Robert Wessman Of Alvogen: Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times
An Interview With Fotis Georgiadis
Listen and ask questions. A solution to a problem can often be one question away. It can be easy to think that one needs to deal with a demanding situation alone, but listening to and discussing problems with colleagues and advisers can help provide perspective on the situation.
As a 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 Róbert Wessman.
Róbert Wessman is Chairman & CEO at global pharmaceutical giant Alvogen, and founder and Chairman at biopharma specialist Alvotech.
Róbert grew up in Mosfellsbær, a small town on the outskirts of Reykjavík. From an early age he grew up with a love for both medicine and business; it was the latter path he chose to follow when picking his studies and he attended business school. However, he has since set up and developed a series of highly successful healthcare businesses to realise his vision of improving people’s lives through greater access to affordable medication. Róbert’s achievements have made him the subject of three Harvard Business School case studies on business excellence.
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 grew up in Iceland, in a small town on the outskirts of Reykjavik. I went to University in Iceland and the choice was between business or medical education. Eventually I chose business but have spent 23 years as a CEO in the Pharmaceutical industry.
I’ve always enjoyed international travel and loved the experience of living in Germany, when I worked for the shipping firm Samskip, eventually becoming CEO of their German operations.
However, Iceland would always be my home and just before my 30th birthday, I decided to come back and take on a new challenge — turning around a failing Icelandic pharma company called Delta. Although I chose business school, medicine always remained a great interest of mine. So, this was a chance to bring my business knowledge and skills and my passion for medicine together.
The rest is history, really… We turned Delta into the world’s third largest generic pharma company, and I realised just how excited I was about generics with their potential for making healthcare more accessible and more affordable.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
The ‘comedy moment’ I remember particularly vividly is actually from the days when we were building Alvogen. I was recovering after a serious cycling accident (more on that later) and was waiting to get a new set of teeth as my jaw was badly injured in the crash. In the interim, I had temporary teeth, but work was calling and off I went to pitch to some potential investors in the US.
Halfway through the meeting, I realised that my temporary dental implant had come off. I excused myself to go to the bathroom and tried to stick it back in with glue — but managed to glue my thumb to the implant! It dried instantly so I had to pull out half of the false teeth to get my thumb out of my mouth. I had run out of glue by that point so I just had to go back and finish the presentation with only half my teeth in place. Unsurprisingly, they didn’t invest… Lesson learnt — sometimes you just have to let go of a big meeting and prioritise your health!
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful for who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I have been fortunate to work with so many brilliant people over the years. Success always comes from a great team and a vision, so I cannot single out one person as such, but the thanks goes always to the team.
One story I can share, though, is from when I went to Norwich Pharmaceuticals in 2009 with a vision to create a top global pharma business. I wanted to bring medicines to the people that need them, everywhere from New York to Moscow to Bangkok.
I had no shortage of ambition, but every start-up comes with risks and the financial crisis had taken over the world, meaning funding for new ventures was in short supply. So quite a lot of people simply told me it was a terrible time to start something new. Yet, the team at Norwich was inspired and wanted to co-invest with me. Just a few short months later we joined forces to develop what is now Alvogen, a global business with over a billion dollars in sales.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
In every project and every new venture my take on my vision is the same — to improve people’s lives by providing easier access to affordable medication. Everyone should have access to the medicines they need, regardless of their financial status. I know every one of my teams and our many investors and partners are united behind that vision, and it really does help us persevere through the challenges. With every success, we make a difference to patients living around the world. A purpose driven business is for sure in many ways more rewarding.
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?
The early days of setting up Alvogen were certainly not easy! In the beginning, all I really had was the napkin on which I had sketched out my vision to create a new world-leading pharma business and a handful of colleagues. We had the ideas, but our pockets were empty and the financial markets around us had collapsed (it was 2009).
In this sort of scenario, you just have to believe and stay positive as a leader. I was motivating my team by motivating myself — put simply, if you are being a grumpy cynic, you are not going to bring many people on the journey with you!
Believing in the mission, having clear vision and goals, and making sure we achieved those, brought us eventually over the finish line. On that journey it is very important to celebrate all the small victories and stay focused and motivated.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
Perhaps the hardest thing I’ve had to deal with was a combination of personal and professional challenges as we were building Alvogen. In 2013, just as Alvogen was preparing to expand into 35 countries, I was training for a competitive cycling race. One day, I was going at 48km per hour and crashed into a car that stopped in the middle of the road. My spine was severed in two places, I was badly cut requiring dozens of stitches and I had sustained severe injuries to my jaw and teeth. The doctors said there was only a slim chance I would survive or even that I would ever walk again.
I had to spend three months immobilised, but I was not giving up on myself or on the Alvogen project. My hands were stitched up and I could still use those to type emails to the team and make sure things were progressing! Today, I can not only walk, but also play sports!
It really comes down to believing in yourself. I am very competitive, and I don’t have it in me to give up. That’s the spirit many of the startups and evolving businesses need. All businesses go through difficult times. The key is to understand where you need to go and how to get back on track. If you let failure or a difficult time impact you personally and demotivate you, the battle is already lost. So, it is crucial is to stay focused and positive!
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
A leader must be able to act and do when most others don’t. You have to communicate your vision, make sure the goals are clear, and that there is ample motivation as well as a sense of urgency. A leader also needs to make sure that the company and the team are both executing key tasks on time to get the company out of the hard times. A leader needs to be willing and able to be hands on and step in when critical things are not getting done.
Clarity of thought is critical. Like many industries, the generic pharma industry is complex. It is very easy for leaders to lose sight of the all-important roles simplicity, clarity, and consistency play in the success of any venture.
