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Habib Dable


President, US Pharmaceuticals, Bayer

The Feedback Gift

Habib Dable, President, US Pharmaceuticals, Bayer 


Long associated with that very earliest staple of the medicine chest-aspirin-Bayer is today a company with a commitment to shortening the horizon line for drug innovations of the future. Leading that repositioning in the US-Bayer’s largest market-is Habib Dable, 45, a 22-year company veteran and the man behind the launch of some of the industry’s most iconic brands, including the ophthalmology blockbuster, Eylea. The following are thoughts from one of this year’s Emerging Pharma Leaders on motivating colleagues, managing culture change and navigating from the top to secure what he contends is a bright future for medicines innovation.

PE: Is there a story or anecdote that helped shape and define who you are today?

Pursuing what I was truly passionate about was the key to shaping who I am today. At the University of New Brunswick (UNB) in Canada, I started as a student in the science program, but I quickly realized that was not the program for me. I was intrigued by science, but I discovered that I did not want to be a physician. Rather, I moved toward business, perhaps as a CEO someday. I transferred to the business program, worked as hard as I could, took extra courses, and enrolled in summer classes so I would graduate on time. I then got an MBA, also from UNB. Ironically, my first job out of business school was with a company called Bayer, focused on Science for a Better Life. I’m still as passionate about the business today as I was then. Gathering feedback from those you trust is important, but nothing can replace your gut instincts.

PE: What are the most critical assets and skills from your background that you must draw on in managing people, defining strategy, and executing objectives?

I learned, early on, the importance of interpersonal awareness to excel at networking and building strong stakeholder relationships. This really allows you to have the data and perspective necessary to manage and set a strategic course. And related to this, I’m an active listener. In making decisions, I seek out people with different perspectives as a way to test my own judgment and avoid complacency. Complacency is a trait that has to be systematically addressed and rooted out, particularly in large organizations. 

In that regard, one of the things that has kept me at Bayer for 22 years-it’s actually the only place I have worked-is its strong support for professional growth. Our performance management program strives to activate employees’ motivation by aligning their individual objectives and behaviors with the company’s strategy and “LIFE” values-that is -Leadership, Integrity, Flexibility, and Efficiency. This serves to increase our employees’ sense of belonging and loyalty to the company. I’ve seen it in action, and it works. 

PE: How important are cross-disciplinary teams in driving the agenda of biopharma companies today?What makes a good team work and what factors tend to make a team less successful?  

Cross disciplinary teams are critical to our business success at Bayer. Perhaps this wasn’t always the case but the marketplace is increasingly complex and constantly evolving. There are multiple stakeholders with different needs, and effective teams drive for results, collaborate, value different points of view, and hold themselves accountable. When these elements are missing, teams can become sources of conflict.   

PE: Where is the industry going? Based on that, what are the three most important management skills and leadership characteristics that you believe are going to be most relevant to achieving career success in the future?   

It’s a great time to be working in biopharma. US healthcare venture investments hit an all-time high in 2015 and FDA approved more new drugs-45-in decades. The industry is now open to looking at new ideas-creativity is critical, given the regulatory and financial challenges companies face today. The key is to understand the unmet medical needs of patients. Knowledge of biochemical processes and underlying genetic causes of diseases is growing at record speed, and R&D requires a degree of specialization that a single organization can no longer achieve on its own. We, like others in the industry, recognize that cultivating ideas also includes looking for innovation outside of Bayer. 

Given that, I see the most relevant leadership characteristics for the future are applying knowledge of the business and marketplace to the organization’s goals; seeing ahead for future possibilities to develop breakthrough strategies; building strong teams that apply diverse skills and perspectives to achieve common goals; and stepping up to address difficult issues and saying what needs to be said. 

PE: Human capital is critical to a knowledge-based industry like biopharma. Do you ascribe to the notion that changing the mindset of a workforce is an exercise that must begin and be supervised from the very top? Is the CEO the one who sets the culture of a company or is the concept of “culture” more linked to a legacy drawn from the contributions of many individual leaders over time? If it’s the latter, how do you change the culture?   

Whether it’s changing a mindset or addressing a corporate culture, employees look to leadership to set the tone. So it starts at the top-not only with the CEO but also among the leadership across the organization. Culture is a lot bigger than any one individual or team, though. It’s really the essence of an organization’s personality, and it starts with values, goals, and character. And it is built on the contributions of many. To change a culture would require a multidimensional effort that is grounded in clarity of purpose and that engages people inside and outside the organization in meaningful ways. 

PE: The biopharma industry faces reputational challenges as well as the opportunity loss from a one-third decline in the US industry’s employment base over the past 15 years. What is needed to keep colleagues motivated in light of these adversities?  

We need to do a better job of communicating our story as an industry. Many people don’t understand that it takes well north of $1 billion to develop a drug and bring it to market. Nor do they connect that with the tremendous risk we take along the way to plan for our production and distribution. Approximately 90% of biotech clinical research goes toward projects that ultimately fail. Even in the midst of such odds, this past decade has seen the industry successfully lessen the impact of serious diseases-HIV, cancer, hepatitis C, rare diseases, among others. 

Such innovation is key to our value proposition and to keeping our people motivated. The impact we have on patients carries a profound influence on the people that work in our industry. I’ve seen it time and time again. At a more micro level, setting clear expectations and holding people accountable are vital so that people have a line of sight into what they’re doing and what they need to do to be successful. This will instill trust and foster collaboration-which are essential elements of a successful and motivated employee base. 

PE: Is it inevitable that, as organizations grow larger, there is a regression toward a standard of “chronically average” in evaluating employee performance. What is your view of the trend among many leading multinationals like GE to scrap a formalized annual employee review system? 

Performance management is always a hot topic and one that gets a great deal of attention. During my years at Bayer, I have seen several different systems-both as a “reviewee” and a reviewer. 

The bottom-line is that we owe employees feedback, and it must be transparent and honest. Personally, I try to provide feedback every day, and thus the system becomes less important than the content of that exchange. Feedback is a gift, good or bad, and we should treat it as such and ensure our employees are clear on where they stand.

- William Looney


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