Giving and getting advice: The power of mentoring

By Carla Boragno, Global Head of Engineering and Facilities, Pharma Technical Operations

If I’ve learned one thing over the course of my career, it’s that learning never ends.

In 2009, after we acquired a new manufacturing facility in Singapore, I was responsible for folding it into Genentech’s existing Singapore site. This included leading a team of 250 people and transitioning all aspects of the business, including technology systems, manufacturing systems, quality systems and financial processes, to name a few. As part of the integration, I hosted a town hall for employees of the Singapore office. When the meeting ended, I asked if they had any questions, as I typically would. The room was silent and I was taken aback.

After the meeting, a colleague from Singapore told me that asking a question after a presentation was considered to be disrespectful to the presenter. It’s seen as a suggestion that the speaker did not explain the topic well enough.

That explained the awkward silence, but I still wanted to hear people’s thoughts. I was determined that the next time around I would find a way to engage my team and make them feel comfortable asking questions and sharing feedback.

During my next presentation on the integration, I had the audience sit in groups at round tables, instead of in rows of chairs. Rather than ask for questions after I presented, I decided to ask each group to discuss their thoughts or concerns together. Then I had each table report out to the whole room.

Wow, what a difference! We had a great conversation, I heard their concerns and I was able to address the issues that were on my team's mind.

Many ways to mentor

I think back on that experience and wonder how things would have been different if my colleague hadn’t given me that little tip about Singaporean culture. We often think of mentorship as a formal, long-term relationship that develops over the course of years between a seasoned leader and a rising protégé. But that simple piece of advice counted as mentoring too. Mentoring can take many forms, and I have realised that the more we encourage it, the more successful we’ll all be.

I’m fortunate to have “grown up” with Genentech over the nearly 34 years I’ve worked here, beginning in manufacturing, process engineering and engineering project management roles. Along the way, I’ve had all kinds of mentors who have helped me build the skills I needed to grow as a leader and address the challenges I faced at critical points in my career. Some of these career decisions involved taking roles that were outside of my core technical expertise, yet were leveraging my strengths in leading teams, problem solving and strategic agility.

My first mentor was my dad. When I was a young girl in the 1970s, he encouraged me to pursue a technical field, even though engineering was dominated by men at the time. He always told me, and helped me believe that I had the ability, I was strong enough, and that I would enjoy it. There have been moments when pursuing a career in engineering was uncomfortable, but my dad’s confidence in me has allowed me to be myself and enjoy a career that has fueled my passion and interests.

At Genentech, my first formal mentor was Sue Desmond-Hellmann, who was President of Drug Development at the time. She now serves as Chief Executive Officer of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. When Sue and I worked together, she helped me build my confidence as a female leader, understand the business and realise that there would be times I would need to make tough decisions. She taught me how to make hard choices by approaching them with a positive attitude, unwavering respect for everyone, and being mindful that at times, tough decisions are necessary for success. And that when we succeed, we are able to continue to pursue groundbreaking science and develop medicines for people with serious and life-threatening diseases.

Thanks to my mentorship with Sue and the advice she gave me, I felt confident moving into leadership roles that involved making difficult decisions in support of the business, including stepping into global leadership roles. Currently, as head of our Pharma Technical Assets team, I am responsible for the design, construction, maintenance and life-cycle asset management for Genentech and Roche’s global manufacturing network, which are some of the largest biopharmaceutical facilities in the world.

Additionally, I’ve been actively involved with Futurelab, Genentech's award-winning partnership with South San Francisco schools that seeks to bring the joy of science to children in grades K-12 through mentoring and hands-on learning experiences. Specifically, I had the opportunity to spearhead the development and construction of Science Garage, a lab and four-year high school biotech curriculum that is one of Futurelab’s signature programmes. My involvement in various Futurelab programmess extends into my other role as the current Board Chair of the Genentech Foundation, whose strategy is focused on mentoring and creating career pathways for communities that have typically lacked access to the biotech sector.

Stepping up

After Sue and I had worked together for about a year, she came to me and said, “Carla, now it’s time for you to give back. You need to become a mentor.”

I thought to myself, “Me? What do I have to give?” I was about 15 years into my career, but I still looked up to so many people for inspiration and advice.”

Sue was right. I had a lot I could share, especially with women who were beginning their careers. Genentech has a tremendous record of advancing women into leadership positions within its management. Just over a decade ago, only 16 percent of Genentech’s leaders were women, but today women make up almost half of our leadership team. That does not mean our work is done; we still need to encourage people from all backgrounds to seek out careers in science and technology and help prepare them to advance into leadership roles, or we risk losing the progress we’ve made.

As I began to mentor others, I learned that I was helping myself grow too. I also learned that just because I had become a mentor, it didn’t disqualify me from having one. Soon after Roche acquired Genentech in 2009, I asked Steve Krognes, our former Chief Financial Officer, if he would mentor me. I knew I needed to better understand Roche to be successful in my job, and Steve had come from Roche. I wanted his guidance as I navigated the merger of our organisations.

Little did I know that after six months, the connection I made with Steve would lead me to a new role overseeing Genentech’s corporate real estate portfolio as the head of Site Services. The connections I’ve made – serving as both a mentor and a mentee – have helped me in many unplanned ways.

I’m grateful for the mentors I’ve had throughout my career journey. Without them, I wouldn’t be where I am today, and I also feel incredibly lucky to have a position and be supported at a company that lets me share what I’ve learned over the years with so many talented rising stars. We need to honor and celebrate those who have paved the way and helped us, and at the same it’s imperative that we ‘pay it forward’ and cultivate the next generation of emerging leaders. I deeply believe that everyone at Genentech and Roche has an opportunity to drive change and innovation and to truly make an impact on people across the world who need our medicines. The possibilities are endless.

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