With over 20 years of biotech R&D experience building out drug pipelines and helping drive several multi-billion-dollar companies from start-up, Tony is one of Biotech’s most successful leaders. Before joining Evox Therapeutics Ltd as CEO, Tony was CSO of Ablynx, Moderna Therapeutics, Alnylam and Tolerx Inc. His work has been instrumental in creating and advancing 3 new drugs modalities (RNA interference, messenger RNA, and single domain antibodies) and in bringing multiple drugs to the market. He was also Principal Investigator who was awarded over $80m in grants, has over 60 scientific publications and is a named inventor on over 100 issued U.S. patents. In this piece, Tony tells us about his world and shares valuable insights into leadership and building teams.
Learning resilience in childhood bred confidence and clarity
No one starts as an ideal leader; some people do have a natural ability but I also believe that we all have valuable things to learn.
I didn’t feel drawn to be a leader as a child. I had a difficult childhood from a medical perspective and had to endure countless medical operations over 20 years. This together with experiencing how unforgiving children can be, helped me to build a strong level of resilience so I came to rely on myself and my immediate family. My self-confidence grew and I became clearer about the goals I wanted to accomplish in life. I blossomed academically and was drawn to science, despite my parents not having a similar background. My father had his own company renting construction equipment and I worked for him during the summers. While I learnt a lot of useful skills like driving 5-ton trucks and running a finance function, I had a desire to do something with a larger purpose, something connected to healthcare and to helping people. I thought about becoming a doctor but I wanted to be at the forefront of cutting-edge science, I was about 20 when I made that choice.
After graduation I left Montreal and went to Harvard to do my PhD in Immunology. This was a great time for me, and I met a lot of amazing people who are still good friends today.
Transition from academia
After Harvard I went on to do a post doc in Cambridge doing work on B-Cell signal transduction which was and is still a big field. This was in the mid 90’s. I wanted my work to become more translational, asking questions like how would this impact patients – how can we make a drug out of this? Being in academia at that time, it was difficult to answer those questions. I had my fellowship and was comfortable going about my business. Then I received a call out of the blue from Biogen, a large biotech company in Boston, offering me a job. I have been very fortunate in my career having never formally applied for a job; opportunities always seemed to crop up at the right time. I remember at one point transitioning between companies and I had planned to take a few months off which lasted only seven days!
The way I look at it – from a really early age I was always of the mentality that if it is something really interesting and I want to do it then one shouldn’t let the fear of risk or failure get in the way because as long as it’s a choice that makes sense and that in retrospect you can say ‘this is why I did it’ then even if it doesn’t work there is no harm, no foul. If you are excited by it then you should do it.
Creating an empowered organisation
My main job as CEO is to enable people to do their best work, which is why at Evox we are developing an organisation where everyone working as a team has the opportunity to create their masterpiece and build what could be their life’s work.
I learned from my parents at an early age that being hands-on and approachable is an effective way to hear and see directly what is going on, to facilitate discussion, get real insights from people and to ensure everyone is valued. My dad knew every person in his company and he had over 200 people, he would walk on the shop floor and speak to each of them. I try to visit the lab several times a week and I steer people towards the mindset of making their own decisions regardless of where they sit in the organisation, like a mini-CEO. We want them to own what they are working on so that they can make decisions as they see fit whilst we provide the overall direction. Ultimately, the more ‘power’ you give people the more productive they will be if they understand the destination.
Culture is an interesting thing – as a leader you can destroy a culture quickly, if the management team or CEO doesn’t walk the walk or buy into the culture it won’t take hold. It must be authentic. Ultimately culture is something that is developed by the people within the organisation and there is typically a small subset of people irrespective of seniority who become its guardians. These people are vital because they are going to be the ones who will embody it and keep it alive. During the lifetime of an organisation culture is constantly evolving, it’s a bit like an asymptotic curve – you get closer and closer but never quite fully arrive at the destination – it’s one constant journey. Cultures can be influenced by many things such as growth or location and how people respond to the culture may be different but you want to try and tie that together so there is a commonality. Ultimately listen to feedback, your employees are also your customers and it doesn’t matter how well you think you have done it, if it hasn’t succeeded from their point of view then it hasn’t succeeded.
