Mentoring in Practice: Karen Seibert of Pfizer

Mentoring in Practice

A conversation with Karen Seibert, Ph.D., Vice President, St. Louis Discovery Site Head, Pfizer Global Research and Development

Q. How long have you been at Pfizer and its predecessor companies?

A. I’ve been in St. Louis for 15 years. I started at Washington University to do a three year post-doc there with Phil Needleman. Since then, I’ve spent 12 years at the heritage company. I was originally hired by Monsanto’s Searle Pharmaceutical division, which naturally was acquired by Pharmacia, and now Pfizer. I’ve stayed in one place but the company around me has changed quite a bit.

Q. Tell me about a person who made a difference in your career.

A. I think one thing about mentoring for me is that often you will find it where you least expect it. You should not only look in places where you expect to find it, but also through other interactions you may have. Someone who was a great mentor to me was Phil Needleman. What I expected to learn from Phil, I did: managing a scientific career, how to be hypothesis driven and pressure test ideas, be inclusive and collaborative, and push the envelope a lot. But, what I didn’t expect was the kind of mentoring that I got from him later in our relationship: how to approach change, how to reinvent your career, how to accept new responsibilities and opportunities when they come, usually when you least expect they’re coming.

Q. Can you think of one piece of advice that a mentor told you that made a difference for you?

A. There was one piece of advice I got early in my career from a mentor and a very good coach. I would approach him and say, “Well, I don’t know what to do next, and I’m the youngest person at the table, or I’m the least experienced person at the table, or I’ve never done this before.” The advice I got was to drop all that, because the reality was that I am doing this and I am capable, and my colleagues and my supervisors and my organization believed me capable. I can’t emphasize enough how important that was, to stop creating the frame for why I might not be successful, and instead simply move past that and put all the energy toward what it was going to take.

Q. Can you talk a little bit about your role as a mentor for people within the organization and beyond the organization?

A. I view it as one of the most responsible roles that I have. I am privileged that I have experienced in those ten or twelve years the complete spectrum of drug development. Not many people get that whole experience, and I think it’s a responsibility of mine to try to encourage people who are at various stages in that process as to how they can be successful and deliver for their personal satisfaction as well as the company’s satisfaction. Not only a responsibility, it’s probably the thing I enjoy most.

Q. What have you gotten out of being a mentor?

A: Usually with mentoring I find that I learn just as much in the other direction. I will learn more about their goals, learn from their way of approaching a problem, learn about science, and get some new insights into the human relations. I think the upside of mentoring is that it’s a two-way street and that there’s a benefit to both people being recipients in the conversation.

Q. What advice would you give to someone becoming a mentor for the first time?

A. First of all I don’t know that anyone declared, “Today, you are a mentor.” Don’t think that the absence of the declaration keeps you from being that coach. In fact, people are learning and being coached by you in a passive way by the way you conduct yourself, by the way you manage tough situations. Not many people will come and say, “Today, I need you to mentor me.” It is more likely that people will say, “Gee, have you got a minute?” or “Have you ever done this?” or ask questions which are getting around the issue. As a mentor or coach, don’t assume your responsibility of knowing the answer. I think your purpose is more in listening attentively, seeking to really understand the nature of the question, and provide some guidance, so that people can solve their own problems and get to the next step on their own. They don’t need you to come in and write a prescription for success.

Q. What would you tell someone who is looking for mentoring or coaching to make it more successful for them?

A. Remind them that the responsibility for their actions and next steps lies with them. Be willing to take tough feedback. And, finally, at the end of the day, advice is advice. Seek it, and seek a diversity of advice, and sort through it. But, “to thine own self be true.”

Q. Is there anything else you want to add about mentoring or coaching?

A. It is the foundation of a learning environment, and this is a learning laboratory here in St. Louis. I encourage everyone to think, “What have I done today to coach a colleague to a new place based on my experience?”