Meet Joanna Yao of Baxter

Joanna Yao has been responsible for the Taiwan market for Baxter Healthcare since 2015 and is a co-chair of AmCham Taipei’s Medical Devices Committee. In June 2018, Baxter appointed her as Cluster VP, Southeast Asia, in addition to her role as General Manager for Taiwan. Below is an edited and condensed interview with her conducted for TOPICS by Anna Yang.

What got you interested in a career of business? At what point in your life did you make that decision?

After graduating from college, I went into management consulting [with McKinsey & Co.]. The “official” reason is that I wanted to learn and get more exposure, but another reason was that I didn’t know exactly what I would really be interested in. Getting into management consulting for two years was a way to delay my decision.

The good thing about that time is that it gave me a chance to observe a lot of senior managers. I was very young, a fresh graduate, but I was already having meetings with CFO- and CEO-level people. I was always impressed with them. They could get to the key point really quickly, they asked sharp questions, they could make decisions, and you could see the real impact of those decisions. These were the type of people I aspired to be.

Somehow, half of my projects were healthcare-related, which really gave me the exposure to what this industry is about. Eventually I thought, “Hey, I want to do management, maybe in the healthcare industry.” Interestingly, when I was in middle school my parents kept suggesting that I become a doctor, but I wasn’t so passionate about dealing with the patient that directly. Getting into the healthcare industry is still saving lives but in a more indirect way.

What is the most rewarding part of your work?

I find it satisfying to lead a team to achieve business milestones, but the really most rewarding part is seeing people grow. I move around a lot, and I just received a message from a woman who was in one of my very first teams in Baxter, my China bioscience team. She just decided to move to another job, and she said “I really appreciate the time you interviewed me over 10 years ago.” When you see how you’ve impacted people’s development, that gives me the greatest sense of achievement.

How did your education (B.S. in Management Information Systems from Fudan University, MBA from Columbia) help prepare you for your career?

One’s major doesn’t matter very much. What you really get the most benefit from is the community of students and teachers. I feel very blessed because I chose my major quite randomly, but I chose my school very carefully. I chose Fudan University, one of the best in China, and I feel the school provided the training and experience I was looking for.

It’s good to have an MBA, but it’s not necessary. I was in my third year at McKinsey and they offered me the opportunity for promotion without going to the MBA program. But it was my personal choice, for the sake of my personal advancement. Going to Columbia in New York was my first time really getting into Western culture. Life is about exposure, experience. The MBA program really gave me the experience I wanted. Looking back, those two years definitely helped shape where I am and who I am right now.

Did you have a mentor as a student or young professional who had a big influence on you?

Quite a few. At different stages of life, you have different types of people who have a great influence on you. Even very early on in primary school, my teacher chose me as the head of the class. I wasn’t sure I could do it, but the teacher gave me a lot of confidence. It’s honestly just very good luck when you get some good teachers that can see what you don’t see in yourself. I had a lot of teachers who pushed me to try something new, not just staying where I felt comfortable.

I’ve worked at Baxter for 14 years, and all my managers have been really great supervisors who cared about me as an individual and gave me a lot of good advice. One of the best pieces of advice I ever received was that as you progress with your career, be as clear as possible about the direction you want to go in.

What do you consider to be your main strengths as a manager? Any weaknesses you plan to work on? Do you have a certain philosophy of management that you follow?

I care about people. My biggest sense of achievement is from seeing people’s development, so what I focus on is how I can help the team be successful. I don’t mind giving them constructive feedback. I’m a very direct person. I will share with you when you do good things, and for the sake of your development I will tell you what you potentially could do differently.

In terms of weaknesses, I’m still in the process of learning how to adapt to different cultures. How do I maintain the local country culture but also the broader Baxter culture? I try to get 360-degree feedback, and one of the comments I often receive is: “Joanna, you talk so fast, and you ask for everything so urgently!” They say, “Joanna, sometimes you can be very intimidating – it feels like we can’t meet your expectations.”

So then I reflect that I should listen more, be more open, and adopt a pace that the whole team feels like they can move towards. This can be my pace, it can be my culture, but being adaptive will be beneficial over the longer term. As a manager you should avoid being a control freak. You should be on top of the most important things, but you have to trust your team. I’m always amazed by the high quality they can deliver.

What have you found to be the most significant characteristics of the business environment in Taiwan? What are the main ways in which it differs from other markets?

Taiwan is a very unique place, especially talking about healthcare and medical devices. And it has its pros and cons.

On the one hand, as a citizen in this society, you have to appreciate what the Taiwan government has set up for the whole population. The National Health Insurance scheme in Taiwan is probably among the top three within the whole world. The government believes that taking care of the health and wellbeing of its citizens is one of its most important responsibilities.

Also, the Taiwanese government is willing to look at new therapies and new technologies, and is sincerely trying to bring the best of them to Taiwan. But it’s a constant struggle in that the budget is always limited. Taiwan only spends about 6.6% of GDP on healthcare, but it wants to provide the best, so there are only two ways to achieve this. One is to cut the service fee, so hospitals and doctors get less. The other is to cut the price of medical devices and drugs.

The normal citizen is satisfied with the NHI program, but if you survey the doctors, their satisfaction rate is low. And if you survey the industry players, everyone will say the same. If you look at the pricing of the same therapy we sell here versus how it’s sold everywhere else in APEC, ours is always the lowest, which puts a lot of pressure on industry.

If you had one piece of advice for young professionals in your industry, what would it be?

When you’re young, be courageous. Try to expose yourself to more different experiences. The more effort you put in at the beginning, the more options you will have later. You won’t be limited by what other people choose for you, but instead can be more proactive about your choices.

This is a great industry because you can really make a difference. At Baxter, for example, our mission has never changed for the past 88 years. It’s very simple: save and sustain lives. We repeat it every day. No matter what job you have – finance, HR, sales, marketing, communication, IT – you’re helping patients, helping their families. That’s something that’s very special.

How do you like to spend your leisure time? What do you find is the best way to get “recharged?”

I love to travel. I like to meet different kinds of people and see different kinds of scenery. Seeing something in a photo or even in a V/R is different from experiencing it personally. I also do a lot of exercise. I used to do yoga. Now that I’m becoming a little bit older, I think I need to do a bit more cardio as well. Exercise is important, and I believe in the science of it.

Recharging yourself after you exhaust yourself physically, you get a sense of achievement. And because I love food, I can eat after exercise without feeling guilty.