Innovation and legal leadership in biopharma: An interview with Amgen’s Jonathan Graham

Innovation and legal leadership in biopharma: An interview with Amgen’s Jonathan Graham

Jonathan Graham, the general counsel of Amgen, a leading biopharmaceutical company, discusses building thriving organizations while navigating political complexity.
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In this episode of the Heidrick & Struggles Leadership Podcast, Heidrick & Struggles’ David Burd speaks to Jonathan Graham, the executive vice president, general counsel, and secretary of Amgen, a leading biopharmaceutical company. Graham discusses the challenges facing the biopharmaceutical industry, including political and legislative threats, and the need to focus on patients and innovation. He highlights the importance of culture in building a thriving organization, particularly in the post-pandemic environment. Graham also shares insights on attracting and retaining talent in the industry, emphasizing the value of these roles beyond compensation, including working at the cutting edge of law and science and being part of a team that cares about the mission of the company. Finally, he offers advice for those seeking a successful career in the industry, stressing the importance of curiosity and people skills, in addition to legal competencies.

Below is a full transcript of the episode, which has been edited for clarity.

Welcome to the Heidrick & Struggles Leadership Podcast. Heidrick is the premier global provider of senior-level executive search and leadership consulting services. Diversity and inclusion, leading through tumultuous times, and building thriving teams and organizations are among the core issues we talk with leaders about every day, including in our podcasts. Thank you for joining the conversation.

David Burd: Welcome to the Heidrick & Struggles Leadership podcast and part of a series of conversations we're conducting this year focused on the intersection of healthcare and legal leadership. We're interviewing general counsel and chief legal officers at top healthcare services and life sciences companies, exploring trends in the space, and hearing their thoughts on the talent and leadership needed to be successful.

I'm David Burd, a partner in Heidrick & Struggles’ Washington, D.C., office, and a member of the Legal Risk Compliance and Government Affairs practice. In today's podcast, I'm joined by Jonathan Graham, the executive vice president, general counsel, and secretary of Amgen, a leading global biopharmaceutical company. 

Jon has had a distinguished career. He was trained as a litigator and served as a partner at the top law firm of Williams & Connolly. He's now been in-house for nearly two decades: first at GE, then as a two-time public company General Counsel, of Danaher, and now Amgen. Jon, thanks so much for joining us today. 

Jonathan Graham: Glad to be here. 

David Burd: I'd love to start off talking about the industry a bit and how you view it as a legal leader. As a General Counsel of a pretty significant life sciences company, what keeps you up at night? What are the issues that are top of mind? And, from a talent perspective, what are the skills you think are needed to address some of these challenges? 

Jonathan Graham: Sure. Let me start with what the big challenges are in our industry as a whole. 

You know, what do we focus on in our industry? It's on patients. It's on getting medicines to patients that need them, saving their lives, making their lives better, or keeping them healthy. That's something that a lot of people are very interested in, and so there's an enormous amount of energy around that. 

Anything that threatens the viability of our industry is something that keeps me and my colleagues at other companies up at night. I think one of the things that people maybe don't realize is that if you are at a company like ours, you get a lot of letters from patients thanking you for saving the life of their husband, for making it possible for their daughter to go to school, for really just being very helpful and impactful in people's lives.

We at Amgen—as well as colleagues at many of our industry peers—are really at the forefront of technologies that drive the ability to invent medicines. We're inventing medicines that, yes, they're available hopefully for those of us who are around now, but we’re also thinking about it in a very long-term way. We have molecules now in our laboratories that we’re making decisions on, and we’re talking about what will happen in 2040, and what’ll happen in 2045. That means we’re talking about our children’s lives, our grandchildren’s lives. And so, it’s pretty important to us that the ecosystem that makes it possible for us to develop those medicines is a healthy one.

