Connecting to purpose: Q&A with Sanjay Prabhakaran

Leadership StrategiesLeadershipHealthcareHuman Resources OfficersBoard EffectivenessTeam Effectiveness
min Interview
June 08, 2020
10 min
Leadership StrategiesLeadershipHealthcareHuman Resources OfficersBoard EffectivenessTeam Effectiveness
Healthcare Leading Forward Podcast Series:
On and Beyond the Frontlines of Covid-19


Sanjay Prabhakaran is the Regional President of Asia Pacific for Hologic Inc., a global diagnostics and medical imaging solutions company. Sanjay is also a member of the Board of Directors for APACMed, which fosters collaboration among medical technology and diagnostic companies across the region.

Recently, Sanjay spoke with Dana Krueger, Managing Director and Global Healthcare Sector Leader, and Anupama Puranik, Managing Director and Senior Consultant in Healthcare Asia Pacific at Russell Reynolds Associates. Sanjay shared how the company leveraged its existing resources and expertise to rapidly develop new automated testing for COVID-19.


Anupama Puranik: Hologic has recently launched a new diagnostic kit for COVID-19. What has the journey has been like for you and your team in the region for the last couple of months, during this pandemic?

Sanjay Prabhakaran: This is a challenging situation; it's adversity that none of us would want to encounter. But when you're faced with adversity, you have to figure out what can be done. And we're very fortunate that as a company, we have the ability to create solutions to this problem.

We are a diagnostic company with significant experience in the molecular diagnostics space, with a focus on women's health assays. As the COVID-19 situation developed across the globe, our scientists and engineering groups were all able to rally together and harness the power of the organization to come out with the solution that is helping us now bring more testing kit capacity and capabilities to the global audience.

One of the strengths is our Panther system, which automates testing, and already has a large global footprint. Many other current tests are manual or semi-automated, versus fully automated which reduces the need for manual intervention. The swab collection is relatively easy and the first results are available within three hours. It's a throughput that is running quick enough to get close to a thousand tests done a day.

Our goal as a company would be to see how quickly we can test and diagnose those who are positive on COVID-19, and see how we can get the patients to a point where they can get the right treatment, and get this world back to normalcy. Because this is really the biggest challenge that we are all faced with as we are awaiting a vaccine; knowing that's going to take some time. The best we can all do is to increase the diagnostic testing capability in all our countries.

Dana Krueger: Sanjay, tell us a little bit more about this harnessing the power of the organization. We're hearing from leaders across the healthcare ecosystem that there has been a real answer to the call to arms in many different ways, and that has come together more quickly than anyone expected. Help us peek into Hologic and what it has meant there.

Sanjay Prabhakaran: To start, we had the technical expertise in this space. It would be very difficult for somebody who's not had any molecular experience to just jump in straight and develop an assay. When the COVID-19 situation arose around the region, we found that we already had the basic ingredients within our organization. Pulling together a group of people, it was pretty quick under our diagnostic division leader Kevin Thornal, with oversight from the CEO and the executive committee, were able to secure the resources needed to make it happen.

We found that a lot of people were surprised to see a mid-sized organization like ours come in with such speed and agility and develop not just one, but now two assays. This speaks to the ability to bring people together and make it work; and then ramping up the capacity for supply across the globe. It has not been anything less than a challenging task, but at the same time, it is really about turning adversity into opportunity. 

Dana Krueger:  And from a leadership perspective, you mentioned that the CEO and the business head had worked rapidly to provide the resources necessary to make this all happen. Did you see them, or did you yourself change your leadership approach in any way to help make this happen?

Sanjay Prabhakaran: From an execution standpoint, once we had the capability built within the organization, it was really about ‘How can we execute this with multiple stakeholders across the entire geography?’ We had to prioritize, because we didn't have the significant number of engineers out there for the number of capital installations we would need, or the application support we would need. So, we had to ramp up all those capabilities. We also had to think about how to do this in a time where travel is restricted, to make sure that we can utilize all the resources but use non-conventional means instead of getting on a plane. Pretty much operating from across multiple corners of the globe, we were able to bring our resources together to get our customers up and running.

A lot of it, I think, goes back to the purpose with which all our employees operate and the purpose of the company. That's something we speak about whether it's in good times or bad times. We are in the diagnostic space – so, our goal as a company is to detect breast cancer, cervical cancer earlier so that women can have better treatment options and hopefully increase the survival rates. So that's the overall motive and the passion with which every employee comes to work, the purpose that resides up front. 

Anupama Puranik: We saw this virus in Asia first. How has that changed the way you've gotten your teams to work on this, give feedback to the rest of the organization? And going through this process, what kind of skills have emerged as necessary for what we might be facing as a ‘new normal’ going forward?

