What shadow do you want to cast as a leader? Interview with Punam Owens, VP of Quality Management at BD

Punam Owens is currently VP of Quality Management at BD, one of the largest global medical technology companies in the world and has almost 30 years’ experience in the medical device and pharmaceutical industries.

Passionate about inclusion and diversity, Punam is a strategic and dynamic business leader as well as a qualified coach and mentor and is heavily involved in local community initiatives.

Punam shares her inspiring career journey and some of the ways BD help their leadership team recognise stress and take action, as well as delving into the shadow of a leader concept and the important question all leaders should ask themselves “How do people feel when you’ve left the room?”

Listen to or read the full interview in episode 6 of the Leadership Learns podcast with Peter Rabey below…

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How did you end up where you are today?

I left school at 16 with 2 O levels: one in English and one in home economics. I had a difficult situation at home; Mum was a single parent and I had three siblings – it wasn’t the best of starts or the greatest situation to excel in school.

In hindsight, I just wasn’t suited to that type of learning. I always felt I was at the bottom rather than at the top of the pack. I went back and did the GCSEs that I needed and then joined an apprenticeship. I did my HNC and my ONC on day release and it took seven years to get my chemistry degree.

You don’t have to have to go down the traditional route, there are other ways of getting there. I reflect on how far I’ve come now, and it worked out okay. It was a better learning experience.

How well do you think the school system within the UK is set up for people that aren’t natural academics to still be able to flourish in their early life?

I’d say it depends. I can give the example of my children: they are both fabulous and both excel in different ways because of the skills that they have now. I’ve got one who is very much like me and one who has excelled academically and they’re both in a career that they’re happy in now.

I think the industry can do a huge amount to get into those schools and share personal stories and motivate and inspire young adults to do it their way. If you have the motivation and the passion, and you can find the right advocates, you can be successful in anything you want to do, and you don’t have to get there the same way.

What drives you to be a leader?

 My current role in medical devices serves the pharma industry. We work with many customers in the industry and work on some fascinating drug products and devices that positively impact people’s health daily. Why wouldn’t you want a part in that?

I used to work in an organization that supported type 1 diabetes and heard a story that has stayed with me for over 15 years. A mother got on the phone, and she wasn’t ringing up to complain, she was ringing up to say, “as a parent, it breaks my heart that my child is in pain but the product that you’ve just put on the market reduces that pain level and I just wanted to say thank you.”

That’s why I continue to be inspired and motivated not only by our customers, but also because it gives me a huge amount of reward to be able to give some of that mentorship, and that advocacy back to teams.

What was your reaction to the pandemic and lockdown?

I was travelling 75% of the time and so were many of my team. Now I don’t have to be at the airport, I’ve got more time, I can take a breath. We thought “this is something that is happening far away” and it would only take a couple of months and then we would just go back to normal.

Then we all had to adapt quickly once we realised that this was not going to be a short-term gig. On the upside, I probably met more people through a screen than I had done before, providing an opportunity to build on existing relationships and build new ones.

How do you ensure that your leadership team finds balance?

Firstly, you’ve got to think about what type of team you have. My quality leadership team are mostly data-driven individuals because of the industry that we work in, so they have a style preference. One of the things we have been doing as a leadership team is using MBTI and our personal preferences to develop an awareness of each other styles and how we interact together. That’s been the basis of developing a high-performance team.

What was interesting this time was that MBTI also offers an opportunity to understand how you behave if you are stressed. What happens to your behaviour preferences if you’re in a stressful situation? We pulled the stress reports from MBTI based on our personality preferences and we reviewed them as a team. We very openly asked, “are we seeing any of those behaviours in our team?”

The answer was yes, so we took action to help reduce that stress and encouraged people to take time off.

In a leadership role, I think you have a huge amount of responsibility to be active and behave as a role model. That involves me recognising my stress behaviours, taking time off, talking about it openly and then encouraging others to do the same and to be there for each other.

How did you go about planning in taking a step back?

I started to get involved in community projects and this allowed me to use my leadership skills and my experience differently, whether it was working on an Excel spreadsheet or getting in a car and going and delivering shopping to somebody. Over time, I’ve become more involved, and you could argue I just took on even more work, but it’s a different outlet and has challenged my thinking on how things should be done.

I think it’s important for all of us to challenge our own bias, challenge our thinking and talk about it.

How have you gone about trying to get under the skin of people in a Zoom-based environment?

Making sure one-to-ones don’t slip off the calendar. I quite often say, if we’re having a listening type of meeting, get your headphones and take it around the block. People sometimes hear me taking a walk when I’m doing one-to-ones because if you do it, people going to see you doing it and it’s going to be considered OK. This is the concept of the shadow you want to cast as a leader.

I’ve been reflecting a lot over the last year and what a catalyst the pandemic has been in terms of how we do business, how we create a workplace and relationships – we can shape the future.

What does great leadership look like to you?

Someone who inspires, who treats people the way they want to be treated – with respect, humility, and dignity. A leader said this to me: “It’s not how people feel when they’re in the room with you, it’s how they feel when you’ve left the room”

That’s what I’m interested in and that has stayed with me a long time.

Do I know the answers to everything as a leader? Absolutely not. It’s because we’re a team and it’s because we’re diverse and it’s because we’re inclusive. That’s what makes us great.

What’s the best book you’ve learned from in the last few months?

I have been listening to Barack Obama’s autobiography, which is quite fascinating in terms of his leadership and how he overcame some challenges.

The loudest duck by Laura Liswood, senior adviser at Goldman Sachs. It’s not a traditional thick leadership book, it’s an easy, light-hearted read with examples of how you can be an inclusive leader.

What are you most proud of in your career so far?

The work that I do with Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association and internally with mentoring and coaching – I’m proud of having the ability to give that back.

But mostly that I made it and I hope that my story can inspire others as well as having the privilege to be a role model for my children to encourage them to be the best that they can be.

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