Bristol Myers Squibb SVP Catherine Owen: “Don’t underestimate yourself”

…Even as a senior leader, if I say something and someone squashes it, I think, “Wow! That really popped my bubble.” So, I imagine how other people might feel. It’s incumbent upon me to foster an inclusive environment that allows people to speak their mind. I don’t tolerate seeing or hearing people’s actions or opinions […]

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…Even as a senior leader, if I say something and someone squashes it, I think, “Wow! That really popped my bubble.” So, I imagine how other people might feel. It’s incumbent upon me to foster an inclusive environment that allows people to speak their mind. I don’t tolerate seeing or hearing people’s actions or opinions being suppressed.


As a part of our series about strong women leaders, we had the pleasure of interviewing Catherine Owen.

Catherine Owen, senior vice president of Major Markets for Bristol Myers Squibb, oversees commercialization operations in 19 key markets including Japan, Canada and Europe, covering the company’s portfolio of innovative prescription medicines in oncology, hematology, cardiovascular, and immunology. Catherine is an accomplished pharmaceutical executive with 20+ years of progressive, multi-national experience leading world-class brands and businesses in top 10 pharmaceutical companies. She is passionate about developing people and has served as a mentor for numerous colleagues throughout her career. In recognition of her efforts, she was named a recipient of the 2019 Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association Luminary Award and was previously named as Fortune NexGen Most Powerful Woman in 2016 & 2017. Catherine earned her degree in pharmacy from the University of Manchester, England, and her post-graduate degree in Marketing from the University of London


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?

I’m a pharmacist by training and had always been interested in the pharmaceutical industry. I thought I wanted to be in R & D, so I started my career working in a sterile pharmaceutical manufacturing plant, scrubbed up from head-to-toe every day, as part of AstraZeneca’s R & D management acceleration program. It was not very elegant! I enjoyed my time at the plant and the opportunity to understand more about how medicines were manufactured, but I wasn’t feeling the excitement I was looking for.

After talking to quite a few colleagues to get their perspective on other careers within the industry, I realized my real passion was helping doctors to meet the needs of their patients. So, I decided to set my sights on moving into the commercial side of the business. To succeed, I knew I needed to hone my business skills and get some experience in sales, because that was where everyone seemed to start.

I took a bit of a gamble and joined Janssen (part of Johnson & Johnson) as a sales rep in London, while going to night school to get a marketing degree. I was working within hematology and HIV, and quickly fell in love with the field, wanting to understand the decisions that doctors made in prescribing drugs for patients. Solving the marketing puzzle was also a source of inspiration: What are patients’ needs and how do we educate doctors about a certain drug effectively? How does it compete with other medicines? What data should we be sharing to help them understand where to use it? Over the next few years in sales, I acquired my marketing degree, advocated for myself to join the marketing team, and won my first product manager role.

After a decade of moving between marketing and sales leadership roles, I wondered if I should explore other opportunities at Johnson & Johnson and applied for an international development program to spend two years in the United States, which is home to the company’s headquarters and the world’s largest drug market.

That began the biggest challenge of my life: In 2003, I moved ‘across the pond’ to start a new job in a new country with a new husband and eight-week-old daughter. In retrospect, I wouldn’t have piled on quite so many “news” at once, but we managed, and I settled into my new role in global marketing. It was fascinating to be at the center of a global product launch, working closely with many people in the business who contribute to the drug development journey.

I loved my global role and our U.S. location and wanted to continue to climb the career ladder. So, I studied other senior executives’ career paths. It became clear that to succeed, I would need deep experience leading a U.S. business. I thought it made sense to follow their example, so my husband and I decided to make our new country our home for the foreseeable future. I spent the next 10 years moving between U.S. pharmaceutical and medical device businesses working in many different therapeutic areas, including on launches, with late-life cycle products, and even took a detour into our internal venture capital business.