Sanjay Prabhakaran: Having been in the region since 2003, I had some muscle memory from SARS, even though that was much more limited than this. We started to see the early indicators from our China organization before the Chinese New Year. We have an early warning indicator system where we track our top accounts and so we were able to pretty much quickly see the volume drops that were happening in the hospitals. Fewer people were going in, which meant less testing happening.

Being part of the global leadership team, I'm able to bring that information up to the CEO, CFO and the rest of my peers in other regions. We all understood something was happening, the question was, how quickly will it spread across the globe. So, with SARS, it was contained very well within a smaller geographic space. But with COVID-19, we started to realize how quickly we would have to react to do what was needed to protect the overall financials of the organization and make sure we can nurse it back to health once the recovery journey starts.

And that has been a lot of the focus. As China has come out of the lockdown, our tracking shows us how the recovery is happening. It is not the same across all the different segments that we operate in, but we are seeing where there's automation in screening and less human involvement, those areas are picking up a lot faster than where there's a lot of human intervention still involved and where there’s a physician or a technician needed. Things have started to progress in the right direction.

Anupama Puranik: What are the new skills that you're seeing emerge as a result of this situation? What is that looking like for us as an industry, in a post-COVID-19 future?

Sanjay Prabhakaran: Right now, there is no template – so, the starting point is, “Are you someone who's comfortable in dealing with ambiguity?” Let's start with focusing on what we know and what we can control. Then, for what you cannot control, make sure you have adequate scenario planning, which helps you to prepare for the worst and hope for the best. That would be one way of thinking about what is emerging.

Secondly, this is a great opportunity for leaders to grow. Crisis is an opportunity, and as Saul Alinsky said, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” We’ve all been operating in a certain way, but this shakes us out of our slumber, as we say, and forces us to reinvent ourselves.

Then it is really about making sure that you can communicate and engage and connect with the broader audience of your organization. As we know, when we look at employees at various levels of an organization, there are a lot of emotions. People are worried about their jobs, people are worried about their health. There are many multitudes of challenges that they're faced with. So how do you connect with employees enough to help them feel confident about what you as a leader are communicating with them?

I have multiple modes of communication with my team, starting off with employee town halls on video calls where they can feel engaged and have the ability to ask questions. But we also know that in a larger audience sometimes people don't feel comfortable enough to bring out all the questions. So, then we do small virtual coffee sessions, where you have smaller groups of four to eight people together and you have the ability to connect and engage with them. That's where a lot more questions come up. And then having the kind of regular updates via emails that go out. That way you share with them what's happening as it happens and offering some hope. There has to be hope in the message.

One piece of hope comes from the fact we have been there before with SARS and we came out of it. Yes, it is a new situation, but at least we know how to deal with it, and we will come out of it a lot stronger. Communicating to employees about how we have now come out with these assays and are helping the world get back to normal as quickly as we can, also gives hope and connects everyone back to the purpose.

We are making progress. If I look at the stress that I saw in employees maybe two months ago, it is a lot less today. And that's because of how we are messaging. Our CEO also communicates very regularly on video messaging across a broader audience and we have a lot of leaders who are all reaching out and connecting at various levels. Hopefully this is all making our teams feel a lot more comfortable.

Dana Krueger:  Very inspirational. And what I love, particularly is how you've identified the purpose at the center of everything you do, but also that Hologic is part of the solution as we're coming out of this. What do you see as Hologic’s role longer term, as we think about managing this particular disease or even anticipating other pandemics or threats of pandemic?

Sanjay Prabhakaran: We have been in the midst of many other pandemics, such as dengue, where we have come out with solutions, but this is the one that has seen the largest scale. It has also helped us develop a lot of our own capabilities internally and externally with many of our customers that traditionally saw us in women's health and now are seeing us more broadly.

But I don't think it fundamentally changes the core of what we've been doing as a company. Our entire focus is trying to make a difference in women’s lives, whether it's in our breast cancer screening with mammograms, or with a cervical cancer screening. That is the strategic direction which will continue to be the focus of all what we do and the products and technologies we bring in.

When I was approached to join Hologic, I had never heard of it, even though I had been 25 years in healthcare. I find that’s often the case when we recruit leaders within the region. Today I can say that maybe one positive coming out of this whole story is that now, when we recruit talent from outside, many will have heard the name, because when they Google “Hologic,” it will pop up very quickly with all the good that we have done during the pandemic. Thus, there is a positive in that sense.

Dana Krueger:  Thank you, Sanjay, for this really interesting conversation and for your contribution.

Sanjay Prabhakaran: Thank you very much.