Carsten Thiel of EUSA Pharma: Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Uncertain & Turbulent Times
Expect to make mistakes. It’s not easy to lead even when the path before you is clear, and adding uncertainty whether through economic factors or internal shake ups only makes it more challenging. It would be unrealistic to expect that you will come out of any difficult period completely unscathed, but the best leaders are those who take personal ownership even if the factors are outside of their control. Work hard to align team focus and create a strong culture based on mutual trust and respect. This way, mistakes are seen as part of the process, and can better be quickly surmounted and learned from.
As part of our series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times”, we had the pleasure of interviewing Carsten Thiel.
Carsten has over three decades of experience leading teams within the global pharmaceutical industry. Since 2015 he has held positions at an executive level for a number of companies, and is currently chief executive officer of the pharmaceutical company EUSA Pharma.
In addition to successfully shepherding his teams through the uncertainties that accompanied the coronavirus pandemic, Carsten has worked in the rapidly evolving world of pharmaceuticals, which requires constant adaptation and iteration in order to thrive. He has come to find that a people-first approach — in pharmaceuticals and in leadership — is the most effective way to create long-term results in an organization and has worked to build teams based on the foundations of mutual respect and trust.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I’m happy to take the time to provide what insights I can. I suppose my backstory starts with my parents who were both in the medical field. I learned from them the personal satisfaction that comes from changing the lives of patients, and coupled with my own interest in biology and chemistry I had developed in my youth it was the obvious choice to study biochemistry for my undergraduate degree. I actually originally intended to go into the development side of pharmaceuticals — I went so far as to earn my PhD. in molecular biology and was even offered a space in Harvard’s postdoctoral research program — but when I thought about it I asked myself ‘do I really want to spend the next decade or so putting all of my time and energy into the research of a single molecule?’ Obviously it is a noble and necessary pursuit, but I realized that with my desire to focus on human life I could make a much bigger impact by helping to bring innovations to the benefit of patients.
Since making that decision, I have been lucky to come into some amazing opportunities. I began my career at Hoffmann La-Roche, which you may know as one of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world, but as I have moved throughout my career I have chosen to narrow my scope and lead at smaller organizations focusing on rare diseases, which often have considerably less funding and manpower behind them. The most rewarding aspect of my leadership career has been seeing the teams I lead transform for the better.
Over the past two years, my most recent challenge has been taking on the CEO role at EUSA Pharma. In addition to coming in while there were still many uncertainties due to Covid-19, I undertook a complete restructuring of the business and in December of last year facilitated our acquisition to further drive forward my goals for the organization.
It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I agree with this sentiment wholeheartedly. We are not defined by our mistakes when we use them as a tool to better our understanding of the world. During my time leading marketing operations in oncology and hematology for Amgen, we had been working for a number of years on the product launch of a new colorectal cancer treatment — these things take infinitely longer than anybody in the public may realize. However, when we were just a few short weeks away from the launch and everything was ready. Then our research colleagues discovered a biomarker (a measurable characteristic in the human tissue) that could be used to predict if the treatment would be effective in an individual patient or may be ineffective.
I felt this placed us in a difficult position. I immediately felt strongly that we had an ethical responsibility to incorporate the discovery into the launch communication of our new therapy. But we also knew that this would take huge effort and time. I must admit, the people around me did not want delays or additional work to put on their plate. It felt like delaying the launch might be the best, but this would have been a very costly endeavor. Our discussions took time and many meetings passed by until we had consensus to launch with the new information. We had to do the additional work anyway — but now in a much shorter time.
My mistake was in not trusting my gut in the first place. I had spent too much time trying to find a comfortable solution for everyone and participating in delays. Thankfully, we ended up establishing for the first time a standardized test for labs to use in this disease, and also provided initial education on the products as well as developing specialized customer service support. We made a huge difference to patients. I have since come to find that making tough decisions such as these have become easier when I stay true to my moral compass and trust what my years of experience have taught me.
Perhaps this is not such a funny mistake. Funny ones happen all the time. I forget my badge and am locked out of the office, I don’t have my microphone switched on in the zoom call, and nobody can hear me…. I share these mishaps and we all laugh about me.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I will be eternally grateful for the guidance and wisdom provided to me by Kevin Sharer, who was the CEO of Amgen while I worked for the company. I would not be the leader I am today without having had him as a mentor and guide. Probably the best lesson I ever learned came from him: I had just recently been promoted to a new role and I was asking for his advice on how to best enter a position from a leadership perspective. Kevin told me that when he joined Amgen, he made a commitment in his first 90 days to talk to at least one person a day, across the entire organization. He asked them each the same principal questions: ‘What are you hoping I would do in the company? What are you hoping I would change? What are you afraid I might do or I might change and what would you like me to preserve in the organization?’
