I have given up.
In sports, I was often the only girl playing on all-boys teams. In my career, I have often been the only woman in the room, which is something I am eager to change. I have jumped into positions without feeling completely ready. I have never fully known how I was going to make it work, but I always told myself that “I can do it…I just have to figure out the way.” And I was confident that I would. It’s amazing to think that two little words could have so much impact, but I strongly believe my father repeating “You can” to me over and over again provided me with the confidence in myself to get me to where I am today. And now, as a parent myself, I have found myself stopping my son when he says, “I can’t” and telling him never to say, “I can’t… Say I can!”
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 have found that taking time away to step back, see the big picture, and focus on one thing at a time helps me stay grounded. I have several go-to methods to relieve stress and take some time for myself, and exercise is definitely high on my list. Sometimes it will be as simple as a quick walk or a bike ride with my son to clear my mind. Other times I need a harder workout to recharge. I also play on a local hockey team and my weekly games are a great opportunity to fully disconnect for a couple hours. Another way I prepare myself for high stakes meetings, talks, or decisions is to go for a drive. Not sure why it helps but driving for me is relaxing and helps me think. I will often practice my presentations or play out a tough decision or conversation in the car while driving. For many, a long commute or driving is stressful. For me, it’s the opposite! And if exercise or a drive don’t do the trick… then my fail-safe is puppies! I love dogs, and all my stress melts away when I have dogs or other animals around. If I’m traveling or even at the office and need a break, I have often been known to go to a dog park to play with other people’s dogs! Ensuring that I release my stress and don’t burn out shows my commitment to bringing my best work to the company every day, and also having a fulfilling life outside of my work
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?
It is essential for businesses, not just in the life sciences but in all sectors, to have diversity in their leadership teams and broadly across their employee base. It’s important not just for the sake of equal opportunity, but to ensure diversity of thought. At SQZ Biotech, we have implemented practices to promote diverse hiring at all levels. All backgrounds can bring something different to the table and the diversity of perspective is something you can only get with diversity of people. Imagine the creativity we could achieve with more insights from different experiences! It is something SQZ is working on constantly, and I see the effort across the industry to do the same. If there is diversity in the leadership teams, people will see themselves represented on panels, websites, podiums, interviews….and we can inspire more people to jump into biotech. It is a step towards making the industry as a whole more diverse and inclusive.
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.
A good first step is to amplify voices that are experts in the space or offer alternative perspectives and know when to take a backseat and listen. We have to allow ourselves to be educated, stay proactive, and keep advocating for change. More concretely, in business, we need to be more purposeful in giving opportunities to those who might otherwise be overlooked, and to actively work to advance these people throughout their career. Establishing support systems, engaging with organizations that provide mentorship programs, and even encouraging individuals to jump in and mentor others, is all action in the right direction. There is so much to be done here. While at Bristol-Myers Squibb, I was a co-chair of the Women’s Affinity Network and I have always been actively involved in informal and formal mentoring at all of my companies. These programs are incredibly important. As a mentor, it gives me an opportunity to hear the concerns and thoughts of others in addition to providing a safe forum for me to offer constructive tips or advice. I have many examples of how these programs have been a benefit but there was one example in particular that really highlights it for me. I was matched with a woman of color in one of my mentoring programs. She was smart, hard-working, and articulate but she was getting frustrated and losing morale because she kept getting overlooked for a promotion while her male counterparts were being propelled ahead. After a few discussions, it became clear that there were two issues that were getting in the way. She was letting others take credit for her work and she didn’t have enough exposure to the cross-functional leadership team to advocate on her behalf. I had an opportunity to help on both. At our next leadership team meeting, I suggested that this person and her peers present their work to the leadership team as part of a portfolio review, instead of the leaders just giving a project recap. This provided an opportunity for my mentee to present her work and to not only show her skills for her functional area but also her presentation skills. Secondly, I was aware of a cross-functional project that was being discussed and they were looking for someone to lead it. I put forth my mentee as a good candidate which they agreed with. This gave my mentee an opportunity to show she was adaptable beyond her functional area. A year later, my mentee was promoted into a new department with much more responsibility! She did the hard work. But our mentoring relationship provided the venue to highlight the issue and gave me the opportunity to eliminate barriers and open some doors of opportunity. To me, this is what is important for us as to do as leaders… eliminate barriers and provide opportunity.
