EY’s Kristin Ciriello Pothier on why she makes family come before work
“I used to believe that my career was my number 1 priority. I took short maternity leaves, held my newborn in my arms while I did a conference call for a project (while on that supposed maternity leave), pushed off numerous date nights with my husband, and pushed my daughter on the swings with my son on my back — and my right thumb typing on my Blackberry. While I was physically present for my children’s first words and steps and smiles, I look back and see that my mind was too often elsewhere and I didn’t give my family the same intensity as I did my work. We all missed out, and I can’t ever get that time back. I am still working on giving that same intensity to my family to this day.”
I had the pleasure of interviewing Kristin Ciriello Pothier, author of Personalizing Precision Medicine: A Global Voyage from Vision to Reality, the Global Head of Life Sciences Strategy for EY, director of the innovative ballet company BalletNext, and mother of two vivacious children.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?
I started my career in precision medicine in the 1990s, at a company called Genome Therapeutics. We were a group of scientists on a mission with many others to sequence the human genome in its entirety for the first time. This is also where I met my husband Bryan, a dashing fellow scientist who won my heart over petri dishes and acrylamide gels (not an easy task!)
In my mid twenties, I transitioned into strategy consulting. Over the next decade I helped build my first firm, Health Advances, and Bryan and I had our children, completing “Team Pothier.” They provided constant entertainment, love, humbleness, and giggles through all of the stress and exhilaration of pioneering in healthcare. Then, four years ago, I was recruited into EY to build the global life sciences strategy practice in transaction advisory services from the ground up. And here we are today.
EY is one of the largest professional services firms in the world and is one of the “Big Four” consulting and accounting firms. Parthenon-EY, the business within the firm that I sit in, is a global strategy consulting practice, specializing in commercial, growth, and mergers and acquisition strategy across the life sciences industry. Our clients range from pharmaceutical to diagnostic to medical device companies, to major corporate or private equity investors, to medical institutions and healthcare service providers.
I started writing the stories that would eventually become my book, Personalizing Precision Medicine, in my early years. I was fascinated with the journeys of the patients, healthcare providers, and researchers who were all working to make precision medicine a reality, and wanted to write something that would honor them while educating a whole new generation. As I wrote, I was also thinking of my grandfather, whose battle and death from metastatic lung cancer was a defining time in my childhood, years before anyone ever imagined we’d have the treatments that may have cured him. The battle would look very different today — and I feel privileged to find myself at the front lines with the people who’ve made that the case.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading at your company?
Women in STEM are still too few. I am constantly reminded how far we have come and how patient we need to be — even with people who mean well. Years ago, a now retired, very well-respected male executive and I were talking about my evolving career in life sciences and he said with apparent amazement, “And you did all of this while staying married to your original husband, and actually grew and birthed those two babies out of your own body! Now that’s something!”
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
What my teams and I do for a living is the business of medicine. We research markets, stress-test medical product and service concepts, and help launch new businesses that better or save patient’s lives. Our work helps life sciences companies and investors safely and effectively develop new technologies and therapeutics in healthcare and deliver them to patients all over the world. Because I have been doing this for over 2 decades, I have had the opportunity to see numerous technologies go all the way from inception to market. For example, when I was a scientist, my lab was working on replacing amniocentesis (basically, puncturing the pregnant belly to test fetal well-being) with a simple, non-invasive blood test that could be done earlier in pregnancy. A few years later, I was able to work on the first commercial strategy to get that test to market. It is now incorporated into obstetric care, not only saving more mothers-to-be the anxiety and invasiveness of amniocentesis, but allowing earlier decision making and preparation if something is wrong. It’s one of my favorite technologies, and one with quite a positive impact for mothers-to-be worldwide. I am proud have been a part of bringing that goodness to the world.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became a Leader” and why.
1) Family is first.
a. I used to believe that my career was my number 1 priority. I took short maternity leaves, held my newborn in my arms while I did a conference call for a project (while on that supposed maternity leave), pushed off numerous date nights with my husband, and pushed my daughter on the swings with my son on my back — and my right thumb typing on my Blackberry. While I was physically present for my children’s first words and steps and smiles, I look back and see that my mind was too often elsewhere and I didn’t give my family the same intensity as I did my work. We all missed out, and I can’t ever get that time back. I am still working on giving that same intensity to my family to this day.
2) Get used to being lonely.
a. And I don’t just mean being lonely on planes traveling worldwide to nurture teams, clients, or the industry as a whole. In corporate America, great leaders are liked by many but loved by few. There is only a core group of people who are really by your side throughout your career. The group includes your family (see #1), your mentors (see #3), a handful of career-long confidants that you can call friends, and YOU. The sooner you accept that you will not be loved by all, trust your gut, and rely on your core group when your gut isn’t helping, the easier it is to make tough decisions and lead with strength and determination.
3) Mentors, in all forms, should be cherished.
a. My best mentor was one of my very first bosses. He ran our lab demanding relentless excellence in science, taught each and every one of us to lead with humbleness, loyalty, and pride for each other and our company, and disciplined with fairness and transparency. We remained each other’s confidantes throughout our careers, and we are close friends to this day. My worst mentor was exactly the opposite, not even worth putting words on this page. But both were equally valuable to me. Without both the best and the worst to learn from, I wouldn’t be a balanced leader, I wouldn’t be prepared to face and conquer the worst, and I wouldn’t be able to mentor the leaders of tomorrow with the rich experience set I gained and continue to gain today.
4) Give yourself a break.
a. There are times when perfection is necessary to gain a new client, finish a project, or build a capability. There are other times where 50% of your effort will yield the same result. And there’re still others where no power on earth, no matter how perfect, could have changed the mind of that client, that staff member, that recruit, or that boss. You need to get used to choosing where you put your time, and give yourself a break….perfection is not necessary all the time.
5) Don’t apologize for being the unpopular voice in the room.
a. Throughout my career, I have been in positions where I needed to rock the boat to push a business I was building, and for a long time I felt I was letting my bosses down. I apologized a lot for making them “uncomfortable”. Over time I realized that apologies were unnecessary and that I was actually hired in to challenge the status quo, and greatness that we are all striving for is rarely achieved by playing by the old rules.
I have been blessed with the opportunity to interview and be in touch with some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why?
I would like to have lunch with Dr. Joanne Liu, the International President of Doctors Without Borders. Doctors Without Borders is a non-profit organization devoted to a simple mission, to “go where the patients are”, no matter what surrounds them, including war, natural disaster, and other conditions considered atrocious to most, and no matter where in the world they are. These conditions make the delivery of medical innovations to patients nearly impossible, and knowing that these patients cannot get some of the simplest technologies that my teams and I work on is heartbreaking. I have supported this organization for years because I admire the physicians, nurses, and other medical caregivers who risk their lives to help people trying to survive in the worst conditions on the planet, and I would like to meet its leader. Dr. Liu is a pediatrician by training and we both have public health degrees, albeit from competing universities (!), and I am sure we would have a dynamic conversation about the organizations we run.