Rewriting the Book: Q&A with Luc Hermans

Sustainable LeadershipLeadershipHealthcareBoard and CEO AdvisorySustainability Officers
min Podcast
Dana Krueger
May 04, 2020
16 min
Sustainable LeadershipLeadershipHealthcareBoard and CEO AdvisorySustainability Officers
Gilead Sciences Luc Hermans said the COVID-19 pandemic rewrote the book on many aspects of development and how we look at access to medicines.


Healthcare Leading Forward Podcast Series: On and Beyond the Frontlines of Covid-19

Luc Hermans is the Leader of the External Coronavirus Response Team at Gilead Sciences. Recently, Luc spoke with Russell Reynolds Associates’ Managing Director and Global Healthcare Sector Leader, Dana Krueger, about recommitting to purpose and focusing 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: To kick us off, can you tell us a little bit about the context of your current leadership role at Gilead Sciences?

Luc Hermans: Because of the company’s past work on coronaviruses and the work around remdesivir, we were gearing up to see whether that work could result in a potential treatment for COVID-19. This is when there was a decision taken to bring the various content experts together but also to make sure that we would have someone who could look across the different initiatives and make sure that we had an enterprise-wide lens on it. And that's what I was asked to come and do.

Dana Krueger: How has your background prepared you specifically for this role as the leader of Gilead’s Coronavirus Response Team?

Luc Hermans: So, I'm a physician by training, but I’ve also worked for many organizations as well as in many different parts of those organizations. This has allowed me to get to know more about drug-development organizations and how their work links to the commercial world. I also spent quite a bit of time in different parts of the world, including Japan most recently. I think this range – seeing different environments, different cultures, different functions – is the element of my background that has helped me most in seeing how all these aspects work together in getting to a final goal, which is finding a drug that can deal with a potential problem.

At the same time, nothing is set in stone. I think the coronavirus challenge that we're all dealing with is rewriting the book on many aspects of development. It’s rewriting the book on how you do clinical development and how you look at access to medicines. It's rewriting the book on how you interact with governments and get swift agreements on how to introduce a compound into the market. It's also rewriting the book on how people work together. And yes, you need rules and roadmaps – and drawing on past experiences helps – but more than anything else I think you need to be able to be agile and bold in your decision making as you go forward. It's good to have a diverse background, but it's also good to realize that nothing is set in stone.

Dana Krueger: Can you share with us what the coronavirus’ “rewriting the book” has meant for leadership and your way of working?

Luc Hermans: It all started before I got involved in the project, so I must give a lot of credit to our leadership [at Gilead] and how they looked at this challenge right from the start. For us, leadership has meant, first and foremost, owning up to the reality that this is something that would affect us internally – not just an external problem. I think it's been very important that the people in the company realized that caring about people is important and that we work in a way that reflects that value. So, for example, with the teams in China, Hong Kong and Japan, we clearly and transparently supported their early moves to work from home – not creating some blanket, dogmatic rule, but thinking about a specific situation in the various regions we work with.

Thinking externally, we knew from the beginning that we had experience with coronavirus and we had tested remdesivir in areas such as Ebola, so there are models from what we did in terms of in vitro work that we could say, “this could potentially work!” But this time it is all about speed and agility and being bold and being ambitious. This is where risk-taking in leadership comes into play. Let's not forget that in January and February we didn't know a lot about the disease, so there was a lot of exploratory work to be done, and a lot of risk-taking. We had to make sure that we boldly pursued our plans around clinical, and then try to find the fastest route to regulatory approvals.

Dana Krueger: Beyond clinical, how are you having to think differently about getting the product to market?

Luc Hermans: From a manufacturing point of view, we were sitting on some stocks that we still had from our previous work, but we knew that if the pandemic was going to be of the magnitude that we’re seeing now, we weren't going to meet the demand with the manufacturing capacity we had at the time. Some very bold decisions were taken, communicating the capacity need to senior management and ultimately taking a risk, knowing that the investment in capacity could potentially result in a product that we would not be able to use.

Manufacturing is just one part, however, because it is also about Access of course. We had to identify the steps that we needed to take to make sure that patients could get access to the drug, not only through clinical trials. This meant looking at “compassionate use” and “extended access.” I mean, this is not a normal environment. The demand for this could potentially eclipse the demand for hepatitis C drugs.

Dana Krueger: I’ve heard you talk about the importance of agility, risk-taking, and bold decision-making as key elements of effective leadership in our current environment. Would you say that about sums it up?

Luc Hermans: There’s also the type of leadership that listens and advocates. It is important to make sure that you're listening to what is going on “on the ground”, which is why we are extremely close to our colleagues who work on the front line and to the people who deal with the disease. They can tell us a lot more than what we currently know. When we understand what their needs are, we can make sure that we give them the tools they need to take the next steps. It's not just about developing a compound. If you are a general manager from France or Germany, you get calls from the health ministers of those countries – maybe even the heads of state. As leaders, we all have to make sure that we provide our people with what they need to handle those situations, such as the relevant facts and the most compelling arguments to keep our work moving forward.

It’s also about where these message of support and purpose come from, and how they’re delivered. It’s important that it is the head of commercial, the CMO, the CEO, etc. who are sending these messages. It has to come from the top, and the way they do it sets the tone for others.

Dana Krueger: Thinking about a post-COVID-19 world, what changes within organizations or the industry as a whole will remain? Beyond whatever temporary adaptations have been made, will some transformations endure?

Luc Hermans: For many people, this current crisis has crystallized why they joined the industry in the first place. When we talk about the donations we’re making to ensure access and provide therapies to patients, we get feedback from physicians colleagues saying that this is why they work for our company. Our purpose is becoming clearer than it’s ever been, and that is the belief that the core of what we do is bringing innovation to as many patients as we can.

As far as leadership and the way of working, the crucial nature of teamwork has become apparent. Those people who still believe in silos within organizations had better wake up because it's not the way to tackle big challenges – you have to work as teams. And, again, agility will be key going forward. The norm of being complicated, the norm of heavy organizational layers, the norm of cumbersome processes – that all has to change.

Dana Krueger: What is your hope for what leaders might take away from their experiences in this unusual time?

Luc Hermans: At the end of the day, I hope that everybody takes a step back and asks, “What is really core to what I do? What is my purpose for being in this industry?” The current situation has highlighted the importance of clear focus and efficiency, so leaders have an opportunity to figure out how their leadership can increase the efficiency of their work and ensure that it is more focused on what they’re really all about. For me, that means making sure that we’re driving innovation for patients.