Magazine Article | August 1, 2011

From The Midwest To The Far East: Insights From A Globe-Trotting Executive

As seen in the August 2011 edition of Life Science Leader magazine.
By Robert Wright, Chief Editor, Life Science Leader

Saving face is a crucial component of Japanese society. In Japan, “face” means having high status with one’s peers and is a mark of personal dignity. Interestingly enough, the first full face transplant ever completed in the United States was strongly contributed to by a Japanese pharmaceutical company – Astellas.

Formed through a historical merger between Yamanouchi and Fujisawa, Japan’s third and fifth largest pharmaceutical companies, Astellas makes tacrolimus, a drug indicated for the prevention of organ rejection in patients receiving organ transplants. Steven Ryder, M.D., president, Astellas Pharma Global Development, described Prograf, the brand name for tacrolimus, as a “game-changing new treatment in the area of transplantation.” I had the opportunity to speak with Dr. Ryder, the highest ranking non-Japanese executive at Astellas, to find out how an American executive successfully manages working for a company whose primary base of operations is in a country dramatically different from that of the United States.

For instance, I was curious: does Ryder speak Japanese or need an interpreter to communicate with his boss, Masafumi Nogimori, the CEO for Astellas Pharma World Wide? According to Ryder, “All Astellas’ senior managers are fluent in English.” I doubt many U.S.-based companies operating in Japan could make similar claims of all their executives being fluent in Japanese. During my conversation with Ryder, he attributed his success at striking a good work/life balance to focusing on communication, prioritization, and constant learning.

The Importance Of Communication
I always enjoy asking executives which book has made the greatest impact on their lives. For Steven Ryder, it is “The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant.” I found this to be very revealing, as Grant is credited with stating, “Every human being, of whatever origin, of whatever station, deserves respect.” Respect is a key component of business communication, especially in the Japanese culture. One way to demonstrate respect and improve your communication is to think about what you intend to say. “I definitely know that when I speak to people,” says Ryder, “I like to think about what I’m going to say in advance. Dialogue is very important. If you really care about it, you think about it.” Ryder believes clear and frequent communication needs to be at the center of an effective global organization. Failing to focus on communication can result in misunderstanding, apprehension, and confusion, all of which should be avoided.

According to Ryder, clear communication can’t be assumed and definitely cannot be ignored. It takes energy and effort. I asked how he achieves this. “Make sure what you say is exactly understood,” he replies. Ryder does this by asking in a “polite, respectful way, ‘was that understandable? Do you understand the actions that I’m proposing? Do you understand the reasons?’” Ryder emphasizes he does not do this in a demeaning way. He wants to make sure the words and examples he used were not confusing to the receiver of the information. “I always try to ask my boss when I conclude something, ‘Was that clear?’ If not, I’ll be glad to go over it again,” he explains. “It may sound simple. You’re both talking English. But, you’re talking English in a culture where it’s not the primary language. Words have different meanings. Perceptions are what matter. It’s the receiving of the information that really matters.”

Ryder advises those who have to communicate to members of an organization on a global basis, to avoid colloquialisms. For example, during our conversation, he noted our common cultural and language background, stating, “I can probably use all kinds of acronyms, phrases, and colloquialisms. I bet you would get 99% of what I am saying. I can take for granted, literally, you do understand me, because we share a common language.” Ryder does not take the same approach when communicating with people from other cultures, having learned this lesson, sometimes, the hard way. “I have been surprised by statements I’ve made that have sometimes been misperceived. It’s not out of malicious intent. It’s not out of wanton neglect. Certain words have different meanings and different contexts.” His recommendation is to take the time and have the patience to communicate well.

Clear communication may require face time. When you don’t share a common language or similar cultural background, Ryder sees much benefit in face-to-face communication. “When you don’t share those things, whether it’s the Netherlands or Japan — perhaps more so with Japan or other parts of Asia — face-to-face communication does help.” This is not surprising for several reasons. First, Japanese prefer to do business on the basis of personal relationships, often difficult to establish without in-person communication. Second, Japanese rely quite heavily on non-verbal means of communication, i.e. bowing. Third, harmony is a key value in Japanese society. As such, group decision making and consensus are important and best achieved with face-to-face communication.

Prioritization Is Necessary For Life/Work Balance
I asked Ryder how, as a father, husband, and business executive, he is able to successfully achieve life/work balance given the need for him to travel globally, which can involve one-way flights of 13 hours or more. “I already went through the period of being a soccer dad.” Having adult children, two lawyers and one doctor, Ryder admits he is at a phase that allows for more flexibility. Nonetheless, Ryder sees prioritization as being mandatory in achieving life/work balance. For example, his top priorities when he arrived at Astellas nearly three years ago, were recruit, retain and motivate. “If you don’t have great people in your organization supporting you, you’re going to be challenged beyond your ability to really keep the balls in the air,” he explains. “There are only 168 hours in a week, full stop. Nobody has invented the 169th hour yet. So, how are you going to do it?” For Ryder, keeping his team highly motivated is a key to retaining top talent.

So, what is his technique? Ryder elaborates, “I’ve always found that top talent are not just the dreamers, but the doers.” He believes people want to be challenged. As such, he strives to provide members of his team with ever-increasing amounts of responsibility. “If you try to retain too much,” he says, “then the talents with which you have surrounded yourself can become frustrated and may not stick around.” Ryder feels top talent thrive and flourish in a challenging environment. His advice? Create an environment whereby employees are not only given increased responsibility, but accountability as well. “I find that is the most important thing I can do.”

Being An MD Teaches Continuous Learning
Having completed his medical degree more than 30 years ago, Ryder practiced medicine for a short period and was exposed to the importance of the physician-patient relationship. However, when he became a lab director in the early 1980’s, he envisioned the “multiplicative impact” he could have on patients through the area of drug development and important new medicines. In order to do this, he needed to develop a greater understanding of the drug development process. Ryder, a big proponent of continuous learning, was up for the challenge. Perhaps this is a result of his physician training, i.e. the requirement to obtain continuing medical education (CME) credits throughout one’s medical career. “I’m a huge believer in the ability of people to learn throughout their entire lives,” he stressed, and provided me with a personal example.

When he decided to pursue a career in the area of drug development, he realized being a physician did not make him an expert in the field of pharmaceutical R&D. In order to be successful, Ryder needed to learn clinical pharmacology, an important aspect of the drug development business. He credits two mentors for helping him to understand and learn this discipline: David Shand, a former development head at Ayerst Laboratories (a former division of American Home Products); and, Dilip Mehta, former US clinical and regulatory head of Pfizer R&D. With their help and guidance, he was able to learn and apply this skill — initially, as an assistant clinical research director — and now in his present position as an R&D drug development executive.

Leading by example when it comes to continuous learning, Ryder shared with me another example of continuous learning — one he did not necessarily foresee as clearly as the previous example. Prior to joining Astellas, he had visited Japan and Asia and thought he had a fairly thorough cultural understanding. “Sure, I’ve visited Japan,” he explains. “But, I never had the deep involvement that I have currently.” Seeing himself as approaching the sunset of his career, Ryder was seeking a professional challenge. What he hadn’t envisioned was how challenging himself professionally would expand him personally, regaining an appreciation for the importance of clear and frequent communication. Slipping into a colloquialism, he emphasizes, “I have seen the train get derailed when the communication is not clear.”

Ryder continues to prioritize, communicate, and learn. He recently announced the addition of four seasoned industry leaders to the Astellas Pharma Global Development team. With that taken care of, he can focus on what he refers to as the “multiplicative impact” he can have on patients by bringing “hugely important new medicines to market.”