I was invited to be the keynote speaker at the 2023 Building Biotech event from The Student Biotechnology Network (theSBN.ca). The following is my speech from that evening.
Thank you, Nastaran, Shivani, and Susana, for inviting me to speak tonight, and for that nice introduction. I have been associated with The SBN for more than 10 years, as a participant in networking events, a mentor, a sponsor, and on the Board, and I look forward to staying involved as the SBN continues with its mission of inspiration, innovation, and leadership in biotechnology.
I was asked to speak tonight about my career path and building and leveraging networking in biotech, and I want to consider the theme of being purposeful – in career, networking, and mentorship – as the common thread of all of these.
Best to start with a bit about me – my imaginary Wikipedia bio: originally from Winnipeg, MB, I received a BSc from University of Manitoba and worked in agriculture research for a few years before relocating to Vancouver. It was 1990, and it sounds strange to say this now but then an emerging field was the environment, specifically pollution, contamination, and site remediation. I was hired by a local testing laboratory as a technician. In 1991, the company was awarded a large research project and selected me to manage the project. That was the symbolic moment when I took off my lab coat and began my career as a project manager, even before I knew that that was a profession.
I stayed in the environmental management sector for several years, moving from the lab to consulting and eventually to an oil company as the environmental manager. Here, I learned about contract and contractor management, negotiation, corporate politics, leadership, and confidence. I also learned about self-determination and resilience, emerging after a corporate downsizing, and realizing the opportunity to again choose a field of work. This time, it would be life sciences. I worked successively and successfully in management and project management roles with a CRO, a funding agency, and with a large-scale research department. This latter, the BC Cancer Michael Smith Genome Sciences Centre, was my work-home for nearly 20 years, and I moved progressively through positions of increased scope and responsibility, authority and accountably, ending up as Director of Management and Administration.
During my time at the GSC, I started my own company, Lyric Management, with the aim of enabling me to have a home for my side hustles in training, coaching, and management, as well as a future goal of being set-up to work when I left my job. And that’s where I am now – an entrepreneur and leader of a one-person enterprise.
All of that is where I was, where I went, and how I got here in my career. It can really only be called a “path” in retrospect, as it certainly did not involve a plan or a map, and it wasn’t laid out in any orderly way. But I can say that, no matter where I was, what was happening, what I was doing, I did have a purpose. I wanted to be involved in a scientific environment. I wanted to contribute to science and research. Being a project manager gave me the opportunities to be a part of science in ways that were purposeful, enabling, and valuable – ways that I could not have done if I’d stayed in the lab (where, honestly, I was not very good). As a research enabler (one of the best compliments I ever got), I help make research happen by managing things well, removing barriers and finding opportunities, and creating a path for responsible and sound conduct of research.
About 10 years ago, while at BC Cancer, a plaque commemorating a large gift from the Jambor-McCarthy family to BC Cancer Foundation was installed in the elevator lobby of the now JD Blackmore BC Cancer Research Centre. It includes their family motto: work hard, live well, give back. I’ve adopted this motto as my own mission statement and try to follow and exemplify these in my work and life. That motto reflects my purpose within the scientific enterprise – to lead by example, to create pathways and opportunities for others through engagement and empowerment, to value all contributions and make work fun, creative, and respectful.
As I said my career path was not intentional or deliberate. I did not graduate in 1988 and say, “one day, I want to be a project manager”. I was opportunistic in the sense that I considered and then acted upon opportunities as they emerged, but I wouldn’t say that I sought them out or tried to create them. I was open to experiences and aware of where those might take me. I chose some paths and avoided others (for example, sales and marketing – I’m neither good at nor do I enjoy those). But I was purposeful – I wanted to be in science and tech rather than social work, arts, resources, law, or politics. I wanted to learn and then be able to teach others. I wanted to be successful enough to be comfortable and respected, with ongoing opportunities to be challenged and grow. In other words, to work hard, live well, and give back.
Two important areas where I’m also purposeful are networking and mentoring.
My network has been instrumental in providing me with opportunities at key crossroads in my career. When I lost my job at the oil company and decided to pivot to life sciences, I reached out to one of my old bosses at the environmental lab. We had stayed connected, but my situation had just changed, and I wanted to see if I could rely on them for a reference in my job hunt. Their response was, “you mean you’re available for work right now?” Turned out, they were branching out – purposefully – starting a CRO and looking for a general manager. Fate, timing, luck, serendipity – call it what you will, but I call it the power of purposeful networking.