Building brilliant teams
When we hire, 40% of what we look for has to do with technical and skill set and 60% has to do with personality and culture fit. It’s the latter half that is the most critical determinant of a successful hire. It is not necessarily that we are looking for everything to fit into a phenotype because there is a lot of benefit to having people who look at problems in different ways. Its more in terms of the general tenets around people being empowered, working well with others and being proactive. These are probably the most important in determining who we hire and who we don’t. It is difficult to measure but I think you can get a good sense of how people are when you interact with them. For the more senior roles we like to see first-hand what they will be like to work with, so we look at how they interact with the existing team, present data and answer questions and challenge ideas. We often get blown away by how well people prepare and how they answer questions and debate.
The more authentic you are the more successful you are going to be as a leader
I would say the people part of what I do is probably by far and away the most important thing. It’s about talking to people and making sure they understand where we are going, what they need to do and why. You should never assume that because it is clear in your head it is clear in someone else’s head. You must be able to read the audience that you are talking to in order to get what they respond to. One of your main goals is to not just to transmit a message but to ensure that there is a dialogue, because the more engaged the people you are talking with are, the more bought-in they are going to be. It’s about having people bring their whole selves to work, the more authentic you are the more successful you are going to be as a leader.
Why training at every level is important
A key successful factor from a drug development perspective is about time, can we get drugs into clinical trials or to market for patients faster in a high-quality way and doing the right thing? Patients are constantly waiting for new breakthroughs and it is our responsibility to do that as safely and quickly as possible. Feeding into this, is also about how we can enable our people to do their best work. We want them to come into work and say, ‘this is the best job I’ve ever had’. For most people the major determinant in terms of how happy they are in their job is who they are interacting with most closely in their work environment. That’s where training at every level of the organisation becomes important. We do employee surveys to check in on their wellbeing and happiness, but that is only one metric. We also manage our performance reviews in a different way to encourage ongoing open communication and feedback rather than it occurring once or twice a year with your line manager in a formal performance review. You need to have that discussion in real time so that none of what comes out in your performance review at the end of the year is a surprise.
What advice would you give to an aspiring leader?
To become a good leader:
- Listen to people – Get feedback from people you work with – not just the ones above but also from the ones at the same level and below – because you will learn a lot about yourself. That’s very important.
- Be humble & authentic – one of the interesting things about this business is that everyone is smart, regardless of if they are a research associate, a scientist, or a director. So being authentic and straightforward with them is the best way to go.
Is this industry different for women?
Yes. Unfortunately, women are still underrepresented across most senior levels of the pharma/biotech industry. At Evox we are just over 50% women overall, on the senior leadership team we have 2 out of 7 people, and at the extended leadership team level it is around 40%. Having that diversity is important because different points of views and ways of looking at things, regardless of gender, background or race, delivers the most effective solutions. The last thing you want round the table is a group of people who all think the same.
I think it is more difficult for women, there is still bias in the community in terms of how women are perceived, and so they do have to go the extra mile to prove themselves. That’s not across the board but you do see that in some situations.
My advice for all leaders, not just female, is be yourself, take initiative, and seize opportunities that come up. Don’t get overly concerned about the outcome, if you have put enough effort in and done a good job, the outcome you want will usually happen.
What’s next for you?
Looking to continue to build Evox and building a substantial Biotech that will allow people to do their best work, to be trained, and foremost, we want to get drugs to patients. But building out the team and the people throughout the organisation is just as important, particularly in the UK where there haven’t been as many really successful large Biotechs on the scale that you get in the US. There are several companies going down that route now and we want to be at the forefront.
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