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Angela Steel ‘06, vice president, Infectious Diseases, for GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), earned her master’s in organization leadership from Immaculata, and she refers to the experience in terms usually reserved for more esoteric studies. “It is a transformational program,” she said. “At its very core is learning what I can do to know myself better—how I can change—realizing that, ultimately, you can’t control anything but yourself.”
Originally from Scotland, Steel earned a B.Sc. in microbiology from the University of Glasgow, and a Ph.D. in biochemistry from the University of Cambridge, England. She came to the U.S. in 1995 to conduct post-doctoral research at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, leaving behind her work in the antibiotic research department of SmithKline Beecham Pharmaceuticals (SKB) in Betchworth, England.
During her three years in Boston, her former British-based SKB department was relocated to Collegeville, PA. As Steel explains it, “Same group, same department, except now in the U.S. It was like having extended family here.” Former colleagues urged Steel to submit her resume and, in 1998, she moved from Boston to Collegeville to rejoin the department she had left behind.
A few years later, however, Steel began to think outside the lab, so to speak. “People would approach me for advice about how to deal with another person—those were the kinds of questions I was being asked, and I realized those were the kinds of things I loved to think about.”
These “strategic soft skills,” however, were not a part of Steel’s professional repertoire; as a scientist, her resume was research-focused. “I began to think about how I could communicate that I have aspirations beyond the lab.”
As fate would have it, a friend was pursuing her master’s at Immaculata, so Steel decided to sign up for one class in interpersonal relations. At around the same time, Steel learned that a newly-created position was opening at GSK that combined her research background with team-management responsibilities. She applied, was selected, and by February of 2001 had a new job and was taking courses at IU.
“That was the transition,” said Steel. “I went from scientific investigator to project manager. I still knew all the people, the projects, was very familiar with the biology around antibiotics; meanwhile the rest of the job was completely new and different.”
Steel began working with multi-disciplinary or “matrix” teams that included physicians, biologists, chemists, and manufacturers. “I took my seat at that very diverse table,” she said, “and that was when I really began to see the impact of what I was learning at Immaculata.”
Part of what made the master’s program so exciting for Steel was the introduction to previously unexplored ideas and concepts. “When I got to Glasgow, taking a geography class was as exotic as I got,” said Steel. “When you graduate [in the sciences], you’re a trained microbiologist. You weren’t exposed to philosophy or social sciences or psychology. Because I didn’t have that in my history of higher education, all the interpersonal ‘stuff’ was fascinating to me.”
These new thought horizons expanded Steel’s perspective as a leader; she attributes a promotion she received while enrolled in the master’s program in part to the way she was able to apply classroom theory to workplace reality.
“Everything I learned in the program was so practical and relevant to my work, and that magnified the learning. I could see how influential the classes were, especially in the areas of leadership and team and group dynamics. We could be in class on Monday evening talking about motivation and I would go into work the next day and be able to use what I had learned. Almost everything was experiential. I had innumerable opportunities to apply the theory and to experiment with it.
“I felt as though I really grew as a leader, in my own self-confidence, and that my effectiveness in a team setting was informed and improved. The synergy between class and work just grew exponentially.”
Steel credits Janice Jacobs, Ph.D., chair of Immaculata’s Organization Leadership program, with embodying the kind of enlightened—and enlightening—leadership described and taught in the courses. “She has conceived an incredible program,” said Steel. “She is a fantastic inspiration for me—for all the students in that program. I didn’t do the accelerated version of it. I really wanted to take my time. I know that the destination is the key for some students but, for me, the journey was the thing, and I enjoyed every single moment. I relished the classes. I met great people. I was challenged. I would do anything for Dr. Jacobs!”
Steel stays connected to Jacobs and the program by serving on its advisory board; she also taught a one-credit class a couple of years ago, Leading Teams, and “loved it.”
One of the most valuable elements that emerged from Steel’s immersion in the program is her clearer, deeper sense of self. “Before I started the master’s program, if someone had asked me what my strengths were, I might have equivocated and been hesitant to answer. Now I would say, ‘I have a very strong ability to connect with people.’
“Using tools such as Myers-Briggs and other personality-type inventories gave me evidence around my skills and empowered me to articulate what I could and could not do. As a scientist, it felt really important to have that awareness founded in data.
“That investigation into who I am helped reveal my strengths and my areas of weakness,” said Steel. “Having a full appreciation of who you are takes away a lot of fear. You can receive constructive criticism, hear things that might have triggered some defensiveness in the past, in a different spirit. When you can accept yourself, you can accept feedback with equanimity.”
When Steel isn’t at work leading a 43-member team and setting global strategy for clinical operations, she enjoys “hanging out” with her 5-year-old son, attending Zumba classes, and playing golf, a sport she says, “I really, really love. It’s great just being outside and being your best.”
When asked where she sees herself in five years, Steel replied, “If I had a five-year plan, I wouldn’t be in this job! Though I can imagine myself someday teaching and consulting.”
It has been a year since Steel moved into the position she now holds at GSK, and she can recall at least two occasions when she turned down positions, with both of those decisions leading to greater opportunities.
“I’ve taken a very circuitous path to get to this point,” Steel said. “I’ve said ‘no’ to some things and accepted others. But it has all been founded in what I learned through the master’s.”