Biotech CEOs Don’t Know It All. They Need Mentors


Xconomy San Diego — 

Biotech CEOs are human beings too. But somehow they are often portrayed, particularly by themselves, as herculean beings that can independently solve it all.

Time for brutal honesty: every CEO relies heavily on others’ guidance regarding how the company collective can be successful. Much of this input is appropriately provided by the rest of the management team, but not all. Key decisions faced by biotech CEOs can benefit from an outside voice that has experienced analogous situations and is willing to lend a collegial hand. Sometimes a board of directors can help counsel a CEO on these key decisions, sometimes not.

Despite understanding this reality, I find that many biotech CEOs—particularly the younger folk that could most benefit—have yet to establish meaningful mentorship connections. Theoretically you can succeed without any mentorship and could make all the right decisions on your own – but is it in your best interest to do so? Do you want to make decisions in a relative vacuum, only to later find out that someone you knew could have provided useful input if only you listened?

This conversation is ironic because early careers in the biotech industry are full of mentoring experiences. CEOs with PhD backgrounds are likely to have gone through a postdoc or two, MDs go through clinical residency under the watchful guidance of an experienced superior, and junior lawyers spend years under the tutelage of senior partners before they are allowed to appear in public. So if you were willing to be mentored at earlier stages—why not continue the practice when you reach the most important role in your entire career?

The challenges you face each day as CEO—regarding corporate strategy, drug development, financing, hiring and M&A—are each multi-faceted questions with many pros and cons. There is no magical calculus formula to spit out the right answer. To complement your own situational analysis and best judgment, I recommend accessing senior people that can give you an honest perspective on how they have seen similar stories play out. Your odds of success as a CEO—and therefore the company’s prospects—improve if you can avoid the mistakes that others have made. Doing so will not only help you in the short-term, but likely expedite your growth as a biotech executive in the long-term.

The mentor phenotype suited for each biotech CEO is unique, but let me give you some of my personal examples. Carol Gallagher, former CEO of Calistoga Pharmaceuticals, is a fantastic mentor because she understands the biotech leadership pressure cooker first-hand, and believes strongly in giving back to the industry by helping people such as myself. David Lacey, former head of Amgen research, has experienced drug development at a grand scale, but is uniquely capable of translating his expertise to development projects feasible within our small biotech context. Grant Yonehiro, former President of Perseid Therapeutics, is a role model on how to foster an empowering company culture where everyone feels valued and is compelled to succeed. I respect these individuals, often seek their perspective, and in many instances have sought to emulate them.

Developing a mentor relationship requires you to open up and accept feedback. Smart people are not interested in helping someone that is overtly defensive and keeps trying to duck constructive criticism. Ask a relevant question, listen to the recommendation, adjust your approach and then let your mentor know how things went. Repeat this cycle every 4-12 weeks for optimal results.

As homework, I propose that each biotech venture capitalist think about whether their portfolio CEOs are receiving enough mentorship. Ask your CEOs to describe their current mentors and how often they take advantage of the relationship. You might be surprised by the impact of this conversation on the company’s performance in the next six months. And you might be surprised by the impact it makes on your VC fund’s internal rate of return (IRR) in the subsequent year.

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3 responses to “Biotech CEOs Don’t Know It All. They Need Mentors”

  1. Argo says:

    This is great advice however, is it OK to think this way as one is climbing the ladder? Or is it only affordable to think and act this way once one reaches the corner office? Should not the CEO have an ego greater than the room he/she sits in? Humility is not a CEO trait.

    • Navid Zohoury says:

      I feel Humility would be a necessary trait both for climbing the corporate ladder and being an effective and successful CEO.

      I would think a CEO’s main job, specially at a start-up, is to be the student of his or her company and of the business landscape where the company operates. It is during these inception years that there is significant time and opportunity to develop and make necessary changes. Without a significant dose of humility and willingness to listen to everyone around him or her, I believe a CEO’s ability to objectively direct the company in a sustainable path would be significantly hindered.

      After-all, as Hamza alludes to it in the very first sentence, “CEOs are human beings too” and have only so many hours in the day. If a CEO has a trusted and hard-working team, It would seem tumid to not listen to them. A CEO without humility may be lucky to stumble upon success but one who has humility is much more likely to make the changes necessary for the company to navigate through challenges.

      I do have to say these are just my opinions. This would be a great discussion to have in an executive MBA class. I’m pretty sure the answer is not at either extreme and Hamza was only attempting to present one lesser discussed perspective.

  2. Steve Dumont says:

    You’ve struck upon the need for people to receive relevant and unbiased advice. Seeking the counsel of those who have experience can give you someone without an emotional attachment to the company or situation. This can also influence one’s communications and leadership style. Steve Dumont