Stepping up to the Leadership Challenge: Q&A with Per Wold-Olsen

Leadership StrategiesLeadershipHealthcareHuman Resources OfficersBoard EffectivenessTeam Effectiveness
min Interview
Dana Krueger
May 26, 2020
7 min
Leadership StrategiesLeadershipHealthcareHuman Resources OfficersBoard EffectivenessTeam Effectiveness
Healthcare Leading Forward Podcast Series:
On and Beyond the Frontlines of Covid-19


Per Wold-Olsen is Chairman of the Board for GN Store Nord A/S, a hearing aid and headset maker, as well as Oncopeptides AB, a pharmaceutical company focused on targeted cancer therapies. He has been a member of the Gilead Sciences Board of Directors since 2010, and acts as Chair of the Advisory Group of Novo Holdings. He is also Chair of the Board of the Medicines for Malaria Venture (MMV), a not-for-profit initiative dedicated to the discovery, development and delivery of medicines for the treatment of malaria. Previously, he served as President of the Human Health Intercontinental Division of Merck & Co.

Recently, Per spoke with Dana Krueger, Managing Director and Global Healthcare Sector Leader, and Alessandra Abate, Managing Director and Leader of the Global Biotech and Pharmaceuticals Practice at Russell Reynolds Associates. Per shared his insights on what leaders are doing well and what they must do next to emerge from the crisis stronger than ever.


Alessandra Abate: Per, you're well known as a global leader in healthcare across all its verticals, and you have a view across the entire ecosystem. Are there any key trends that you are observing in how leaders are responding to the current COVID-19 crisis?

Per Wold-Olsen: One of the key trends that I see with all the companies I am involved with is CEOs stepping up to the challenge. True leaders start to shine in a time of crisis, and I have to say I have been so impressed. Different CEOs have stepped up to distinctively different challenges from one company to another. 

Dana Krueger: What leadership qualities are really starting to shine across all these situations?

Per Wold-Olsen: The one common thing is what Colin Powell said: “Take care of your troops.” This is not the time to be overly concerned about shareholders, it's the time to be overly concerned about your employment base and making sure that your leadership team stays focused on doing the right things.

Alessandra Abate: You oversee very different verticals. There’s GN, with a focus on medical devices; Oncopeptides, which is a company on the verge of its first global launch, and Gilead, very involved in the crisis. Are you seeing any differences in how these companies are dealing with the crisis?

Per Wold-Olsen: Indeed. If you look at biotech and big pharma companies, to some extent, their revenue base is hardly impacted at all. For the medical technology sector right now, it’s all about figuring out how you can cut costs or defer costs. In many of the companies we see voluntary salary reductions, significant impacts on bonus payouts and so on. And for a startup, you're totally dependent on being able to get your patients through the clinical trials. If you have significant delay, that could potentially end up being a serious headache for you. That said, we were surprised and delighted to see that there is high interest in funding biotech startups in these challenging times when we needed to raise money for Oncopeptides this spring.

Alessandra Abate: Given the variety of situations, how have you changed the way you are advising CEOs now?

Per Wold-Olsen: I'm so impressed with their ability to step up and show true leadership, I've actually been less hands-on during this time period than what is normally the case. But what I keep reminding CEOs and leadership is this: “This is not your fault. This is something that you could not have seen, society did not see it. So, you shouldn't feel bad about it. You should stay focused on doing the right things and be clear about the actions you need to take.” In case of Gilead Sciences, it’s how do you get Remdesivir to the markets swiftly. In case of GN Store Nord, it's all about how do we cut costs in the most smart, elegant and professional way possible. We don't know when the virus will be behind us, and we can do scenario planning left right and center. I basically say, “Stop. We don’t need to speculate. Let's do the right things that we need to do now. And let's focus on how we come back stronger than ever.”

Dana Krueger: Per, you've been involved in developing medicines for malaria as well. Are there leadership lessons from that part of your experience base that you think are salient or transferable into the current global health crisis?

Per Wold-Olsen: Yes and no. The significant topic for us, on top of all the regular virus issues, is how to secure continuity of supplies of malaria medicines for Africa. We have spent so much quality time interacting and working with the Global Fund, the WHO, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to make sure we preserve the necessary supply of malaria drugs for Africa if the Western part of the world ends up believing in and starting to significantly use the same medicines to treat COVID-19. And I am pleased to say we've been able to ensure that we will have medicines for the people of Africa, no matter what happens in the Western world.

Dana Krueger: As you think about how you advise future CEOs or even choose future CEOs, do you believe that there is a need for different competencies in those individuals? Will you be looking for something different for CEOs post-virus?

Per Wold-Olsen: I am privileged to be the Chairman of GN Store Nord, a Denmark-based company producing hearing aids and headsets. Today, the company is at the forefront of technology, as over the last six or seven years it has transformed from a hardware company to a software company. However, fundamentally, pharma and biotech today are not at the forefront of using modern technology in the digital space. So, being digitally savvy is one of the competencies I will be looking for.

It is also about being visionary. I will be looking for the visionary CEOs who understand that the world is on a journey, and that the pace of that journey will accelerate, big time. There is no question that tomorrow we will operate in a distinctively different way compared to the way we operated in 2019. Going back to the example of GN Store Nord. While the sales of hearing aids went down dramatically in the second quarter of this year, we can hardly serve the demand for headsets. This is because the company became a strong player in the enterprise space, anticipating that the usage of the medium will go far beyond the current usage.

It is also about understanding of changes in healthcare delivery. The health care system has been set up so that you have to meet in person. In Europe, if the doctor doesn't see you in person, s/he will not be paid or reimbursed. In tomorrow's healthcare environment, virtual consultations between the patient, or the patient and the family, and the doctor, would be rather a norm than the exception. It won't be the norm in 2021, but already governments and payers will pay for online consultations, which was unheard of in 2018. My son is a clinical physiologist who specializes in dealing with Parkinson’s patients. The trick here is to intervene early, so they have been fighting for reimbursement of online sessions for the last three years. Once the virus hit, it took only three months to get reimbursement for virtual interventions .

That tells you what impact the virus will have on the healthcare system. The major changes will be about re-prioritization, speed and revision of traditional operating models.

Alessandra Abate: We want to thank you, Per, on behalf of the team for taking the time, sharing your thoughts with us and for being so inspirational.

Per Wold-Olsen: It has been my pleasure to speak with you.