It’s easy to muster a cynical response to Tuesday’s announcement that the world’s largest health products company, J&J, is replacing their current CEO William Weldon (athletic white male and former sales rep who rose through the commercial organization) with Alex Gorsky (athletic white male and former sales rep who rose through the commercial organization). After all, he will be in good company, joining Novartis’s Joe Jimenez (athletic white male – see here — with a background in marketing) and AZ’s David Brennan (athletic while male and former sales rep), among others. Indeed, of the major pharma companies, only Lilly’s John Lechleiter is a scientist (no word on whether he’s athletic; I’m told by Stephen Colbert that he is white).
Even the world of biotechs have fewer medical scientist leaders than you might think (and more white male athletes); true, Gilead, Vertex, and Seattle Genetics are led by scientists, as was Genentech prior to its acquisition by Roche. Yet, many other distinguished large biotechs don’t have medical scientists at the helm – consider Amgen (Kevin Sharer, and his designated successor, Robert Bradway); Celgene (Robert Hugin), Biomarin (Jean-Jacques Bienaime), and Genzyme, prior to their acquisition (Henri Termeer), to name a few. As detailed by Monica Higgins in “Career Imprints,” the development of the biotechnology industry owes much to “the Baxter Boys” – a group of mid-level Baxter-trained managers like Termeer who went off in search of new challenges.
As the pharmaceutical industry seems headed along the lines anticipated in 2010 by Morgan Stanley analyst Andrew Baum (now at Citi) and gradually moves from a “research and development” model towards a “search and development” model, it’s easy to attribute this change to senior leadership teams that never fundamentally understood research, and lacked appreciation for its unique challenges and culture. In simple terms, it’s easy to see why someone more comfortable with the more traditional business processes of making and selling things would look for reasons to remove discovery — the most uncertain and difficult to manage part of the enterprise (even if it’s where, however inconveniently, value is initially created).