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?
A few words to explain what an executive does are strategize, inspire, think broadly and creatively to get to an outcome, and most importantly, LEAD. We are constantly having to make decisions that span all areas of the company, having to think through how different decisions will impact the employees, assessing the tradeoff between short- and long-term goals, and trying to navigate the place of the company within an ever evolving global and macro landscape. Few decisions are easy, and few are made with enough information, but as executives we need to make the best decisions possible with the information we have and be ready to quickly adapt as things change. And all of those decision need to be made with the thought that this will impact how each employee — and each person we communicate with — views the leaderships team and company. Executive thinking has to account for and balance all possible outcomes and impact across a broad set of stakeholders.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
The two biggest myths to me were that once you got to the top, it must get easier to make decisions and you must not have as much work to do since you have a team to support you. I have found both of these to be completely false! It does not just take the “power” to make the decisions. Making decisions becomes more difficult the higher up you go — for the exact reasons I mentioned before. You have to think through all the possible outcomes and impact across a variety of stakeholders. The impact of decisions are generally larger, since the decisions that get elevated to an executive are usually the toughest ones with the biggest downside consequences if you make the wrong decision. The outcomes can span many areas of the company, and it’s not realistic to be the subject matter expert across all areas. So, you have to rely on your team and their recommendation and often at the end of the day, trust your experience and gut. The other myth around having a lighter workload is completely the opposite. While I have always had a heavy workload in all of my positions, the breadth of the topics and workload significantly increase as you move up. You have to spread your time across many different areas and spread your learning across so many facets of the business. In one minute you might be having a career conversation with one of your team, the next minute you might be trying to figure out how a policy change in a country around the world will impact your business. This is another place where you have to learn to rely on your team. Life sciences is a very complex industry. Staying on top of the important advancements within your company as well as keeping pace with everything going on across the healthcare landscape and the world more broadly is a 24/7 job. Luckily, I love to learn!
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
Women executives face a lot of challenges that don’t plague our male counterparts, unfortunately. As a woman in the C-suite in STEM, it is not an uncommon situation where I am the only woman in the room, and this has been the case throughout my time in leadership roles. It is always challenging to be an “n of 1”, but it was always important to me to show why I was a valuable teammate and someone that was not just allowed in the room, but was asked over and over again to be in the room because I am needed. Because of the lack of representation, I feel like I have to work smarter and harder than my male counterparts to be heard and taken seriously. I have always been driven to be seen as an equal teammate and not just “the girl.” Since I had to work that much harder and often longer, I had to make choices, and sometimes sacrifices, along the way. I gave up eating dinner as a family and sometimes missed a few of my son’s games to pursue my career. But my son sees me as a strong woman who is important to the success of her company and I believe that will help shape his view of women in the future. As evidence, when my son was in elementary school, they had to write an essay about their idol, and he wrote it about me! He had to give a speech to his class and I was invited in to listen. He talked about how I might not be home every day or at every event, but I was helping to try to develop a cure for cancer which was much more important to him. In my experience, women tend to be judged more harshly than men for making these sacrifices. But I’ve learned along the way that there is no right and wrong way to navigate a career and family as a woman, the best thing to do is what is right for you. Follow your gut and don’t worry about being judged.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
There is not much that has surprised me in this job as CFO at SQZ Biotech. I have been fortunate in that many of my roles throughout my career have enabled me to work closely with many CEOs and CFOs, which provided me a good view of the various challenges and expectations. The breadth of my career across different industries and positions has also prepared me well for this role, as I’ve seen most aspects at some point in my career and I’m accustomed to learning quickly and working with and building teams.
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?
