Global Proof of Concept: Q&A with Paul Hudson

Sustainable LeadershipLeadershipHealthcareBoard and CEO Advisory
min Interview
September 03, 2020
12 min
Sustainable LeadershipLeadershipHealthcareBoard and CEO Advisory
Executive summary
Sanofi CEO Paul Hudson shared how the pandemic reinvigorated his sense of purpose on how his business can positively impact a person’s life.


Paul Hudson is the Chief Executive Officer at Sanofi, a global biopharmaceutical company that provides vaccines and medicines to patients in more than 170 countries around the globe.

Paul joined Sanofi in September 2019, having previously been the Chief Executive Officer at Novartis Pharmaceuticals. Prior to Novartis, he worked at AstraZeneca, where he was most recently President, AstraZeneca United States and Executive Vice President, North America. Paul has an expansive international career in healthcare that spans the United States, Japan and Europe.

Recently, Paul spoke with Dana Krueger, Managing Director and Global Healthcare Sector Leader, and Olivier Blin, Managing Director and Senior Consultant in Healthcare France at Russell Reynolds Associates. He shared how the pandemic has reinvigorated purpose and pace within his organization, and how he plans to maintain these positive effects in the future.


View more of our Healthcare Leading Forward Podcast Series here.

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

Dana Krueger: Paul, thank you so much for being with us today. We are keen to get your insights on the topic of sustainability as a leadership imperative. Could you kick us off by commenting on how you are thinking and talking about Sanofi's purpose, particularly given what is going on in the world around us today?

Paul Hudson:  We are very lucky to be in such a noble industry, with such a direct purpose and impact on patients’ lives – transforming, saving, protecting lives every day. Even on tough days, we are bringing some good to somebody, somewhere. With COVID-19, things have been even more accentuated. We have perhaps never been closer to our purpose than we are right now, today.

I joined Sanofi last September, and I was thrilled to be part of this team because we are living our purpose every single day. It is not just our presence in vaccines, but also providing the essential medicines to patients every day. Our people demonstrate this in so many ways, they are trying to do great things for people every single day.

Dana Krueger:  Zeroing in on you as a CEO, over the course of your first year, how are you anchoring purpose in what you do as the CEO of Sanofi in the day-to-day?

Paul Hudson:  Most of my time, particularly in the first part of my tenure, was about making sure our strategy was clear internally and externally. We needed to reconnect with our commitment to transformational science that could change lives or create miracles. We spent a lot of time on that through the back end of last year, making sure that it was clear to everybody, so that we were moving resources to projects where we saw an unmet need that nobody else was going to try and tackle, and that we thought we could do really well.

A large part of our company, Sanofi Pasteur, is focused on vaccines. With COVID-19, we very quickly felt the desire to jump in, even knowing the risks, to try and pull forward vaccine development. It normally takes about ten years to develop a vaccine, and now there is a large group of companies trying to develop one in less than a year.

My job in the company at this point is to get all the obstacles out of the way, even to get myself out of the way, because people need to run as fast as they possibly can, unconstrained. They need to have resources, to have the wind on their back. We need to cheerlead them in their efforts and work with regulators and government bodies to make sure we can bring vaccines through even faster. It has been a pleasure, because what may have been a meeting room with 15 people became a Zoom call with three or four people who are absolutely essential decision makers, who accept full accountability. We had this shared compass bearing: Let us do what we can to protect lives as fast as we can.

My job going forward will be focused on ensuring we maintain that enthusiasm, that single-mindedness to change, transform and save lives. How do we do that when things are back to, or close to, a new normal? It will be even more important at that time for leadership to make sure that happens.

Dana Krueger:  What is the secret formula? How do you make sure this is sustainable; what are you going to keep?

Paul Hudson:  That is something we ask ourselves all the time. We started very early back in March talking about restart, because we noticed that we started to move faster remotely – meeting sizes got a bit smaller, accountability went up, work flexibility increased, authenticity and trust increased. Together, this meant that people would jump off Zoom and take the actions that they needed; less follow up has been required. At the same time, we stripped the jobs back to their essentials to make sure that we could focus on what is important.

We have to recognize that we have just had the first global proof of concept that flexible working is actually an accelerant, depending on what you are doing. How do we keep the good pieces of that, how do we respect the environment by traveling less, and how do we still overdeliver on our commitment to patients and the people in the company?

The secret sauce is honesty: making sure that everybody feels they can express themselves and be the best version of themselves. When you are on a Zoom call and somebody's dog jumps on the desk, or a child needs some attention from a parent, it is very leveling. When I have been at home competing for Wi-Fi with my three teenagers, it is humbling to a point where people stop thinking of hierarchy and start thinking about having an impact. I have to say I much prefer that, and I think we will work hard to maintain it.

Dana Krueger:  Let us pivot to your team and its members, because you have been very open about how impressed you are with their responses to a crisis environment. I am interested in hearing your reflections on the leadership qualities or competencies that you are really focusing on, in continuing to develop your team for success in the future, for this purpose-led leadership that we are talking about.

Paul Hudson:  Sanofi has not had the traditional evolution; it was created through more than 300 acquisitions over three decades. While it has grown in scale, it has perhaps not spent enough time on the central maturity in terms of navigating strategy, aligning results deployment, and delivering on purpose. We started as a leadership team looking at strategy: what we wanted to achieve and what structure would support this strategy. Then we looked at what the critical roles would be and the people needed to lead in that structure. And then, of course, what is the culture that binds all of that? What we found through COVID-19 has been that culture formation is accelerated when you have a single purpose.