In his first three months he ended up meeting with over 100 people, and it left a profound impression on me that he took the time to sit down with individuals independent of hierarchy to ask those questions. He ended the conversation by telling me that your first days in a leadership position are the most critical time to gain insights into how you can best lead the team you have. I have applied that principle in every leadership position since and I can no longer imagine not thinking that way.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose-driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your organization started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
I’m so glad you asked this, because much of my philosophy on leadership derives from the idea that purpose is one of the strongest motivators. I am very lucky in that my organization’s mission aligns quite well with my own personal purpose in life: to change the lives of those living with rare diseases. Rare diseases, well, rarely get the funding they need due to their perceived lack of probability, leaving millions of people to suffer without much hope for relief. I make it a point to remind my teams every day that is our ultimate consideration, beyond profit margins and any other business markers — are the actions we are taking moving us closer or further away from that goal?
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
My career has spanned decades and continents, so I have had many first hand experiences with leading teams through uncertainty — whether as a result of external factors such as an economic downturn or internal challenges like a buyout.
Most recently, when I was appointed CEO of EUSA Pharma I was tasked with conducting a restructuring. This is never an easy situation, both for the leaders making the changes and the team members who must face uncertainty. What I have come to find over the past year and a half, is that you only come out of times of uncertainty stronger if the organization you have after the difficulties is at least as engaged as they were before. Do they believe in the mission? Do they see themselves still being in the right company? Is everyone still on the same page? Do they feel they are here for the right reasons? As leaders, it is natural to be afraid of not having all the answers for our staff. We feel safer not engaging in Q&As by not exposing ourselves to uncomfortable questions. But that does not help. We need to engage — especially when we don’t have all the answers — and be transparent about it. At the end of the day no matter what you’re facing, it’s all about keeping the people you lead engaged throughout the process.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
I always felt giving up means failing. People expect more from us. I love tackling the challenge of leading people, and I must admit that while undoubtedly times of uncertainty are stressful, I get an immense amount of energy and inspiration from figuring out how to best maneuver through the difficulties.
My motivation comes from my sense of purpose, as I believe all peoples’ do. It is the guide I use to ensure I am moving in the right direction. From that first decision to move away from research work and into the marketing and sales side of biopharmaceuticals, I have always sought to figure out how I can use my strengths most effectively toward my greater purpose of changing the lives of others through medicine.
I’m an author and I believe that books have the power to change lives. Do you have a book in your life that impacted you and inspired you to be an effective leader? Can you share a story?
One book I have read time and time again and continue to recommend to others is ‘Outliers’ by Malcolm Gladwell. While the main subject of the book is examining what factors lead to ‘success’ in the United States, every time I read it again I pick up something different that I find can be applied to my own life, whether that be about communication, leadership, or even relationships. On my most recent read-through I wrote down this quote and sent it out in a company-wide email: “No one — not rock stars, not professional athletes, not software billionaires, and not even geniuses — ever makes it alone.” I loved how Gladwell was able to interweave his own success story throughout the book, and his insights have certainly inspired my own leadership journey.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
During difficult times, I believe it is absolutely critical that leaders are extremely adept communicators. Of course, good communication is always an important aspect of leadership, but when times get tough how a leader communicates with those they lead can mean the difference between an organization only surviving the challenges and thriving in spite of them. Especially because times of uncertainty can breed insecurity, and without clear communication people are likely to form their own (often wrong) conclusions. It demands from us more presence, more frequent communication, more explaining of ourselves and of our actions. That creates trust and keeps people in touch and engaged.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
It is natural and human to see a challenge as a risk. I am not going to go into the half full or half empty glass.
But why do peope get worried and disengage? The power of fear to lose what we have is stronger than the hope to gain or win. We need to address that. In these critical moments I look my people in the eyes and start with the word ”Imagine….”. Everybody listens! I paint a picture, where we can arrive. A point in the future. My people imagine, start thinking, dreaming….and start forgetting their concerns and worries. Then I lay out what we need to do to get there. It ought to be plausible, credible and authentic. That produces a smile and relief on people’s faces. Finally openly share, what I will do to make it happen, and what I need form every individual. I ask for a very realistic commitment. People take away: “I can do this!”
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Openly and honestly — with tact and empathy. I had to announce more than once a restructuring with loss of jobs.
I guess nobody takes pleasure in this. I start by acknowledging that this is going to be difficult for people. I imagine, how I would feel sitting there and fearing for my job. I don’t try to present myself as the victim of the change or explaining endlessly all the reasons upfront. People want to hear the news first. There is a really important sequence in how to communicate tough news. At the end there was an understanable degree of sobriety, but the announcement received respect and support, and people later told me that they were just relieved to have someone leading that was direct with them.
The same idea can probably be extended to customers, but I never had tough news of existential dimension.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
A leader must make plans, even in the face of uncertainty. Have a plan B, and may be a plan C, especially when high uncertainty is in front of you. The fact of the matter is, whether we feel it from external factors or not the future is always unknowable. Every business is different, and I wouldn’t deign to advise others on business strategies without having much more information, but what I can say is that the worst thing anybody can do is let fear affect decision-making. Fear-based decisions may be short-sighted or picking the low risk — and you miss the biggest opportunities.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
I have personally made the best experience in creating a “caring culture.” No matter what industry you are in, I believe that when there is a culture of generalized reciprocity it creates an incredibly strong foundation that can withstand any ‘earthquakes’ the future might hold. This culture involves employees operating as a single unit, helping each other not because they expect the favor returned, but simply because they believe that they would make the same effort if their roles were reversed. While it is still acknowledged and even encouraged to have individual goals and objectives, in a caring culture through trust and respect people feel comfortable turning to their team members for support in achieving them.
