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Interview with Sam Willing

#LeadtheChange #ChoosetoChallenge

Sam Willing

Senior Vice President, People & Culture, Neoleukin Therapeutics

Sam Willing is a Human Resources executive, podcast host, executive coach and speaker who brings over 20 years of experience spanning the hospitality, hi-tech and biotech industries.  Her passion is people and her mission is spreading a message of encouragement, grace and authenticity in an effort to elevate others to be their authentic selves. With a focus on compassion, she is able to lead and inspire others to move beyond empathy and into compassionate action. Sam believes that compassionate action is the key to real change.


Sam Willing describes herself as a “Human Resources executive, coach, podcast host, wife, mother and friend;” we would add “inspiring and empowering woman” to that list.

She started working in HR straight out of college, then spent a couple of years at Microsoft. She grew up convinced she would never be a stay-at-home mother. But after having two kids, despite loving and excelling at her career, she took time off to raise her children, faced with the reality that her professional environment did not allow for the flexibility needed to both work full-time and be a caregiver to young children. When the market crashed in 2007, after seven years as a stay-at-home mother, Sam decided to re-enter the workforce. She became an HR manager at a BioTech firm, and some years and jobs later, moved on to become Neoleukin Therapeutics’ Senior Vice President of People & Culture. Of this impeccable career trajectory and a smart climb of the metaphorical ladder, Sam humbly says that she has “gotten these amazing opportunities to do great work because someone that had more power than [her] believed in [her] enough to give [her] a chance.”

Sam’s unique professional path has enabled her to pursue other endeavors, which she hopes will help women (and men) excel, find their inner truth, and unlock their full potential as human beings. She hosts a podcast, perfectly titled Imperfection Wins, and leads an Executive Career Coaching program.

At the core of her work and as a executive, Sam believes in the importance of Compassion, which she defines as the step beyond Sympathy and Empathy. She embodies the compassionate leader, and has allowed Sia Partners to interview her for her perspective on issues pertaining to Gender Equality.

How do you think companies should go about attracting female talent? And, affirmative action… yea or nay?

I think that affirmative action is fine. It is a tool, an effort to decrease the gap. And that is great. The thing for me is that I don’t think we are going to see real change until attracting women becomes authentic and not a box-checking exercise. Authenticity, to me, means that you make an effort. You may have to change processes; it may cost you additional money… But you do it because it is the right thing. Leaders should be doing the work of understanding and being aware that this is still an issue, and then pushing the leaders below them to also do the work within their teams in terms of managing, mentoring, and investing in solutions for these issues (like bringing in experts who can help). It can be so challenging, because to do the work, you cannot have any ego in it; it takes leaders who are willing to be vulnerable and who are more committed to making change than they are to self-preservation.

That is really where it starts. If you start with focusing on that authenticity, you will attract diverse talent. For example, at the company I’m in now, both the board and the leadership team are 50/50 men and women, which is very rare. What’s interesting is, now, when we’re interviewing women, they will say “I’ve heard that 50% of your board is female, that 50% of your leadership team is female, I’ve heard so much about you, culturally.” For us, it’s authentic. We are attracting the talent because we are all so committed, internally, to setting the conditions for women to be successful.

How can companies support women in their pursuit for equality in professional settings (recruitment, salary negotiation, career evolution…)?

There is a lot of data around the fact that women tend to behave differently than men in professional settings. For example, there is the widely known  study[1] in the Harvard Business Review that found that men tend to apply for roles where they only meet 60% of the qualifications, while women tend to apply for roles where they meet 100%. The first step to becoming an employee is the application, which is where companies being door openers matters. We need more women (and men) in leadership roles who can encourage women to apply for various positions. It is interesting when you really dig in and look at how much healthier and more functional leadership teams are with a healthy balance of men and women.

The next step is: what happens once women are in? Negotiation is definitely a key for career evolution. The first time I ever negotiated a salary was very late in my career. Now, I have been in human resources my entire career, and in recruiting, in particular, for several years. I have negotiated with many, many people, and I find that women hardly ever negotiate. When I got promoted, I had already been in that company’s HR space, so I knew what our internal compensation was, and I knew what I should be getting paid. When my [female] boss – the chief people officer – came to me, she gave me an offer that was below market. This happens a lot internally. There was a saying when I used to be at Microsoft that, to actually make market, you’d have to leave the company and come back. But I knew what I should be making, so I went home, and said to my husband “I know I have to do this; I know I have to negotiate and I just need you to know that this feels important enough to me that I’m going to draw a line in the sand. They will either pay me market, or I’m going to come home without a job.” When I walked in for this conversation, I was really scared, and I had been doing this for 20 years. I was 41 years old. I had been through so many challenging conversations but here I was, sweating and nervous. I sat down with my boss and said to her “I know you value me and you believe in my experience. You know that I will do a great job. I think you know how difficult this conversation is for me, but I will not accept the role making anything but market.” She actually started crying. She said: “I am so proud of you, and you are right. I wish that I would have had the courage in my career to have conversations like this.” She went back, she got me the right offer, and I accepted the new position with a market pay. That changed everything for me and made me so passionate about this issue.

I think the more we can do to not shame women, and to not make them feel like they are lucky to have these roles and these jobs, the more we are going to overcome this stigma. What I have realized is that for almost my whole career, I had been telling myself with every job “I’m so lucky. I’m so lucky to have this opportunity. I’m so lucky to have this flexibility.” Why wasn’t it ever dawning on me that the company also is lucky? It is a two-way street, a mutual relationship where we are both benefiting each other. I am lucky, I’ve had amazing opportunities, but the company I work for is also lucky, because they get my expertise and my work. I think the more we can help women remember that, the more we can start to overcome, make it more the norm for women to negotiate, speak up, and understand their value.


