By Jodie Morrison
(Written early April 2020)
When I started writing this piece, COVID-19 was just starting to touch American lives and hadn’t yet permeated every aspect of life and work. Today, as we strive to be adaptive and productive during the pandemic, leaders can play an important role in “normalizing” the unthinkable, and leading with authenticity and truth has never been more important.
I have no doubt that when I look back on this unprecedented time a year or two from now, I will be able to see in clear detail how the decisions I made as a CEO shaped the trajectory of our company. But for now, I give you my reflections in the value of leading from a place of authenticity and how this can impact everything from attracting and retaining talent, forming an enjoyable work culture, and furthering gender equality in the workplace. Allow me to elaborate.
Authenticity is shaped by growth, and growing as a leader requires identifying what is resonating and doing your best to turn those insights into future actions. It’s one thing to be your authentic self at home and in your personal life, but when it comes to leadership, there can be pressure to wear a mask. It could be a mask of strength and energy despite feeling uncertain and exhausted. Or a mask of efficiency-first when needing to hold emotions at bay. But in the right circumstances and with an eye toward authenticity, we can be better versions of ourselves at work. People engage with, trust, and want to be with leaders who are authentic. And now more than ever, authenticity is critical to our ability to keep our teams engaged and motivated during the current crisis.
Here’s what I think enables me to lead with authenticity.
"At critical times, leaders who express emotion can be just what people need to heal and move forward."
IT’S OK TO SHOW EMOTION
Anyone who has watched Brene Brown’s famous TED Talk on vulnerability understands the power that’s unlocked through honesty and transparency. Before coming to Cadent, while running another biotech company, I found myself faced with delivering tough news about a Phase 3 trial that had been halted by an external committee. I didn’t want employees to have to process this news alone or through social media, so we called an all-hands meeting to tell them in person. Everyone in that room knew what this meant – substantial layoffs and an uncertain corporate path. There was a huge sense of loss for the patients we sought to treat. There was also the inevitable loss of the close-knit culture we had built up over a decade. I stood up to deliver the news and tried to put on a mask, but I failed. Instead, the tears came. I wasn’t comfortable with this ”unmasking,” but the result was extraordinary. Over the days that followed, during which we had to hand out layoff packages, I received thank you notes and an outpouring of sentiment from both those staying and those departing. It seemed that the emotion I expressed showed them they were not alone in feeling this loss. Sharing it reinforced an opinion that the culture and relationships we had built were real.
My takeaway: At critical times, leaders who express emotion can be just what people need to heal and move forward. And during the current crisis, this is more important than ever because by being honest about the uncertainty we face, you can give employees permission to voice their fears and concerns openly.
IT’S OK TO USE YOUR PLATFORM
At the heart of serving our patients best is one core fact: we need to staff our companies with the best and brightest who bring unique perspectives to the solutions we strive to advance. Having a diverse pool of candidates in our pipeline is a critical component. From specific populations of a disease (like gender differences in ovarian or prostate cancer patients) to issues where concerns are influenced by economic class (think drug pricing concerns), our best opportunity to deliver to patients and their caregivers is to have diverse representation at the table as we think through our plans and strategies. I’ve been inspired to use my platform as a female biotech leader to participate in many initiatives around gender diversity, from cofounding the gender diversity task force at MassBio to helping to pen an open letter to our industry on best practices to establish gender diversity as a priority. And while attracting strong female candidates to companies that I have run is not why I dedicate my time to this topic, I have seen it translate to a steep increase in female applicants.
Most recently in the wake of COVID-19, I’ve built a CEO Information Sharing Forum where CEOs are collaborating as we manage through the continually changing landscape. What started as a small Atlas portfolio initiative to centralize shared ideas amongst the CEOs has grown into a forum now approaching 150 CEOs. We have built a crowdsourced document portal and host weekly calls on critical topics. And in a true example of the expanded industry working together, Goodwin, WilmerHale, T3 Advisors, Mass- Pay, and others have all donated time to the forum to provide their insights. My hope is that the effort will help us all to streamline our responses and allow us to focus on getting our companies successfully through this global health crisis and back to the critical mission of bringing new treatments to patients.
The key takeaway: Having a platform is a gift. Evaluate what good you can do in our industry or in the world. Find a passion and drive forward authentically for change if you can. And don’t be surprised if good things follow organically.
There is no doubt that leaders set the tone for company culture. But culture needs to evolve organically for people to feel part of it. As leaders, our role should be to find emerging threads and pull on them. At Cadent, we have made it a priority to cultivate a purposeful culture based on what we were seeing evolve naturally. We have a common appreciation for SNL skits and frequently ring the “cowbell” when there’s good news, offer prospective candidates “coffee talks,” and have “deep thoughts” lunch-and-learns with our chief science officer. Thankfully, we’ve been able to adapt our culture into the virtual setting of this temporary COVID-19 world, and it’s keeping us connected. We kick off our day with a virtual coffee talk for all employees, we still hold cowbell ringings, and are hosting optional game nights and culture club events to keep us connected. You know you are doing something right when people comment on feeling more connected than ever.
The key takeaway: An open and welcoming culture can’t just be imposed by a leader; it must be grown organically so people can find a home within it. And true culture will find a way to survive, even in changing circumstances.
WHAT’S THE IMPACT OF AUTHENTIC LEADERSHIP?
As a CEO, I have realized there are advantages to letting go of what I originally perceived as the playbook. This has really come into focus as we are facing a moment in time with no “master” playbook. My experience tells me that when you let go and find a path that makes sense, real connections grow, and from adaptability comes productivity. If instead we choose to mask who we really are, we create an environment of confinement and missed opportunities for connection — and this is never truer than during a crisis. Because the reality is, if you are hiding who you are, others will, too. And then what exactly are you building?
JODIE MORRISON is the CEO of Cadent Therapeutics and is a member of its board of directors.