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Bria Martin of ‘Ultragenyx Pharmaceutical’: “You can never really understand someone until you walk in their shoes”

You can never really understand someone until you walk in their shoes. This for me is all about compassion and not making assumptions. Everyone is walking around with a set of life experiences that we cannot possibly know or understand. When we don’t fail to recognize this, we go to a place of judgement — and nothing […]

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You can never really understand someone until you walk in their shoes. This for me is all about compassion and not making assumptions. Everyone is walking around with a set of life experiences that we cannot possibly know or understand. When we don’t fail to recognize this, we go to a place of judgement — and nothing good comes from that place. In those moments, I try to notice when I start to get triggered or judge and instead, I try to get curious, and ask myself, “I wonder what happened in their life that caused them to engage that way?” I try to give them the benefit of the doubt, or as Brene Brown would say “offer the most generous interpretation” for their actions. When I do this, I instantly become more empathetic, see the humanity of the other person and seek to understand.


As a part of our series about women who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Bria Martin.

Bria Martin is the Vice President of Organizational Strategy and Development for Ultragenyx, and the creator of the Organizational Consciousness™ approach that she has piloted over the last five years. Her mission is to share the positive impact and results from her work at Ultragenyx in order to help other companies embark on a journey to create businesses and cultures of profound growth and positive impact. Bria spent the first fifteen years of her career in management consulting, helping leaders align their culture with their company purpose, vision and strategy. Her work ranged from deep leadership work, transformation strategy, global sustainability, and culture change. After the birth of her first child, she became even more committed to creating organizations where she would be proud to have her kids work, and took a role at Ultragenyx where she was able to leverage the latest thinking in organizational behavior and neuroscience to develop and pilot the Organizational Consciousness™ approach. When she is not working, Bria’s greatest source of joy comes from her family, where she and her husband have the honor of raising four incredible children.


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 graduated from college and wanted to “save the world” (seriously, this is what I wanted to do) so I became a Youth Director, thinking I would get my masters in social work because I have always had a passion for children. After a year of doing this work, I found myself at 22 years old and burned out. I had given my life over to this work and realized I was overcome with sadness when I saw kids suffering and not being able to be as helpful as possible, resulting in being extremely impacted on an emotional level. Eventually, I decided to take a different approach and stumbled into a boutique management consulting firm focused on really compelling leadership and culture work, leading me to try and “save the world” through organizations and make a difference that way.

After years of working in different firms and agencies and becoming a seasoned consultant, my biggest “aha” moment and wake-up call came when I found myself, once again, on the verge of burnout because I could not establish boundaries with my clients or team and was available 24/7 for everyone. The challenge was that I was pregnant with my first child and was also experiencing a high-risk pregnancy– something my crazy working hours weren’t helping! When I went into labor a few weeks early, I was in the delivery room, with iPhone in hand, sending notes and texts to my clients and team at 3 a.m. It wasn’t until a nurse took my phone from my hand and looked me in the eyes and told me, “There is nothing more important than this,” that I woke up to what was happening. It was then that I surrendered to that experience and once my son was placed in my arms I knew that the way I was working would no longer work for the life I wanted to live — for my son or myself. It was then that I embarked on a different way of relating to work. On that journey, it made me realize that the work I wanted to do was create caring cultures in purpose-driven organizations.

Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?

I’m trying to get organizations to make humanity their bottom line — something that most don’t consider today. I’ve coined this model, “Organizational Consciousness.” I want to shift the focus we see in so many companies and industries from “How can we cross the finish line first?”, to “How can we all cross the finish line together?”. This means every organization in every sector takes an honest look at what they do and how they do it, to see how their company is helping humanity or harming it. It then requires companies mapping out a path to making the betterment of humanity their primary driver and adapting and evolving their business to do so.

The other piece to this requires companies to see themselves as responsible for creating cultures that support profound growth for their people. It’s not enough to just have a business focus, rather there needs to be the focus on people and providing them the tools and environment to cultivate greater awareness, compassion and connection to a bigger purpose.