What do you think companies can do, concretely, to help develop allyship in their workforce and to combat gender inequality, in general?

One of the biggest keys is having internal advocates and having executives who will listen. I have the privilege of working with a CEO with whom I have a seat at the table. I go to him and he is receptive, listens, and responds. I think there must be at least one internal advocate at the executive level that can influence and drive these conversations [around women and equality]. It really must come from the top down, if we are to make long-lasting changes.

We have lost millions of women in the workforce during COVID. I was talking to our executive team about how we can get these women back, and more importantly, how we can create an environment that they want to stay in and that they can stay in. A lot of it is that kind of support. The reason that I am successful in my work and that my work is working well with my life, is because I am allowed to show up as I am. In my past job, I felt like I spent 8 to 5 pretending I was not a mom. I was at the table with all males, and I had this idea that, in order for them to take me seriously, I should not talk about my kids or my stress. One day, one of my children came back with lice (which, if you have ever experienced it, you know is traumatic! It is really insane how it turns your house upside down.) I had to take a day off to address it. My boss at the time was this very traditional, old-school HR leader. When I came back from my sick day and he asked how I was feeling, I explained what had happened. He looked at me like I was an alien, as if to say, “why are you telling me this? This is too much personal information.” It’s time for this to stop. Let’s create an environment where we normalize these things. We have women who are just trying to do their jobs, and who are very high performers with high standards, but who also have kids. Let’s just normalize it! Stop requiring that we show up in a certain way, and let’s focus on the value of the work that is being done. I know this may seem like a tangent, but this is a big thing that companies can do: normalizing that people are actual human beings and that they have real, true lives outside of work. It has never been true that your life doesn’t interfere with your work. That is impossible. The fact that we, as a society, try to set it up that way is really crazy.

To get back to Allyship, I do think one thing is that men need to grow in terms of their willingness to clearly see the issues and understand that they are real. They have to accept that their businesses can be more successful if they intentionally mentor and open doors for women. They have to see not just how the world benefits, but specifically how their company will benefit from doing this work. The more men who can do that, the more traction we will get.

With the COVID-19 pandemic, we are witnessing an evolution of working habits (e.g. working from home). How do you think this has and will continue to impact the female workforce?

The current COVID situation is tricky. We are experiencing the reality of having our work and life intertwined: you can be at home working on zoom and pop out to the kitchen and make breakfast for your child, or throw in a load of laundry, or pay the bills in between meetings, or whatever. But, from what we’ve seen and what we continue to see, women (even during the lockdown) still carry the weight of the home on their shoulders. They just do. I’m not saying men don’t participate, because they do! For example, my husband is so great and helpful. But he doesn’t carry the emotional weight of the home: I do. And I want to do that, but also, I want to work.

So, the issue of women working and balancing the home still exists. The stress level still exists. It can actually be more stressful to be working from home for some people. Imagine being in zoom meetings all day while your child is slipping you notes and asking you things like “can you make me a sandwich?” This must be much more stressful than actually being at the office and having them at school, knowing they are fine.

The true benefit is that we have seen that people can be highly productive outside of an office environment. After COVID, I think allowing employees to occasionally work from home will become a requirement for retention. And I do think that having this increased flexibility might make it more possible for women to take care of both their life and their work. Moreover, this flexibility will also impact men, and sharing the load is so important. If you have men who are working from home and are willing to participate in the housework, only positive things can come from that!

The real issue here for me, which was obvious during COVID, is that we, as women, have to be willing to ask for what we need and say what our boundaries are. I think many women have this internal conflict and guilt around asking for what they need. My husband does not work from home, so he has been out working throughout the pandemic. It has really just been my son and I, together, in the house, 24/7, for a year, which is not natural! What I have found is, in the beginning, I felt really overwhelmed, and I realized that, because I was in a home environment, I was trying to do everything myself. But I was also working full time! It was an impossible and extremely stressful situation. It was not sustainable, and I was just not asking enough from my son. He was very willing, but I just was not asking. I had to really check myself and make a conscious effort to share the home responsibilities. Now, I’m not vague about asking for what I need.

That analogy can also be true in corporate spaces. I actually think that we have more men than we realize who are willing to be allies. They just don’t know what to do and where to start. It’s all about having more and more of these conversations.

Throughout this discussion, you’ve given a lot of great advice to women joining any industry, any workforce. Would you have any other pointers?

There are a few key things I have touched on during our conversation. One of them is around doing the work, whether with a coach, a counselor, a mentor, but doing the work to get to the place where you understand that you are valuable, that you have unique gifts which only you can bring to the table, and that the world needs those. And then the next step is to say, “I’m going to find a company where we have a mutual relationship. They are benefitting from my experience, and I’m benefitting and being paid fairly and valued for the work and the gifts I am bringing to the table.” There’s no more, “I’m so lucky,” imposter syndrome, no more, “I don’t know if I deserve this, I can’t believe they’re paying me this…” No more of that. Lastly, when you get to that company, be willing to show up as you are. When you’re really clear on what your talents are and the value that you bring, you’re going to find that people are okay with boundaries.

So, I think the main goal for women is to approach your career with confidence, understand your values, and be willing to really say and ask for what you need. I think that’s the key. And for god’s sake, negotiate your salary!