Being Bob: Q&A with Robert Essner

Jun 01, 2008

It's clear that pharma is in the midst of a period of executive turnover. Recent months have seen new CEOs at GSK and Lilly, a new chairman at Gilead, a new head for Novartis' US operation, and new CFOs all over the place. Still, it was a surprise to hear that Robert Essner, the industrey legend who oversaw the transformation of Wyeth into a modern pharmaceutical company, would step down as chairman later this month. Shortly before the announcement, Pharm Exec talked with Essner. Here's an edited transcript.

Like Fred Hassan and several other high profile pharma executives, you came out of the pre-Novartis Sandoz. What was there about that organization that generated such a concentration of leaders?

There are two sides of it. First, Sandoz was a good company. It had good leadership models, good people, and a real emphasis, even in the 1970s, on training and developing people. It gave people exposure to more parts of the business, more parts of the world than most companies today. They also had a willingness to give people a lot of responsibility at a relatively young age. I mean, I was made head of their non-prescription drug business in the United States when I was still in my 30s, and I think that's something that probably not many companies have the kind of guts to do.

The other side of it is that, after a while, it became obvious it was a very Swiss company when it came to its centralized leadership. People like me and many others came to the conclusion that while we probably had good career prospects at Sandoz, those prospects would probably be better optimized somewhere else.

So, Sandoz not only developed good people, but they created an environment where those good people tended to disperse out of the company and go other places.

In an interview you did at Tuck University, you said that in your early career, "I thought I was a good leader. I had good ideas, but nobody was following me." How did you change that, because that's obviously a challenge for any leader.

For me—and it's something that we've instituted here—it was routine, 360-degree reviews, where people's performance, their attitude, and their management style are all reviewed not only by their bosses, but also by the people who report to them, and sometimes by the people who work alongside them. I've found that that it helps a lot to see how other people see you.

The first time you do one of these reviews, you think, "This can't be right, they don't understand me." Then you do it again, and you get the same response. It's a little bit like watching yourself on videotape. The first time you're taped, you say, "I don't look like that." But after you've done it four, five, ten, a hundred times, you understand that is in fact the way you look. Once people accept the reality of it, they automatically respond in very good ways.

It seems that you think of leadership primarily as a skill set—something people can and must learn to do.

I don't know if it's exactly a skill set, but it's something that can be learned by people who want to learn. There are a lot of styles of leadership, but people who want to lead, I think, can find a style that will work for them.