Bristol Myers Squibb (BMS) Taiwan General Manager Elbert Man’s people-centric outlook on life and work is a perfect match for the pharmaceutical industry. Man emphasizes transparency, respect for boundaries, and healthy debate as essential to fostering high-performing teams, a philosophy that has helped him advance through several country manager roles at international pharma companies.
Outside of work, Man is a dedicated musician and adventurer, and he enjoys exploring the natural scenery, culture, and cuisine of Taiwan, his adopted home. Having played the violin since childhood, Man has found his greatest comfort in music and is one of the few to receive a Violin Grade 8 Distinction from the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music.
Elbert Man connected with TOPICS Associate Editor Julia Bergström in April to discuss what qualities make a team successful, the importance of taking risks, and the BMS approach to placing and developing talent. An abridged version of their conversation follows.
What attracted you to pharmaceuticals?
I’m a native of Hong Kong and finished high school there before studying for my undergraduate degree in the U.S., where I subsequently stayed to work and complete my MBA. My major in college was chemical engineering, something I choose mainly because I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, and also because chemical engineering is a bit broader than electrical engineering or other field-specific programs.
After graduating, I wanted to do something unrelated to engineering because I found it a bit too boring. My minor in biomedical engineering exposed me to pharmaceutical companies, and I ended up getting my first job at a management consulting firm specializing in pharmaceuticals, which started me on my now more than 20 years’ long career in the industry.
Working in the pharmaceutical industry is very rewarding. The numbers are not what makes the job meaningful – it’s when you visit doctors, and they tell you how many lives they have saved thanks to your company. In many cases, the patients would not have had any treatment options without our drugs.
You’ve worked in four different regions throughout your career, with managers from 12 nationalities. How did you adapt to all the various cultures and mindsets of your colleagues?
I’ve had the luxury of learning from a very vibrant business environment in the U.S., as well as a more structured way of working in Asia. Of my 23 years in the business, I spent about half in the U.S. and the other half in the Greater China region. Funnily enough, my first boss in the U.S. was Taiwanese, and now my boss in Taiwan is Spanish.
Your manager’s cultural background, the location you work in, and the company culture all play a role in making your work environment unique and rewarding. You pick up new things, meet new people, and face different challenges. When you encounter a problem, there’s no fixed answer for how to solve it; it’s your accumulated experience combined with the team’s ideas and experiences, because they also all come from different backgrounds. I always try to bring all ideas to the table, see what comes up, and focus on how we can use our unique combination of skills to move on together.
You are also a dedicated violinist. What has your study of music taught you that you’ve been able to use in your professional life?
I’ve played the violin since the first grade. I was very serious about it and represented Hong Kong in the youth orchestra, which allowed me to travel around Asia and meet people from all over the region. Although we sometimes didn’t speak the same language, music to me has always been the language that binds people together. You don’t need to understand the person next to you on the bench to play; you just need to tune in to each other’s rhythm.
My musical experience has influenced my mindset at work. I don’t feel the need to fret over whether my team will understand me perfectly or not; I go in with the assumption that we will reach an understanding through the qualities we share.
What are the most essential ingredients for a healthy and successful team? What’s your approach to resolving conflicts in the office?
I work to be open and transparent by setting common standards and creating a transparent work environment. An example that comes to mind is when I worked in China and one of my team members was diagnosed with lung cancer. She went to chemotherapy for a few cycles and eventually had surgery to remove a part of her lung. In that situation, transparency and openness needed to be a priority, not only for her but for everyone on the team.
Once our team was made fully aware of the situation, they became more attentive and considerate to this colleague. After she recovered and returned to work, she was 200% more motivated; she did so well that she got promoted. Thanks to our open and transparent environment, we were able to create that collaborative atmosphere.
Conflict is bound to occur, whether in the office or other parts of life. At the office, my philosophy is to stick to the facts. Usually, there’s a solution and even if both sides disagree, the facts do not lie. I try to get people to view the situation objectively, calm them down, and look into what is actually happening. And then we debate; we look for solutions. Usually, when the facts are respected, the debate is healthy.
You live by a philosophy of “work hard, play hard.” How does this translate into your everyday life and how you lead teams?
At work, we expect everyone to be devoted to their job. But for me, “work hard” means more than that. It means thinking creatively, not necessarily just doing whatever you’re asked to do but having the chance to express your ideas and run the extra mile.
“Play hard” is also important because we can’t work non-stop. That’s not the motto I want to live by – I want my team to have time to recharge and come back better the next day. I don’t expect them to talk about work outside the office, and I set myself as a role model. I don’t send my employees emails or Line messages to alert them of work topics during the night or weekends unless it’s urgent or we have a patient complaint. But those are rare cases.
If there’s something I’d like to raise with my team, I might as well wait until Monday morning before sending an email. A Saturday email just causes unnecessary stress or pressure for your team. I want to enjoy myself and my time off – I can’t work 24/7. And if I can’t do it, why should I expect my team to?
What advice would you like to give young people looking to break into the pharmaceutical industry?
Dare to try. Even in the cases you fail, you’ll learn something new. If you try a couple of things, you’ll have a better grasp of what you really want. Failure is something you need to learn to do to move forward, and the cost is lowest at the beginning of your career.
My second piece of advice is to ask questions and ask for help. There are always people willing to help and give advice. Throughout my career, I have mentored younger colleagues entering the company, as well as students. I also give speeches to people in college and high school. I’m always happy to give back, but in return, they have to try and dare to take risks.
In my industry, there are some technical requirements that need to be met. Some people take classes after work to enhance their skillsets, whether it’s technical or softer subjects like marketing, and expanding your skillset always helps if you want to move upward. Having said that, there’s no one fixed formula you need to follow. The key is to know what you want to do next, what your next one or two steps will be. Once that target is fixed, how to get there becomes quite straightforward.
How does BMS help employees advance in their careers?
We have something called a “tour of duty,” where we open a trial position for half a year or so. For example, if a sales representative is interested in marketing but is unsure whether they want to go into a full-time marketing position, the six-month arrangement can give them a taste of what it’s like. It’s a win-win for the team to gain new insight from another department and for talent to be exposed to a new area that they might like.
If the trial is successful, the representative stays and becomes a part of the marketing team. If they didn’t enjoy the trial, the experience would still have helped them return to their old team with new skills. It allows you to try something different without making a commitment and encourages more cross-team collaboration. We also promote cross-location collaboration to increase international opportunities for colleagues.
What do you like to do in your spare time?
I love music, and I practice violin with my oldest son at night. It’s a good way to both spend quality time together and maintain my skills.
During longer holidays, my family and I love to travel. We already did two round-island tours of Taiwan in 2017 and 2020, respectively, and we want to do one more this year but with a different route. We also want to go back and spend more time in Taitung – the mountainside and the seaside there are unique. It’s also a place where we had fun with our older son, and now that our younger son is old enough, we want to create new memories with the whole family there.