Becoming Chess Players: Q&A with Subhanu Saxena

Industry TrendsLeadership StrategiesLeadershipDigital TransformationHealthcareSocial ImpactBoard and CEO Advisory
min Interview
Dana Krueger
April 27, 2020
7 min
Industry TrendsLeadership StrategiesLeadershipDigital TransformationHealthcareSocial ImpactBoard and CEO Advisory
Former Cipla CEO, Subhanu Saxena said that a crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us our great lessons.


View more of our Healthcare Leading Forward Podcast Series here.

Subhanu Saxena is the former CEO of the global pharmaceutical manufacturer Cipla, and currently serves as the Head of Life Science Partnerships, Europe for The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. He is also a Senior Advisor at Bain Capital, a Managing Partner at New Rhein Healthcare and an independent Board Member at Kiadis Pharma.

Recently, Subhanu spoke with Russell Reynolds Associates’ Managing Director and Global Healthcare Sector Leader, Dana Krueger, about the challenges and opportunities he sees for healthcare leaders resulting from the current pandemic.

The interview presented below has been edited and abridged for clarity.

Dana Krueger:

Today, we want to have a discussion with you, Subhanu, about leadership in the time of COVID-19 – specifically about your approach to leading your teams and developing their ability to lead as well. To set the stage, can you share a little bit about your current leadership roles and the challenges you see?

Subhanu Saxena:

I put my current roles in three buckets. First, it is an enormous privilege to work at The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and here I was originally responsible for industry collaboration. Last year, we gained new capability to fund product introductions. The idea is to help bring innovation to the market and build a team to support it.

Second, I think about my experience as an industry executive. In my previous role as the Managing Director and Global CEO of Cipla, the business model was to take existing molecules and bring them to patients to serve unmet needs, even without big innovation.

And, finally, in my Board roles, my goal is to develop executives, unify them around the organization’s purpose, and help them keep momentum.

It is in a crisis that we learn our greatest leadership lessons, and we are all “students” today. Thirty years of experience have prepared me for this time, but I am still learning as well.

Many years ago, a teacher told me that if you see an interesting book, buy it; it will help you later. The same is true with leadership experience – you will need it. It is more important than ever to reflect on difficult situations and understand how you came into them, what you learned from them, and how to come out of them stronger.

What specific leadership challenges have emerged from the COVID-19 crisis for you and/or those you are working with?

It is a brand-new virus for all of us, and the situation is slightly different each day. With the speed that this crisis has developed, you need to be agile and able to course-correct. Course-correcting is incredibly important, as no one has all the answers right now.

The ability to make decisions with imperfect information is really important, as well. You have to understand the best and worst cases and go from there.

One of the biggest challenges, though, is when leaders think they have all the facts and answers, but they actually don’t. To paraphrase my friend Thomas Ebeling (former CEO of Novartis Pharmaceuticals), you should speak to five people before making a big decision. That is in part because people tend to react to the last thing they learn. We all have our biases, but if you take the time up front to probe, ask questions, and really understand the scope of the issue, you will be able to go faster later.

Right now, the stakes are high, and there are big consequences for making the wrong decision.

Besides strategy, the main question for leaders these days is how to keep energy and momentum among employees. We deal with different types of personalities and each member of a team brings their own character and family situation. You have to have the ability to connect if you are going to succeed; that is the most important thing. Connecting and giving a grounding factor, or purpose, go hand in hand in this respect. So, I would summarize the challenges as a greater need for agility, resilience and scenario planning, as well as a clear purpose. We all are becoming chess players now.

Being one of the most purpose-driven leaders I know, I would be interested in hearing more about what that phrase – “purpose-driven leader” – means to you?

This is a time where purpose really matters. It’s not only “what” you’re doing but also “why” – and “why” is the purpose.

In corporate strategy, there is usually a lot of fluff. Now is the time to simplify your business model down to the fundamental business reason – the “why.” In some sectors, like healthcare, it is clearer than in others.

In musical terms, think of this as an “unplugged” way of doing business, like an “unplugged” concert. You’re taking out any unnecessary or artificial amplifications and creating a purer sound.

You have to be very thoughtful and, at the same time, action-oriented.

In the healthcare ecosystem, many organizations have pivoted their businesses and carved out the necessary resources to help solve the crisis. It has happened organically, both in the scientific community and in the provider world, in terms of how we’re treating patients, developing vaccines, and manufacturing safety equipment. They’ve gone from saving the business to saving the world. Coming out of this, do you see an opportunity to “re-set” the industry’s reputation?

Healthcare professionals are the heroes of today, and they should absolutely get our appreciation.

And yes, in other parts of the ecosystem, we have to continue to build relationships. The open platform that is allowing collaborations on COVID-19 solutions has created one of the largest R&D communities in human history (comparable with the human genome project). With this kind of collaboration, we are even closer to realizing that the whole world is one family.

Speaking of the future, how are you preparing for the post-COVID-19 reality?

I remember my old boss in Russia saying, in times of uncertainty, “All of your forecasts are precisely incorrect.” In 6 to 9 months, this lack of visibility will hit us. That is what we need to prepare our organizations for right now.

Thinking ahead, supply capability will be one of the most critical needs. We have to be five steps down the road on this front. We must plan for success, so that when vaccines are ready, say in around 9 months, we are ready. Again, we have to be chess players.

The other issue is how we help people adjust to the “new normal.” We’ll need to help connect them and remind them they are not alone, especially as we wait for more clarity on how to re-open society safely.

What kind of competencies do you look for in leaders at a time like this? What muscles do you need to have or be developing to be an effective leader in today’s crisis and, importantly, beyond?

The most important ones are agility, resilience, and compassion and the ability to plan for various scenarios, bring clarity to the fog, and articulate the “why” behind every “what.”

Great leaders never shy away from sharing the truth. In addition, they draw the roadmap for getting out of trouble. They empower others, especially rising leaders, to co-create the future.

The good news is that solving this crisis has become a unifying purpose, and leaders are rising to the occasion in exceptional ways. Post-crisis, I expect we will see very compelling leaders emerge and very strong companies as a result.

Thank you, Subhanu, for taking the time to share your perspectives and for being so inspirational.

It has been my pleasure to speak with you. As leaders we all need to embrace the learning journey we’re on in order to lead the way as best we can through this crisis and beyond.