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The CEO Whisperer

Two-time CEO Challenges Aspiring Leaders to Rethink Success

Mike Bonney former CEO and Director of Cubist Pharmaceuticals and advisor to first-time CEOs

Mike Bonney is one of the most highly respected executives in the biopharmaceutical industry. As former CEO and Director of Cubist Pharmaceuticals, he grew the company into a global leader in antibiotics, culminating in the company’s acquisition by Merck for $9.4 billion in 2014. Today, Mr. Bonney serves as board chair or board member of several biopharma companies and top academic institutions, and supports the community through not-for-profit leadership roles and contributions. Throughout his career, Mr. Bonney has inspired and mentored successful executives across multiple industries, and is currently advising a number of first-time CEOs.

Beth Ehrgott, head of The Alexander Group’s Global Life Sciences Practice, recently had the privilege of speaking with Mr. Bonney:

Mike, I know our audience will appreciate your advice and observations on what it takes to be an effective leader. What do first-time CEOs want to know?

Recently appointed CEOs want a knowledgeable, external source to help them evolve their leadership style. Often, they want guidance on issues specific to their situation. It could be advice on board management or development. It could relate to the business development or capital strategy for their organization. I also spend a fair amount of time helping first-time CEOs craft a narrative of their company that creates enthusiasm for the business model and strategy, and still leaves room to over-deliver. This art is to be compelling and acknowledging the risks, while at the same time preserving some opportunity to delight. It is an art, and a lot of CEOs want a sounding board to talk through it.

You help leaders map out their path to becoming a successful CEO. Tell us about your journey.

I've worked in the biopharmaceutical business for—dare I say it?—over 35 years. I started my career as a salesman at a large pharmaceutical company. Many of my jobs—particularly the first half dozen or so—were traditional roles within the sales and marketing function. Fairly quickly after this however, I shifted my thinking away from aspiring to a specific role, to aspiring for the opportunity to develop and demonstrate a broader range of skills. When I was approached about opportunities that many of my peers saw as essentially career-pausing, I viewed them as career enabling. It afforded me the opportunity to work with different people with different expertise, and develop different perspectives on how to build a successful company that some of my functionally oriented peers missed out on. A key role of the CEO is to be the Chief Integrator. These non-traditional assignments helped me understand how all the pieces fit together.

No CEO has tons of depth across all functions in the company. It is critical to learn how to be effective, absent deep technical expertise on a given subject.

It also gave me confidence as a leader that I didn't have to rely on functional expertise. It forced me to develop the skills of inquiry, alignment and standard-setting in areas where I wasn't the most knowledgeable person. No CEO has tons of depth across all functions in the company. It is critical to learn how to be effective, absent deep technical expertise on a given subject.

As you were exposed to different leadership styles, which behaviors, approaches or philosophies did you seek to emulate?

As I reflected on my own leadership style, I realized that structure, discipline and intentionality are critical. And different orientations work better in different circumstances. You can take the strong, “let’s-do-it-my-way” approach or the “let’s-kick-back-and-brainstorm” approach. You need approaches at both extremes in your toolkit, even though, most of the time, you will operate in a narrower range.

The best leaders I worked for were gifted at figuring out when those they led needed to be lifted up because they lacked confidence and when they needed to be reined in or held to a higher standard.

Do you find that it’s challenging for new CEOs to let go of their former functional responsibilities and expertise?

Broadly speaking, executives are given the opportunity to be CEOs based on their performance, and that performance is often defined by extraordinary results. As a CEO, your job is different. As CEO, your job is to enable the organization to deliver extraordinary results. I found, to do that, it required developing trust in your executives and making room for them to do things the way they think that they should do them. Even if it's different than the way you would do it. They're talented, too. And they've also delivered results or they wouldn't be in their roles.

It's relatively easy to think about this concept; it is much harder to turn that conceptual framework into a set of behaviors that truly unlocks the genius of the team you have assembled. Delivering extraordinary results develops enormous confidence in your way of doing things. Giving that up—delegating that to another executive—communicates great confidence in your team and keeps them engaged. Yet it is one of the hardest things for new CEOs to do. Particularly when times are tough and/or the stakes are very high. We're all prisoners of our history.

How do you help an aspiring CEO assess if they are prepared for the role?

Many people have a superficial desire to become a CEO, but you really need to think about what you're signing up for. This is not a job that you can do in 40 or 50 or 60 hours a week. You can be at the office for those kinds of hours, but it is more. You are on call and thinking about the issues facing your organization all the time. Aspirants need to be prepared to make the sacrifices necessary to provide a very high percentage of their attention to the organization. It is the loneliest job you'll ever have, particularly for leaders who get their energy by interacting with others. As a CEO, you don't often have the luxury of broad interaction on the subjects most critical to success.