Over the last five years we have piloted the Organizational Consciousness approach at Ultragenyx. When I was offered this role, I knew I wanted to create an organization where I would be proud for my kids to work — and I was fortunate to join an already purpose-driven company with a set of leaders whole-heartedly committed to this work. With a company mission to improve the lives of our rare disease patients, and a culture that supports profound personal growth, we have seen some incredible results at Ultragenyx, including:

  • the launch of four products in three years, with two approvals in less than two weeks in 2020
  • one of the most successful rare disease launches of all time
  • 91% favorable employee engagement scores that have strengthened during the pandemic
  • known for responsible pricing (in an industry that doesn’t garner this type of recognition)
  • 2–3 years faster in rare disease development timelines than most other rare disease companies
  • treated approximately 160 patients in over 20 countries through compassionate access programs
  • reputation as being an exceptional rare disease company

The last five years have shown me what is possible for organizations today — that you can make humanity the bottom line for your business, create a culture that truly cares about people and achieve incredible results in the process.

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?

I have so many, but there is one that stands out and makes me laugh to this day. It’s that during my first job in a consulting firm, I decided within the first wo weeks that I didn’t want the mostly administrative position that I interviewed for and explicitly agreed to. Instead, I wanted to do consulting work. My strategy to do the job I wanted to do was to take on extra consulting projects and work, and basically do the bare minimum of the administrative things I was hired to do. It wasn’t until I received feedback that I wasn’t doing the job they asked me to do that I realized that my strategy was all wrong! I had to excel at the work they hired me to do — even if I didn’t want to do it — and then I would earn the opportunity to do the more interesting consulting work that I wanted to do. Seems obvious now but for a 22-year old, it was a lightbulb moment for me. I decided to give the job they gave me 110 percent and within six months they created a new role for me, doing what I wanted to do.

We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?

One of my dearest mentors was one of the partners of the first consulting firm I joined, and he is still a close friend and mentor today. When I first started working with him, he told me that he saw our work as trying to create organizations where he would be proud to have his kids work. As an early 20-something I thought this sounded really cool. But a decade or two later, as a mother myself, in these turbulent times, these words have taken on a much deeper meaning for me. Now, with every company I have helped and every place I have worked, I am thinking about how to create cultures and businesses where all people — from all backgrounds and walks of life — can thrive.

In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?

Positive disruption is having a positive impact on the greater good. It’s making an improvement or creating something new that supports the betterment of humanity and the planet — and doesn’t cause harm in the process. For example, the workplace, positive disruption comes in the form of programs that support people in restorative practices that have them taking a step back from their work to refuel themselves, via meditation, exercise, a walk-in nature. These things actually help people be more productive, not less so. Other things like generous paid family and medical leave policies that include all parents via any forms of a child entering into your life (e.g. birth, adoption, surrogacy, etc.) are so important for companies to adopt. When we broaden the inclusivity of these practices to support all people, through all major life moments — both positive and challenging — we can best support and care for people in the times they need it the most.

Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.

  1. You can never really understand someone until you walk in their shoes. This for me is all about compassion and not making assumptions. Everyone is walking around with a set of life experiences that we cannot possibly know or understand. When we don’t fail to recognize this, we go to a place of judgement — and nothing good comes from that place. In those moments, I try to notice when I start to get triggered or judge and instead, I try to get curious, and ask myself, “I wonder what happened in their life that caused them to engage that way?” I try to give them the benefit of the doubt, or as Brene Brown would say “offer the most generous interpretation” for their actions. When I do this, I instantly become more empathetic, see the humanity of the other person and seek to understand.
  2. It’s not your job to please people. As a recovering, over-achieving, people-pleaser, I focused so much energy on trying to be what I thought others wanted me to be. I couldn’t speak my truth, or do anything outside the box, for fear others wouldn’t like it and they wouldn’t approve of me. Without realizing it, that way of living was making me miserable, and I lost sight of who I was and what I wanted. When I was 22, I was fortunate to have the chance to do some deep personal reflection through the Hoffman Process. It was there that I reclaimed my voice, my beliefs and my ideas and, ultimately discover more fulfillment in my life, and in my relationships. This led to career choices in alignment with my purpose, a marriage to an amazing partner and a work/life balance that allows me to me the mom and colleague I want to be — all because I’m doing things in alignment with myself, not others.
  3. Breakdown = Breakthrough. In all of the moments of my life that have been immensely challenging, I have found some of the most powerful lessons and insights that have led to tremendous growth and new possibilities. So when there is a challenge in any area of life, I let myself move through the emotions and process what I need to, but I do it with the solace that it will lead to something better on the other side.

We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?

