Gisela Martinez is the Executive Director for Clinical Research at Merck, an organization who has brought important medicines and vaccines to the world through intensive biopharmaceutical research for more than 130 years. Working at Merck for over 20 years, Gisela has done it all in various roles. She is a proud mom, a passionate, inclusive, and people-oriented leader, and DE&I ally. In this episode of Unlearn, Gisela joins Barry O’Reilly to share how she found success by diversifying her skills and knowledge. She encourages listeners to pay it forward by helping others learn and grow. Listen to why Knowledge (and Diversity) is Power with Gisela Martinez.

Turning ‘Difference’ into ‘Drive’

Realizing the power in her diversity was a turning point for Gisela. All her life, she had viewed being different as a hindrance rather than something to be celebrated or appreciated. “I thought [it] had created roadblocks for me in opportunities, because I [wasn’t part of] the norm,” she tells Barry. She believed her identity and way of thinking were obstacles to success, as she didn’t feel like she belonged anywhere or like anyone understood her. When her lightbulb moment came, however, it flipped that belief upside down. Trying to fit in was working against her. Why not just be herself? “The difference I have – that was the power that I had to actually change things… to give me that confidence to become who I needed. I was suppressing myself… I just need to be who I am, because that’s my strength.” [Listen from 1:25]

It takes so much energy to not be you, Barry shares. Being yourself actually gives energy rather than taking it away, and it’s the easiest way to lead. Trying to be somebody you think other people want you to be is tiring. [Listen from 3:20]

“The more people talk, the more suspicious I tend to become of them in some respects,” Barry jokes. When people give themselves time to process, consider, and deliberate, they can get their message across more effectively. But this entails pausing before responding, instead of simply regurgitating everything that’s already been said. [Listen from 6:45]



Defining Success

Contrary to popular corporate belief, success isn’t about being promoted to higher levels of authority and accountability. Rather, success is built from diversity in experience and thoroughly understanding the business you’re in, Gisela explains. Instead of only looking up the chain, Gisela looked sideways, behind, and in front; she then used that knowledge to add value to her work. “When I reflect on my 22 year long career, I’ve only been promoted 4 times,” she shares. This would seem strange in the corporate world, which is so used to moving people up the ladder when they’ve mastered their core job, but Gisela prioritized continuous learning over promotions, preferring to move across the organization. “I can say I understand the business of what we do, not just the tactical side of being a subject matter expert. [Listen from 8:00]

In many companies, you’re conditioned to pursue the ladder. But building a wealth of experience and understanding the business makes you invaluable, because you develop cross-functional perspectives, empathy for people in different roles, and insight into what makes the business tick, Barry comments. [Listen from 10:05]

(Want to discuss how you might define success in your organization? Let’s explore how we might work together! Get in touch here.)

The Power of Purpose

The driving force behind Gisela’s unique approach to work isn’t boredom, but a sense of purpose. “I very quickly understood my purpose and what gives me fulfillment. Because in any company, you can go up the ladder and so forth and get success. [But] what brings you that core happiness?” For Gisela, that fulfillment came from infusing value into anything she did. At her core, she believed her purpose was to influence, change, evolve, unlearn and relearn in every aspect of her professional life. It wasn’t hard work for her to do – it was organic. Gisela’s focus hadn’t ever been on climbing the ladder, but she was able to work in so many roles because she kept looking for where she could add impact. It’s this focus, Barry remarks, that is so important – following your intellectual curiosity and creating and exploring in a way that is meaningful to you. [Listen from 10:45]

(Listen to The Power of Leading by Example with Cecelia Myers)

Growing with Gratitude

Gisela shares her daily gratitude practice. At the end of every day, she sits down with her daughter to reflect on what they are grateful for, a practice she also does on her own in the morning. Additionally, Gisela begins leadership team meetings in celebration of something, with each member sharing their joy. [Listen 14:55]

Barry talks about “No Rules Rules,” a book about the Netflix culture and how different cultures approach meetings differently. In North America, meetings tend to be focused on action and getting things done, while in South America, there is a more community-based approach and more time is spent checking in with people. It’s important to find ways to connect with people in order to do hard work. [Listen from 16:25]

Looking Ahead

For Gisela, the next steps are about paying it forward. Her gratitude for her fulfilling career inspires her to share her knowledge and experiences with others. She leads a women’s network in Asia Pacific and wants to help other people feel seen, heard, and worthy. [Listen from 21:20]

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