One of the things that keeps me concerned is the political environment in the United States. We’ve seen some recent legislative action, the IRA or Inflation Reduction Act, which frankly I call the Innovation Reduction Act because I think it threatens that ecosystem. It makes it less likely that capital will come into our industry and makes all sorts of unfortunate decisions that will likely have an effect on the lives of patients, both today and far into the future.

One of the things that I’m focused on is minimizing the long-term damage of that type of legislation and trying to make sure that our company continues to be successful, both now and in the future. So, I have to be focused in Washington, on what’s going on there, and I have to be focused on what happens within our company and the decisions that we make in light of that sort of legislation. That’s one sort of thing that I pay a lot of attention to.

Another thing is culture. Culture is a big word and it’s used in a lot of different ways, but for me, as a leader of a legal organization within a company, it’s about making sure that we have the kind of place people want to come to work—that they are engaged, they’re happy, etc. In this post-pandemic or peri-pandemic environment, that’s really changed the way we all work. At our company, almost all of our lawyers are now virtual–certainly for the time being, and we intend for it to stay that way. 

So, how do you keep building and sustaining what’s been a really incredible culture that’s made people stay at Amgen for a long time when we don’t see each other every day? What are the things that I am responsible for and that I have to impress upon the people that work with me? That we are responsible for, in terms of building and keeping that culture that has made people so happy to be working at Amgen for a long time, now in a virtual environment?

David Burd: Thank you. It’s interesting, I think that perspective about the political environment is not one that we often talk about, so I appreciate you raising it. One of the things that you didn’t mention that I wanted to get your thoughts on is the state of the markets. As you know, it’s been pretty difficult, especially for smaller biotechs and life sciences companies to raise money over the last number of months. Just curious how that impacts—if it impacts—a company like yours and the relationship between companies like yours and smaller players. 

Jonathan Graham: You know, markets go up and markets go down, and when you’ve been in any industry for any length of time, you have to recognize that the path forward is not always a line going up to the right corner quadrants all the time. There are cycles and certainly, we’re in a cycle of market declines. 

That cycle recently has hit biopharma and biotech pretty hard. In terms of changing the relationships between larger biopharma companies like ours, which are quite well capitalized and clearly have a long runway, and smaller companies, is that—and it takes a little while for the message the market is sending to sink in—but what it means is that there’s going to be less capital for smaller companies and fewer people willing to take the risk. 

By the way, I think the Inflation Reduction Act has had an impact there as well. I think there’s going to be less capital going into smaller biotechs. So, for example, one thing that everyone recognizes is that smaller biotechs have fabulous innovation engines in many cases but are not able to bring those medicines to a larger population unless they team up in a collaboration or they agree to be acquired by a company like ours. That’s how you get the medicines to people globally. You just can’t do it as a small biotech in Kendall Square in Boston. 

But the question is always: what’s the value of a collaboration? What is the value of an acquisition? And it takes a little time for people’s expectations to reset in that regard. I think we’re sort of in the middle of that reset right now, and we will see how it plays out. This is really a question about valuation and recognizing the reality of the marketplace area at any one time.

David Burd: Just to bring some of those together: you mentioned some of the political challenges, some of the economic challenges, some of the culture challenges. That said, it’s still, I think, a remarkable time to be in life sciences. It’s a time of great innovation. What do you think is driving some of that innovation? What are some of the other tailwinds that, as we continue through 2023, we’re seeing as an industry?

Jonathan Graham: I think there are two massive tailwinds for our industry. Part of the reason it’s just so exciting to be in biopharma is that it’s an incredible time, for two reasons: one is technology, and one is demographics. 

Look what’s just happened just in the last few weeks: there’s been a lot of brouhaha about ChatGPT and the new Bing AI. Well, that’s just the beginning. We’ve had our own developments in biopharma in the last year or so with these new AI technologies for protein folding, figuring out how molecules can interact with proteins in the body more effectively. This is an incredibly exciting time to be part of that technology. It’s an interplay between biopharma and Silicon Valley big-tech AI techniques. It’s going to make it possible to invent new medicines faster, more efficiently, and more cheaply. Anytime an industry becomes more productive, that’s a tailwind. 