I feel called to serve now, more than ever. I want my work to support humanity in moving through this challenging time and create a model for what is possible for organizations and their cultures. The current model and approach isn’t working for many organizations. All we have to do is look at the alarming wealth gap, racial and social injustice, global pandemic and climate crisis to see that we have to transform our old ways of working and establish a new paradigm where generations after us can thrive. We have an opportunity to lead and facilitate a Great Rebalancing in so many areas of life, and this is something I feel called to do — for my children and all of the children of the world. My hope is that by sharing the model of what we have done at Ultragenyx, I can inspire new hope and commitment in other organizations to take part in this Organizational Consciousness movement.

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

I think the biggest challenge is that disruption comes with an expectation to be bold, audacious and shake things up in a really visible way. This type of disruption is typically packaged in what I call the “the 4 As” — ambition, acceleration, achievement and assertiveness. These qualities are expected with disruption to “make things happen,” however I think there are another set of qualities that can be just as powerful, if not even more powerful. The 4 Cs — compassion, collaboration, creativity and community — are focused on connection and are often overlooked and devalued as the “soft skills”. But I can say — as someone who felt for the first 15 years of my career that I had to lead with The 4 As — that there is strength in softness! In fact, when I started to intentionally integrate and evolve my approach to lean on The 4 Cs, I discovered a more subtle and sustainable of disruption in my work. A kind that brought people along on a journey, rather than thrust them into a new paradigm. With so much unexpected and unwelcomed disruption in the world today, a more connection-focused disruption that strengthens relationships, sense of belonging and purpose, I have found to be more effective and with a more lasting impact.

Do you have a book/podcast/talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us?

Too many to name here, as I am a voracious reader, documentary watcher and podcast listener. The ones that have been most influential for me have been first and foremost is anything by Brene Brown. She changed the way I think about my work and helped me really cultivate vulnerability and courage in my life and in my work. Her work also helped me lead by sharing my truth, the messiness and all, and when I facilitate I share my story openly including challenges in my own leadership and growth, and the path that I am on. Each time I do, people come up to me afterwards and say, “Thank you for being so honest and open, it helped me feel safe to do so as well.”

I also love Don Miguel Ruiz’ book, The Four Agreements, as they are simple, yet profound and great guiding principles for individuals and organizations. It’s something I have also used with groups at offsites and the conversations are always so rich and reflective, allowing people to see where they have not taking things personally or made assumptions that led to challenges that could have been avoided.

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

I believe the future of work — and really what is needed for not just businesses to thrive but humanity and the planet — is Organizational Consciousness. It’s a movement where leaders and companies look for ways that their business can help humanity — by both what they do and how they do it. The Organizational Consciousness movement also looks to create cultures of profound growth for their people. Because so much of the power, wealth and influence sits with companies, this is a place where I believe we can have a huge impact. And right now, with a global pandemic, racial and social injustice, an alarming wealth-gap, and our planet breaking before our eyes it could not be clearer that we need profound change. The way we are working, living and relating to each other isn’t working, and hasn’t worked for a long time.

Organizations, today, have a real and present opportunity to create environments where employees feel empowered to help humanity and the planet, along with generating shareholder value. The driving focus on earnings, market share growth, and stock price has shown its limitations. People, communities and the planet are showing deep wounds from our narrow lens. It’s time to wake up our organizations and raise our collective consciousness to what is possible. That is the movement I’m trying to spark — and in my work at Ultragenyx I can see that this model works.

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

I think the quote that stands out to me for two reasons is, “be the change you want to see in the world.”. Firstly, I was raised by parents and step-parents who were fundamentally in service of others — in the work they did and how they lived their lives. This was ingrained in me from an early age, and I had a deep awareness of the suffering of the world and was fortunate to be exposed to work locally and abroad where I could help other people. Furthermore, I saw that I could be someone who could do something to positively impact the lives of others — and even if it was just one person or one family. As I look at the world today, and see things that I want to change, I look at what I can do to make an impact and be a force of positive change.

Additionally, “being the change I want to see in the world” is about me being in an ongoing journey of growth and self-discovery — because the change in the world comes from not just the things we do outside of ourselves, but from the inner work we do on ourselves. If I want more compassion in the world, I have to cultivate that towards myself and others. If I want more racial and social justice, then I have to look at my privilege and how I have benefited from systemic racism and make the necessary internal corrections.

How can our readers follow you online?

The best way to follow me is on LinkedIn @BriaMartin.

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