There are no hard and fast rules here, and if you want to grow into an executive role, there will always be a way to work hard and get there. A helpful quality to have is being able to be resourceful and solve challenges in unique ways with a sense of determination. People who approach problems with creativity and confidence will make good executives. To use myself as an example, I haven’t been in biotech my whole career, so I have perspectives from other industries. I have also experienced working at one of the largest companies in the world, while also being employee number three at a small start-up. I try to bring all of my experiences together and leverage what I have learned along the way and approach each set of challenges with these perspective in mind to get to the best solution. I have also worked hard to build a network of people along the way with many different perspectives and skillsets to tap into when questions arise, which is critical as an executive given the scope of topics you need to cover. Executives must also be comfortable working in the “grey area,” thinking through multiple scenarios and making decisions with generally imperfect information. There are rarely right and wrong answers or decisions. Being able to stay calm and think under pressure is a learned skill that will help any executive achieve their goals.
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
Develop a team where everyone feels heard and confident in bringing their best ideas to the table. Open and honest communication and valuing people’s opinions, especially ones that are different, is key. Fostering a team that trusts each other enough to state and debate opinions and recommendations openly will help you get to the best solutions. I like to create diverse teams to bring different backgrounds, experiences, opinions, and perspectives to the table. To create a successful team, you need experts in all spaces, which often means that you might be less informed or skilled in a particular area than some of your team. You need to be comfortable hiring people who are better than you. You shouldn’t be intimidated by other talent, but instead support and help develop them and learn from them. Always put the team ahead of yourself individually, which will motivate the team to work hard and drive the team to success.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
Mother Teresa once said, “I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples.” I’m a strong believer in this notion that you influence one person and one action at a time, which influences other people and actions and that all together it can make a big impact. Even when you don’t know you are influencing, you are. I once had a girl that I grew up with tell me that watching me play hockey as the only girl on an all-boys team gave her the confidence to go into a specialized engineering program in college where she was likely going to be the only female in the class. A woman of color that I was mentoring at one of my companies told me that hearing my career story and how I had taken risks to not only jump into new roles but new companies and industries inspired her to take the risk to change jobs, where she ended up thriving. I also had an employee tell me that working closely with me and seeing me show up as an authentic leader even in the face of criticism or adversity inspired him to openly come out as gay late in life. I hope and I am sure there are many examples that I am not even aware of. I have tried to be an authentic person in life and an authentic leader in my career. This all comes back to diversity and individuality. I truly care about helping others find their way in their careers — and every person I encounter is different. If I can lead by example, and mentor individuals with promise, I believe that one person at a time I can make an impact — rippling into their lives as well!
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Take risks, even when you don’t feel “ready”. I never felt “ready” for any of the roles I took on, but I had confidence in my ability to learn quickly and work with the people around me to help fill in my gaps along the way. I never had a pre-planned career path, and instead I sought opportunities that would give me the chance to learn and develop in a new way and had the potential to open more doors. I have not made these moves without considerable and careful thought, however, my mantra has always been if I can live with the worst-case scenario then I should take the risk. For example, I left my job as a marine biologist to help start a stock broking company — without ever having invested in a stock in my life and having no prior business experience. I ended up trading stocks, being a compliance officer, accountant and secretary of the board all at the same time and realized my passion for this type of work and led me to go back and do an MBA.
- Be an authentic leader. Be yourself and be transparent and honest even when this might be different from those around you. In return, this will allow your team members to be themselves and bring their best selves to work. Be self-aware and know your own strengths, style and limitations. Hire a team that can fill in your gaps and heighten your strengths. At one of my companies in particular, I was often described as “counter-cultural” because I would voice my opinions and advocate for change and active dialog in a group. I did this respectfully, but this company had been used to having dialog in the hallways, one-on-one outside the broader meeting so they didn’t have to disagree with each other in a group setting. This was not only inefficient but led to a lot of churn. I modeled my behavior with my team and soon, my immediate team was working much more efficiently and productively together. It took time, but my modeled behavior started to rub off across other teams and influence the dialog and behavior across a broader part of the company.