I’m proud that I broke a few glass ceilings along the way, culminating in my first President role in Janssens’ infectious disease and vaccine business and finally as President of immunology, where I was responsible for a 9 billion dollars business.

Last year, I joined Bristol-Myers Squibb as Senior Vice President of Major Markets, where I now lead 19 of the company’s largest markets outside of the U.S. No matter my role, I’m always guided by the same sense of mission that inspired me from the beginning of my career: How can we get drugs to the patients who need them?

Is there a particular person that helped you get where you are today?

I think there are three or four people who had a pivotal influence on my career path. Some helped me decide to take a chance on a specific job, and others encouraged my leadership growth and development. But what they all had in common was that they recognized the good in me and what I could achieve.

In terms of leadership development, I’m particularly grateful to one hugely insightful leader. Six months after working together, she told me exactly what I needed to hear: “Catherine, you’re really good at inspiring people, but you don’t always bring everyone along with you,” she said. “You want to go from A to B, but you don’t realize that they want to go via C, D and E.” Her point was that eventually, we were all going to arrive at B, but that I’d have much more success if I accommodated people’s need to stop at C, D and E along the way. I was stunned because this was so obvious. She really helped me understand the value of the journey, which is as important as the destination. The key is to all arrive together; you don’t need to have traveled the same path!

As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision?

As a student, I didn’t really study that hard and was used to flying by the seat of my pants and achieving success! I was generally dismissive of the notion of practicing and rehearsing. However, after many years of learning what works in business, I’ve realized that practice and preparation are critical to making sure things go well. So, I tend to practice my first slide or first opening paragraph in big important meetings. I rehearse the first two or three sentences of a presentation or practice how I’m going to introduce a topic in a difficult one-to-one meeting. If I’m unsure about how anything is going to come across, I practice.

In terms of physically preparing, I wish I could say I was a yogi or an amazing Peloton cyclist, but I’m not. I’m a big proponent of sleep, however. I try and get eight or nine hours a night because I know that my body functions best when I’m not tired.

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?

I have a unique perspective about diversity because I lived in Japan from ages six to 10. I obviously stood out being a blond, white child who didn’t speak Japanese and quickly understood what it’s like to feel alone because of how you look. From an early age, I always enjoyed being part of a multi-cultural group. I love learning about new cultures and understanding more about how other peoples’ experiences shape the way they think. At university, I was happy to be part of a thriving diverse group of students in Manchester, England with Indian, Pakistani, Asian, and European classmates.

Yet, as a leader, it doesn’t matter to me where people are from. What I value more than anything is diversity of thought. I want to hear from everyone. That includes the quiet thoughtful analytical leader as well as the loud “say how it is” leader. I’ve really strived to bring diverse talent to my team. I’ve learned through experience what my weaknesses are. I’m a very assertive big-picture thinker. I know the outcome is always better when you have different types of contributions.

I’ve also come to appreciate that there are many ways of not feeling like part of a team. People can feel excluded for any number of reasons, such as their sexual orientation, political views or whether they have children. As part of my Diversity & Inclusion journey, I’ve noticed there’s been a lot of focus on “D.” But I’ve realized that the “I” is equally important. Diversity comes in all shapes and sizes, but a truly diverse organization works best only when everyone feels included. You need to be able to bring your whole self to work, feel heard, feel valued, and feel part of the team.

As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society?

Even as a senior leader, if I say something and someone squashes it, I think, “Wow! That really popped my bubble.” So, I imagine how other people might feel. It’s incumbent upon me to foster an inclusive environment that allows people to speak their mind. I don’t tolerate seeing or hearing people’s actions or opinions being suppressed.

If it’s something egregious, I’ll absolutely call it out in a meeting. But that really doesn’t happen very often. The offense is usually a little more passive-aggressive. I’ll normally take that person aside and point out their behavior. It’s not easy to combat a dysfunctional or discriminatory workplace culture, but as leaders, we must do it.

