Sunday, 18 November 2012

P. Roy Vagelos, Maverick – Lessons in Leadership and Communication

“Character is like a tree and reputation like its shadow. The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing”
(Abraham Lincoln)   
This post is about a book I am reading at the moment and titled ‘Rethinking Reputation’ by Fraser P. Seitel and John Doorley.
I usually write about a book once I have finished reading it in its entire length. Today I make an exception.
The reason is because I have just read one chapter (titled ‘The Power of your personal and company brand’) that has made me reflect on one of the most important challenges that organisations face: having employees that have faith in their leaders, employees that believe their leaders truly live the values of the organisations. In fact, recently I have been thinking a lot about this particular topic.
The authors write about P. Roy Vagelos’s life and describe some leadership lessons that can be derived from his style, personality, approach and behavior. Under his leadership, the pharmaceutical company Merck became one of the world’s most admired companies.
Below are my marginalia extrapolated from that chapter:
From unremarkable beginnings, P. Roy Vagelos grew up to become a great scientist, to head one of the most successful companies ever, and to oversee the development of more important new medicines than any company introduced before or since. Along the way, he became a great communicator through the sheer quality of his character.
Roy Vagelos helped make lots of money for Merck, its shareholders and its employees. But that’s not all he did. Even though he knew the company could not make a profit on a medicine that could defeat devastating diseases (e.g. the Mectizan for defeating river blindness in Africa) he would encourage his scientists to proceed. Then, he would donate the medicine ‘anywhere it is needed for as long as necessary’ (Roy Vagelos: “There was no choice but to develop Mectizan and to donate it”).
Writer and editor John Byrne wrote about Roy Vagelos in the BusinessWeek in 1987 (that was the first appearance of Vagelos as a celebrity CEO). Byrne remembers that ‘Dr. Vagelos was an extraordinary leader, one of the finest and most admired corporate chieftains of his generation. What made him so remarkably effective in the job was his ability to relate to and engage with all of Merck’s employees, from scientists in the labs to the personal assistants behind office desks. During his stint as CEO, Merck was nothing less than an innovation machine, developing one blockbuster drug after another. Despite the company’s incredible success, Dr. Vagelos stayed true to his own very high values of integrity and authenticity”.
Roy Vagelos: I always believed in dedication, zeal. Once you believe in something, go for it…Sometimes, it is simply a matter of doing the right thing, which can sound self-righteous, but it’s true. I sometimes have a hard time understanding how so many leaders in government and industry say they faced these very difficult moral choices. I don’t know that I ever faced a difficult problem that wasn’t easily resolved in the end by asking, what is the right thing to do?
Talk with Roy Vagelos about reputation, and he will say it is all about performance and behavior. Reluctantly, he will consent to the proposition that communication is a factor…He believed in ‘transparency’ long before it was a buzzword.
Judy Lewent (Chief Financial Officer): He has a way of complimenting your work that is clearly genuine, and he can shoot you a look of disapproval that tells you are on the wrong track, without so much as one word. He is one of the best motivators I have ever known”.
And he often does that by telling stories. Roy Vangelos: “People, organisations, even countries, have long memoriesStories! Family history, company history – it is all important”.”
Below are some leadership lessons and principles that we can learn from Dr Vagelos way of leading, behaving and being:
·      Know who you are and what you stand for. Let it constantly be reflected in your performance, behavior and communication.
·      Communication should always be true to actual performance, behavior and what the organization stands for.
·      Once you find good people to work with, you have to simply trust them to do a good job.
·      Communication is the lifeblood of an organization. Don’t let sclerosis set in.
·      Good leaders must be good communicators.
·      People, organisations and even countries can have long memories.
I felt the need of reporting the story of Dr Vangelos as described and presented in ‘Rethink Reputation’ as I found it very powerful.
I believe that employees can have faith in their leaders – and they are very willing to do that - if they perceived that leaders truly genuinely live the values of the organization and got real evidence of that.
Leaders are followed if they are the very first engaged with the purpose of the company, never forget the importance of quality relationships and communication with their employees at all level (and understand how to build those relationships and communications), have strength of character, integrity and consistency in the way they perform, behave and communicate.
“You cannot accomplish anything without being able to motivate people above you, below you and on the side. Over the long term, you can only do that by the force of who you are and what you stand for”
(Roy Vagelos)