Does Adversity Build Character Or Reveal It?
By Rob Wright, Chief Editor, Life Science Leader
Follow Me On Twitter @RfwrightLSL
Every year I attend the Healthcare Businesswoman’s Association’s (HBA) annual Woman of the Year award ceremony I wonder how that year’s winner will be able to top previous acceptance speeches. And yet, every year I am pleasantly surprised not only when they do, but when they also reveal something about themselves that serves as a leadership teachable moment. Denice Torres is the president of McNeil Consumer Healthcare, a Johnson & Johnson company, and winner of HBA’s 2015 WOTY award. Listening to her acceptance speech reminded me of legendary pro football coach Vince Lombardi’s philosophy — “Adversity doesn’t build character, it reveals it.”
Authenticity Requires Being Comfortable In Your Own Skin
Alex Gorsky, J&J’s chairman and CEO (also the winner of HBA’s honorable mentor award in 2009), introduced Torres as the type of leader who not only surprises, but inspires. For example, according to Gorsky, it was during a senior leadership meeting at J&J that Torres, who had been sitting in the back of the room, decided to “put the moose on the table” and stood up and said that some of what the leaders had been talking about was a bunch of BS. “But she didn’t say BS,” he said chuckling. In describing Torres, Gorsky used a number of adjective, such as real, authentic, and comfortable in her own skin. Interestingly, this was not always the case.
Like many HBA WOTY acceptance speeches, Torres began talking about where she grew up (i.e., Gary, IN) and her childhood. The graduate of Ball State shared how she went to law school at Indiana University and upon receiving her JD, took a position at a Michigan law firm. However, after only 18 months as one of three women attorneys at the firm, she decided to make a drastic change — leaving the prestige and pay to take a position as an account executive at a marketing and advertising agency. Despite taking a 50 percent pay cut, Torres found she had much more passion for this type of work. Wanting her credentials to match her new career path, she went back to school, completing her MBA at the University of Michigan. Torres applied for a summer internship with Eli Lilly & Company, and soon the former lawyer found herself working as a pharmaceutical sales representative. Thanks to Allen Clark, one of Torres’ first mentors at Lilly, she eventually rose to the level of executive director of global operations. But something was still missing — self acceptance.
While on a seven-day Outward Bound backpacking trip in California’s Sierra Nevada, Torres and other expedition members were given 60-pound fully loaded backpacks to carry. During the hike they learned how to empty the physical contents of their backpacks, as well as the emotional baggage with which they felt burdened. “My backpack was so heavy, filled with anxieties, fears, because I am gay,” she stated. As a result of the experience, Torres decided to tell her parents about being gay, only to be surprised by their lack of surprise. “We’ve known that since you were a little girl,” her mom stated upon hearing the news. But for Torres the declaration was liberating, allowing her to grow into the authentic leader she is today. Self-acceptance now behind her, Torres would soon face even greater adversity.
Attitude Is A Choice
In 2000, Torres and her life partner, Kim, decided to become parents. At 30 weeks into her pregnancy, Torres was rushed to the hospital with complications. She soon gave birth to her daughter, Sierra. Born about two months too early, Sierra spent her first three weeks of life in the NICU. Unfortunately, being a preemie was not the only challenge Sierra and her mother would face. Torres soon learned that her daughter had cerebral palsy, hearing loss, epilepsy, and would be confined to a wheelchair for life. Today, Sierra is 14 years old, wears diapers, and watches the TV show, Blue’s Clues, and will probably be doing these same things when she is 30. But over the years she has taught her mother a very important leadership lesson about attitude. Every morning when this executive goes into her daughter’s room, she is greeted by Sierra’s laughter. Despite all of her disabilities, Sierra has taught Torres that, “Attitude is a choice.”
Just as attitude is a choice, so is acceptance. I find it refreshing that Alex Gorsky walks the talk when it comes to acceptance of diversity in building his leadership team. We should all aspire to create work environments that encourage diversity. Stay tuned for my next blog where I will discuss the importance of diversity, which begins with perception.