Cameron Durrant, MD, MBA, has served as a member and Chairman of Humanigen’s Board since January 2016, and as the Chief Executive Officer since March 2016. From May 2014 to January 2016, Dr. Durrant served as Founder and Director of Taran Pharma Limited, a private semi-virtual specialty pharma company developing and registering treatments in Europe for orphan conditions. Dr. Durrant served as President and Chief Executive Officer of ECR Pharmaceuticals Co., Inc., a subsidiary of Hi-Tech Pharmacal Co., Inc., from September 2012 to April 2014. From January 2010 to September 2012, Dr. Durrant served as a consultant to several biopharma companies, as the Founder, CEO, CFO and director of PediatRx, Inc. and on the boards of several privately-held healthcare companies. He previously served as CEO of PediaMed Pharmaceuticals and has been a senior executive at Johnson and Johnson, Pharmacia, GSK and Merck. Dr. Durrant served as a director of Immune Pharmaceuticals Inc. from July 2014 through August 2018 and serves on the board of directors of a privately held nano-biotech company and a medical device company. Dr. Durrant earned his medical degree from the Welsh National School of Medicine, Cardiff, UK, his DRCOG from the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, London, UK, his MRCGP from the Royal College of General Practitioners, London, UK, his DipCH from the Melbourne Academy, Australia and his MBA from Henley Management College, Oxford, UK.
Dr. Cameron Durrant shares his views on how successful leadership is achieved through the desire to be better, how good leaders are reflective and benefit from analysing their mistakes, and opens up about his own, often challenging path in life to becoming the leader that he is today.
What makes leaders become leaders? Are these innate skills or are they learned?
Some people may be born with innate leadership skills, but born or made, the real question is how can you be a better leader? By applying intentional approaches such as coaching, a commitment to learning, reflecting on insights, or teaching yourself, you can always be better, but you need to want it. David Goleman, an American psychologist, talked about the five elements of emotional intelligence that every good leader needs: self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy and social skills. If you’re fortunate to have them then burnish them, otherwise practice more. Get feedback, coaching, professional training, help from your family and experience, including making good and bad decisions.
Can you tell us about events or influences in your education or early career that helped to prepare you for leadership roles?
I grew up in South Wales in an economically deprived area. My skin colour meant that I was subjected to a degree of racism that was quite common at the time, including being punched and kicked at school every day. One of my teachers even used a racist nickname for me every day, nobody would accept it now but at the time it wasn’t really remarkable. My parents were very supportive, as were my teachers, and recognised the value of a good education and I was willing to pay the price, so I worked instead of playing soccer and I learnt to survive, learning social and physical skills and developing a good sense of humour. Most of the children at my school left at 15 to work locally but I stayed on and was their first student to go to medical school.
How did you begin your career in life science?
I enjoyed studying medicine and, after qualifying, I went to Australia to work. However, I was also interested in business and I invested in property, as well as working as a doc in a clinic which we expanded to a chain of clinics. The property idea collapsed when a partner reneged and as a result, I not only lost all that I had built up, but also owed money on top that I didn’t have. I learnt a lot about what is and isn’t important in life and the value of relationships over money. I also learned that when you gain something you have to pay a price and that when you lose something, you’ve also gained something. This perspective is difficult to master but good leaders are reflective and benefit from analysing their mistakes. It’s important to take responsibility and improve your decision-making so that you can course correct. Don’t be slavishly adherent to your plans, question when to give up and when to keep going. Look as far ahead as you can, be able to see several steps down the road.
When I returned to the UK, I wanted a job that blended science, medicine and business so the pharmaceutical industry was the ideal choice. It wasn’t easy to find a role and most recruiters said it was never going to happen, a transition from medicine to business was seen as very unusual. I decided to call every pharma company myself, working my way through the MIMS directory, until I found one that would have me. When I got to ‘M’ I called Merck and that was where I found my first role, if you want things to happen you have to take responsibility yourself. I also have had to reinvent myself in many different ways along the journey and constantly try new ideas, thought processes and try and learn about different ways of getting to a goal, which sometimes means being open to modifying or even completely changing that goal. Being relentless about improvement is key.
Can you describe your career path in life science and the major influences that helped you arrive where you are today?
When I joined Merck, I quickly recognised that while I had a high degree of ambition, I had a low level of technical corporate ability. I was clear in my mind that I wanted to be a senior leader and I quickly came to understand all the competencies (which I define as a mix of skills, knowledge and behaviour) that I would need if I was to succeed – P&L, sales, business development, manufacturing, marketing, clinical development, discovery – and become a General Manager. I took lots of courses, I was a constant reader of business books and I would sit in on learning opportunities wherever I could. I spent a lot of time listening to training tapes when I was driving the car, whatever effort it took to get me to where I wanted to be. It was the same approach as I’ve taken throughout my life – be disciplined, act with conscience, work hungry and believe in your own creativity and ability to work out a solution. And work harder than anyone else you know and get up early. I still listen to or watch developmental and educational material every day and have done now for decades.
What are the most important leadership skills that you’ve learned and would want to pass on to aspiring leaders?
You need to really understand who you are; this is a critically important point. Then, you have to be prepared to do the work, to be wrong and be open to doing things differently, however uncomfortable they may seem. I’d add that it’s essential to understand situational leadership and the need for balance. An example of balance would be this: Everyone likes people who are confident but not those who are arrogant.
In your experience, what are the most important skills to look for when building a leadership team?
I look for people who resonate with my personal philosophy because this translates into organisational culture. If people have a value set that meshes with your values and those of your organisation, it’s great. If people’s personal values don’t resonate with the organisation, then it’s a no go. People joining a team need to ask themselves what they want to accomplish, how will they get there and what will they contribute when they get there? Who do they want to become?
Has the growing recognition of the importance of equality, diversity and inclusion in an organisation and in society changed the way you build a team and what are the challenges you have seen to embedding an effective E, D and I culture in an organisation? What are the benefits when it’s done well?
Not for me because I’m an outlier to start with, I’ve has been living as a minority my entire life. Life experiences allow people to think broadly and creatively, your perspective doesn’t define you, but it does bring additional perspectives. What organisations need is a diversity of thinking. Diverse boards out-perform. I think about inclusion and engagement, a non-punitive culture that allows people to be authentic. There’s no right way or wrong way, but I don’t like people playing political like games. I believe in a simple culture framework – no scheming, undermining, taking credit, no passive aggressive behaviour.
What advice would you give to aspiring leaders?
Learn intensely and work harder than you think you could possibly work. Be a great listener – by which I also mean look for the meaning beneath the words – and ask really powerful and thought-provoking questions. ‘What if’ is a great start for any question.
I’m working as hard as ever. Don’t waste energy or time and make sure you’re doing things that motivate you. And think about how you can both constantly re-invent yourself and try new things, while remaining true to your core values.