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

In a word, “mansplaining,” which can be truly frustrating! In general, I think there are more practical challenges involved in being a working mother. And if you don’t have a supportive partner or system around you, balancing it all can be tougher for women than for men. I have an amazing partner. We share everything 50/50, and it’s still hard. But for whatever reason, I seem to feel guiltier than my husband does as I make tradeoffs and choices. As a result, there were times in my career when I’ve chosen to move sideways, instead of moving up. I simply couldn’t take more responsibility because I had two small babies. But I used those times in my career to find new roles that gave me different experiences. So, I was always moving forward. In a way, I think it worked out! I have had a variety and breadth of roles that many others in my peer group have not.

Also, I hate to generalize, but I don’t think as many men experience confidence issues the same way some women do at various points during their careers, in looking to demonstrate their value.

I’m particularly thankful for one male mentor, a very senior leader at Johnson & Johnson, who gently pushed me to go after a job that I never would have considered. I wanted to be promoted to my first vice president role, and I assumed it would be in the commercial division because that’s where I’d already been working. But he advised me to take a completely different route and try the corporate venture group. I immediately thought, “I’ve never run a venture. I’m really underqualified for this role!” The job involved working with nuclear scientists from MIT near Boston. These were actual rocket scientists who’d just put a nuclear warhead into space. But my mentor said: “Catherine, you can do this. Don’t underestimate yourself.” He explained the job would be a strategic move that would give me valuable experience and differentiate me later for future promotions.

Of course, I ended up loving the job and working with small academic teams with bright ideas that Johnson & Johnson wanted to cultivate. The nuclear scientists worked on re-purposing a system that once guided nuclear warheads into one that could sustain cellular scaffolding for artificial kidneys. I worked with a small team, and we ended up developing a business plan that we pitched to 40 VC companies around the world to get external funding.

I never would have had that experience, if hadn’t been for that male mentor — as well as several others throughout my career — who taught me not to listen to my inner critical voice.

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

For me, it’s giving back through mentorship. It’s giving confidence to others. It’s giving practical advice on everything from having a baby and moving to a new country to finding a support system or figuring out how to make a nutritious dinner when you don’t have time to shop!

I’m very open about the times when I’ve made an error and haven’t known what to do next. I think making the world a better place is helping other people feel supported — both women and men.

They see I’ve got two great kids, a supportive husband, two dogs, and a nice house. It looks like a perfect situation from the outside. But we have had some hard times and had to make sacrifices. Like anyone, I’m worried about whether I’m doing the right thing by my kids and by my extended family.

So, I like sharing what’s helped me. I also like to volunteer for causes that mean a lot to me personally, such as being a member of nonprofit boards for about 10 years now, with a specific focus on supporting mental health charities. I have given my time to help them build marketing plans, find financial support or think about their promotional strategies. Using my business experience to help them, and the people they serve to become more successful, has been very fulfilling. I now sit on the board of a very large hospital system and am enjoying understanding how I can contribute to their continued success

Is there any piece of career advice that you wish you had known before you got started?

I’d go back to my college self and tell her, “You can do it!” I was lucky that I had a vision from the start about what I wanted to do and where I wanted to go. But I would have welcomed that boost of confidence.

As for the career advice I’d give me now? I’d say “Don’t plan your life so hard that you lock out other opportunities. Don’t plan it to the point where you don’t open your mind to other ways of doing things and other experiences.”

I’ve widened my lens of focus over the years to embrace other voices and other thoughts. At the beginning of my career, I thought so linearly: “Okay, I’m a sales rep now. I must be a product manager next. Then I must be a product director and then a district manager, then a great product director and then a national sales director.” And that’s exactly what I did!

But at this point, I’m more receptive to letting new opportunities trickle in, however the universe presents them. Even if they’re outside my original plan, I’ve embracing what they might add to that plan. In a way, I’m following the advice a mentor gave me long ago about appreciating if others took a different route to get where we needed to go. Now I think to myself: “There might be different ways of getting to where you want to go. Let’s be open and learn from them.”

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