Two CEOs on the Best Leadership Advice They’ve Ever Received — and Given

For anyone working in executive recruiting, it is clear that there is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to choosing a CEO for an organization. Whether a company is just starting out, needs a cultural turnaround, or is making moves to grow in a different direction, they need a leader who can achieve their specific goals.

But whether CEOs succeed in their new roles is heavily shaped by their leadership abilities. For that reason, I’ve been fascinated by leadership qualities, both innate and learned, and I’ve developed something of a tradition. I ask executives that we work with two questions: What is the best leadership advice you’ve ever gotten, and what’s one piece of leadership advice you give others?

The last year has seen explosive growth in biotech: More new businesses were started than any other year, and a record-breaking number of new CEOs were appointed. These CEOs are also taking the reins in the midst of the pandemic. With all that in mind, I recently asked two CEOs we recruited—Christine Miller of Melinta Therapeutics, and Francesco Lavino of F2G—the two leadership questions. Here’s what they said.

The best advice she ever received was about the importance of collaboration if you want to have a high performing team, and it came from her first boss at Sandoz. “It wasn’t a lesson he ever sat me down and told me—it’s a lesson I gathered from watching him build the team,” Miller said. It was clear to her that while technical skills were important, it was equally—if not more—important to make sure that the team worked well together.

How did he do it? He recruited people with a team mindset and then spent time team-building, Miller recalled. “You want to pay attention to the personalities and whether they are compatible with the rest of the team,” she said. Ask yourself, What are the missing pieces? You have to be intentional about it. Each person has their functional expertise, but how will this collection of individuals impact the team and complement each other? And how effectively will they integrate into their new team?

Miller’s advice to others: Know your purpose and take roles that are aligned with that purpose. “I realized my own purpose is helping others live better lives through problem-solving. When I was considering joining Melinta, I realized there would be alignment. With the company emerging from bankruptcy and resetting its strategy, there was plenty to address in order to set the organization on a path to growth and profitability.” It doesn’t matter if you are the CEO or not—if your purpose isn’t aligned with the needs of an organization, you won’t get followership, she says.

How do you know what your personal purpose is? Miller says you should identify the experiences in life that have brought you meaning and fulfillment. There will be a theme that leads you to understanding your purpose.

The best advice he ever received was to get his priorities clear right away. You need to understand immediately how to invest your time, he says. When he joined F2G, the goals for 2021 had already been at least partially established. For the first few weeks, he spent a lot of time with each of the board members and continued to test the top four priorities for the year. He wanted to make sure there was alignment across the board. “It sounds simple, but it is not. When you join a company, you can be pulled in so many different directions. I found it helpful to start each meeting—with the board, the executive team, or in a broader setting (town hall)—with two slides: One for our vision and one for our 2021 priorities,” he said. That way, you avoid the organization losing focus.

Lavino said this is particularly critical in a startup environment, where the risks of being scattered are very high. “Every action will be set in the context of these priorities—from ordering computers for new employees to ensuring financing for the organization. The key is consistency,” he said. He would start every meeting with the vision and the four priorities and structure the rest of the presentation around updates to each of them.

Lavino’s advice to others: Focus on people immediately—both the people you have and the ones you don’t have. “Be quick. Go after the best people you can get—and make corrections where needed as quickly as possible,” he said. Also, make sure to establish the right culture from the start. “F2G is an organization that comes with a strong culture from its UK headquarters. It’s a mission-driven organization. For me, it was of central importance to keep that great culture and at the same time build a new organization here in the U.S., one transitioning from an R&D organization to a commercial organization. It is important to create a cultural framework,” he said.

Borjana Fermaud is a Partner at Catalyst Advisors. With 15 years of biopharmaceutical experience, Fermaud has connected talent with opportunities to maximize the potential of both executives and organizations. 

Prior to joining Catalyst Advisors, Borjana was Vice President of Relationship Management for GLG Institute, where she built and curated an ecosystem of industry leaders and subject matter experts to create a world-leading platform for learning and mentorship. Previously, she held the position of Chief of Staff to the Global CEO of Bayer Medical Care.

Two CEOs on the Best Leadership Advice They’ve Ever Received — and Given
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