The concept of leadership is a powerful tool in society. We humans are able to achieve great things when we come together in collaboration, but more often than not in order to facilitate such collaboration there needs to be one influential party that promotes the movement or change in others. Martin Luther King Jr. single-handedly moved the needle on the civil rights movement, advocating for dignity, respect, freedom and equality. Winston Churchill rallied the British people and led the country from the brink of defeat to victory.
These are examples of people exacting change on a massive scale, but leaders are needed at every level of human collaboration from large public companies to small local communities. As a result, do a quick search on the internet for “leadership” and you will find millions of tips, tricks all purporting to hold the key to unlocking the great leader within you. Unfortunately, the truth of the matter is there isn’t one blueprint or method that will see a leader find success every time. Differing circumstances, personalities and needs all factor into what it takes to put people on the right path.
While there may be no definitive answer to the question of how to be a good leader, it is still a worthwhile exercise to study what has worked for others and derive wisdom from those who may have already experienced similar pain points in their leadership journey. Dr. Carsten Thiel has spent nearly thirty years within the international pharmaceutical industry, building teams for companies of all sizes and specialties. He has held a number of executive positions, including vice president, head of Europe at Amgen and executive vice president and chief commercial officer at Alexion Pharmaceuticals, Inc.
For just over a year, Dr. Thiel has been chief executive officer for the oncology and rare disease-focused biopharmaceutical company EUSA Pharma, after serving as its president of European operations for two years prior. Below, we explore some of the challenges he faced in his first year leading the company, as well as his business philosophies on how to meet those challenges head on.
Start with a 90-day plan
According to Dr. Thiel, the best lesson he’s received regarding leadership came from Kevin Sharer, who served as CEO of the biotechnology research company Amgen for over a decade. Sharer told him that when he first took on the role he made a commitment to talk to 100 plus people across the entire organization within his first 90 days. Sitting down with people in positions both high and low within the hierarchy of the company, Sharer asked each and every person the same questions: “What are you hoping I will do for the company? What are you hoping I will change? What are you afraid I might do or change? What would you like me to preserve in the organization?”
Carsten Thiel was struck by the fact that in those earliest days of his new leadership role Sharer took the time to sit down with as many individuals as possible and learn how they hoped to see him shape the company. He has since carried this lesson with him in every role he has taken on since, and has found that even with decades of experience he has always been surprised with what he finds out from these initial discussions in the first 90 days. Before implementing any sort of lasting change, you must have a solid finger on the pulse of an organization as a whole, and speaking directly with employees across the hierarchical chain is one of the most efficient ways to do so.
Build out relevant company values
If you want to observe something in your business, you must make it a part of its values. At EUSA Pharma, Dr. Thiel says that two years prior the company had five values that had served it well so far, but there was an overall sense that something was missing and it was preventing the company from achieving its full capabilities. In order to determine what exactly was missing, the entire company came together on a conference in London and spent three hours working together to determine what was working well and what wasn’t.
Exploring the ways they treated each other, how they listened to each other and the way they talked to each other, the company as a whole came to the conclusion that “trust” and “respect” needed to be added to their values. As a result, those two concepts have become an ingrained part of its culture, repeated often and included in metrics such as performance reviews and feedback to ensure the standards are being met. While each company must identify the individual values that will best serve them, in leading them to do so you create a stronger organization.
Align people behind a singular purpose
Dr. Thiel has found that an organization can only truly thrive when those within it are united to understand its greater purpose. For EUSA Pharma, the company has a wide variety of roles it plays including a customer-facing organization and a research and development company. There are teams who focus on its finances, human resources, and with so many different departments it can be easy for people to become short-sighted and define what they do by the work they do.
A company purpose has the ability to bring everyone behind a compelling mission. While financial targets are certainly important metrics, they alone aren’t a broad enough motivational tool to excite people to achieve. “Changing lives, patient by patient” For Thiel, this powerful mission creates a sense of purpose that drives enenrgy in people and leads to strong results.
Encourage teams to help each other achieve individual goals
While a singular purpose can unite an organization, Dr. Thiel has found that it is important to still acknowledge the individualistic goals and objectives of each team member. Similarly, by placing high importance on values such as respect and trust, a culture is created in which team members feel empowered to take ownership of their own paint points and challenges, expressing them without fear of judgment. Calling this a “caring culture,” Dr. Thiel believes that because we are more dependent on our team members than we often want to concede, by creating a psychologically safe environment he was able to better facilitate people not only recognizing that, but realizing it is not a vulnerability or even negative.
Doing “more with less”
While Thiel admitted that the phrase “do more with less” evokes personal frustration because of its implications of inefficiency, when looking at organizations as a whole there are often ways that one can identify to achieve more while utilizing less resources. At EUSA Pharma, he found that by prioritizing effort on projects that had the greatest impact on results the company was able to accomplish more goals in a shorter period of time just through the simple solution of saying no to things that made a smaller impact.
Secondly, in asking team members “what is a barrier to getting our work done?” he found that often one of the biggest inefficiencies were bureaucratic actions, such as requiring multiple approvals through the organization to change a head count. Returning the concept of trust and respect, by taking out bureaucracy and giving more decision power to people, the organization as a whole became faster and more nimble while also seeing reduced workloads and increased happiness overall.
About Carsten Thiel
Dr. Carsten Thiel is an accomplished professional with over two decades of experience in the pharmaceutical industry. Working in the commercial space with a focus on oncology and rare disease, he has held a number of executive roles at an international level including COO at Alexion and Head of Europe at Amgen. He is currently CEO of EUSA Pharma, taking the position after serving for two years in the President Europe role.
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