The Friendly Persuasion — An Interview with Fred Hassan - Pharmaceutical Executive


The Friendly Persuasion — An Interview with Fred Hassan

Pharmaceutical Executive

Do you believe that the new science and personalized delivery will give industry a greater measure of pricing freedom?

What I am saying is that we will have more pricing discretion when the momentum shifts back to the informed patient. At the same time, we need to remain sensible in our pricing behavior. We all can cite examples of egregious pricing decisions that tainted the industry's reputation. Oncology products, in particular, have to be priced strictly in line with the value they deliver. I am a strong believer in the market as providing the necessary discipline. When someone overprices, the market will make a noise, providers will shut you out, and then you have to go back and adjust it—with an extra levy imposed on your reputation.

You were involved in a total of six major corporate turnarounds in your career. Looking back, what was the one skill that mattered the most to your success? Alternatively, in which areas did you feel you were deficient?

The trait that made the most difference was figuring out the "how" behind the "what." The strategy could be set; what was hard is making it all happen. What I learned is to sequence actions so that one would reinforce the other to move things forward. For example, if I concluded that culture change had to drive the strategy, then I would take deliberate steps to demonstrate the need for change and to convince people they were ready for it. Every statement had to be reinforced with action—repeatedly and in a way that everyone from the receptionist on up could understand. Yes, there are some negatives in a turnaround but I have always been careful to put the emphasis on what success down the road would look like. Getting the foundation laid and seeded was something I did well in every restructuring plan. Once the green shoots came—the carefully staged "early wins"—it actually became easier to move the flywheel and launch a chain reaction that would eventually start humming on its own, because the sparks came not from me, but the entire company.

With regard to what I might have done better, the most important was a failure to move early to correct mistakes I made about people being right for the job. I was sometimes slow to act. The worst players in any turnaround situation are the passive aggressive personalities. I could have done a better job in rooting them out quickly, because passive aggressive behavior is probably the biggest single drain on culture change.

To conclude, what advice do you have for younger managers in building a career in the midst of a business model that is morphing in so many unpredictable ways?

You will find most of your peers have the right credentials, beginning with a good education and exposure to others with a similarly competitive nature. But what is often lacking—and is certainly missing from business school curricula—is learning how to be more self-aware and connected; do you understand how people may view you differently than you do yourself? This is a trait that develops as you grow older in life, when the scars start to show. If younger people can learn to drink from that well of self-awareness earlier, they will do better in coping with the ups and downs that accompany any successful career. When I was recruiting people, I rated "EQ" as important as IQ. In fact, I developed at Schering-Plough what I call the "knockout" assessment system: if a candidate scored perfectly on all the surface attributes, like big titles and a prestigious degree, he or she still failed the cut if we uncovered just one instance of hubris, or rudeness to staff, refusing to work in teams, or taking energy out of the system through self-promotion. Great organizations only survive when we work just as hard for others as we do for ourselves. It requires traits of human character that I believe are permanent and immutable.

William Looney is Pharm Exec's Editor. He can be reached at


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