Tracey Mullen of Abveris: Why I want to challenge the idea that there are “types” of people who are not cut out to be executives

I would challenge the idea that there exist “types” of people who are not cut out to be executives. At Abveris, we once performed a company-wide leadership seminar during which each employee took a test and received a “personality profile.” Our executive team contained a mixture of characteristics, with different individuals favoring categorically different personality traits. I believe that there is no destiny involved in the pathway to an executive role, there is only passion and drive. However, taking on an executive role requires a person to place a massive amount of trust and confidence in herself, as well as her peers. An executive must be the source of her own empowerment and produce it in abundance to empower those around her. Above all, an executive must be buoyant to deal with setbacks or self-doubt quickly in order to maintain the team’s forward momentum. And, of course, it is hard to muster the required energy to lead without a passion for the work that you do.

As a part of our series about strong women leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Tracey Mullen, CEO of Abveris.

Tracey is a fairly unconventional CEO, having spent the majority of her career in science rather than business. A chemical-biological engineer from MIT, Tracey began her career as an Antibody Discovery Scientist at a startup contract research organization specializing in in vivo antibody discovery. In 2013, she joined the Antibody Discovery team at Biogen where she helped implement the technology transfer of the Adimab yeast display platform for antibody discovery and engineering. In June of 2018, Tracey joined Abveris as the Director of Antibody Discovery Operations, where she managed project design and development for in vivo discovery projects. She was promoted to Chief Operating Officer about six months into her tenure at Abveris, at which point she split her time between managing operations and co-leading the implementation of the Beacon single B cell screening platform for antibody discovery. While at Abveris, Tracey obtained her Executive Master of Business Administration degree from Quantic School of Business and Technology. Tracey is now CEO of Abveris, a contract research organization specializing in therapeutic and critical reagent antibody discovery.

hank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

My path to my current role is actually a bit unorthodox — I’m an engineer by training so I’ve spent the majority of my career thus far in science. To be honest, I didn’t even consider a business transition until about two years ago, when I decided to take what I believed to be a massive risk at the time and jump into an entirely different role. The change driver was a combination of my own career positioning and coincidence — I was looking into alternative career paths when I happened to run into my former colleague, Garren Hilow (CEO of Abveris at the time), who was looking to hire an antibody scientist for a science-heavy business role.

Despite hearing from almost everyone around me that it was an objectively absurd career decision — “Why leave a safe job in pharma for an inherently risky 11-person startup?” — I decided to take the plunge. My role as Director of Antibody Discovery Operations turned into Chief Operating Officer, and more recently advanced to Chief Executive Officer, and I look back on that decision as one of the hardest, but most rewarding, of my professional life thus far.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

The most interesting aspect of my role has been watching the company evolve so quickly over two short years and personally adapting to that evolution myself. Typically, significant changes like new platform introductions occur incrementally over the course of many months to years, but at smaller startups like Abveris, change happens fast, and adaptability is the name of the game.

When I first joined the team, we had a limited list of capabilities we felt comfortable offering, but we did them well. We grew organically but quickly, continually reinvesting the profits into building out additional capabilities. Now, just two years later, we offer a full suite of end-to-end antibody discovery services, complete with multiple platforms and an entire project management department to help partners navigate our extensive offerings. It is incredible to see how much progress a small group of highly passionate, agile, and dedicated individuals can make in such a short amount of time.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Back when I was taking online classes for my MBA, I would frequently apply what I was studying to my role at Abveris. When we were learning finance, for example, I used what I was learning to help draft up my own version of our 2020 budget, complete with department-specific cash flow analyses and financial projections for the year.

Conveniently, around the same time that I was taking an “Art of Negotiation” specialization, our CEO was exploring financing options for a significant CapEx purchase. We had two potential offers that we were considering, one of which was clearly our weaker option and helped define our BATNA (best alternative to a negotiated agreement). Against what I had learned, our CEO shared our BATNA with the lead negotiator of our second-best option. Curious to hear his reasoning behind this decision, I replied to his email asking why he would share this information, as it leaves minimal room for negotiation and we were in a great spot to land a favorable deal. What I didn’t realize, however, was that I accidentally replied directly to the lead negotiator instead.