The other big tailwind is demography. The world is getting older, More people around the world are getting older, and older people need more medicine. That’s just a basic fact of life. And, people around the world are getting richer. The number of people that have entered the middle class (what would be defined as the middle class globally) has increased by hundreds of millions of people just in the last 10 to 15 years. 

People in those societies are going to demand access to the best medicines. They’re going to want to have healthier, longer lives, just like people do in the most industrialized nations. And so, that’s a tailwind that makes it exciting. People want what we make and we want to be able to make it faster because it’s an urgent problem to solve people’s health. 

David Burd: Thank you. Building on that theme of innovation, I know Amgen was awarded the Prix Galien for the invention of Lumakras last year. Your TikTok channel was launched, and it was named one of the year’s Best Innovations by PM360. When you take a look, end to end, how do you think about influencing and fostering that culture of innovation at the company?

Jonathan Graham: Well, let me just start with those awards. What’s great about those awards is that they reflect innovation in two very different areas of endeavor at our company. The Prix Galien celebrated our scientists’ invention of a cutting-edge medicine called Lumakras that solved a problem that had been extremely challenging, a problem known for over 40 years in the design of a molecule. Now, that molecule is a medicine that’s available for a certain group of people that have non-small cell lung cancer, a devastating disease. So, we’re incredibly proud of our R&D organization in the many years put into solving that problem. 

The PM360 prize is a prize for using a new social media technology, TikTok. What our corporate affairs team recognized is that a younger generation of people is turning to different social media channels. We wanted to be out there, in terms of how we brand our company, to make sure that people know about what we’re doing—and maybe they want to come join us, the people that are most qualified to do so. 

Those are two different kinds of innovation. And so, what is the role of a legal team at a company like ours in sponsoring innovation? I think it’s really a mindset—it’s a mindset around the urgency for our patients to get things done. Getting a new medicine to market requires not just the R&D professionals, not just the operations professionals, not just great people in the field, medical professionals, but it requires a bunch of legal tasks to be done that are really important.

And so, you have to have people to understand the science to put patents in place. They have to understand the people to understand how to do clinical trials around the world and put the appropriate collaborations and contracts in. You have to have lawyers who really understand and work well with the compliance team to make sure that everything is done in what is, of course, a highly regulated industry. That set of skills also applies when it comes to what we do in the corporate affairs team externally because again, we have to be compliant with a wide variety of regulations—which, by the way, are quite different around the world.

So, it takes a wide-ranging team of people: people that work together, that like each other (hopefully!), and who work well with everyone from scientists to marketing specialists in order to get the message out, get things done, and get those medicines to patients as quickly as possible. 

David Burd: I want to tie in a couple of things you talked about now around talent and around culture and around mindset. Heidrick & Struggles released a survey report called “Balancing Disruption, Stability in Healthcare and Life Sciences,” which indicates that many executives are now returning their companies for growth, but only 52% of those executives say their companies currently attract and retain the best talent. 

I’ve been in this space a bit, and my sense is that Amgen does a pretty good job of finding and retaining great people. I would love to get your thoughts on what you all have done and continue to do to address some of the culture challenges we’re seeing with the pandemic, but also to continue to build that mindset and that approach of urgency that you just described. 

Jonathan Graham: Sure—but, if you’ll allow me to be a little bit flip, as a matter of statistics and a matter of math, I would be surprised that 50% of companies didn’t have the best talent if you define the best talent at the top 50% of people in a particular industry. So I would just make that observation about that survey. 

But, joking aside, we’re really proud of what we have at Amgen. We have some of the lowest industry attrition rates as a company as a whole, and our attrition rates within our legal team are also really low. So why is that? It’s really important to me (to go back to the culture piece) that we keep that.

In terms of attracting people, it’s explaining to people the “value proposition.” When people talk about attracting people, the conversation is largely around compensation. To me, compensation is pretty important; but, when you think about it, compensation is pretty much the same for the same roles of companies in the industry.

