When Stephanie Sousa interviewed for her facilities operations leadership role at Agios Pharmaceuticals, she didn’t have the typical experience for the position (or of others who came before her). But she did have a serious passion for research, patient care and figuring out how things work – and how things can work better.
During the interview process, Sousa was shocked at how open her future manager was when he sat down with her for a conversation about what she brought to the role and what she’d have to learn. When she landed the job and came into the office, she said both that manager and her team helped her let go of her fear of failure. Instead, she focused on learning and becoming the best boss she could be — all while keeping up a lifestyle that lets her be a present parent and role model to her daughters.
We spoke to Sousa about what she loves about Agios pharmaceuticals beyond the great work-life balance and supportive environment. She also shared her best advice for job seekers, her counterintuitive advice for moms who want to succeed personally and professionally, and how she works up the courage to take risks. After all, her willingness to be confident and put herself out there has shaped her career.
Tell us a bit about your job. What are your priorities at work?
I lead the Facilities Operations function here at Agios, which includes Real Estate & Construction, Lab Operations, Environmental Health & Safety, as well as Maintenance & Engineering. In a nutshell, it’s supporting, through space and services, our amazing employees so that they can continue to do their jobs and ultimately help patients.
What has your career path looked like?
I started my career as a bench scientist, then transitioned into operations after I received my MBA. I love supporting research and drug discovery and development, but I also like to understand how things work and how to make things work better.
How did your leadership style adapt with this role?
One of the things that I love about Agios is that people care about its success. And it’s not just because we are all shareholders — it’s bigger than the financial aspect. Agioi care about the mission of the organization, as well as the connection that we have with one another. We want each other to be successful so we can help more patients.
Because of this, people want to be involved and provide feedback — it’s something that I truly appreciate and enjoy in this role. I get energized by the level of involvement and support that people consistently offer. It makes me a better listener, a better leader and better at figuring out what’s important, both now and in the long run. In the end, this doesn’t just mean a better outcome for the organization; it also makes me happy that I’m helping my colleagues. It’s a win-win.
While learning to lead this team, what did you learn that surprised you most?
It’s not a surprise that I don’t have the typical profile of a facilities leader. When I first joined, I knew I needed to test my capabilities, and I was really committed to leveraging what I do know and to learning a lot. I was really worried that I was going to let the team down because I was different than what they were used to.
What surprised me was how they embraced my differences. Right from the start, they appreciated that I had other experiences and they wanted to learn from them – they were also so willing to teach me. We have a lot of similarities in what we value and connected through those values. With their support, I was able to let go of the fear of failing and focus on helping Agios.
You’re a mom, too. Why do you think your company is a particularly great place to be a working mom?
Many companies accept that you have a family. They are supportive and willing to give you the flexibility you need to be a parent. Agios is different — they want you to be good at what you do, both professionally as well as personally. They want me to be the best mom, wife, daughter, sister and friend that I can be. It’s an important part of bringing my best self to work.
I love that Agios doesn’t make you choose one life over the other. It’s not only understood but fully supported that both are needed to be successful.
What kinds of boundaries do you follow (if any) to separate work and family time?
I actually like to blur the boundaries. I want both sides to know that the other exists so that there is an acceptance and appreciation of both.
Obviously, my team and colleagues that I work with know that I am a mom and that it’s important to me that I am a present parent. And everyone is incredibly supportive of giving me flexibility and support to do it. They also have my back if I need help.
On the flip side, I think it’s important for my daughters to not only see what it’s like to be in the workplace, but to show them that I love what I do. I will often share with them the good stories as well as some of the challenges so they can hear that it’s not always going to be easy, but that it’s important to do something that I both enjoy and that is important me.
What are you especially good at as a mom? What about at work?
Definitely not scheduling! For both, I tend to not sweat the small stuff. I like the details, but I also like to think about how they help the big-picture. It’s the latter that helps me to keep things in perspective.
I also like to try new things and encourage my daughters and my team to do the same. I love to pilot things, to give it a try and see how it goes. If it doesn’t fly, it’s okay. We learn from it and move on.
What’s your go-to stress-relief activity or routine?
Running. Growing up, I spent a lot of time with my grandmother outdoors. She was a female pioneer in her own right, and it was our special time to be together. Still today, I need fresh air to help me think. I find clarity when I’m combining the outdoors with something physical and rhythmic like running.
What do you love most about working at your company?
The people and the level of focus on the patient. It is very evident when you first walk through the Agios doors that there is 110% commitment to the patient. And this commitment runs through the year, from the patient talks to the updates on the projects.
There is also this high level of connectivity and commitment to one another, both professionally and personally. People truly care about the work and about each other. It all gives you this feeling like you are in it together.
What’s your no. 1 tip for moms who are navigating the delicate balance of working and mothering?
Be kind to yourself. We really are our worst critics. We feel awful if we have to call into a meeting from home or if we miss a sports event. You know your priorities and life the best — and you make good decisions. We aren’t shooting for perfection.
What’s your no. 1 tip for job seekers?
Be confident in what you bring to the table and be aware of what you don’t. When I started here, I had little experience in a few of the areas for which I was now responsible. During the recruiting process, my manager and I had honest conversations around what experiences and strengths I had and, probably more importantly, what I needed to learn. We talked about how I would go about learning while delivering on what was expected in my role. I was pleasantly surprised by the level of openness and support that was offered even before I started. It was because of these conversations during the recruiting process that I felt that I had his support on day one.
So, always trust in yourself. Be who you are and be open about what you’re willing to accomplish. If you can find someone who believes in your strengths and what you bring to the table, then you’ll set yourself up for success.
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