A while ago one of us had a conversation with Joe Jimenez, CEO of the pharmaceutical company, Novartis. It was 4 July, a big day for Americans, but he was hard at work doing what a modern corporate leader does. What especially interested us about Jimenez was that he was an outsider to the pharma industry when he joined the company. He was not even a scientist when he became the head of the pharma division at Novartis in 2007.
We thought that it must have been awkward, indeed very difficult, dealing with the company’s scientists, working at the leading edge of pharma, knowing nothing about the interior workings of molecules and so on. It was a point we made to Jimenez.
‘I felt it was very important that I study not just our medicines but the diseases that our medicines are involved in, as well as the mechanism of the molecules that we have discovered and developed,’ he agreed: “I had a lot of help in understanding the science in the early years. I had a tutor that would come in early in the morning before the work day. We would pick a particular disease and he would explain how the disease progresses, what pathways are implicated in that disease and how the pieces manage through that disease and where each one of our compounds fit in the overall management of the disease.
“I found that with a lot of work, while sitting in meetings with our scientists, I was able to ask the right questions around what has been considered and what has not.
“It is very interesting that you can run a company like this without being a physician or a scientist as long as you understand something about the sciences and you make sure that you have the right people in the room when you are debating. We have an innovation management board where there are some of the most brilliant scientists in the world sitting at the table as we are debating whether we are going to proceed to phase two or phase three on a particular program and I am in there with them. It is amazing how you can learn a new industry and learn the science even if you didn’t grow up in that background.” Jimenez’s willingness to go back to school, to put in the extra hours every single morning so he could hold his head up in a conversation struck us as entirely admirable, part perhaps of the humility we have seen in so many great leaders.
Extract from page 91 of 'What we mean when we talk about leadership'