Merrilyn fell in love with science when she was 7 years old and first saw a cell under a microscope. From there she not only fell in love with molecular biology but gained a passion for how science and technology can improve society. In her 20+ years of experience in the commercialization of technology, she has led businesses and crafted strategies across multiple markets from genomics to gene delivery to digital pathology and is currently the Head of Business Operations at Illumina, a leader in life sciences. Merrilyn opened with her background in the context of choice and risk.
Find Your Mission and Pursue It
At 24, while in her Ph.D program at Harvard, Merrilyn realized that she wasn’t as interested in lab work as her colleagues. She saw her professors starting biotech companies and realized she was more interested in what science could bring to society on a broader scale. Upon graduation she decided to choose her own path in the corporate world rather than the traditional lab route, despite much advice to the contrary, which has provided a more fulfilling path.
Being a Leader is Engaging People’s Hearts, Not Just Their Brains
10 years ago, while handling strategy and acquisition integrations for a division of her firm Life Technologies, the company CEO asked her to manage R&D investments for the entire company. A huge jump from her existing position, she accepted it and it taught her that leadership requires influence. Innovation is a highly political topic with many different viewpoints, and that leadership and innovation is not just about execution, but is about winning both people’s hearts and minds.
Benefits of Taking Risk
While at Life Technologies (which had grown from 100 to 10,000 people and gone public over her 15-year tenure), she received a call from recruiter looking for a Chief Commercial Officer for a small biotech software company. Despite having a great personal and professional life, she decided the new role would be a wonderful opportunity to implement her ideas more quickly, raise capital, manage investors, and run an entire commercial operation. In the first 6 months, she and CEO changed the strategy, in the second, they raised a lot of capital, and in the third 6 months, they sold the company. The role was another big jump and risky but in the end, she learned so much by stepping out of her comfort zone.
A good mentor will challenge you and inspire to you reach your full potential. Her best mentor was the boss who encouraged her larger role at Life Technologies. He was the first to suggest she could be a CEO which was a new thought despite her ambition. He also coached her through various scenarios which helped her prepare and present her strategy better. The following year, when she had to present to the board 4 times a year as part of her expanded role, it was his prior coaching she credited with her successful presentations. Merrilyn also advocated for sponsors, people that not only provide mentorship but also champion you to others, for example, when the company is considering who to promote.
Community Helps With Staying True to Oneself
Surrounding yourself with the right people is an important success factor. Merrilyn has a number of great friends she meets with monthly to discuss different topics, and she relies on them for advice. She trusts their honest opinions, and while they don’t always know all the details, they are great at asking questions to uncover solutions. Despite this support group, in trying to create change, there are times were we must stand alone and we must be ok with that.
On Work Life Balance
Discovering your passions and going after them is more important than figuring out balance. Family and work are her two passions and her priority. Since she and her husband are both Ph.Ds. in biochemistry, they decided early in their relationship to focus on a 50/50 split of responsibility. They also deliberately planned how they wanted the family to run, and she had to become comfortable with delegating. When her kids were young, that meant investing in a nanny in order to create flexibility, and now giving their teenagers independence and holding them to high standards. At the end you have to figure out your specific priorities and what’s important, and plan accordingly.
Finding a Sense of Belonging
In researching her Ted Talk on leading a good life, Brené Brown found many referencing shame. She realized that in order to be our authentic selves, we need to give up the shame in doing what we think isn’t the popular choice, to like who we are authentically, and use that determine our own sense of belonging. As woman in STEM, there have been times Merrilyn was the only woman in the room, and in considering how to act, she realized she can be herself as she belongs due to the shared passion for science and the company.
Anyone Can Affect Many
Merrilyn’s grandmother overcame many challenges and toiled at a tough job all her life, however when she died at 101, everyone in town came to her funeral. She had founded a number of local institutions, created change for the town, and everyone knew she would help them with whatever they needed, a meal, a place to stay or an ear to listen. She has been Merrilyn’s role model because sometimes you may not be the person with the highest position, or the person with the exact right background but you can be extremely effective anyway. Helping people and giving people a hand up is important.
Managing As A New Leader
One of the key balances in leadership is your vision versus the input of the team. While it is beneficial to have team buy-in, some initiatives come from above, and sometimes relying on team consensus can be chaotic and undermine your role as a leader. Merrilyn has found a good solution is to gather the team, relay the goals and what success looks like, and have the team help determine the execution steps, i.e. let them build the castle with you.
Merrilyn is a big believer in constant education given her role in innovation. Her top recommendations include:
- The Loudest Duck – Laura Liswood – In China, the saying is the “loudest duck get shot”, here in the U.S. it is “squeaky wheel gets the oil”. This book helped Merrilyn put people’s behavior in context, and made her realize if she was going to innovate, she had to think of where everyone was coming from,and how to engage the wisdom of the whole group.
- Blue Ocean Strategy – W. Chan Kim, Renee Mauborgne – Merrilyn’s favorite book on strategy, this book describes how to create leading company in a market. An example used is the analysis of why Cirque du Soleil defeated the Wrigley Brothers Circus.
- StrengthsFinder 2.0. – This book helps determine your top areas of strength. Rather than work on places of improvement, people should instead focus on their strengths, therefore understanding what they are is paramount.
- Other Resources: Emerging Technologies requires constant education and curiosity. She follows industry leaders on Twitter, Fast Company and has set up technology and innovation on Flipbook. She also reads the Harvard Business Review every month cover to cover.