Patrick Soon-Shiong has business down to a science.
A doctor who was once a surgeon at UCLA, Soon-Shiong says he has the perspective of both ascientist and a businessman when it comes to leading Abraxis BioScience Inc.
The chairman and CEO says business and science aren’t mutually exclusive disciplines. In fact,business can be considered a form of science, especially when it comes to developing a criticaleye and never taking any piece of information at face value.
Soon-Shiong expects everyone at Abraxis to approach business with the same critical eye as hedoes, and he fosters a culture of critical thinking by starting with the words that come out of hisown mouth. “Our culture starts with me,” he says. “If I get in a room and nobody is challenging what I say, Iget very upset. Not angry upset, but upset in the sense that I think every statement needs to bechallenged in a very thoughtful way.”
Soon-Shiong says relentless self analysis of your policies and data is the only way you will ultimately drive your business to the top.
It might not be microbiology or astronomy, but to Soon-Shiong, business is, in many ways, justlike a science.
A critical culture
Innovation is the fuel of Abraxis, a biopharmaceutical company that specializes in injectable medicines to treatserious illnesses such as cancer. But at Abraxis, which had nearly $519 million in net sales in 2005, an idea is onlya starting point.
Soon-Shiong says that when it comes to innovation, you must validate the idea and then validate the validation.
“The nature of good science is always to challenge,” he says. “It starts with a good idea, you get the good idea,then you validate the validation and you continue the process.”
Forming a culture that casts a constructively critical eye toward new ideas starts at the CEO’s desk, but that culture won’t sustain itself and take on a life of its own without putting the right people in the right places.
You must have people who are motivated by the company’s mission. At Abraxis, Soon-Shiong wants to hire people who are motivated by the belief that their work makes a difference in the world.
Soon-Shiong says if you want to have employees who are motivated to produce and refine great ideas, they mustbe motivated not just by the mission of the company, but in some cases, by the mission of the industry. “I look for two qualities in a team member,” he says. “The first quality I really look for is in people who sincerely believe that the pharmaceutical industry is the industry in which they are here to make a difference in apatient’s life. “The second is, these have to be smart people. That is the real strength of a company, if you can surround yourself with smart, intelligent people who are detail-oriented and have a high work ethic. It doesn’t matter whatindustry you are in, you will succeed because of the intelligence of the people you have hired.”
Attitude and intelligence are only parts of the equation, however. Your employees must also be secure enoughthat they are willing to accept constructive criticism, which comes back to the culture that you have formed,Soon-Shiong says.
For your employees to treat criticism as an opportunity for improvement and not as an adversarial situation,you must start by embracing criticism as something that is positive for the company and communicating that toyour team. “From that point, people know that when they are challenged, it isn’t a personal attack,” he says. “People knowthat it’s really for the good of the organization.”
Soon-Shiong says communicating and sustaining an innovative culture requires the repeated hammering homeof the same messages to your work force. It takes time and the willingness to communicate as much as possiblewith your employees.
Employees thrive on communication from management. It has a large bearing on how they innovate and createnew ideas.
Soon-Shiong says that it is up to the executive team, and ultimately the CEO, to paint a specific picture of thecompany’s direction. In an industry with many possible avenues for new business, that’s especially important.“There are so many avenues right now [in biopharmaceuticals], and I think the challenge is to make sureemployees know which direction we are going in,” he says. “As we are growing so fast, it’s hard for some peopleto keep pace. We use both internal and external communications as ways to communicate where the organization is going.”
In those communications, which include newsletters and e-mail, Soon-Shiong not only disseminates information, he solicits it.
If you ask your employees to be creative, you must make sure they can take their ideas as high as they need towithin the organization, he says. Soon-Shiong is a believer in an open-door policy, and he communicates it to theAbraxis team frequently. “It’s all about openly challenging people and having an open-door policy,” he says. “I want ideas to come all the way tothe top in terms of the head research and development people and all the executive committee members, and ultimately, myself. I am always trying to make sure that important ideas flow upward in the company. To that end, I personallyparticipate in some of our [project] review meetings.”
