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Leading On Two Continents through COVID-19: Filippo Petti, Celyad Oncology


Filippo Petti is CEO of Celyad Oncology tells Pharm Exec how the pandemic has affected his role as a US-based CEO to a Belgian company.

Filippo Petti is CEO of Celyad Oncology (Mont-Saint-Guibert, Belgium), a clinical-stage biotech focused on the discovery and development of CAR-T therapies. Here, he tells Pharm Exec how the pandemic affected his role as a US-based CEO to a Belgian company and what permanent changes it has brought to the way the company operates.

PharmExec: How have you balanced your time since the pandemic to reach both your global employees and US investors?

Filippo Petti: Before the pandemic, I was traveling approximately twice a month to Belgium to connect with my employees at our headquarters and hosting my team stateside for meetings in New York as well. Now, juggling the clock and making the most of every hour is crucial not only for me, but my colleagues who are working with a big time difference. My day starts early with European contacts and then I switch to my US investors/advisors later in the day to make sure I’m balancing both worlds.

Filippo Petti

Technology has always been a game changer for the industry, but being able to connect with my team face to face over video conference platforms instead of just on the phone for conference calls has made a world of difference during this time. I credit Zoom and other digital methods for making my team so successful during the transition to remote working. I’ve also found that video chatting has really enriched our weekly executive and monthly Board meetings. Typically, these meetings were hosted over a conference call, so seeing my team members’ faces and reactions on video adds a different layer of communication. I’ve noticed that people on these calls tend to feel less rushed too. They aren’t having to take the time to pack up and move to another room for meetings, so I’ve been able to use that focus to have really meaningful conversations that helps to offset not be able to connect with the team at the office.

On the other hand, it feels like we are spending too much time on our computers, which is probably an aspect that most people can relate to during this time. But especially as a CEO, having that face time and being able to connect at “the watercooler” is a challenge to balance. 

What are the biggest challenges you face as a CEO during the pandemic?

There are a few big challenges we were hit with during COVID-19, and some that are still ongoing hurdles. For example, navigating trial enrollment and having to push out some of our milestones due to trial site slowdown has been a continuous test. For a few weeks in March and April, recruiting patients was an almost non-existent activity. We’re lucky that enrollment rates have picked back up and we are staying cautiously optimistic as locations open, but in the back of our minds we do realize that another wave of the virus could hit anywhere right now. Another aspect that hit the industry is turning to virtual conferences and trying to get the best experience possible while virtually attending some of the largest scientific events in oncology. We’ve had to stay flexible to the different ways to get our presentations out in the open and connect with key stakeholders while not physically being able to just go up to someone at a conference to talk in more detail.

The plus side of virtual living is that we have been able to have better engagement with investors because we have more global access. As a CEO, I would suggest others try to meet with as many global entities as possible. Zoom made it possible for me to connect with stakeholders all around the world, including locations I had never visited before, without worrying about my travel schedule. I also might have been better prepared to be a virtual CEO since I typically work from home in the U.S. However, not seeing my team in almost six months has been difficult, including the fact that we have brought on some new hires who I’ve haven’t yet met in person.

Do you think COVID-19 will change the way your company operates? If so, in what ways?

COVID-19 has changed the way many companies operate, my company included. There is definitely a comfort in terms of high productivity while most of my colleagues are virtual. It makes us think about the future of the organization and maybe reconsidering the timing of opening a physical base in the US. It’s important for people to connect face to face, but is it something that needs to be done every single day?

I can also see COVID tests becoming more of the norm as companies try to transition back to in-office. Temperature checks at many companies are being used, but tests could also potentially become part of daily practice until there is a vaccine. Social distancing will be crucial in our offices along with making sure we are using only a certain percentage of capacity for facilities. We have implemented different team cycles and are perhaps exploring other creative ways to minimize risk while making sure we have the right safety precautions for transitioning teams. No matter what industry you are in, the health and safety of employees needs to be a top priority.

Biotech is a risky environment, which I think helped us prepare a bit more to go through these pandemic events. Every day is a challenge in drug discovery and development and that translated to real life when COVID-19 hit. I think if I wasn’t in biotech, I wouldn’t have been as prepared to take on all of these changes from COVID-19. This includes reviewing the budget to make sure we weren’t falling into any negative traps, looking at strategy on how we can dial activities up and down as needed and being able to turn on a dime if the situation calls for it.

Has COVID-19 affected the way you recruit new employees?

Our recruitment has slowed down a bit during this time, but the ability to speak to someone over video at all times has been a good positive. Before COVID-19, candidates sometimes wouldn’t get to speak to certain employees because the employees were off that day or in a meeting. Now, we can have multiple people speak to the candidates through quick video calls. Candidates also like that they don’t have to take a day off of work to physically come in, which is a plus for both sides as it saves a lot of time from having to sometimes reschedule candidates to come in more than once.

How important is having a solid support system during this time?

It’s incredibly valuable. There are always times where challenges may seem insurmountable at first but having reassurance from those most important to me has really been a steadying presence. I like to think of myself as a rock but there are always times I need to lean on others. It’s important to tap into friends, advisors and family to make sure you are really tapping into all of your resources and really thinking things through.

What advice do you have for employees and even CEOs in your current situation?

No matter what environment you are in, people want to be reassured. They want to feel connected and it is crucial for a CEO to recognize each person has their own story and is facing their own challenges. You have to make sure you understand your team’s position and how you can help them. When an employee is confident in their leadership team and feels that their CEO is empathetic towards them, it only allows for them to deliver their best. It’s important to connect on a company wide scale, but also provide an opportunity to have an open door policy so people can reach out individually. Not only that, but relying on your own support system to get through. It’s about the human factor. Remember, we are all going through this together.

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