How coaching & mentorship can boost your career: A personal story from a scientist & coach

CHRIS WILLIAMS, Managing Director at Questae

Chris is an in vitro pharmacologist with over 20 years of experience in the pharmaceutical industry. She has worked at Pfizer, UCB, Ipsen and the NHS demonstrating a breadth of scientific, project, business and change management experience. She is an advocate for collaborative working (whether it be within or across organizations) and is passionate about what people and teams can achieve when they are engaged and empowered. This philosophy is the driving force behind her coaching & consulting business, Questae. She is Treasurer Elect and a Fellow of the British Pharmacological Society as well as being a member of the Board at ELRIG UK.

When we start out on our career journey most of us have no idea where we ‘want to be in 5 years’ time’, or at least I certainly didn’t. So consequently, I didn’t actively manage my career. However, with a fresh PhD under my belt, I was lucky enough to join Pfizer (UK) who did that for me- at least to start off with (more to come on that).

During my first few years I found out that there was an awful lot about people management, leading teams and how to deal with challenging situations that I had never appreciated before. What I was beginning to find out was that I was ‘unconsciously incompetent’ at some things (e.g., giving constructive feedback) and ‘unconsciously competent’ at others (e.g., engaging other team members). This was the start of my learning journey and one of the first benefits of the coaching I received.

We don’t know what we don’t know without the observations & support of others

You don’t have to be a coach to coach. It just takes a bit of time, some insightful questions and some active listening

A pivotal moment for me was when a senior colleague saw me in the corridor looking concerned and on edge. I had just found out that I was expected to give a tough performance rating to one of my team members and knowing that I wasn’t naturally good at giving what I thought were tough messages I was scared. When this concerned senior colleague enquired, I explained. Despite my expectation that they would offer some contrite words of “You’ll be fine, it’s not as bad as you think”, they went on to ask me some really insightful questions. ”Well, if someone had some feedback for you wouldn’t you rather they told you?”. “Yes of course!” came my reply (genuinely I might add). They rapidly followed up with “Why?”. My response, “So that I can change it and do things better”. She pauses for me to think about this and I follow with “So by giving this feedback I am really helping my team member?”. “Yes. That positive mindset will affect your body language and the words that you use. If you go in expecting it to be tough, it will be!”.  We talked about that and then she asks “How do you feel about the conversation you need to have now?”. Of course, I felt much better and went to prepare for that meeting with a new mindset (and I do truly believe that helped me deliver my first tough message and many more since!).

Coaching can create space to reflect and explore things in a safe environment

Sometimes, you need to think out loud with someone to hear what you really need to hear

Another pivotal moment took place when I was operating as a Director in a global organisation with a lot of cross-functional management and a high need to influence. I had about 15 years of leadership experience and had good interactions with my peers. However, there was an individual who never seemed to listen to my ideas and I was getting frustrated. My coach at the time helped me to talk through exactly what was happening, making me look at the dynamics through the other person’s eyes and holding the mirror back at me. I knew they weren’t bad ideas (I checked with others in the team) and it wasn’t the individual as they were open to other views and ideas. It was a tough conclusion to reach, but I realised it was something I was doing and doing unconsciously. We had an idea and I tried an experiment- the solution was so simple I look back in wonder. I stopped saying ‘I feel like we should do ….’ And started saying ‘I think we should do….’. In fact, there is a rationale behind how this simple change of language resonated with the other person better- even though it felt like a miracle at the time!

Mentoring is like coaching but can also create opportunities

When you’ve gained essential skills to fulfil your role you’ll often find that your employer doesn’t provide the coaching or guidance that you might want in order for you to realise your aspirations and potential. This isn’t a criticism, the companies I have worked for have invested wisely in their people. However, there comes a point when what you need to progress is opportunity to try new things or see new parts of the business. There’s nothing better than learning on the job, but if you don’t want to change company and there is no internal opportunity, how do you progress? This is where mentorship comes into its own. Mentors can be inside or outside your organisation- some people even have more than one mentor. The key is being clear on what you expect from the relationship, especially as you are often the one driving the interaction (unless you are lucky enough to have a formal mentorship scheme). I have been lucky to have a number of mentors over the years who have given me insight into global strategy, the development part of the business (rather than research) and who cared enough about helping me to create opportunities that would have not existed without them. It was through all these experiences and having great mentors that I trained as an MBTI coach in 2016 and subsequently started my own business in 2017. At no time in my 20+ years career had I ever envisaged running my own business, let alone that business covering individual and team coaching in addition to scientific consulting!

Don’t just take my word for it. Here are the words of one of my ECP coaching clients

Over the last 4 years I have had a number of individual and team coaching clients, ranging from early career professionals to CEOs and teams in start-ups through to large pharma.  I find it hugely rewarding and I am delighted that one of my clients was happy for me to share her words:

“I’m fortunate enough to have a training budget at work, which I can use for career development – I was keen to use it for some sort of strategy training or management skills to help me transition from the day to day of my role, and start thinking more ‘big picture’, but all of the courses I found were generic and didn’t pick up on the specific challenges of working in the life sciences sector. I reached out to my network, which is how I met Chris.

During our sessions, we covered specific topics that were tailored to my personal development, including situational leadership, stakeholder management, my leadership style, and how I work best with others. Rather than attending a short course over a couple of days without any real-life application, monthly coaching enabled me to use specific examples of projects and challenges I was having at the time, and work through them with someone who understood the research environment I worked in, and the sector-specific skills that you need to progress.

If you want to know more don’t hesitate to contact me (