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Nailed It! Rock Star Panel

June 9, 2016
Today’s “Nailed It! Rock Star Panel,” sponsored by Johnson & Johnson Innovation/JLABS, featured three company CEOs who have spent their careers as leaders and executives across the biopharmaceutical industry.  Each of the panelists spent time in both large pharma companies and emerging businesses before taking the leap and using their experience to lead a small or start-up company.  The panel focused on, essentially, how to be a CEO – the panelists shared tips on everything from building a team to learning from their mistakes to working with the Board of Directors.

Moderator Lesley Stolz (of panel sponsor JLABS) kicked things off by noting that “many people aspire to be CEOs…but it’s not that straightforward.”  Arcturus CEO Joe Payne set the tone of the panel, saying that CEO is simply a title when you start a company, but that you have to grow into it in order for the company to be successful.

One metric of success that the panel discussed – for CEOs and companies both – was the importance of strong and well-articulated values, and a team that lives up to them, to a company’s culture.  Relypsa CEO John Orwin said it is critical for the CEO to engage employees in a process to define the company’s mission, vision, and cultural values.  Employee involvement is key because it gives them buy in to actually live out the values of the organization – and a clear, articulate vision allows them to hold themselves and each other accountable.

Tizona CEO Pablo Cagnoni noted that the number one responsibility for the CEO is to set the company culture early on – even if you are leading a start-up with few employees.  Orwin, under whose leadership Relypsa has grown from 60 to 450 employees, echoed Cagnoni’s advice, saying that the start-up’s culture becomes even more important as the company grows and the CEO no longer interacts with each employee on a daily basis.  Instead, the expectations and values must have enough buy in and momentum from the entire organization to carry through.

On that note, the panelists also emphasized the importance of diversity in both hiring and company culture.  Cagnoni stressed that CEOs must approach diversity intentionally, “otherwise you’ll look around and be surrounded by ten white guys.”  Payne reminded the attendees that innovation doesn’t just apply to a biotech company’s science, but also to its employees and the biotech workforce more broadly.  All of the panelists agreed that hiring is not an exact science, nor an easy task, but they shared tips on how a CEO can ensure a diverse, talented, and engaged workforce, including:

  • Emphasize trust in early hires, since they will help you build the organization and ensure a strong company culture.

  • Have group interactions during the interview process rather than just one-on-one meetings.  Meet with your colleagues after the interview to discuss how the candidate will fit in the company.

  • Interact with candidates outside of the office – perhaps at a meal – to see how they interact with the real world.

  • Maintain a strong network throughout your career of individuals who you would want to work with or who you trust to recommend new hires.

  • Don’t fall into the trap of ignoring “fit” just because someone is technically or scientifically qualified.

Another thread that wove its way into numerous answers was the importance of a CEO being accountable for his or her actions.  Each panelist told a story about a mistake they made (ranging from assuming a verbal agreement was set in stone to being too afraid to fail), and they each shared their belief that the first step is for the CEO to be accountable for whatever happened.  Cagnoni, who served on Boards as a VC, specifically emphasized that CEOs who are always shifting the blame are unlikely to succeed.

Overall, the panelists acknowledged that being a biotech CEO is a learned skill that takes a lot of work to master.  As the JLABS introduction video emphasized, CEOs are often asked to “walk on water” and “walk through walls.”  But they also told attendees that they can succeed by setting aggressive expectations and taking specific, well-defined steps toward success.