- It’s okay to make mistakes and asking for advice or help is not a sign of weakness… it’s actually a sign of strength and confidence. Encourage everyone to respectfully debate, share ideas and voice their opinions. Be clear in what you expect from people but let them make their own mistakes and learn from them, which will reinforce that there is not just one “right” way to do things. The more we try new approaches the more we will have opportunities to learn and tweak and adapt. Having an organization that is willing to try and make mistakes has generally led to quicker and better solutions in my experience.
- Don’t fret about a decision, statement or opinion that you have made. I have a high bar for myself and others when it comes to quality and productivity. As a result, I spent many sleepless nights early on in my career recounting conversations and thinking I should have done something differently. Throughout my career I have realized that it is good to reflect on a decision or a conversation, but don’t let it paralyze you… change the future, you can’t change the past. What I have realized is that I am much more critical of myself than others and that what I play over and over again in my head may not have even registered or been heard by others. Control what you can control in that moment. Be as prepared as you can. Make the best decisions that you can make at the time. But once the decision is made, move forward.
- Share as much information as you can with those around you. Oftentimes, I have seen people hoard information as it makes them feel important or powerful. I was guilty of this early on in my career as well. I have learned, however, that the quicker you share, the sooner you will be able to tap into the skills of the team around you and get to the best solution. It is not about the individual contributions but the results of the entire team. If the team succeeds, the individual succeeds. Yes, there might be individuals who stand out at various times and get extra attention, but over time, as different situations come about, different skill sets and different individuals will rise and be at the forefront. If you trust your team and you all share a common objective, all individuals will rise with the team much more than one individual will be able to do on their own.
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.
I hope the movement I can help inspire is one of risk taking and embracing creative thinking when helping patients. I believe I have already started to contribute to this movement by joining SQZ Biotech. This company’s science could revolutionize cell therapy treatment and potentially make a significant difference for patients across many disease areas. But our path is very different from what people are used to. We have a novel technology and it takes thinking outside the box to use that advantage to help people. I had been working for a large pharmaceutical company before this, which was also making innovative treatments for patients, but once I was introduced to SQZ Biotech I knew I had to leave the safety of my last company and join SQZ Biotech to do everything I could to help make this potential revolution a reality. The movement is hopefully one of hard-working people willing to take risks and continue to move forward in the face of adversity to create new possibilities for patients.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
A quote that has always resonated with me is by Wayne Gretzky who said, “You miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take.”
Wayne Gretzky is one of the greatest hockey players of all time and this quote highlights the need to take risks and not be afraid of failure. If you wait for everything to be perfect and risk-free, you will miss your opportunities. You need to do everything you can to make it a high probability shot but if you wait for the perfect one, you will miss the opportunity. Take every shot you can and don’t worry if they don’t all go in.
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
There are many people, especially across the business and sports world, that I would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with. But the one that stands out for me is Bill Belichick, the head coach of the New England Patriots football team. Bill Belichick owns the most wins among all active NFL coaches and ranks third all-time with 304 total victories as a head coach. There are infinite examples of Bill Belichick’s ability to adapt to his opponent and his environment and he is incredible at placing talent where they will succeed and elevate the team. He has taken players that had been labeled as too small, too slow or complete misfits and made them an integral part of a winning team. Leadership, adaptability, accountability, dependability, hard work, consistency… these are just a few of the words that players, other coaches and media say when talking about Belichick. My own leadership style has been heavily influenced by my involvement in competitive team sports throughout my life and my style embodies teams and identifying unique talents in individuals. I’m a talent seeker — I can often see talents that people don’t even see themselves, and putting people in the right positions so that each individual elevates the team in total has been critical to my success and the success of my teams. Bill Belichick takes this to a whole other level! While I have continued to work on my ability to coach a world-class team, being able to sit down and discuss the keys to success with Bill Belichick and be able to ask him questions such as how he keeps his teams motivated, how he keeps himself motivated, how he convinces his front office management of moves when they seem crazy and risky, and many more questions…would be incredibly valuable to me as a business person and an athlete.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.