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Leading Women: Interview with Penny Wan

As part of our Leading Women series, we want to highlight the professional challenges and career aspirations of the women we work with here in Asia. In this story, Penny Wan, Regional Vice President and General Manager, JAPAC at Amgen, shares the unexpected blessing of remote work, the key ingredients to build confidence, as well as lessons of resilience from the most important women in her personal life.  


 

Q: Could you name a woman who’s inspired you the most?  

I would say my mother and my grandmother. My father passed away when I was very young, and my mother raised three young children on her own. She had to work full time and provide for the family, all while playing multiple roles. My grandmother, too, raised two young daughters after my grandfather passed away. Despite the challenging circumstances, they shared what they had and supported others in need. My grandmother adopted my unrelated uncle when she was making barely enough money to feed her own children. Both women instilled in me a sense of resilience and empathy. My upbringing also taught me that it is better to give than to receive, and I have tried to adopt this approach to both my personal and professional lives.  

Q: What energises you in the course of your career?  

What energises me is the opportunity to help and make a difference. I get paid to work in an industry that makes a difference for the patients that we support. We provide innovative therapies that treat critical illnesses like cancer, heart attacks, strokes and bone fractures — you name it. We also provide vaccines that help prevent devastating infections. With COVID-19, we are really seeing biotechnology companies coming to the fore, and I firmly believe that a vaccine will be developed in due time. We’re truly blessed to work in a sector that is at the forefront of science and innovation, giving people hope with every new discovery.  

Q: What are the leadership traits that you admire the most?  

There are three that really speak to me. Number one has to be the vision and practice I need to believe in what I do, and that we are making a meaningful difference. Number two is the commitment and passion — that is, passion for a worthwhile cause. Number three is honesty and integrity.  

Q: What is a lesson or experience that’s unique to your profession?  

I am blessed in that my career quite literally aligned with my personal milestones in life. When I started in this industry, I worked in women’s health, specifically on contraception and menopause. Then I worked on infant formulas [and] vaccines while I had babies. I then moved on to antidepressants and cancer therapies as I reached the middle of my career and personal life, and I saw my friends and loved ones suffer from these diseases. At Amgen, I am focused on supporting healthy ageing through the provision of innovative therapies for chronic illnesses.  

Why is this unique? I think it goes to the core of the question. Being a woman, being the daughter of elderly parents, mother of young children, partner to a spouse going through a midlife crisis, these are all pivotal points in our lives. Ready or not, we are in it. So being able to solve what’s real for me and for others going through the same thing, I am very fortunate to be able to do that.  

Q: Why is empathy important?  

As a member of the executive suite, we count on people to deliver, and people are complex and unique. We are shaped by our individual experiences. So what empathy does is that it allows us to engage and fully appreciate the circumstance that others are in. Empathy is how we begin to calibrate our options and understand what is the best for an individual, as well as for the situation.  

Q: Why is being a mentor so important to you?  

Being a mentor, it is an opportunity to help others by sharing my own experiences. It is liberating, in a way, because I cannot go back to fix my own path, including all the missed opportunities and bad choices I made along the way. Hopefully, though, my experience will help inform the choices of others. One of the best pieces of advice that I have received as a mentee was when my mentor suggested that I took a downward move, to take on a customer-facing role. You don’t normally want to do that, but the experience was so valuable in strengthening my people skills. They say that the best leaders are those who create even better leaders, and I think mentoring does just that.  

Q: As a leader, how do you build confidence?  

I think knowledge is important. As I’ve said before, I benefit from the fact that my work and personal life are so closely aligned. The rest of it has to do with preparation. Do your homework because nothing replaces that. It adds to your knowledge and ability to solve the big problems. I have also gained experience and confidence by working with people, gathering inputs and taking feedback, especially when preparing for critical decisions. So my advice is this: keep learning and keep practising. I learnt so much from interacting with my children, and it is incredible when they tell you the most honest feedback. I think in life we have to learn to receive feedback in the raw form. Don’t miss those opportunities. Sometimes you build confidence just by engaging with your own children.  

Q: What is one thing that you recently learnt that you wouldn’t have believed just six months ago?  

I would say it is the fact that we could survive in a virtual environment and remain connected despite it all. The other thing is that the virtual setting changes the way we prepare for conversations. Everything is happening in real time, so we have to bring our authentic selves and be spontaneous. This actually brings on a new level of engagement and value in ways that I didn’t think possible.  

Q: What do you do to unplug?  

I’ve always been able to protect my early mornings, or what I call my ‘me time’. I read, I write sometimes, or I just do nothing. I catch up with myself and allow ideas to come to me. I also have my workout routine. I love spending time with the family, playing games, watching movies. I think it is very important to unplug from work and I create that space where we can engage without interruption. Ultimately, though, I do draw energy from engaging both my family and my team at work.  

Q: What’s the best advice you have ever received?  

One thing that I didn’t think was important was being your authentic self, understanding your strengths and vulnerabilities, and what motivates or demotivates you. The older I get, the more precious I am about my time and prioritising whom I spend it with. I want to spend time with those that inspire me, who motivate me and be honest with me. Also, having the ability to make me laugh and not take myself too seriously.  

Q: How do you empower others?  

By listening. I do mean just hearing, but truly, actively listening to what the other person is trying to achieve, what they are trying to say to you, and how they plan to do it. I learnt a lot in these conversations, and it is very powerful. I think we need to get to the core of what motivates the individual, so that we can help move things forward. I actually took a course to become a certified executive coach, so that I can do this well. That way I can tune in to what a person is saying, and I can be a better support and partner in finding things that work.  

Jonathan Goldstein

Jonathan Goldstein
Head of Page Executive
Southeast Asia

This interview was conducted by Jonathan Goldstein, Head of Page Executive in Southeast Asia. He has more than 14 years of experience in connecting women of the C-suite to both Asian businesses and Fortune 500 companies. Being the son of a mom who speaks 5 languages and received her masters in New York after immigrating into the country through Ellis Island in her teenage years, Jon was exposed to female leaders early in his life and was deeply influenced by them and their leadership styles.

He envisions himself to be part of the Gender & Diversity revolution in Asia Pacific and hopes to give prominence to women executives and the important elements they bring to senior leadership teams for companies to grow holistically.

Partner with Jon to strengthen your senior leadership team, discuss about your next opportunity or contribute to our Leading Women series to inspire others.

 

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