It is the loneliest job you'll ever have, particularly for leaders who get their energy by interacting with others.

The other part of the conversation I have with these folks is, how do they define their life's work? What is their true purpose? If it's something different than that which tends to make up a CEO role, I urge them to think more broadly about how they define success. My goal is to neither encourage nor discourage. My goal is to frame the way they think about success in a way that feels the most authentic and energizing to them.

How do you develop trust with the leaders you advise? Why is that trust important?

The surest way to develop trust with someone is sharing successes and failures, and reflecting on those experiences over time. But in an advisory practice or in an assessment role, I don't have the luxury of that time. Instead, I rely on two tools that are effective in accelerating a trusting relationship: transparency and vulnerability.

When I'm engaging with a potential client, I create circumstances where I can be transparent and vulnerable, and see if the other person reciprocates. If they do, they’ll be a good client. If they don’t, I know my work is cut out for me. Trust is important. And, frankly, as a CEO, you won’t be as effective as you could be if you are unable to develop deep trusting relationships with your team, board members, investors, regulators, patients, etc.

Building the right culture is critical. As CEO, how do you foster and embody the culture of the organization?

Increasingly, I see first-time CEOs think about a healthy culture as the end game. I think that's a flaw. A healthy culture is not the end game. It is a tool to deliver results; it is the way you deliver those results.

Everybody knows what a good culture should be: It happens when employees are committed and aligned with the stated mission and values of the firm. Everyone has different words for it, but the issue with developing great cultures is not language, it is behaving consistently with that language.

The senior team, starting with the CEO, must behave consistently with the language of their stated mission and values. Nobody will be 100-percent perfect—I'm not suggesting you hold yourself to that standard—but you ought to, as a group at the executive level, hold each other accountable when you fall short of the desired behavior. You should be able to discuss how to own the shortcoming, acknowledge it and learn from the experience so as not to repeat the misaligned behavior.

If you don't behave consistently with what you articulate as a desired culture then, more often than not, you don’t have a shot at developing that culture. That disconnect creates questions in the minds of your employees, and soon the culture you articulate as a leader falls on deaf ears.

Business across all industries is becoming increasingly complex worldwide and requires continued innovation. How do you assess a leader’s ability to drive innovation and positive change?

There are a few aspects I consider when assessing someone's ability to innovate. One, how do they handle complexity; second, how do they deal with failure; and finally, how do they approach new ideas? Are they the ideation person, or do they recognize a good idea, develop it and make it happen? Both are valuable, but I would argue that the second is more valuable for a CEO. You've got a few to thousands of people working with you who can be idea creators. Your job is to sort through this range of ideas and figure out which ones hold the highest promise going forward, and then align the organization around the idea.

I'm a big fan of behavioral event interviewing which, if done well, allows the conversation between an assessor and a candidate to move from theory to practice. One thing it allows me to assess is a leader’s ability to handle complexity. Does this person create a false simplicity around an inherently complex issue and miss nuances that are critical? Do they get paralyzed by the complexity? Or can they break the issue down into less complex and more manageable tasks. Then, how do they go about sequencing those tasks in order to ultimately resolve it? From whom did they seek advice and input? How did they weight those inputs and how did those inputs affect their approach? How did they create a coalition of the willing?

The more creative and innovative an organization, the greater the likelihood that they will fail. An innovative leader knows how to fail in such a way that the organization can learn from it and increase the likelihood of success...

The other thing I look for is, how does this person deal with failure? By definition, the more creative and innovative an organization, the greater the likelihood that they will fail. An innovative leader knows how to fail in such a way that the organization can learn from it and increase the likelihood of success in the next iteration.

A closely related aspect to this idea of creativity and innovation has to do with the ability of the leader or leaders to look down the road and imagine future conditions in which the company will operate. By doing so, they can weigh the risks of new initiatives or strategies and think about how to manage those risks. The military calls this the “time span of discretion” or the time horizon of the longest task an individual can successfully undertake. We get better at it as we mature, but there are fundamental differences in how far into the future each of us can imagine and then translate that into action today. An innovative CEO is constantly thinking, what do I need to do today, in order to be prepared for the future—whether it be five years, 10 years or 50 years out?

A CEO must have the ability to anticipate opportunities and reduce obstacles before they present themselves. If a CEO is really good at looking down the road, around the corners and over the hills, he or she will see what difficult decisions are going to be on the horizon and start preparing the organization today.

We'll continue with Part 2 of our interview next week, featuring more insight from former CEO and leadership advisor Mike Bonney.

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Beth Ehrgott

Beth Ehrgott

Managing Director