Knowledge Center: Article
Route to the Top 2020: Interview with Jean-Christophe Tellier, CEO of UCB3/4/2021 Heidrick & Struggles
Jean-Christophe Tellier is the chief executive officer and chairman of the executive committee of UCB, a global biopharmaceutical company that develops treatments for neurological and immunological conditions. He joined UCB in 2011 as executive vice president leading the BioBrands and Solutions division. Tellier was trained as a medical doctor and specialized in rheumatology. He has built a distinguished 30-plus-year career in the biopharmaceutical industry, taking on global leadership responsibilities in different parts of the world for companies such as Ipsen, Macrogenics, and Novartis.
Heidrick & Struggles: How do you think the role of the CEO will evolve over the next three to five years?
Jean-Christophe Tellier: Thinking about the main evolution of our sector (aside from the impact of the pandemic), there are three or four trends that I see when it comes to the evolution of the CEO role, risk management, and emerging trends. Regarding risk management, I think we were underestimating the extent to which we’ve had to integrate it into many areas of our business model, particularly when it comes to low-probability, high-impact events such as the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s impossible to prepare for everything, but you need to have scenario-planning processes in place and a better way to anticipate the consequences of the decisions you have to make in an increasingly volatile environment. What the pandemic has shown us in this area is that the parts of our organization that have been more tuned in to these emerging trends managed the disruption much better than the ones that were not.
The second element is the link to emerging trends like digitization. Take digitization: one area where we are not digitally connected is our supply chain—particularly physicians, who were very reluctant to any type of virtual consultation. When the pandemic started, in three weeks, everyone was set up online and this helped with customer experience because patients often need to take time off from work for what ends up being a 15-minute consultation where they cannot even ask all the questions they have.
The third is adaptability, the ability to create a culture that can move quickly. In our sector, we had good practices and functions and had built everything in extraordinarily specialized silos that were not able to communicate among each other. Organizations need to have the ability to evolve organically as they explore, test, and discover new things. CEOs will then need to move from a traditional command and control leadership type to a servant style of leadership where they bring together people who might not have worked together otherwise in order to create outcomes that are needed for the company.
The final element refers to purpose, as companies need to get a true north and then define a space to focus on first, because you cannot change everything at once. So, you need to be even more disciplined and rigorous with regard to your sense of purpose, your values, your ability to put talent together, and to create engagement around purpose. When the crisis came, we felt we aligned our actions to our purpose and changed some of our labs to provide diagnostics to the government, which created a real sense of engagement within the company. They are all connected.
Heidrick & Struggles: How important do you think same-sector experience is for a CEO in pharma?
Jean-Christophe Tellier: I think there are very good CEOs who are not coming from the sector and who have done very well in pharma. And you have physicians who have done really badly in pharma. I always have seen my medical background as a cultural element. When I talk about patient value, I know what it means. When a non-physician talks about it—sometimes even a physician—it takes time for them to understand what you need. [Same-sector experience] gives you an ability to understand faster what the science means and it gives you a kind of a cultural background and platform on which you can build. But it’s not more than that. What I would say is that it is important to have people in leadership roles coming from other sectors to provide a sense of perspective and bigger picture, because experts can often have a narrower depth of field, though you can only do that in less-technical roles. But pharma still has to work on becoming a more inclusive environment for people coming from outside its boundaries.
Heidrick & Struggles: What do you think the impact of COVID-19 will be on your sector and the role of the CEO?
Jean-Christophe Tellier: COVID-19 has created, for all stakeholders, an increased ability to talk to each other. Instead of each trying to convince the other, it's really about creating a dialogue and working together to try to find a solution that is good for everyone. We all have different responsibilities but ultimately, we all share the aim of ensuring better healthcare for humanity.
Heidrick & Struggles: And what skill sets do you think future CEOs will require?
Jean-Christophe Tellier: I think a CEO needs to be able to go from and altitude of ten thousand feet down to a high level of granularity to understand what's going on, both internally and externally, and continuously connect the dots. CEOs will need the ability to really step back, reflect, and understand these peak trends and translate them into what it means for their business, as CEOs have always done. But the more we are moving into a new level of uncertainty, the more this is really important. Having curiosity is important, it means you still have to learn something and create new space, new opportunities. Articulating a vision is an important component of leadership, as are having purpose and a certain consistency and alignment. I have always said that I will only do the work if I'm sufficiently clear on the purpose and if I am able to align the talent, values, passions, and energy of each of the people I work with.
Another important capability is what I call social wellness: the confidence to express what you don’t know or respond to some questions with “no” or “I don’t know,” and an understanding of the impact you have on others, the consequences of what you are doing, and the ways what you can say might be understood. I was surprised on a couple of occasions early on in my CEO role when I would make a casual remark about something and following week there was a task force addressing that very issue. In this context, it’s critical you understand your blind spots, your biases, and that people will not always say what they think to you.
Heidrick & Struggles: You talked about purpose before. Has that continued to shift?
Jean-Christophe Tellier: I feel that purpose, society, and sustainability are becoming more and more important. In a crisis like COVID-19, purpose guides your actions—it helps you see what is ultimately important. The alignment of purpose and values and the solidity of our value propositions provide us with the confidence that the world can completely change and in the long term we will still be successful. For example, I thought that patient value was sufficient, but actually it wasn’t. So, we took some time to be more precise and explored what it meant for different patients and came up with three things: different outcomes, best patient experience, and access. Then, you evaluate everything you do, for instance, you look at your pipeline and ask, “What does it mean for a unique outcome? What does it mean in terms of patient experience or in terms of access?” And that is the real purpose, which you have to connect to what you are doing within the organization. It’s an incredible amount of complex work that needs to be done to align incentives, resource allocations, decisions, and stakeholders’ expectations with your purpose.
Heidrick & Struggles: How do you integrate diversity and inclusion in your organization as a CEO?
Jean-Christophe Tellier: Both our sustainability and D&I efforts are built on two platforms: one is ethics and compliance, and the other is diversity, equity, and inclusion. You cannot be completely honest or authentic with your D&I agenda internally if you are not curious about its external impact. For example, how comfortable are we that 90 percent of the patients recruited in clinical trials are from certain countries and ethnicities that are not represented by your consumer base? The Black Lives Matter movement should have a huge impact on pharma corporations. We have to make sure that the Black community is represented not only in our leadership, but also in clinical trials. The recent lack of representation has been driven by financial considerations—the cost and speed benefits of Easter European bases are considerable. It goes back to company's purpose beyond the bottom line.
Heidrick & Struggles: What is on your sustainability agenda?
Jean-Christophe Tellier: Companies need to put more thought into sustainability, into the way we build it internally and how we express that externally. We have a lot of work to do to change the negative perception we have externally (as overtly focused on profit) and we have to communicate more consistently what we do well for our society. We are building an external advisory board for sustainability and I am currently meeting with a lot of wonderful people who have both expertise and enthusiasm for the topic.
To gain more insights on today’s CEO, see the full Route to the Top 2020 report.