This is my number one principle. I believe that the strength of an organization lies in its culture, and by having one in which employees are genuinely motivated by the positive effect of gratitude rather than self-interest you create an organization that is stronger, more effective, and even more innovative.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
I think emulation is a fairly common mistake that businesses make when they’re faced with a difficult path forward. As we’ve discussed in this interview, times of uncertainty can be quite scary even for the most seasoned of leaders, and there is a sense of safety that can be found in looking at other organizations that appear to have found something that works for them. However, not only are there far too many factors for any one strategy to universally fit every business — even if they are in the same sector — but this sort of thinking prevents businesses from developing unique sources of competitive advantage.
Conservatism bias is also fairly common during times of uncertainty; the idea that the right approach to risk is solely to minimize it. When faced with challenges, leaders may fall back on clinging to what they already know, — whether that be about their industry, leadership, or the world itself — ignoring new information that should be taken into account when it comes to decision-making. Leaders who revert to thinking this way end up choosing safe and ineffective actions rather than bigger decisions that will affect real change and innovation. Businesses should remember that just because there is uncertainty does not mean that the safest choice is always the best one.
Finally, I don’t mean to sound like a broken record here, but I cannot emphasize enough the importance of maintaining a strong culture through times of difficulty. So often I see leaders shift their attention away from this crucial element, going into ‘crisis mode’ and letting it fall to the wayside while dealing with ‘more important problems.’ However, at the end of the day a business is only as good as the people within it, and while it may not immediately be apparent or quantifiable through fiscal results, ignoring culture significantly weakens an organization as a whole.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Project what you want to see from your team. As a leader, it is part of your job to “walk the walk” and display the qualities you hope your team also shows, and at no point is this more important than during times of crisis. In challenging and uncertain times, team members will look more than ever to the leader for next steps and reassurance, and the last thing you want is to appear uneasy or insecure. In my role as CEO, I try to display confidence, but also honesty: I’m not going to lie and tell my employees that everything will be fine and they shouldn’t worry. It is about striking a balance between capturing the magnitude of the situation while maintaining trust with team members that you are the person to lead them through these challenging times.
- Be decisive. Yes, research and discussion are important aspects of the decision-making process, but it is in fact possible to spend too much time contemplating a problem. This is especially true during times of uncertainty when we are often faced with difficult decisions that affect the livelihood of many. Keep moving forward, and don’t let the fear of making the wrong choice paralyze your decision-making process.
- Prioritize adaptability. Think about the physical feeling you get when you are put under pressure — do you feel your whole body tensing up? We have a tendency to carry that feeling into our business, becoming rigid in times of turbulence, when what is really needed is flexibility. With adaptability comes resilience and perseverance, and by being adaptable you give yourself the ability to keep going even when there is uncertainty and difficulty. Maintaining an open mind within the decision-making process will aid in your ability to make quick decisions, contributing to your success weathering the unknown.
- Lean on your company’s purpose and values. When you are constantly facing new and unfamiliar scenarios, these can act as a compass that will guide you through those difficult decisions. During times of uncertainty we often don’t have the luxury of textbook solutions, but an organization’s mission statement and ethics can be the roadmap that helps you devise strategies for tackling these challenges. Your purpose and values can also help you better communicate with your team during difficult times, as they should already be on the forefront of their minds. Putting decisions you make into those terms can help them quickly understand why you are moving forward with specific strategies, and also allow them to have the confidence to make decisions for themselves based on those guiding principles. This can ensure that your business is remaining highly efficient and productive even without you micromanaging every action.
- Expect to make mistakes. It’s not easy to lead even when the path before you is clear, and adding uncertainty whether through economic factors or internal shake ups only makes it more challenging. It would be unrealistic to expect that you will come out of any difficult period completely unscathed, but the best leaders are those who take personal ownership even if the factors are outside of their control. Work hard to align team focus and create a strong culture based on mutual trust and respect. This way, mistakes are seen as part of the process, and can better be quickly surmounted and learned from.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
‘It’s not how much money we make that ultimately makes us happy between nine and five. It’s whether or not our work fulfills us.’ — Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers
I think the quote speaks for itself, but I will just say that remembering this is absolutely essential in leadership. Of course money makes the world go round and is an important aspect of every career, but ultimately the way to motivate, to inspire, to lead — that is by touching on something deeper, finding a way to make the work your team is doing meaningful.
How can our readers further follow your work?
Please feel free to check out my LinkedIn, Medium, Twitter, and Forbes Business Council.
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!
Carsten Thiel of EUSA Pharma: Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Uncertain… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.