The Essential Steve Jobs for Today’s Pharmaceutical Executive


Xconomy New York — 

It is hard to overestimate the importance of Steve Jobs on the American psyche. The co-founder and guiding force of Apple has died, succumbing to a long illness after only recently stepping down as chief executive. 
But his impact continues beyond his life, his business, his industry, his leadership, and his vision. One only needs to go to the Apple flagship retail store in Manhattan to feel his effect on the individual and industrial landscape. On any day of the year, the store is packed with tourists, many of whom are from other countries. In these moments, Jobs and his company personify an American cultural and business ideal of itself: “We invent these kinds of miracle things.”

Since this is the exact feeling (message, if you will) that the U.S. and global pharmaceutical industry would like to leave with the general public—as well as its traditional stakeholders of providers, payors, patients and regulators—what could pharma leadership take away from Jobs’ legacy?

Let’s start with the leader himself. Jobs’ name is listed on 313 patents. This is one of the most eye-opening points circulating around Jobs’ resignation. Can any actions (never mind words) speak louder than that in telling employees and the world how the company’s CEO views innovation? I challenge you to find it.

I realize that it can be difficult to make an apples-to-oranges comparison between the businesses of consumer technology, and that ofresearch, development, approval, reimbursement, and sale of human pharmaceuticals. But the pharmaceutical industry ignores the legacy of Jobs at its peril.

Jobs embodies three important guidelines that pharmaceutical leaders should embrace to change the course of their companies for the future.

Be a CEO with a Value Vision: The pharma CEO of the future does not need to have his or her name on 313 patents. The point is that Jobs inserted himself into the innovation process and the goal of steering it to the highest value. Thus his involvement came from the view that a CEO’s primary task is to ensure that innovation will bring new and unexpected value to its end users.

It is in the vast middle of big pharmaceutical companies where great numbers of people make careers of rationalizing value out of inventions with questionable differentiation. My gut feeling is that Jobs would not approve of this kind of approach. Inventions must speak for themselves to some degree.

Focus on Disruption: Why are CEOs the ultimate drivers of value? Because they have to make the tough calls about ruthlessly redirecting and focusing resources. Leaders focus on leading; and in innovation, it is disruption that leads. Apple, under the leadership of Jobs, has been disruptive: The focus on proprietary devices—the valuable core of the company—has been maintained and innovated to a new level. Such innovation led to disruption in the entire computer industry, as well as other industries of developers and content.

Can any big pharmaceutical company leader strip a company down to that essence? Can she or he redirect internal resources towards a core of innovation that results in reverberating, disruptive value? The lesson from Jobs is that despite a crowded, distracting, and even commoditized market, focusing on disruption trains an entire company to know its purpose—and to seek much more than incremental value.

Lifecycle Management Should Take You Higher: Another great lesson from Apple under Jobs in the last decade is that lifecycle management should actually lead you to new disruption. It should not only bring new value, it should bring disruptive, unexpected value.

Of course, there is a place for the gritty defense of revenue beyond the peak of a product’s lifecycle (Apple even does this skillfully). But if you want to set a new course—leaving competitors in your wake and customers emotional when you step down—you must take lifecycle management to new, surprising place, whether it be through new products, new operational models, or new services.

The value proposition of the ethical pharmaceutical industry is under significant scrutiny, if not outright challenge in recent years, and there’s more to come. Something has to give. Pharma CEOs must set the vision of value and deliver it. It’s never too late to start where Jobs left off.