Inspirational Woman: Ester Banque | Senior Vice President & Head of Intercontinental Commercial, Bristol Myers Squibb

Ester BanqueI grew up in Spain, having two passions: soccer and science. I played on the National team – a dream come true – and studied Chemistry in college.

Soccer taught me how to win as a team, enjoy playing as a team and celebrate being part of a team. A career in pharma allowed me to win for patients, thanks to the science.

I began working as a sales representative for Novartis.  Over the years, I have consistently progressed to positions of greater responsibility in Spain, the UK, Switzerland, Germany and the US. Today I am SVP and Head of Intercontinental Commercial for Bristol Myers Squibb, a region that includes over 70 markets across five continents. I have the same north star that guides me professionally as well as personally: I like to perform with a purpose, change things for the better and make a difference in the world.

Lastly, but definitely the cornerstone of my journey: my family is the most important thing in my life. I am the mother of our twin-daughters, Erin and Zoe and married to my wife, Eva.

The four of us are all from Spain but we have lived in several countries and feel like true citizens of the world.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

I have not planned my career in a traditional way. I did not know if I wanted to do a particular job in a particular period of time. It was clear to me, though, about the type of job I was passionate about, and that I want to be in positions which allowed me to influence key decisions that would impact patients and people. I also wanted to have an international career. Those principles have guided my decisions and then I followed the path that was unfolding ahead of me.  Taking jobs that have offered the opportunity to exhibit leadership in a particular area has moved me from Europe, to the US, back to Europe and now back in the US again, overseeing a global business. Those jobs also helped me develop skills and capabilities needed for the role and future positions. Along the way, driving access to medicines for patients and creating an inclusive culture has become my calling and it all becomes more than job, but rather a life mission.

Have you faced any challenges along the way?

The biggest challenge I experienced was self-imposed.  I began my management journey by making decisions mostly with my brain. I thought it was what people wanted, and I tried to mimic a leadership style that I perceived was the way to be successful. I struggled and began to neglect an important part of myself.  I realized that I had a bigger and wiser heart. You can be human, caring and kind and also driven, make difficult decisions and be successful. I started to embrace my whole self as a leader, becoming a ‘blended leader’. I was able to feel more connected to the mission and to the purpose when I led with my heart and executed with my brain. This level of self-awareness has guided my leadership and collaboration style, with internal as well as external stakeholders. When a leader is guided by purpose and is true to her/his authentic-self (identity, values), achieving business goals becomes the inevitable outcome.

What has been your biggest achievement to date?

Each position I’ve assumed has had its share of triumphs as well as challenges.  When I arrived at my current job, I found a team of incredibly talented leaders, across markets and functions, but not a leadership team, acting as a tight knight unit.  My first job was to change the paradigm from a team of leaders to a leadership team, where my direct reports understood the importance of leaning on and learning from each other as opposed to functioning as solo practitioners.  By building an integrated leadership team, I was able to develop and execute strategies that drove higher performance, resulting in company-wide recognition of the major contribution of the Intercontinental Region to the overall success of our company.  This effort also included developing our long-term strategy for China, a market in fast transformation opening to innovation, and getting the entire organization behind it.

The work done by our large team of over 3000 employees has also spotlighted the immense innovation and creativity of several of our markets, from big to small, showcasing their enormous potential to be huge players in the future.

What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success?

Actually, there are two major factors. One is to express myself authentically and the other is to act with purpose.

It took me years to come out in my professional life – I was so afraid that I would be judged and that it would affect my career, that I hid for a long time that I was gay. It became such a burden that when I decided to finally come out, I felt free, happy and able to truly connect with people. In turn, my colleagues, also felt encouraged to express themselves freely and feel appreciated for who they are as well.

With regard to acting with purpose, this has been my north star when making any decision, both personal and professional. At work, I always ask how this decision is going to affect patients. When you put purpose first, and results will come – this is my philosophy.

How do you feel about mentoring? Have you mentored anyone or are you someone’s mentee?

I am a huge believer in talent development.  At every level, I’ve focused on mentoring talent, many of whom have gone off to positions of greater responsibility, creating a network of skilled, highly placed individuals, dedicated to driving access on behalf of patients and creating positive and inclusive cultures. I stay in touch with a large number of people I have worked and mentored over the years. When they reach out for career/life advice, I’m always there. I enjoy keeping these connections. This is one of the most fulfilling parts of my career, staying connected and seeing talent grow to their potential.

