| Aug 18, 2022

Women in Leadership: An Interview with Caroline Phares

Michelle Arieta, Chief People Officer at Domino Data Lab, sat down with Caroline Phares, Global Head of Health and Life Sciences at Domino Data Lab, to discuss what it's like being a woman in a leadership role.

Ascending to a leadership position can be a long, drawn-out process — especially as a woman. If we want more women in leadership positions, we must start sharing our knowledge, experience, and advice. As a woman in the executive suite, Michelle Arieta knows this first hand. She sat down with Caroline Phares, Global Head of Health and Life Sciences at Domino Data Lab, to talk about her background, jobs, ascension to leadership, and her struggles.

Michelle Arieta: Talk to me a little bit about why you’re in the role that you are today. You came from a large company, and now you’re at Domino, maybe talk about that transition first.

Caroline Phares: That was actually a big risk for me, for my career, for my family, in different ways. I came from GSK, a large pharma company. I was there for almost 20 years. I built a lot of my career there because it was such a big company, and I could move around quite a bit. There were a lot of opportunities internally, and I also had built up quite a bit of job security. 

Part of the reason I stayed so long was because of my family. I was the primary breadwinner. I needed the security that a large, established company like GSK offered, so I needed to be very calculated in the decisions I made with my career. I decided to go from that kind of security to Domino, a late-stage tech startup. There’s a reason behind that. My youngest of four is now 15. So, for the most part, my kids don’t need me as much as they did before. I also was looking for something more exciting to do at work and didn’t see that opportunity for me at GSK. To do that, I needed to take some risks, and that’s why I went from a job where I felt very confident and secure into something brand new. Taking the risk and making that change to my role at Domino, I actually ended up feeling like it was a dream job for me.

Michelle: You’ve had a really interesting journey being in one place for a long time, and you made a huge change. I think sometimes young women don’t want to take risks — even just asking for a promotion or changing roles. What advice would you give to a young woman aiming for a similar position? 

Caroline: There’s no direct path to success. There are going to be different times in your life when an opportunity is going to arise unexpectedly, and you’re going to need to decide.

I always have a Plan A and a Plan B. What if I’m putting all my eggs in one basket? Am I going to be able to recover from this? There is no one path. There’s no one direction. So even if it doesn’t work out as you expected, you need to be able to pivot quickly. You need to mitigate that risk of putting all your eggs in one basket. Be aware of the potential opportunities, present, and future, around you, and be prepared. Set yourself up to be able to take one when it arises.  Be prepared to take it and if you do, learn as much as you can from it. All your experiences, good and not so good, will serve you well in your next opportunity. 

I did a lot of lateral moving. Taking opportunities, getting out of my comfort zone, I learned a lot about a breadth of areas. Sometimes I thought, “maybe I’m getting too broad of an experience.” I used to worry about not pursuing deep expertise on any one thing. I felt like that maybe would be detrimental to me until I realized it’s actually my strength. I can speak knowledgeably to a breadth of people in different positions and areas. That has ultimately helped in my career.


Michelle: I’m sure there were people along the way that helped guide and support you. I’m sure that you’ve mentored people along the way. What role do you think mentorship has played in your ability to ascend the ladder of leadership?

Caroline: I sought out mentors, and I sought them out strategically, sometimes. There was one time when I recognized that there was a very difficult leader to please. He was not interested in promoting people. It’d be very difficult to get a promotion within his organization. I actually went to him, and I asked him to be my mentor. It allowed me to understand what I needed to do to get that promotion. And it gave him a personal connection — it made him a stakeholder in my career progression. He was able to mentor me on who to influence as well as what to work on. Then, when my manager brought me up for promotion, and I needed to be approved by his leadership team, he was the strongest advocate for my case, whereas generally, he would always be the one to say no.

Michelle: What would you say to somebody that doesn’t know how to find a mentor and maybe isn’t as fearless as you?

Caroline: There are a couple of different types of mentors. The mentor I just mentioned was kind of a strategic mentor. There was a mentor I recently worked with in somewhat of an informal relationship. She is somebody who I observed could maneuver very well in the industry. I saw how she could create opportunities for herself and shape her jobs into what she wanted them to be. I did a lot of observing and asked many questions, and she took the time to mentor and guide me. She’s a big reason I think I was able to grow my career over the past three years, and she has helped me be more fearless. It took my reaching out to somebody that I admired and asking for advice really informally.

