Effective leadership styles for leaders in STEM fields

Below, Kenna answers questions based on her personal experiences and offers her opinion on effective leadership styles, advice on how to be bold in your career and interesting insight into her important role at Mirati.

Q. Can you describe your role at Mirati?

A. I work in companion diagnostics, and I’m passionate about it because these tests are often overlooked. It is critical that Mirati has access to the technology and devices needed to identify patients so that we can reach patients with the medicines we are creating – this is where I come in. It is important to consider all the decisions that go into the development of one drug treatment; there are just as many decisions required to create a companion diagnostic test.

Q. Tell us more about you. Was there a specific person who influenced you as a person and a leader?

A. I was born into a Midwest family where no one had gone to college, but that didn’t stop my mom from going back to school after her youngest child was in kindergarten. She studied cosmetology and went on to get her license and launch her own successful business. I was about 10 years old when she went back to school while raising three kids. Her commitment to her education was really inspiring to me. It taught me where there’s a will, there’s a way. 

Q. When did you know you wanted to focus on science?

A. I wanted to be in science or medicine from an early age. At one point I considered being a doctor, but while in my double MD/Ph.D. program I quickly realized that was not for me. However, the science part of the program helped me realize my passion is to make sure doctors have everything they need to do their job. I was very drawn to that. From there my passion evolved as I was inspired to advance the cutting edge. Going to the edge is good, but let’s move the edge and drive it forward. This really is the goal of our clinical research.

Q. Do you have any overarching principles that guide your leadership of teams?

A. A good leader is someone who inspires others to do their best work by creating an environment that makes them want to. I have always tried to be a pretty hands-off manager because the most stifling behavior a boss could exhibit is being a micromanager. When I look back on my career, ultimately, I hope my teams know that I was there for them and had their backs.

Q. Were there specific pieces of advice that were consistently given to you as you were growing into leadership roles at the various companies you worked?

A. The consistent thread of advice I have received throughout my career was to not be afraid of the unknown and take chances. I was told “get comfortable with ambiguity”. That is really what science is all about. I worked at a Veterans Affairs hospital while I was in graduate school, and I had a great mentor there who was the head of the lab who would let me rotate through any department I requested within the hospital. I spent two years rotating through different laboratories within the hospital. I look back and that opportunity was such a gift from him, and I would recommend others continually seek and ask for opportunities to learn.

Q. Did you have a mentor? If so, how did that experience help shape you in your career, including as a mentor now yourself?

A. In my time at a previous company, the head of the Oncology Portfolio strongly encouraged me to be the project leader for what turned out to be an incredibly complicated combination program that no one had done before. This mentorship helped push me into this position, which ultimately led to significant professional growth for me. Later, when a mentorship program was rolled out, I took a chance by asking him to be my mentor. I asked because I thought he was the person I could learn the most from, but I fully expected he would say no and refer me to someone else given how demanding his job was. To my surprise he said, “absolutely.” For one year, he never missed a meeting with me. It was terrific. He gave me so much valuable advice that I carried forth to share with my mentees as well. I would have never gotten this benefit if I hadn’t asked. Don’t forget to seek mentors for yourself even as you grow in leadership.

Q. How do you advise other women in STEM navigate a field that can lack diverse representation in leadership roles?

A. It is important not to be afraid of criticism nor be governed by seeking approval. Look for guidance rather than approval. Guidance provides avenues to reach your goals while approval can make you complacent where you are. I also recommend women strengthen their individual voice. Don’t be afraid of the big meetings or feel imposter syndrome when you have earned your spot. Consistently show up and bring a presence when you do.

Q. There are many ways to approach translational medicine. Are there any components to translational medicine that should be more thoroughly addressed today?

A. We should discuss nonresponding patients more. We get incredibly focused on determining how to identify the right patients who may respond, but there are a still many who do not respond. As a translational scientist, I consider what can be learned about those patients who didn’t respond equally important to those who do. It’s important to consider what is different about them. We spend a lot of time collecting data and then asking further questions to uncover more answers. Then, we take that information back to the science lab and consider the other mutational drivers, and how we can advance our approach so that no patient is left behind.

Q. Is the industry shifting their approach to better address this problem?

A. I see an industry trend that is shifting focus to these nonresponders. More people are considering not only how to prolong responses but attempting to understand the rest of the molecular landscape. When we learn not only about the tumor but about that person’s immune system holistically, we can better support that patient to promote longer survival on their current treatment or to begin thinking about what would be next for them. A physician who has a patient on a second line treatment knows the clock is ticking. We do not get very many attempts to treat patients with cancer; there is first line, second line and occasionally third line so it is important to use the best means available based all the information collected.

The power of self advocacy

Below, Lamisa answers questions based on her experience and offers valuable advice about how, and why, it is important to advocate for yourself throughout your career.