People get busy being busy and stop focusing on the key drivers in their industry. Being able to simply and clearly identify the 3–4 things that drive industry success (and therefore you and the team need to master those!) is key. We do not have to be perfect. We just need to be better than the others.
Understanding which those must-win-battles are and then building the organization around those priorities by ensuring clear accountability (organizational design and reward systems), consistency (organizational culture and targeted communication) and transparent execution of those priorities (hands-on-management and strategic investments) is something that sounds simple but harder to truly accomplish. Consequently, it is very often overlooked.
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?
For me, the most important thing is to lead from the front and make sure everyone can see the light at the end of the tunnel. Do not hide behind middle managers and computer screens. If my team is struggling, I will always be the one to go on the floor and talk to people so that we may find a solution collectively. If the team can see the end goal, despite tough times, they are always willing to put extra effort in.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Dialogue and transparency are key — they will see you through any challenge. If there is difficult news to share, be honest about it, communicate it respectfully and don’t hide things.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
The pharma industry is all about focusing on the long term — developing and bringing a new drug to market requires commitment and time. This means we are used to making plans, knowing that there is a great deal of uncertainty and things can shift along the way, be it new regulation, political instability or just about anything else.
A leader needs to use all resources to evaluate where the industry might be heading long term. I rely on people around me, I analyse trends and sometimes use market surveys. At end of the day after evaluating all of elements, I need to make a decision about where we want to be in 5 or 10 years. Our industry is always oriented for the long term — it takes up to 7 years to develop medicine, so we do not have any option other than to always think ahead. I don’t always get things right, but I get more things right than wrong. Being worried about making the wrong decision and therefore not making a decision at all, is the worst thing one can do and in my mind, is always a recipe for a failure.
The key is to have a consistent vision but be flexible on how to achieve your objectives. For example, in 2012 my expectation was that around 2020 the key pharmaceuticals in the world would be biologics. I decided to invest into the industry, knowing it would take 10 years and cost around $1 billion before we would launch the first product into the market. At that time the regulatory environment was not even clear, i.e. how to bring some of those products to market. I knew the regulations in Europe and US would become clear along the way and did not want to lose time. Today around 30 to 40% of global pharmaceutical sales is Biologics. We are in pole position with our biotech company Alvotech, about to launch our first product into the world’s markets.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
I consider it to be important to focus on the larger goal and mission of the company when going through turbulent times. At the same time, it does not matter what happened in the past. You always need to focus on how to deal with any situation, prevent it from happening again and then focus on the future. I never dwell on mistakes and let them bring me or the company down. Our goal at Alvogen is to provide access to vital medication to those who need it around the world at a lower cost. By focusing on the bigger picture, it is easier to deal with the ups and downs and avoid distraction with ideas that do not serve the overall goal of the company.
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?
The first mistake I see is that companies become complacent — they become successful and therefore they do not change with the market. We have seen companies like Nokia, like Kodak, Blackberry and other leading firms in their fields. They did not stay focused on developing their business and at the end of the day, their technologies did not stand up to the competition. You always need to think ahead — think, how will the market evolve and where am I going to be years from now? The second mistake is that many companies focus too much on the past and on mistakes. Dwelling too long on past wrongdoings does not help. The key focus should always be how to move forward. I also often see failing companies lacking in winning team spirit. That can come from a lack of vision within the company, a lack of motivation or simply because of bad morale and culture.
The hard work and loyalty of staff is what makes a company successful. In difficult times, it’s particularly important that the team has a sense of urgency and understands what needs to be done. That’s the role of a leader — to turn on that fire.
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
All businesses are subject to change. Changes can come from new competition, new technologies, new designs, new services or from other directions. To continue to be successful, a leader needs to create the urgency and mindset within the firm that we always need to think ahead and how today’s market will change. So being successful in business is like being a soccer team which won a game yesterday. Tomorrow is a new game against a different team which might require a different strategy. To keep up this sense of urgency, long-term thinking about where the industry is heading and motivation to change is the key for future success.
Honesty, effective communication, and forward planning are vital whilst trying to move forward during difficult times. These each keep morale high within the team and help to maintain focus on the challenges you are facing together.
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.
- It is important to keep a clear head. Without a clear head, the tough decisions that will need to be made cannot be done so effectively. Uncomfortable situations are part and parcel of leading a business, so this is an important skill to master. In my early days in business, I found this more challenging, but with experience comes the ability to see past the problem.
- Communicate with staff and customers as early as possible. Without communication, trust, morale, and loyalty will be lost along with the ability to cope with the uncertainty ahead.
- Listen and ask questions. A solution to a problem can often be one question away. It can be easy to think that one needs to deal with a demanding situation alone, but listening to and discussing problems with colleagues and advisers can help provide perspective on the situation.
- Plan for the long-term. Focusing only on the problem at hand will not help the long-term health of your organisation. By setting time aside to also push forward towards your future goals, it will help increase stability and safety once the short-term difficulty has been resolved.
- Don’t lose sight of your values. Your values are what an organisation rests on, if you step away from these during times of uncertainty, the foundations of the organisation can be lost along with its purpose.
- Make sure that the team is focused and feels the sense of urgency. Key through tough times is to have a plan in place, make sure that the team believes in the plan and executes it on time.
Can you please give us your favourite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
When I lost a big portion of my wealth in the financial crises and when I had life-threatening accident. In both cases I said to myself: “F..it. This happened and I cannot do anything about it. It has already happened and the only question is how am I going to deal with it and move forward.” After 90 days being in bed with double spinal fracture, I got back into sports. After losing so much of my wealth, I knew I would get back on my feet by staying focused and engaging the team. In both cases this was not easy, I could have stayed in the past with questions like why and if… but I didn’t. I simply moved on.
How can our readers further follow your work?
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!
Robert Wessman Of Alvogen: Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.