Fortunately for me, he found the mistake to be quite charming, and took it as an opportunity to explain why there are certain circumstances in which it is valuable to share the details of a BATNA with the “sharks” of the funding world. As a result, I learned when it is okay to go against the books in negotiation, but perhaps more importantly, I also learned to always start new email threads when I forward questions internally!

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

In general, I believe that I am the sum of all people with whom I have interacted throughout my career, though there are a few standout mentors that have especially helped challenge me to be the best professional I can be.

Christilyn Graff, my former manager at Biogen, is one of these mentors. Aside from teaching me an unending list of scientific concepts, she manages her team and herself in a way that I aspire to emulate. She truly embodies the “whole is greater than the sum of its individual parts” mentality and was one of the most supportive managers I have ever had the privilege of working with. Even now, two years after leaving Biogen, I still reach out to her for advice or to celebrate success.

In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?

I started reframing the concept of stress as an opportunity for growth and I have found this shift in mindset to be incredibly empowering. Doing so enables me to approach stress as a fighter rather than a sufferer, encouraging me to persevere and overcome rather than shut down and surrender.

When I started at Abveris, I found meetings with potential partners to be intimidating and stressful. I would agonize for days leading up to the meeting, processing the entire experience as an anxiety-inducing endeavor rather than an opportunity to learn. Now, I seek out new meetings for continued growth, as I recognize that each new meeting provides another chance to develop my business acumen. A simple shift in stress framing can go a long way.

As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?

Prioritizing diversity and inclusion in the workplace — and especially in leadership teams — helps ensure that a variety of perspectives are taken into consideration in decision-making processes. It is well-documented that diversity fuels innovation and creativity, and that radically diverse teams outperform non-diverse teams.

That being said, it is important to recognize that diversity does not equal inclusion, and while a company may encourage diversity on paper and preach its value in the workplace, inclusion needs to be fostered to become fully integrated into company culture. A strong prioritization of inclusion at the executive level helps drive inclusion throughout the entire organization as a whole.

As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.

Change at work can help fuel change outside of work. Taking a step back and looking at our organizations as a whole will enable us as leaders to determine whether our working environments are supporting diversity and inclusion. Are we encouraging those with dissenting opinions from our own to speak up and share their views? Are we soliciting feedback and ideas from each and every member of the company? Are we providing growth opportunities for everyone, not just select individuals? Understanding how we can cultivate inclusion is the first step to truly making a difference.

One of the most effective ways the leadership team at Abveris encourages feedback from the organization as a whole is through the use of quarterly company-wide Pulse Check surveys. These provide unbiased, anonymous assessments of the organization from each employee and enable the leadership team to act on potential issues before they become a bigger cultural problem. Even more importantly, however, the Pulse Check surveys help present certain concepts or ideas with a new perspective, which has proven to be invaluable on many occasions.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?

While leaders make highly educated decisions with respect to their particular departments, executives must consider the impact of their decisions across the entire organization. As CEO, I am required to carefully examine how my decisions will holistically affect every aspect of our company at every level — our partners, our employees, our company culture, our finances, our current and future tech development, and so much more.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?

It’s lonely at the top.” This is one of the first things someone said to me when I told them I was being promoted to CEO. This is simply untrue. The best CEOs are those who rally their team around them, united in a shared vision for the future of the company. If you’re doing it right, you should be surrounded by the strongest possible team.

CEOs have all the answers.” While I would love for that to be true, everyone is human and capable of making mistakes. The secret isn’t having all the answers, it’s knowing which of your highly specialized team members has that particular answer so that you can learn from him or her.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

It is well known that women in all industries have to contend for positions of leadership, and the biotech industry is no different. I am reminded daily that women face unique challenges both at work and at home, and these reminders come in many forms ranging from minor comments to actions. As a female executive in a male-dominated industry, I frequently find myself in meetings in which I am the only woman in the room — this inherently lends itself to extra scrutiny that male counterparts may not experience. In an ideal environment, no one should be faced with the prospect of an unequal playing field before she has a chance to display her ability and expertise.

What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?

While most CEOs spend the majority of their time focusing on big-picture problems and solutions, I am very much an in-the-trenches CEO, as that is what Abveris requires at this time. My primary role is to contribute where help is needed most, bring in a long-term solution, and then move on to the next area of highest need. In a small company setting, that means I end up working closely with the whole team every day, and I love it!

