Inside the Mind of the CEO

It's a New Day —and a New Script
Oct 01, 2011
By Pharmaceutical Executive Editors

WL: Specifically, how do you approach the role of CEO in a company now as big as AmerisourceBergen? What style of behavior will you adopt in driving the business forward?

SC: I go back to my early experience in the South African Air Force. There I learned the importance of keeping things on track; establishing a clear business and reputational mission and communicating that right down the ranks, through a simple set of messages—and that should be readily understood by all 10,000 colleagues who work here, no exceptions in terms of strata of engagement. In addition, I demonstrate enthusiasm and excitement about the company as a basic motivational tool. Finally, in terms of executing on strategy, I must make sure all colleagues have the resources to generate "win/win" solutions for our customers.

WL: Are you a believer in the idea that all companies have distinct "cultures" and the CEO's task is to bolster that culture around a compelling vision?

SC: Absolutely. A vision is the best way as a CEO I can bridge all the diverse elements of a company that has depth everywhere from Dallas to Charlotte to Southern California. I am in the process of doing that now; the focus is on integrating our activities so that we become the preferred partner for the customer—and the easiest to do business with. Another is promoting a long-term performance metric for our business. I have told Wall Street that our goal is to maintain a 15 percent compound annual growth rate in earnings per share indefinitely. And that the stock price itself is immaterial to our benchmark for performance. I am saying I am accountable for performance. I am less accountable for what happens to our stock price, where the range of external variables is immense.

The other task for the CEO is to be outward-facing, in a way that exemplifies making a contribution to society beyond profit. To AmerisourceBergen, the relevant theme here is ethical standards—safety for the patient taking our pills. I admire how the Disney company has made safety part of the culture in giving each and every employee the right to shut down a theme park ride if he/she senses a fan is in danger. We must maintain that same impeccable commitment because any one mistake in the safety chain for drugs is going to be serious in terms of public health. I am aware we operate in a much more competitive environment. But that cannot be linked to a philosophy that says it's ok to succeed at any cost.

WL: Is it possible for a CEO to thrive without being a good communicator?

SC: Perhaps. But the closed door is not going to work well against the accessibility of information and the change in generations toward a cohort of young people skeptical about command and control behavior. One thing that excites me is that CEOs like me now have access to new communications tools that can be individualized at levels unheard of only a few years ago. For example, there are fantastic opportunities to customize our contacts through the web. I am using this tool now with a new internal program I call "Starbucks with Steve." We invite eight or nine colleagues from the ranks and just sit down with me and discuss what's on their minds. The discussion usually comes down to what it takes to be a good manager, and how to adapt to the culture and be an effective leader. I listen first and talk later. That's a skill often underrated in life.

The CEO has to avoid the tendency to be siloed out of reality by staffers dedicated to "uncomplicating" your work life. I deal with that by making a significant effort to keep in touch with our customers. I seek them out; I don't wait for them to come to me. None of our big customers are at all complacent. Whether it's Pfizer or the Cleveland Clinic or Humana, they all confront big challenges. They don't care who you are—it's an answer they want. I find it hard to be arrogant when I visit a customer. You can get bruised very quickly.

WL: Looking forward a few years, how will you define success?

SC: I am proceeding under a very simple construct; that is, to meet and preferably surpass all our performance benchmarks. Retooling the business to make it easier for the customer to work with us and to more precisely define our value to them and other stakeholders. Keeping our colleagues engaged and enthusiastic about our mission to society. And, finally, maintaining as we grow a no-compromise commitment to compliance around ethics and safety.

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