By Dr. Patricia Hurter
Two years ago, I was destined for retirement. Now, I’m the CEO of a company that is developing an ultra-long-lasting dosage form that will allow people to take their medicine once a week or even once a month. I was drawn to this position by the company’s potential for improving global health, such as eradicating malaria in Africa, but successfully taking over the helm involves more than just nurturing a long-term vision. I’ve also had to implement several new strategies to use day-to-day, and over the past several months of vetting and onboarding I’ve gained insight into the key factors that drive an effective transition. Some are multifaceted and take time to establish; others, such as eating lunch in the break room, are simple enough to start right away. Based on my experience, the essential elements can be grouped into these three broad categories:
- Gathering information
- Engaging with teams
- Striving for balance
DO YOUR RESEARCH AND KEEP ITERATING ON FEEDBACK YOU RECEIVE
Due diligence requires digging into a company’s history, dissecting its financials, learning the organizational structure, and gaining an understanding of the challenges that lie ahead. I was fortunate to have four months between when I accepted the position and started full-time as CEO. But no matter how much time you have, it’s important to decouple (as much as possible) this all-important, relaxed, “get-to-know-you” phase from the much more hectic first 90 days on the job. Before I accepted the position, I met with company executives and board members. Then, once I was hired and announced, I made it a point to meet with every employee. In these individual 30-minute sessions, I asked six specific questions ranging from, “What do you do here?” to “What challenges you?” and “Do you have the support you need?”
During these conversations, I got a sense of who’s who and what is, or isn’t, motivating them. I also learned a lot about the company’s strengths and weaknesses. Certain themes were repeated, and based on what I heard, I created small teams to work on specific projects or areas that needed realigning. These teams made it possible for me to hit the ground running, and they’ve helped keep me accountable ever since.
That accountability is important because over the past year I have learned that one of the biggest challenges of being a CEO is getting honest, transparent feedback. Without it, you risk becoming oblivious to the real issues that need addressing. That’s why staying in touch with employees remains a priority for me. Granted, it isn’t practical for me to continue to meet with everyone individually, but I do make it a point to attend our weekly socials and holiday events, have lunch in the communal kitchen, and follow up with small groups for feedback. In those initial 1:1 interviews, communication was one area that was identified as needing improvement. So, we are trying a few new approaches, such as sending out company news using the “Teams” app once a week. We also make announcements about people, projects, and programs at our weekly “Science Meeting,” and then cover more significant organizational topics at our monthly all-hands meetings. These gatherings are somewhat informal, and we strive for open communication to review critical initiatives and socially interact. Optimizing communication is a continual work in progress, but recent feedback we’ve received has been promising, indicating that employees are appreciating the changes that were implemented.
"One of the biggest challenges of being a CEO is getting honest, transparent feedback. Without it, you risk becoming oblivious to the real issues that need addressing."
COLLABORATE TO HELP UNLEASH THE POWER OF BHAGS
Before being hired, I was appointed to the board of another biotech company at a similar stage. I can’t stress enough how valuable this experience has been for expanding my professional network and for learning from others who have (literally) “been there, done that.” I enjoy connecting with other C-level executives at forums and other events, and I’ll pick up the phone and call a colleague if I feel they may be able to help me by talking through a particular issue in depth. Engaging with others who have similar challenges and perspectives will teach you far more than you can learn in a textbook or from a coach.
After all, starting as CEO is like standing before a great white canvas. You need to first determine what kind of masterpiece you want to paint, and then identify the strategy that will allow you to create it. For a biotech company that involves choosing markets, setting priorities, balancing global health vs. profit, and evaluating pricing — all before you can begin facilitating solutions. I like to start with extensive analysis, a process that involves gathering information from a variety of different sources. Then, I’ll work with our internal teams to examine all the options and make decisions based on the data. Intuition and judgment play roles, too. But when you do the analysis first, the solutions become more obvious.
I’m also a huge believer in the power of “BHAGs” — setting big, hairy, audacious goals. I first learned of the concept in 2005 while at Vertex, and I tested it out with the formulation development group I was working with at the time. Our BHAG was to “manufacture all of Vertex’s drug products using a continuous process in our own GMP facility.” That seemed a bit far-fetched, and we estimated we would need 20 to 30 years to get it right, but I figured that’s exactly what a BHAG is supposed to be. As it turned out, the first drug product manufactured using a continuous drug product manufacturing process was Orkambi, which was approved in July 2015, fewer than 10 years after that BHAG was formulated. Now, all of Vertex’s breakthrough products for cystic fibrosis are currently being manufactured in Vertex’s own GMP manufacturing facility, using the continuous manufacturing process.
THE DOWNTIME IMPERATIVE
The CEO sets the tone for the entire company. As a former CEO told me, working excessively hard to the point where you look personally exhausted is not helpful to the company. Instead, you have to exude the vitality of a leader who’s optimistic about the company’s prospects and the opportunities that lie ahead. As the CEO, you need to inspire others to perform at their best, consistently modeling courage and confidence.
Clearly, the only way to maintain that type of energy is to ensure you’re taking care of yourself and staying healthy. That translates to taking the time to stay fit and pursue passions outside of work. Digital fitness trackers can provide the data needed to stay on course with your goals, and I’m finding that my new wearable is indispensable for helping me prioritize my downtime, much of which is devoted to my horses, and ensuring I get enough sleep to perform at my best. I still compete actively in show jumping and ride every morning before work whenever I’m in the same state as my horses (i.e., neither I nor they are traveling). This routine not only benefits my physical health, it also keeps me grounded and gives ideas the chance to percolate. There is nothing like an early morning trail ride just as the sun is coming up to start your day off on the right foot.
Effectively transitioning into the role of CEO requires continual research and collaboration, as well as allowing yourself the downtime needed to keep perspective. Focusing on these three key elements will help you optimize your first few months and establish the foundation necessary for maintaining success.
DR. PATRICIA “TRISH” HURTER is CEO and president of Lyndra Therapeutics, which aims to improve health outcomes through oral, ultra-long acting, sustained-release medicines that change how people take medications.