I think almost everybody joined the industry to do good. I certainly did. What we have tried to do as leaders is to remind people of the great things that we are doing as a company. Now, it is a little bit easier for us in some respects because of the high-profile nature of vaccines, but it is also extremely important that the public recognizes that we have 20,000 people going to work every day to make sure our medicines get to patients. Even when there was confinement in most countries, we had 97 percent of our people showing up at our manufacturing sites. We had executive assistants retraining to work on manufacturing lines. We had people wanting to work weekends, because they knew if they did not, a drug for diabetes or cardiovascular disease or other illnesses would not get to the patients.

As leaders, we have been trying to demonstrate that healthcare is single-minded and purposeful. At Sanofi, we want to emulate this notion; we play a big role because of the medicines we have developed for chronic illnesses, the medicines we have been testing to treat COVID-19, and, of course, our work with vaccines. We have tried to make sure that we are never too far from our purpose. In large organizations, as they grow and scale, it is normal to drift a little, away from the original purpose and intentions. Now, we have been able to talk about it every day, and it has been a pleasure.

Dana Krueger:  As one of the world's largest and most influential pharma companies playing in the vaccines area, Sanofi may, as you say, have a larger role to play than others in helping us get through this and solving the issue. I also think that you have an important role to play in advancing and enhancing the overall purpose of the industry, beyond the borders of Sanofi itself or the medicines that you are bringing to patients. Can you comment on how you are thinking about that, or your vision for how Sanofi may impact the larger agenda?

Paul Hudson:  Right upfront, you are seeing the industry collaborate on a historical level. The word unprecedented is overused, but you are seeing a shared agenda that is without bias to company or resource. For us, for example, we signed a partnership agreement with GSK on vaccines in twelve days, which you simply do not see. It can take up to a year to create these products, and on any given day GSK and its vaccines are competitors of ours. But, the global need is greater than either company, so coming together was a huge step and I congratulate Emma Walmsley and GSK for being open-minded about establishing this partnership to achieve that agenda.

Likewise, I was recently on a panel with Joaquin Duato, Vice Chair of Johnson & Johnson’s Executive Committee, and Albert Bourla, Chair and CEO of Pfizer, talking about how we are going to work with WHO and other institutions to make sure vaccines will be available worldwide, not just in developed markets, not just in the US. I have been campaigning about equal distribution of vaccines since the beginning of the pandemic, sometimes at some personal expense, but continuously campaigning for it nonetheless. It is absolutely essential that the industry operates as one to ensure our people are safe, to get economies back moving again, and to protect more people. There are quite a few CEOs who are stepping up and playing their part – this collaboration has been unique and something that I have never seen before.

All of this has been in response to COVID-19. But something else has happened, a realization that is long overdue and perhaps none of us fully recognized. From a diversity and inclusion perspective, we have come out the back of a health pandemic – with more work to do, of course – and we have gone into a social pandemic of race and inequality, which has always existed.

People who have worked very hard to recognize equality through gender, sexual orientation, and ethnicity may still inadvertently underestimate the challenges. I have been a champion throughout my whole career, and I, too, have also underestimated these challenges. I have spent time talking to many of our people, particularly our Black leaders, and have asked them to share with me their day-to-day interactions. I have been focused on developing our Black leaders and making sure that we have inclusive candidate slates and diverse interview panels – but this is simply not enough.

I am intentionally trying to understand the issue through multiple perspectives – as a CEO, with my peers, as an influential organization across the pharma landscape, and most importantly, as a leader here at Sanofi. The word ‘ally-ship’, which is quite new to me, is different than mentorship and sponsorship. It is a word that I hope to achieve, which is to be an ally for those who feel that their struggle is not fully appreciated and known. While I can never fully comprehend it, I can at least try to make sure that I understand the reality of it and do something about it, because enough is enough. And there is so much work to do. I am proud of our Black leaders who have been very clear with me about their expectations. We need to do more to make sure that our society is better represented in our workforces and in patient populations in our clinical studies, so that ultimately we run companies that are reflective of society and unmet needs. This will be a very important goal and mission for me, for the rest of my tenure, and hopefully beyond.

Dana Krueger:  Thank you for bringing that up, Paul. We started this conversation around sustainable leadership with a focus on purpose, but we all know that the diversity and inclusion element is a key pillar within sustainable leadership. It is certainly impressive to hear how you are thinking about it and how it comes into your overall agenda.

I want to thank you for everything that you have shared with us today, and for all you are doing for Sanofi and beyond.

Paul Hudson:  Dana and Olivier, thank you very much. It is my great pleasure to talk to you. I think the responsibility on leaders and leadership has never been higher than it is now. The next generation of leaders will be and will have to be different from those that have gone before – to create diverse and inclusive environments, to focus organizations on being purpose-driven, to celebrate successes, to invent miracles, and to establish cultures where people can be the very best version of themselves. I will play my part, and I hope you and your teams around the world shape the next generation, so that we can have companies more reflective of the society we live in. Thank you in advance.

Dana Krueger:  We accept the challenge. Thank you, Paul.