A purposeful network is not one that is large or “well connected.” It’s not just LinkedIn connections or social media followers or likes. A purposeful network has these four characteristics. Real means that every connection is real - everyone in your network is someone you actually know, and ideally, they know you, too. You remember how you know them, where you met. Meaningful means that you know why they are they – what you might be able to do or share with them (and vice versa) that either of you will find meaningful, relevant, and helpful. Mutually beneficial means exactly that – that at some point, either of you will get value out of the connection. Sustained means that it’s not just about today – it’s about the long-term, a lifetime and a career’s worth of connection. In my LinkedIn network of more than 1,200 connections are people that I worked with more than 30 years ago in my first job, and I can still reach out to them now with a question, or to seek or propose an opportunity, or to congratulate them on an accomplishment. It’s not weird or phony or needy because the connections are real, meaningful, mutually beneficial, and sustained – they are purposeful.
Two years ago, as I turned up the volume on Lyric Management to be my full-time work, the strength and purpose of my network was powerfully realized. Because my network was purposeful, I was able to lean into it – lean on my reputation and my connections – and gently seek opportunities for work by making my availability and my desire to work known. This was important for success in my business, due to my aforementioned aversion to sales and marketing. Even that was somewhat addressed through my network – while I loathe those activities, I have a few people in my network that love them, and loved me enough to help out.
A mutual benefit of a purposeful network is learning and growing from and with others, which is essentially what mentorship is – actively learning from someone else. We tend to see mentorship as a formal relationship, involving a request and an agreement and then some structured meeting points and objectives. That formality can be appropriate and purposeful, but I’ve come to learn that it is not essential for all mentoring. We’re presented with opportunities to learn from and be influenced by others all the time. Purposeful mentorship means that we’re being intentional about that learning, and we can do that with or without formality. If we’re sincere about wanting to learn, curious about and open to those learning opportunities, and committed to our own growth and contributing to the growth of those around us, then mentorship can be happening all the time and anytime. Whenever we have the opportunity to observe or engage with someone we might want to learn from or emulate, we can have some informal mentorship simply by paying attention and consciously adding that experience into our own learning and growth. I’ve been very fortunate that many of my previous colleagues, collaborators, bosses, and managers are people that I wanted to learn from. Only one of those became a formal mentorship arrangement; for the others, I made a point of learning from them through observation, respectful discussion, and conscious efforts to emulate, and thanking them often for their inspiration and insights.
An important feature of mentorship that is sometimes missed: it can be just as important to learn what NOT to do. As I moved into more leadership roles and responsibilities, I looked back at those I had previously looked to for leadership, and made conscious decisions about who to emulate and who not to. This important informal mentorship taught me perhaps as much or more as the any deliberate mentorship, as I learned to avoid being exactly the kind of leader I didn’t want to be.
We all have opportunities to be mentors and models for those we work with, and as part of being purposeful we should welcome those, not just for the giving back but also for the practice in modelling and exercising good behaviours. At the beginning of your career, you may not feel that you have skills or experience to offer, but you do – there is always someone who is more junior, less confident, and in need of a kindness or a helping hand, and who can benefit from your experience. Here, we can follow the narrative or cinematic device of “show, don’t tell” – mentor by example, show what to do and how to be, and people will look to you for more.
For both networking and mentoring, we can consider this metaphor: dig your well before you’re thirsty. Don’t wait until you need a network to start building one. Don’t focus only on what you can get out of a network or mentorship. Don’t forget that both take effort on your part, and that the reward – the return on that investment of time, energy, and courage – may take time and may come in a form that you’re not expecting. Investing in networking and mentoring requires personal commitment and the belief that, later on or even at the end of your career, the investment will have been worth it. Based on my own winding path that continues to evolve, I can assure you that the investments are worth it, and that the rewards will come in ways you cannot possibly anticipate.
And you are in exactly the right place to start. Right here, right now, at this SBN Building Biotech event, you are in the same room as those who can become part of your purposeful network, who can become your mentors or mentees. Whether you’re at the start of your career or have been around for a while, the best time to start building your networks and mentorships is right now.
Successful networking and mentorship don’t require that you show off, just that you show up. So put away your phones, look around for new people to talk to, and start networking. Ask someone, “what exciting thing are you working on right now?” Ask a potential mentor, “what’s one important lesson you took away from a previous leader?” Be ready to tell them about yourself. Be curious, open, present. Be purposeful. And only take out your phone long enough to connect with them (then put it away again).
Thank you for listening to my story. I hope you found it insightful and purposeful and even inspiring, and that I’ll have a chance to meet and connect with many of you this evening.
What are your experiences networking and mentoring? Have you found good mentors (and not-so-good ones) to learn from? Do you enjoy networking events or loathe them? Please comment below or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with your questions and feedback.
Interested in more on this or other topics? Check out my upcoming webinars and presentations at www.lyricmgmt.com. Follow me on Twitter and LinkedIn for the latest on these and other topics. You can also complete this brief survey to join my mailing list to receive a monthly newsletter with blog posts and webinar schedules, and to be entered in a monthly draw for a prize.
Who is Robyn?
My career as a research project manager is rewarding, dynamic, challenging, and fun. I'm looking forward to sharing my knowledge and experience in communication, organization, and common sense approaches in research management and leadership, and to enabling others to learn and grow in this exciting career.