Marc de Garidel, CEO of Abivax, on the Best Leadership Advice He’s Given and Received

Marc de Garidel
CEO at Abivax

Abivax is a clinical-stage biotechnology company focused on developing therapeutics that harness the body’s natural regulatory mechanisms to modulate the immune response in patients with chronic inflammatory diseases. Marc de Garidel, an experienced leader in the biopharma sector, was appointed CEO in 2023 to lead Abivax as it moves towards commercialization of its lead drug candidate, obefazimod, currently tested in phase 3 trials for the treatment of adults with moderately to severely active ulcerative colitis (UC). I recently talked with him about leadership and lessons he has learned over his career.

What has been the most useful leadership advice you’ve received?

Early on in my career, with Eli Lilly France, my boss at the time told me, “Marc, it is not how fast you go, it is how far you go.” Especially when you are a young and dynamic person, you tend to want to undertake a lot of things. You want to go fast and to get ahead in your career quickly. It is important to sometimes slow down and ensure that you fully understand and deliver in your current role before moving to the next. This is so relevant in particular to the pharmaceutical industry because it is very technical in nature. If you want to succeed later on in leadership roles, the accumulation of different types of experiences, both cross-functionally as well as geographically, is extremely important—especially in general management. I was a GM at Amgen France in their first commercial operation for nearly five years, and really saw the value of being in the job for a while so you learn different facets of the general manager responsibility. You see what works, what doesn’t work and what you can learn from it. So now, when I’m recruiting people, I’m always looking at whether they have been in a job long enough to truly make a difference over time.

There are some leaders who excel on the short-term fix. But are they able to sustain the value creation, or does it fall apart over time? What I learned from my boss’s advice was: Things take time anyway, so if you want to do good things, take the time. You’re not always going to be right the first time, so you have to course-correct. But as time goes on, you’re going to see whether you’re making a difference or not. Though I didn’t realize it initially, there was a lot of wisdom in that statement.

As a leader, at what point do you realize it’s time to move on (within or outside your organization)?

It all depends on the complexity of the job. For general management, I would say three years is the bare minimum you would need to demonstrate your impact over time. So ideally four to five years. Beyond that, there is a risk of routine. You may become less creative, less engaged. There are some fantastic leaders like Jamie Dimon in the banking industry or Jack Welsh for GE who were able to survive the ups and downs of the business and manage organizations for much longer. Part of the process is how you build teams, which is highly complex, and though it’ll never be perfect in the beginning, it takes time to build this foundation. It’s very rare that you can get your team right within the first year.

What advice would you give a first-time CEO?

It’s very different to be a part of an organization, even with unique business unit responsibility, and to be the CEO. While you think you are prepared because you’ve mastered a lot of different things, becoming a CEO for the first time is a really significant step up in responsibility and in complexity. You’re going to make mistakes—that’s clear—and you’re going to need a team around you who can help you focus on the things that are most important. You can’t get distracted by the daily routine, where you historically tended to be very good (your talent there is part of why you were selected for the top job in the first place!). As a first-time CEO, you have to concentrate on the things that are going to have a lasting impact, figure out the risks you’re taking, and resist the temptation to be involved in every little detail.

Secondly, building trust and spending a lot of time with the Board of Directors is absolutely critical. It’s something a lot of new CEOs tend to neglect initially, as you believe you are doing the right things, and then you report those things to the board. But when there are big strategy discussions, when there are some very acute issues—how you are involving, managing, and using the board as a channel to help you?

Any advice specifically from a biotech perspective on what to focus on?

The first three months are very important for a new CEO. You need to take the time to inform yourself, have a good idea of the company’s SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats). Lay out the foundation—based upon what you hear and see by meeting with your executive team direct reports, the board, and external parties to understand their perspective—in setting the direction of the company for the next several years. The risk is that you’re going to be facing some ongoing issues that need to be resolved, but at the same time, if you don’t think about the trajectory of the company over time, what you really want to build, it will be a problem later. You cannot tweak the strategy on a constant basis, as it will cause complete confusion.

Also, for the first 90 days or so you should create a management book of sorts to establish the company’s mission, vision but most importantly, the key pieces on how you’re going to create value for patients and ultimately shareholders. You also need to know what you are going to focus on, in particular where to invest in your portfolio. In discussing the long-term strategy with your team, it’s also a great way to discern who is going to be with you in the future, to help build things. This exercise helps determine the team’s capabilities. In the next three to six months, you can continue to fine-tune the strategy with your board, getting buy-in, including (if you are publicly traded company) with the financial markets and investors.

Marc de Garidel, CEO of Abivax, on the Best Leadership Advice He’s Given and Received
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