Soon-Shiong says one of the best ways to make criticism constructive is to approach it through different angles.He believes in bringing different perspectives to the table when reviewing a new idea. He calls the groups a “convergent of multidisciplines,” and says that you should strive to build a work force that has diverse backgrounds,with each person bringing something unique to the larger organization.
“You need smart people with diverse backgrounds,” he says. “For instance, we have regulatory scientists with very extensive clinical trial management backgrounds and regulatory scientists with global experience. Our basic scientists extend between mathematicians, computations scientists and physicists.”
The need for multiple perspectives is something Soon-Shiong has learned through his own professional experiences.
“I have had a 360-degree exposure to my industry,” he says. “I was a surgeon at UCLA and understood the needs ofpatients with life-threatening diseases. I was a basic scientist and started working with nanoparticles and stem cells veryearly on in my career. Then, I’ve also been exposed to the commercial side, where I’ve been involved in building a pharmaceutical company and directly involved with the manufacturing process and all the challenges that go with it.”
He says if you want your organization to have a wide view on innovation that encompasses multiple perspectives andhave leadership that seeks multiple sources of input on creative projects, you need to create an organization that does-n’t have layer upon layer of management hierarchy.
At Abraxis, Soon-Shiong has structured an organization in which he can reach down several levels to address lower-rung employees, and those employees can address him.
It goes back to having accessible management and tirelessly communicating an open-door policy. But it gets more difficult the larger your company gets.
Abraxis has expe rienced rapid growth in recent years. In 1996, the company employed fewer than 50 people. By 1998,that had sprouted to 500, and by 2006 had increased to just over 2,000. “Keeping a flat organization is certainly a challenge as you grow bigger,” he says. “It’s easy when you are 500 people,and it might still be relatively easy when you are at 2,000. But as you start growing to 5,000 or 10,000, it has to beaddressed from the top down on a daily basis.”
As you grow, keeping lines of communication open and your messages consistent becomes more and more important.There is no secret to it, Soon-Shiong says, other than to make sure you and your senior management team remain vigilant about communication and actively seek feedback from all areas of your company.
Soon-Shiong says as a CEO, you aren’t just a businessman, or a scientist, or a number-cruncher. You are also a teacher.Employees become passionate about their work by learning about their jobs and how their jobs affect others. You cangive them charts and graphs to show them how their work fits into the big picture mathematically. You can show themhow their work fits into the next big product your company is going to produce. All of that works on some level.
But one of the best ways you can give your employees a sense that their work is producing real results is to relay tothem the stories of the people they are helping. In some industries, it might be your company’s product helping peoplein another company thousands of miles away to get their jobs done. At Abraxis, motivation comes in the form of cancersurvivors and others who are winning the battle with life-threatening diseases. “You need to believe in your conviction, that what you are doing is really affecting and changing lives,” he says. “Youneed to find the people whose lives are actually changed by your innovations and share their stories with your team.“At Abraxis, we are very fortunate and blessed that the patients actually call in and share with us experiences thatchanged their lives. Some patients had breast cancer and were told that they only had a few months to live, and some ofthem had full [treatment] responses. These are the things that really motivate us.”
Showing Abraxis team members how their ideas become life-changing treatments is the most powerful motivator Soon-Shiong says he has.
He says you have to create a feeling among your employees that there is a real need for what you are doing as a company, something that creates a purpose beyond the profit-loss ledger. “I think there needs to be a recognition that there is an urgent, unmet need for what it is you do,” he says. “That ishow you guard against complacency.”
Soon-Shiong says that monetary rewards are a significant part of the equation when it comes to motivating employees, and employees do respond to financial gain. But as the CEO, you should dig deeper to find what beyond moneycan motivate your team. “We offer both stock options and a competitive salary as compensation,” he says. “But that’s not what drives somepeople, certainly not a lot of our people. For some, the satisfaction of making a difference is the great motivator.”
HOW TO REACH: Abraxis BioScience Inc., www.abraxisbio.com