I have been mentored by great leaders who have served as inspirational models.  I value their input, their wisdom, as they have had a significant impact on my career.  Leaders rise with greatness around them – that’s why it is so important to foster the development and support of others. It’s not about individual greatness, it’s about the collective – the outcome. There’s growth and magic when amazing professionals come together, it’s more of an art than a science.

If you could change one thing to accelerate the pace of change for Gender Equality, what would it be?

To accelerate the pace of change for Gender Equity, there has to be a concerted effort to get more women into C-Suite positions.  Having a token number of women in high positions continues to make them a novelty — as opposed to a meaningful critical mass.  Having more women who are in positions to hire will significantly shift their presence in executive positions.  This can impact overall numbers, as well as narrow the current and long-lasting pay gap between men and women.  Organizations must make this a priority. I co-lead the Commercial Diversity and Inclusion Council at Bristol Myers Squibb and we have made female representation a tangible objective for all leaders, male and female. I am proud to say that more than half of the General Managers in the Intercontinental Region are women.

If you could give one piece of advice to your younger self what would it be?

It would be to avoid mimicking leadership styles of those I thought were successful.  You must be true to your authentic self to be effective – there’s no “one-size-fits-all” leadership style.  Once I realized this, my ability to lead higher performing teams was greatly enhanced.

What is your next challenge and what are you hoping to achieve in the future?

I lead a region of very diverse countries, with different levels of healthcare maturity and sometimes significant challenges regarding patient access to innovative medicines.

The Intercontinental Region experiences significant variations in patient access with countries that rely on Universal Healthcare Coverage (e.g. Poland, Greece, Turkey) while private spending dominates in others (e.g. India, Brazil, Argentina).

The Region also showcases wide variations in healthcare spending ranging from $5,187 per person in Australia (2019) to less than $50 in many low income countries.

Our main challenge is to expand and accelerate access to medicines to all those who can benefit from them. We are committed to working collaboratively with many stakeholders, including payers, physicians, advocates, patients and civil societies around the world to enhance patient access.

How does creating a culture of support relate to leaders having the courage to ask for help?

Many believe, especially early in their careers, that leaders should be self-sufficient at all times. However, I gradually came to appreciate the immense power that comes from leaning on your teams and maximizing the talent around you, empowering high-potential and high-performing employees and delegating thoughtfully. I call this “Activating My A Team”, through three simple tenets:

  • When it comes to reaching business objectives, it is natural and expected that people will work in a team environment. When people see their business leader lean on others, they often find the courage to advocate for their needs, as well.
  • Building authentic connections is only possible when you are approachable and willing to approach others. Reach beyond your immediate team and practice cultivating a spirit of community. In being personal and intentional, your community will grow from strength-to-strength.
  • Create the excitement of what is possible by fostering a culture that encourages curiosity and aspiration. Teams that work together and dream of what is possible, always achieve extraordinary results.

Addressing healthcare inequities, both access to care and treatment, seems to be an ongoing challenge. How can these gaps be narrowed?

Simply speaking, the collective of any organization must reflect widely diverse and inclusive perspectives in order to address the current state of healthcare inequities that are faced throughout the world.

At BMS, we promote health equity and seek to promote the health outcomes of populations disproportionately affected by serious disease.

To provide a concrete example within Intercontinental, through the Bristol Myers Squibb Foundation, we support community-based programs that promote cancer awareness, screening, care and support among high-risk populations in the United States, as well as China, Brazil and sub-Saharan Africa.

What do you and your wife believe are the keys to work-life balance?

I do not believe in the phrase “work-life balance” – what we strive for is work-life integration, in which our work and family life together forms an elastic totality.  Especially during a global pandemic when most of us are working from home, it’s impossible to silo or separate the two.  With work as the new “home invader,” the lines have become blurred.  While we could spend 24/7 in front of the computer screen, I am committed to “me” time as well as family time.  I am fortunate that my wife has the major responsibility for managing the household, but raising children is a joint effort and I prioritize being a mom and a wife, and I enjoy being with my family.  Logging off it is not easy, as my region covers many time zones, but I’ve made the choice to prioritize and learned to say, “no,” (and empowered my team to do the same) in order to focus on saying “yes” when and where it matters most.

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