What’s really important is explaining to people why you would want to work here instead of one of our competitors. That’s one of my jobs, and that’s one of the jobs of the people on my legal team who are recruiting people: explaining why you would want to work at a cutting-edge company in an extremely exciting industry, with a legal team that is working at the very forefront of a number of problems. 

It’s a well-known aphorism that the law follows technology by a certain number of years—often 10 to 15 years. And so, we get to explain to people (and I think the record shows and court cases show and the science shows) that, when you’re at Amgen, you are almost certainly going to be one of the first lawyers working on a number of legal problems. That’s fun—that’s exciting. 

I’ve talked a lot about patients in our discussion here, and one of the things that I think is very attractive to the kind of lawyers that we want is that we are focused on patients as a company. That was something I was very interested in when I decided to come to Amgen: the mission of the company. And so, emphasizing that mission—showing people that it’s real—is part of recruiting. It’s about showing that that value proposition is about culture as much as it is about compensation. 

What about keeping and retaining your talent and having low attrition rates? Well, it’s putting your money where your mouth is. It’s showing people that you did get what we said you were going to get when we were recruiting. You are working at the cutting edge of law and science. You are working with people that care about the larger mission of the company, and you are highly valued at the company. 

There are many companies where the legal team is not viewed as a value contributor. Amgen is not one of those companies. The legal team is highly respected throughout the C-suite, and that’s because I think we do some pretty important stuff and we get some good results. People recognize that in this industry, lawyers play a very important role in the success of the company. 

David Burd: Well, thank you—and Jon, I have to say, if ultimately you decide that life sciences isn’t the place you want to continue, come over to Heidrick & Struggles. I think you tell a great story and do a great job of describing what’s most important to you and what’s most important to your people. That was compelling. 

To close out: having worked in the space a while, many folks that are life science lawyers start that way and continue in that throughout their careers. You’ve had a really successful career in this field, and you actually haven’t been a lifelong life science attorney. Any suggestions for folks that want to have a successful career, whether it’s Amgen or elsewhere, about the kinds of things that they should do to advance and be successful in this world? 

Jonathan Graham: Sure. I will say yes to your question: I think there’s sometimes an over-emphasis at the C-suite in many companies on finding a lawyer that really understands that particular industry. At least, as my own career would demonstrate, I think you can be the general counsel of different kinds of companies if you have certain characteristics. Certainly when I came to Amgen, man, it was a fire hose of information; one of the things I love about working here, now almost eight years in, is that I’m still learning new stuff every day.

But, I think one of the things that have made me successful is I’ve always just been a really curious person about a wide variety of things: I read extensively, I’ve always been interested in science and curious about science and about politics and literature, and just a wide variety of things. I’m—I think the phrase now is “a lifelong learner”—I am always interested in new things and what’s going on. 

I think that desire to want to learn about different things is as important as the skillset. Now sure, if you’re a life sciences lawyer, you have a leg up on me; but, if you actually want to be a general counsel, you have to be curious about a lot of other things outside of your industry. You have to be good at problem-solving, you have to be a highly competent lawyer—those are sort of the basics. 

But I would say the other thing, in addition to curiosity, is what is referred to as people skills or E.Q. That is at least as important as legal competencies if you want to be a leader and a good general counsel. Don’t neglect what you are hearing and observing about how other people react to you.

Treat everyone—from the person who cleaned up in your office, all the way to your CEO and members of the board—as the great people they are. Don’t neglect that side of your development as a person in how you interact with and observe and think about other people. 

David Burd: Well said. Jon, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us today. It was a pleasure as always. 

Jonathan Graham: David. It was great to talk to you and I hope we get to talk again soon.

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About the interviewer

David Burd ( is a partner in Heidrick & Struggles’ Washington, D.C., office and a member of the Legal, Risk, Compliance, & Government Affairs Practice.

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