I have a very close friend who I would also consider a mentor — she has coached me through my career moves over the past few years. She has this mantra she lives by, “just do good work, and the rest will follow.” I’ve seen it happen in her life. She’s sort of like you — an HR executive — and she truly lives by her mantra. It’s done well for her, and I’ve followed the same path. I’m passionate about my work and doing good work, and I trust it will pay off. What I am trying to say is that a mentoring relationship doesn’t have to be a formal request or something to fear.

I have also had the opportunity to mentor women and men as I’ve grown in my career, and I have enjoyed seeing how their careers have evolved. I consider this one of the most rewarding aspects of my professional life. Most of those relationships were organic versus a formal mentoring agreement.

Michelle: Are there any pivotal moments in your career that pushed you to where you are today?

Caroline: I guess there were a few of those. I think the first one is becoming a single mother for a period in my life and having to find creative ways to take care of my kids, grow my career, and not give up. When that happened — before I worked for GSK — I ended up quitting my job at the time and starting my own consulting company for a short period. 

After going through multiple options for daycare and babysitters and nothing working out, I just needed to have more time with my young children. When I started my company, I did have a babysitter to come in and watch my kids for part of the day, I would schedule meetings with clients when she was there, and I would work when the kids were asleep. This was in the early 2000s. I was working from home for the first time. 

I needed to build this consulting business. I needed to work with many different people, and in doing this, I built up a lot of great clients, and I used a network of women entrepreneurs. I think it helped me build a lot of strength and ingenuity.

Michelle: I’m going to switch gears here a little bit, but I think it’s relevant. I think we’ve made progress around diversity. I think it’s moving like a slow Amtrak train. What are some of the tangible changes in diversity you’ve seen across the workforce in your time? If you had a crystal ball, what would you like to see happen?

Caroline: I started my career 25 years ago, and there’s been change in the past 25 years. I started my career as a woman in technology. I was usually the only woman in the room. There are more women now, which I think shows a lot of progress. At the time, if you found another woman who was in that profession, you’d be excited. 

Sometimes, even today, I have seen capable women, especially women of color, work extremely hard, and I’ve seen men who aren’t as capable be promoted to higher positions, more often than not. I think what a lot of companies still need to do is look and see how many women they have in leadership roles. They need to ask themselves if their leadership roles lean disproportionately male and how their diversity looks as a whole. If they find they’re lacking, they should really start examining and asking honest questions about why they aren’t as diverse as they could be. Are there preconceptions at play? They could be missing out on some excellent leadership.

Michelle: I think diversity is a conversation that can make people uncomfortable. Not because they don’t care. I haven’t been on an executive team where somebody didn’t care. I’ve been on executive teams where they are uncomfortable talking about diversity because they don’t have a lot of experience with it. I always ask people, “are you comfortable being uncomfortable?” Now, if you could tell your younger self something, what would you tell them?

Caroline: When I first started out, I remember feeling like I didn’t know anything. I was second-guessing myself a lot. When people asked me questions, I thought that they must see right through me and realize how little I know. Looking back, I actually knew more than I thought I did and should have been more confident in myself. 

I would have told myself, “be confident in your knowledge, your abilities, and what you’re bringing to the table.” A few times, I’d leave work at the end of the day and cry because I felt like I had made a fool of myself. Now I look back at that and think, “why was I putting myself through that? I was doing really good work.”

Most people don’t know everything. The best thing to do is be honest if you don’t know something. If you make a mistake, just apologize and take responsibility and move on instead of replaying it. I regret the number of times I beat myself up earlier in my career over insignificant mistakes or botched presentations that had no impact in the long run. 

Michelle: I think I would say something similar, and I would put more of my work out there. You’ve touched upon imposter syndrome a little bit, but how have you seen that rear its head in your career? How do you cope with that? It shows up for me. People think you get a VP or C in front of your title, and it goes away. I can tell you that is not the case.

Caroline: I agree. It’s always there. I think I’ve suffered from it a lot, and often it has held me back. I realized very recently that almost everyone has impostor syndrome. I think that there are very few people who are 100% confident in their expertise. Reminding myself that most people I interact with are probably not as confident as I might perceive them to be, helps me realize that I am judging myself more harshly than they are judging me.  That makes me feel like I’m in good company. I also think it allows me to be more empathetic and understanding with people in general.

Michelle Arieta
Michelle Arieta
Executive Author

Chief People Officer, Domino Data Lab

Michelle is a strategic HR business partner who approaches organizational issues with a systematic approach to support performance within an organization. view profile


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