New York Times Interview: Saundra Pelletier, on Embracing ‘Organized Chaos’
This interview with Saundra Pelletier, chief executive of WomanCare Global, a nonprofit provider of health care products, was conducted and condensed by Adam Bryant. Ms. Pelletier is also C.E.O. of Evofem Inc., a biotechnology company.
Q. Were you in leadership roles growing up?
A. I grew up in Caribou, Me. It’s a small rural town and a farming community. My mother cared very passionately that I learned no domestic skills — no cooking and no cleaning — because, she said, “Those will never get you out of Caribou, and I want you to do things like balance a checkbook.” I have a picture of me in kindergarten, wearing a suit and carrying a briefcase. In junior high, when they said girls should take sewing and cooking, I signed up for arc welding and fly tying. Leadership was a little bit put upon me by her, but I embraced it.
In high school, I was passionate about creating a different mind-set around women and the worth of women and girls because there was a sense that there were only domestic choices: who you married and how many kids you would have.
So I tried to encourage girls to create the life that they want. That’s something I still carry with me. I have a big invisible chip on my shoulder around deciding what balance is for you and what success is. Don’t apologize for it, and you can have more than just one good aspect of life.
Why did your mother believe so strongly in that?
She said that she allowed herself to be capped, and that she wanted to make sure I set my own bar higher. She used to say: “When you graduate from high school, make sure you leave and don’t ever come back. If you want me to visit you, I’ll come visit you. Make enough money so that wherever that is, you can fly me there.”
What were your career aspirations early on?
I wanted to do television news. But I was offered a job by G.D. Searle. They had launched the first birth control pill in the United States. Fifteen years later, I had maneuvered my way up the corporate ladder to running a global franchise focused on women’s health.
What were some early lessons on managing people?
I recognized how critical it was to create the right environment. I cared about creating sort of a family unit, and I think that’s been one of my critical success factors throughout my career. I believe that people who work for me feel that no matter what, I will defend and support them.
But I also learned that you can’t cut the tail half off. If you’ve got to make a tough decision about somebody, make it fast. Do it quick. If you need to replace people, let them go, because the good people you have are never going to respect you if you keep passengers. You’ve got to have drivers. Don’t let passengers stay.
I learned this from my boss at the time: “Inspect what you expect.” Don’t just take people’s word. It’s O.K. to trust people, but you have to make sure you’re really looking at the details. Once you know they’re capable, you can empower them. Early in my life, I always wanted people to have a little more faith in me, so because of that sometimes I had too much faith in people.
What questions do you ask when hiring?
I always ask people, “If money, time and talent were no object, and you could be anything at all, what would you be?” It’s amazing what people will say.
I ask about how they act under pressure: Tell me about a stressful situation and give me as many details as you’re willing to share. How people behave under real heat tells you a lot about character.
I want to know how they’re going to fit in our culture. Humility, humor and not taking yourself too seriously are important to me. People who take themselves too seriously are so boring. I also like it when people will be a little fanatical. I like that when they care about something, they’re willing to go to the mat, and they’re all in.
I also want to see how somebody will embrace change. So I’ll give them an example of some opportunity for innovation, and I’ll ask, “What are your thoughts?” Then I’ll watch their body language. We’re a start-up. I love organized chaos. We’re willing to roll and turn and twist and evolve, but some people don’t like that. Bureaucracy makes sense to them. Those people are going to be unhappy if they come here and they need “Groundhog Days,” where they come in every day and they do the same thing. I want people who don’t want to get comfortable.
What would you do if time, money and talent were no object?
I can’t carry a tune to save my life, but I would be a jazz singer in a smoky lounge. Or I would like to be the first woman president of the United States.
What career advice would you offer new college graduates?
This might be unpopular. But it’s O.K. to play it safe. I think we get very caught up these days in the idea of following your heart and your dreams and don’t settle for less. But thinking you can bring your wildest dreams to life without paying dues is “cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs.” It’s great that you want to start an organic farm in Guatemala. It’s wonderful to have those aspirations, and it’s great to deliberately work toward whatever it is you want. But there’s value in pragmatism.
It’s O.K. to be safe out of the gate, to start building a foundation to get where you eventually want to be. Don’t worry that it doesn’t make your heart sing. Don’t worry that you don’t get up every day and think, “Wow.” You’ve got to learn things and make mistakes and pay your dues and do different jobs. Sometimes those steppingstones teach us the best lessons. I’m not trying to squash anyone’s dreams. The point is that you have to be practical and reasonable. I think more kids need to hear that.