Article

Can You Predict What It’s Like to Be a CEO?

By Michael Melcher
Partner, Next Step Partners

Pyxis Oncology CEO Dr. Lara Sullivan Shares What She’s Learned About Leadership, Careers and the Role of Relationships in De-Risking Career Decisions

Dr. Lara S. Sullivan is the CEO of Pyxis Oncology. Previously, Lara was Founding President of SpringWorks Therapeutics, a clinical stage biopharmaceutical company spun-out from Pfizer. While at Pfizer, Lara led strategy, competitive intelligence and portfolio operations for the company’s early-stage R&D pipeline. Lara was an associate partner at McKinsey & Company and also served as a principal at Paul Capital Partners.  She holds M.D. and M.B.A. degrees from the University of Pennsylvania, and a B.A. in Comparative Literature from Cornell University.

Michael Melcher recently sat down with Lara for Episode 43 of my Career Stewardship podcast to talk about her leadership during the COVID pandemic, her path to becoming CEO, what the CEO’s role really is, and her thoughts about how mentorship really works.

Here are excerpts from our great conversation.  You can hear the full episode here and you can read a full written transcript of our interview here.

 

Curiosity and career choices

 Michael Melcher:  Was being a CEO something you saw for yourself back when you were a Comp Lit major?

Lara Sullivan: I never imagined being a CEO. My career has always been driven by: am I learning something new, and am I having fun? Those questions have taken me into different directions, as opposed to starting with a specific career objective, and then thinking I was going to fill in the blanks from here to there to get to that objective

 

The thing you can’t anticipate about being CEO

Michael Melcher:  Prior to taking on the job, what did you predict it would be like to be CEO?  What about the role did you anticipate and what did you not anticipate?

Lara Sullivan: No matter what you think about it, or predict about it, you just can’t know what it’s going to be like until you’re actually in the seat. People said things to me all the time, like, “You’re going to be so busy, it’s going to be so lonely, you’re going to have all this responsibility on your shoulders.” I was trying to understand what that meant because I think we’ve all felt those things in other parts of our careers too, and in our lives. Why would that be different in this role versus how it would have shown up in other roles or in other facets of life?

The biggest difference that I couldn’t fully anticipate until I assumed the seat was that feeling of complete and utter responsibility for everything that’s going on.  Because the buck does ultimately stop with you as CEO. Even for things that you don’t know are going on, it’s under your watch.

This more acute sense of collective and total responsibility was just something I just couldn’t anticipate. And at the same time, it’s not your job to execute on everything. You can’t.  It’s your job to hire great people who can execute. You’re balancing that feeling of responsibility with that feeling of hands-off delegation. There are two conflicting dynamics that exist at once.

What I did anticipate was this sense of excitement and enthusiasm and trust from others who put me into this seat or supported me in this seat, whether it was the board members who hired me or the team members who have signed up to be on this journey. That sense of responsibility and trust that other people are placing in me, that’s something I thought I would feel coming into it and it’s something I do feel.

 

Relationships, de-risking decisions, and career success 

Michael Melcher:  When someone looks at your background, they probably see a lot of domain knowledge and expertise. You went to medical school, you got an MBA. You worked for McKinsey, you worked in private equity, you worked at Pfizer. That’s a lot of knowledge there, but we also know how important relationships are to career success.  Can you comment on how you see this?

Lara Sullivan: It might sound funny, but I don’t really think of myself as a knowledge-driven person per se. Even with the experiences that you cited from my resume, there was so much diversity in the type of work I did within jobs. I feel like my career has been stitched together from diverse experiences that have been driven by relationships.  These are people I’ve known and who have pulled me into the next interesting thing.

Being in those environments with a lot of domain knowledge was intoxicating because I learned so much. I think I moved diagonally within them as opposed to vertically. That was all driven by relationships.

My jumping-off point from management consulting to Pfizer came from my client relationships. Clients that I had worked with for many, many years who were at Pfizer after Pfizer acquired Wyeth called me up and said, “Hey, there’s a great role here. Why don’t you come over and work with us?”

It was the first career decision I ever made I didn’t have second thoughts about. I knew it was the right choice because I knew all the people there. I felt like transitioning into a new role in a new environment was “safe” because I had all these relationships to catch me and help me. That was 2011, and it felt like the greatest job ever.

Listen to the whole episode

Over the course of our 25-minute conversation, Lara and I discuss more details about her career and leadership path:

  • Her principles for leading her company through the COVID pandemic
  • Why leaders need to optimize the skills and talents of the team as a whole rather than of individual leaders
  • What “diagonal” career growth can look like
  • Whether it’s possible to pay back what a mentor does for you
  • How curiosity led from studying Comp Lit in college to a career in business

LISTEN TO THE INTERVIEW

 

About the Career Stewardship with Michael Melcher podcast

This 5-star podcast from leadership and career expert, Michael Melcher, will help you figure out what to do to advance your career and leadership.

Each episode offers best practices, stories from the field, and bite-sized tips to help build your career success in both the short and long term.

As one of the partners at Next Step Partners, Michael is a seasoned expert on developing leaders, building inclusive work environments, and helping senior professionals make career transitions. A former lawyer, foreign service officer and startup CEO, he has navigated several career transitions himself.  His third book, Your Invisible Network:  How to Build, Maintain and Leverage the Relationships That Will Transform Your Career, comes out in early 2023 (BenBella Books).

Subscribe to Career Stewardship with Michael Melcher on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Podcast or your favorite platform. You can find additional resources on the show website: CareerStewardship.com.

 

Are you interested in providing leadership and career resources for your team?

Next Step Partners provides virtual workshops and individual coaching on leadership and career stewardship to companies that want to support their employees in achieving their career goals.

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