Q. When did you learn the power of self-advocacy?

A. I’m a physician by training and before I came to the U.S. for business school, I practiced in India and the U.K. When I started my career and first job in the U.S., I didn’t realize the importance of advocating for myself. I thought I would be considered for the best opportunities simply because my work was so good. But then, I saw myself passed over for new opportunities because I was in the background. This is what changed my perspective. It is important to speak up for yourself. Once I recognized that, I identified my interests, career goals, and how I was positioned for certain opportunities – then I started advocating for myself. This helped me find the right opportunities to advance and best contribute to the company’s success, and my own.

I also noticed throughout my career that people can be subconsciously blind. I used to believe people did not notice skin color, gender, or nationality, but, subconscious bias is real. I believe it is important to remind others what sets you apart.

Q. Is there particular advice that you find yourself giving to other women?

A. Yes. It is not a sprint, it’s a marathon. At times, it can feel as though we are on this milestone-based path and that everything is time bound. Many people can start believing “I need to be manager in two years” or “I need to be VP in four years” and can forget the big picture of what they are trying to accomplish.

When I became a mom, I realized that I am in a completely new category, and I am stretching myself so much. Do I really want to put myself out for a promotion at this time? Can I take more responsibilities or extend my bandwidth and be able to do it justice? If that ‘bigger’ title came two or four years later, does that hurt me? I believe women tend think we need to do “better” all the time. We constantly set what I think are impossible targets or deadlines for ourselves and ultimately harm ourselves trying to reach them.

Q. What are your views on imposter syndrome?

A. It is real. I have felt it several times and I believe women may especially feel the effects of this ‘syndrome’. Some women tend to undersell themselves so when they land in positions they believe they are not qualified for, they feel like an imposter. When considering a job opportunity, I recommend overcoming imposter syndrome by getting into the mindset of the hiring manager who is likely considering whether the potential employee could hit all of the qualifications within a 6–12-month period. This is typically more important than a candidate immediately meeting all of the requirements when hired.

Another facet of advocating for yourself is establishing boundaries at work. Lamisa discussed how she does this to create a successful work/life balance. She also offers her perspective on leadership and why she chose to work at Mirati.

Q. Why are boundaries important at work? Do you set boundaries for yourself?

A. They are critical for ensuring people you work with know what is acceptable and what is not. I believe it is important to establish boundaries upfront or else it can potentially create awkwardness later.

As a working parent of two toddlers, time is precious. I have hard starts and stops. Weekends are off-limits. An understanding boss helps; for me it was easy to align on boundaries and expectations upfront.  Ambition and desire to please everybody can get in the way, so I recommend being deliberate about setting boundaries and adhering to them, setting the example for your team to follow.

Q. What makes a strong leader, in your experience?

A. To me, leadership is about inspiring and motivating a team to deliver their best every day. A strong leader is someone who is humble, a good listener, authentic and compassionate. A strong leader ultimately needs to be able to adapt to meet the needs of the team on any given day.

Q. How do you lift up your team or other colleagues to help them grow their careers?

A. My goal is to understand what that individual wants to do within their career. For example, where do they see themselves in one to two years. Then based on that information I seek to engineer specific experiences, or exposure to specific people, or train them for specific skills that will help them reach their goals. Understanding where employees want to go helps me help them to do so within their current position.

Q. Considering the breadth of this industry, why did you choose to work at Mirati?

A. I chose Mirati because I was fascinated by the science, and I thought it was a very innovative company. I also fell in love with the people that I spoke to as part of my hiring process. I was amazed at what the people I spoke to brought to the table and how much I would get to learn working with them. I was excited about kind of impact that I would be able to have.

I loved that Mirati was thinking about digital innovation. Although we are a small, but growing biotech, we have bold ambitions. Today’s world is increasingly digital. There are infinite technologies that can simplify or automate our business process or allow us to get closer to patient and physicians in a just-in-time manner. These technologies are generating millions of data points, which when analyzed, can inform critical business decisions and allow us to serve our patients and physicians better.

Operating with a growth mindset

The urgency with which we work enables our organization to build from the great work and culture that has been established our humble start nearly ten years ago.

We proudly remain a nimble biotech focused on challenging areas and novel programs – we are not seeking incremental innovation, but on areas that can have a transformative impact for patients.

Our culture is one that values the team over the individual, bold action and an ability to move quickly. We chart our own path.

Truly listening to the people closest to the challenge is an important part of our success.

As we grow and advance our clinical-stage pipeline and approach commercialization, I like to think we prioritize listening and learning over speaking. Finding the right experts both inside and outside the company is essential to filling important gaps and addressing key risks.

I personally spend time with our new team members to talk about the risks of only relying on what you have done before and ensuring that prior experience is not an impediment to relearning new skills or addressing the unique challenges and opportunities we have. Truly listening to the people closest to the challenge is an important part of our success.

Mirati is filled with individuals who have valuable perspectives that will help us to advance our patient-focused goals, but we must first understand what has been done before. Once we understand, we need to operate with a growth mindset, learn from the lessons that came before us, and progress quickly toward the future.

To me, being relentless means we are not anchored in one place. We are constantly learning, improving and moving forward. My team and fellow colleagues “show up” every day, work hard to achieve our shared goals, and constantly put into action innovative ideas to help patients as quickly as possible.

