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Leading Johnson & Johnson to a Vaccine Triumph: A Conversation with Alex Gorsky


Navigating a company through a challenging time requires a leader who understands the importance of thinking proactively and staying ahead of the curve. Doing that on a global stage only makes the task more difficult, but that’s what Alex Gorsky did at Johnson & Johnson.

Gorsky is one of just seven leaders who have served as J&J’s Chairman and CEO since the company was listed on the New York Stock Exchange in 1944 (Joaquin Duato succeeded Gorsky as CEO in January). I recently sat down with Gorsky—now J&J’s Executive Chairman—to discuss how he managed the company’s efforts to develop a COVID-19 vaccine, making diversity, equity and inclusion part of the corporate culture, and the one thing he recommends that all leaders should do.

Following is a summary of our conversation.

A long-term vision pays off

“If you would have said 40 years ago when I was getting out of college that someday you're going to be running the world's largest health care company in the middle of the greatest pandemic the world has ever faced, and by the way, you're going to be in the hunt for a vaccine, I would have said, what are you smoking? I could never have imagined that.”

Yet, that’s exactly what Gorsky has accomplished. Though he can celebrate plenty of accomplishments during his nearly decade-long tenure as Chairman and CEO, including boosting its research and development spending by more than 60%, spearheading J&J’s COVID-19 vaccine efforts tops the list. “To be able to rapidly accelerate technology that would normally have taken about 17 years and do that in about a 12-month period, none of that would have been possible had it not been for decades of investment in research and development and trial and error,” he said.

Gorsky explained that shortly before he was named CEO, J&J’s pharmaceutical division had a vision to create a world without disease. To do that, it needed to become a vaccine company. So that’s what Gorsky set out to accomplish. “We didn't have that technology internally, so we invested about $2 billion in a vaccine company. Over the next five years, as is frequently the case, some things worked, a lot of things didn't work.”

Gorsky oversaw the company’s successful Ebola vaccine rollout. The techniques used in that case formed the basis for J&J’s COVID-19 vaccine, the first single-shot vaccine available. “Very early on we said we need to do this on a global basis,” Gorsky said. “And we felt that having a single dose that didn't require extreme refrigeration was going to be absolutely critical to getting it around the world where we didn't think two doses would work. We knew there would be some tradeoffs in terms of near-term versus long-term efficacy. But we also knew that if we use one dose, we could make two times as much so that we can get it out more quickly to people around the world.”

Leading in challenging times

Of course, like all leaders, Gorsky had to manage through turmoil beyond the pandemic, including geopolitical unrest and economic uncertainty. Gorsky shared how he was able to inspire his team and drive J&J’s growth into new markets. He also cautioned against regarding leaders as all-knowing oracles.

“Too often, we have this image of the perfect leader who just at the exact right time in the exact right tone of voice has that kind of clarion vision to say, here's what we should do. That's absolute bull----,” he said. “That is not the way it happens today. You are drinking from a fire hose 24/7. There's uncertainty, there's ambiguity all the time. And you got to find a comfort level in being able to deal in that kind of environment.”

For Gorsky, it starts with assembling a great team. That’s especially true when running a large, complex corporation like J&J, which includes shipping more than 330,000 line items daily, operating the world’s largest pharmaceutical business, developing treatments for various cancers and infectious diseases, and working on advances in robotic surgery. As Gorsky pointed out, it’s impossible for one person to be an expert on all facets of the business. Surrounding yourself with smart individuals who are empowered to take calculated risks is crucial, and it requires a corporate culture that embraces.

“If I don’t have experts in all these fields that I trust, that are extremely competent, and that I'm not afraid to walk into the room and lower the average IQ by 40 points, I just can’t be successful,” he said. “The other critical element for me is empowerment. And making sure they know if you take the risk, I’ve got your back. People have got to feel ownership and accountability, and you can't do that by micromanaging people from the center and by trying to make every decision ‘in the tower’ versus those who are out actually closest to patients or closest to your customers.

“And your people have got to feel that kind of empowerment, to have actually seen it come to life,” Gorsky continued. “And you’ve got to make sure that the people you’re putting around you also demonstrate those kinds of behaviors and values. Making sure that the leaders on your team are embracing and role modeling those kinds of behaviors every day is absolutely critical in large organizations. I believe culture trumps strategy, trumps so many other things all the time.”  

A culture of diversity

Another integral part of J&J’s culture is its commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion. As Gorsky pointed out, it’s an essential ingredient for success in the world we live in today. It’s a value that Gorsky said was ingrained early on, dating back to his time serving in the military.

“In the army we didn't get to choose the people who were in your unit,” he said. “You didn’t get to choose who you were working with, who you were working for. You had to figure out a way to connect with people, because there's no leadership without followship. For me, that experience was fundamental around [the fact that] we all share a common humanity. And when you build from there, you say, how do we work together? How do we make one plus one plus one equal seven rather than just three? And know that I have to connect with people on a personal level, regardless of their background or race, and how can I adapt my leadership to do that? Those were really important lessons to get.”

Gorsky said bringing that to life in a corporate environment requires implementing the systems and processes that make diversity, equity and inclusion part of its core values. That starts at the top of the organization.

“If you just have grandiose statements and your senior leadership team isn’t somewhat representative of the world, people are going to say you're talking to talk, but are you really walking the talk?” he said. “When you're recruiting, what do your recruiters look like? It's not only are you recruiting diverse slates of candidates, but are your recruiters demonstrating that commitment to diversity? What we’ve found is when you have a diverse group of interviewers, the probability of them recruiting more diverse candidates is going to go up significantly. We think that that's critical.”

The value of the personal touch

Running a company like J&J is a complex task in itself, but the world has grown ever more complicated over the past few years. But for Gorsky, there’s one simple tactic he devised in his years as CEO to create tighter connections with his teams.  

“I would make a list every week of five to 10 people who were direct reports to direct reports to direct reports, I would get their cell phone number, I’d call them on my way in and on my way home, and I'd say, ‘Hey, what the hell is going on? This is Alex.’ What should I be aware of that I'm probably not hearing from everybody? What could I be doing to do my job better or to make your job easier? You would be amazed at what you hear. What I found is that it kept me much closer to what was going on in the organization. It gives you an affinity for what's really going on, because there's a natural insularity that takes place. So I tried to create a lot of formal and informal feedback mechanisms. I encouraged my leaders to do the exact same thing.”

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Eric S. Smith Vice Chair, BMO Harris Bank


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