Certainly, not everyone is cut out to be an executive. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?

I would challenge the idea that there exist “types” of people who are not cut out to be executives. At Abveris, we once performed a company-wide leadership seminar during which each employee took a test and received a “personality profile.” Our executive team contained a mixture of characteristics, with different individuals favoring categorically different personality traits. I believe that there is no destiny involved in the pathway to an executive role, there is only passion and drive.

However, taking on an executive role requires a person to place a massive amount of trust and confidence in herself, as well as her peers. An executive must be the source of her own empowerment and produce it in abundance to empower those around her. Above all, an executive must be buoyant to deal with setbacks or self-doubt quickly in order to maintain the team’s forward momentum. And, of course, it is hard to muster the required energy to lead without a passion for the work that you do.

What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?

  1. Be confident in yourself and your abilities. Recognize that what you bring to the table is valuable and insightful, and that your opinion is important.
  2. Regardless of gender, understand that the role of a leader is to listen first and foremost, and then act deliberately.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

Working in drug discovery is rewarding in that success in any campaign helps make the world a better place. That being said, I think it is important that we all continue to challenge ourselves constantly to remain open to suggestions for how we can do even better.

I believe we can make the world a better place every day in business by acting ethically, and by recognizing that shortcuts can have grave unseen collateral damage. The greatest victories we at Abveris have achieved as a team have been won with consistent (and at some points grueling) incremental steps forward. The gravity of “making the world a better place” can feel overwhelming, but we can choose to do that with each small decision we make every day.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. You will encounter problems that you do not know how to fix, and that’s okay. Oftentimes as leaders we feel that we are obligated to solve everything that comes across our desks, but sometimes a problem does not necessarily have a solution that we alone can offer. Recognizing that something is outside of your wheelhouse and asking for help is just as valuable a skillset as being able to solve the problem on your own.
  2. Above all else, adaptability will serve you tremendously. Especially in the small startup world, change happens fast. Inflexible leaders inevitably fall behind as they waste valuable time swimming against the tide. In order to stay at the forefront of your industry, you must be bold enough to take risks, even when those risks involve stepping far outside the boundaries of your comfort zone and challenging the norm.
  3. Don’t expect immediate solutions. Implementing a new workflow or technology follows a similar lifecycle as the team lifecycle. You form your idea and how you would like to execute it, you storm through countless failures, you gradually start to normalize the workflow with fewer failures, and finally you reach an optimal performance phase. Solutions will not always materialize overnight — acknowledging that failure, reevaluation, and delays are often part of the process will make them easier to digest and manage.
  4. Your job is to listen first, and act second. The best way to ensure that you are acting in the best interest of your organization is to listen and understand what your team is looking for. You cannot fix what you don’t know is broken, and you cannot capitalize on what works if you don’t recognize its efficacy.
  5. Prioritize a healthy work/life balance. As an executive, your job is never “done.” You will never go home with an empty inbox and no problems to solve. It is important to stop and recharge in order to continue putting your best foot forward. Prioritizing dinners with the family and vacations will enable you to maintain a healthy work/life balance.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

If I could inspire a movement, it would be to completely eliminate all biases in the working environment. Aside from the obvious biases present in most industries, certain industries like the biotechnology space suffer from pedigree biases as well, preventing highly qualified individuals with diverse background experiences from advancing. A complete eradication of all biases in the workplace will help improve diversity and inclusion and enable a stronger working force in general, and, hopefully, a stronger culture outside of work as well.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Success and failure do not exist in the present, only effort and action exist.” — Arno Illgner, The Rock Warrior’s Way.

So often, we give up before we even reach the end, afraid to see things through for fear of failure. I have seen this firsthand, both professionally and personally. Outside of work, I am an avid rock climber and have allowed my fear of falling to hold me back completing or even attempting a climb. When I allow my thoughts to focus only on the present and truly believe in my ability without any concern for success or failure, I succeed more often than not. You are only as strong as you believe you are; true self-value comes from within.

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them

Elizabeth Cronise McLaughlin, founder and CEO of The Gaia Project for Women’s Leadership, is also the host of one of my favorite podcast called “Flip Out” (formerly “The Women’s Leadership Podcast”). I’ve spent hours listening to her, and I deeply value her insight into female leadership.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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