A culture designed to unleash the potential of our people

“We are purposefully building a collaborative team to tackle the problem of understanding and treating cancer head on,” says Jamie Christensen, chief scientific officer, Mirati Therapeutics, Inc. “Bringing together unique skillsets across translational research and discovery science, we are exclusively and aggressively focused on programs where existing interventions are unknown or insufficient.”

Our labs are set up to be integrated so that all disciplines in R&D can benefit from one another and help rapidly share ideas.

From seating charts to lab configurations, we are aspiring to maximize collaboration, curiosity, and our drive to do more for patients.

“We have an open office setting providing an opportunity to intermingle different functions and teams,” says Jamie. “Our labs are set up to be integrated so that all disciplines in R&D can benefit from one another and help rapidly share ideas.”

The Mirati culture is designed to unleash the potential of our science and our people by creating an environment that fosters open-mindedness and collaboration as we seek to transform the lives of patients with cancer. The company’s more than 320 employees are uniformly focused on patients by trying to make a difference with our science and in our communities.

“Where we differentiate ourselves is that we believe in advancing innovative oncology medicines focused on areas with significant unmet needs. Our portfolio is built on what is right in front us – we simply accept the challenge,” says Jamie. “The goal is to do things in a way that will help solve specific problems for identifiable patients by targeting the genetic and immunological drivers of cancer.”

Read more about our science and how we’re tackling cancer head on.

Bridging R&D and the real world

Kelly Covello, head of Medical Affairs, shares a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the dynamic work of the Mirati Medical Affairs team and how their work intersects with patients, patient advocacy groups and healthcare professionals.

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I’m in the race of a lifetime

Meeting this mission for patients with cancer means everyone at Mirati, including me, shows up prepared, trained and studied to deliver the best results for those impacted by cancer. When we all do this as individuals and as an organization, we know we left 100 percent on the field. We leave nothing to chance and pursue every opportunity to deliver for patients.

Mirati is in a race to help those with cancer—a race against time for those patients who are waiting for options—and this is the race of a lifetime.

I joined Mirati over a year ago. An important part of my role is to ensure Mirati is ready to be a successful commercial company by assisting in creating capabilities and competencies to commercialize a product effectively and responsibly. I think of my role beyond just those on my team, as we work in partnership across the broader Mirati team to ensure our science is well understood and our compounds, once approved, can deliver the most benefit to those living with cancer.

Mirati’s genesis in discovery and drug development is a core piece of who we are. There is a daring spirit to reach for new horizons, breaking through to discover and advance novel areas of scientific innovation and technology. It’s in our DNA to push the envelope in trying new things to benefit the patients who need us.

Above all, Mirati employees are committed to transforming the lives of those with cancer. We never want to take for granted the opportunity to make a meaningful impact on people’s lives. My team and I view this as our life’s mission and not just as a job. We strive for excellence, seeking those who respect others and find value in others’ differences.

When I first started working in oncology, it was a rational decision, but like many others, it became personal after I lost my father to cancer. That experience taught me that time is not on our side when dealing with this terrible disease.

While time is not on the side of those with cancer, each of us at Mirati are actively and relentlessly on the side of the patient.

I wanted to do more to help patients fight cancer

Early in my career at a world-renowned cancer center, I had the opportunity to work on patient-reported outcomes, which meant that I sat with patients in waiting areas and supported them in filling out health-related questionnaires. One woman in particular inspired me. She was a breast cancer patient in her early thirties. She sat there with a bandanna around her head after losing her hair to chemotherapy, but she had a huge smile on her face. She was determined to beat cancer so she could see her new baby’s first step and see her child grow up and grow old. I remember, at that moment, knowing that I wanted to commit myself to patients in order to do more to help them achieve long-term survival and win their battle with cancer.

I think of patients as warriors. They are ready to put up a fight in the face of a devasting diagnosis. And here at Mirati, we’re doing everything we can to help them.

Part of my responsibility at Mirati is to lay the foundation for and support the company’s clinical assets by identifying and providing evidence to highlight the unmet medical needs across a variety of cancers. My team and I seek to understand what the treatment environment looks like, referencing published data, in an effort to clearly articulate the value we bring to patients with our new medicines.

I also work with patient advocacy groups where I build relationships on behalf of Mirati. Our goal is to work with patient communities to better understand and identify the unmet needs and ensure that the voices/perspectives of patients are incorporated across all activities from trial design to development and, eventually, through commercialization. Patients and caregivers are at the heart of everything we do here at Mirati, and for those reasons, we want to ensure that we are working together to achieve our common goals through awareness and education.

I think of patients as warriors. They are ready to put up a fight in the face of a devasting diagnosis. And here at Mirati, we’re doing everything we can to help them.

The people and the science at Mirati are truly unique and are what I’m most proud to be a part of. The investment in innovative and potentially life-changing science allows Mirati to attract and retain amazing talent. The initial team that built Mirati from the ground up spent a tremendous amount of time, effort and energy putting us on the course we’re on today. As a result, we have an excellent team of scientists, and that excellence continues to attract incredibly talented people across a broad range of functions as the organization continues to grow, develop and expand.

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