Meet Cellina Yeh of Pfizer

Pfizer Taiwan Country Manager Cellina Yeh says that her career of more than 30 years has been marked by a pattern: the offer of a new position every few years and her initial reluctance to accept it. Nevertheless, intrinsic motivation, curiosity, and an insistence on pushing herself outside of her comfort zone have brought Yeh up through the ranks to top management positions at four major multinationals in Taiwan.

TOPICS Senior Editor Jeremy Olivier caught up with Yeh at the Pfizer Taiwan office in March, where they talked about the importance of and challenges to female leadership in Taiwan, the advantages of self-awareness and self-reflection in managing people, and her tips for staying energized and focused, even in tough situations. An abridged version of their conversation follows.

How did you originally become interested in business? What aspects of business appeal to you the most?

Although I have a university degree in business administration, I think I really became interested in this area after graduation. I started my career at Hewlett Packard (HP), working as an accountant. However, after a few years, I was given the opportunity to take on a new role as a financial analyst. That was where I found my passion for business, learning what kind of impact I can make through collaboration with others and gaining more business insight.

You have worked in a wide variety of roles at companies across the industry spectrum. What are some of the lessons you’ve learned from such a diversified career?

The lessons I’ve learned over the years can be condensed into three key takeaways. The first is to dare to dream. If you feel the inspiration to do something, push yourself to move outside of your comfort zone, challenge yourself. Once you have that passion, you’ll invariably find ways to tackle any obstacles in your way.

The second point is to differentiate yourself from your predecessors and discover the additional value you can bring to a certain role or organization. Since I worked in IT prior to moving on to healthcare, I’ve thought about how to use the knowledge and experience I gained in that field to make an impact at my current company.

Lastly, you need to demonstrate learning agility. Each new role will have its own set of unique and complex challenges; it’s up to you to show that you can quickly adapt and face those challenges.

I tell my colleagues that if you embody these qualities, you will not need to seek out new roles yourself; the promotions and opportunities for job rotation will come to you.

Multinational healthcare companies in Taiwan have become known for putting women in top leadership positions. What are some unique qualities that women leaders can bring to an organization? Do they still face challenges in filling those roles?

Women leaders are usually very skilled in interpersonal communication. We are very good at listening and take an empathetic approach to dealing with others. We also excel in collaboration; we tend to be less competitive and seek out win-win solutions.

However, there is still a pervasive stereotype of women in Taiwan that is influenced by social norms. We are expected to, first and foremost, be good mothers and spouses. And so Taiwanese women who do forge a career path often feel guilt or pressure to focus less on their jobs and more on their familial obligations.

From my own experience, my mother-in-law actually asked me to quit my job right after I became pregnant. She felt that for Taiwanese women, our top priority is to help our husbands achieve success so that the family can be happy. But I’m the kind of person who doesn’t want to give in or live according to someone else’s framework. I therefore spent a lot of time persuading my husband and my in-laws that I should continue to work. In the end, they joined my camp and supported me in my career. And of course, I was also quite committed to balancing my work and my family after my child was born.

Do you have a particular management philosophy? What do you consider to be your strengths? Any weaknesses?

As a manager, I believe in servant leadership. I think frequently about how to help the people around me, to make the organization better, to empower employees to become their best selves. That makes me very happy.

I would say that my number-one strength is self-awareness and the ability to reflect. For example, every conversation I have I write down in my journal and at the end of each day, I reflect on what I did, what I learned, and what I can do better. Having this kind of self-awareness pushes you to become a better person and makes you more empathetic.

I’m also good at bringing everyone together to accomplish our common goals. You could say I’m kind of like a cheerleader for my team.

That said, I think that I can be a little too quick in making decisions or judgments. It’s something I’ve been very conscious of, especially as I’ve obtained more position power. To work on this, along with my journal reflections I also have a “challenge network” of three to four close friends who give me honest feedback, even when our views differ.

Who has had the biggest influence on you in your career? How did they inspire or motivate you?

The country manager I worked under at HP had a huge impact on me professionally. Thanks to him, I started my climb up the career ladder. At that time, the company was looking to hire a new chief financial officer. This manager encouraged me to interview for the position, even though he knew I didn’t think I was as qualified as the other candidate being considered. He reminded me that no one is ever 100% prepared for a new role; sometimes you just have to take the leap. I agreed and, in the end, was given the title of chief financial officer.

Later, after I was promoted, there was an incident involving poor cross-functional collaboration that made me very upset. I angrily confronted the country manager about not sufficiently intervening or making the other party more accountable. Rather than argue with me, he suggested we drive to Yangming Mountain for a one-on-one. When we arrived, he told me that he hired me for the CFO position because of the positive energy I brought to the organization and my ability to make other people around me feel energized and inspired. However, the way I had behaved earlier in the day was completely different – it was like I was a different person!

I felt that this was a very important learning experience for me, and I use it as an example of effective coaching with my management team. Leaders do not need to blame or punish others for mistakes. Rather, they should remind people of who they are and the values they strive to uphold.

What advice do you have for young professionals looking to begin a career in business?

I frequently give speeches to university students, and I generally provide them with several pieces of career advice. First, you need to understand yourself and your aspirations. For me personally, I know what really motivates me is not money or fame, but the feeling I get from helping others, making society better and contributing to the patient journey.

Secondly, I tell students to learn and demonstrate organizational leadership. Nowadays, organizations are becoming flatter; there is much less hierarchy than before. Nevertheless, you can still position yourself as a leader, regardless of whether you have the position power.

Among the other points I raise with these young people, I stress that you cannot manage time; you can only manage your energy. The way that I do that is through something I call my “four-energy ritual.” For physical energy, I eat well and exercise regularly. To maintain my mental energy, I block out one hour of quiet time on my calendar each day, refrain from multi-tasking, and give myself at least 15 minutes of rest and preparation time between each meeting. Emotional energy is important as well, so I take an hour-long walk with my husband each week to let off some steam.

As for spiritual energy, those times when I’m unable to go to church, I write personalized appreciation letters to people I’ve had a good interaction with or derived some inspiration from. I have a growing collection of these letters that are all in my own handwriting.

What do you like to do in your free time? What gets you “recharged?

To be honest, I watch a lot of Netflix! But I also love to exercise. Recently, I started learning jazz dance. It’s a great full-body workout. After class each Saturday, I have lunch with other working women where we exchange views on current themes. For example, last week we talked about International Women’s Day and what our companies are doing to correct the gender balance.

I love to read books as well. Whenever I read something good, I make a presentation slide with a summary of it to share in meetings with my leadership team and in the employee town halls. The most recent book I really enjoyed reading was The Infinite Game by Simon Sinek. The world is changing so quickly now, so it’s important that we follow the leading thinkers to understand current trends. And so I will keep reading and learning and sharing that new knowledge with my team.