Committed to the core Featured

8:00pm EDT September 25, 2007

Gerry Proehl is a big believer in his organization’s core values. As president, CEO and director of Santarus Inc., however, Proehl says core values are meaningless if not practiced and passed on by the company’s leadership.

“The most important thing is not that you put these core values on a plaque or hang them on the wall, but that the senior management team actually believes in them and models them,” Proehl says. “If they’re not doing it and they’re just saying it, it’s not going to mean anything.”

When Proehl, who joined the San Diego-based pharmaceutical firm as a vice president in 1999, sat down with his management team in the early stages of the company’s growth, he helped develop and define a set of beliefs that is now incorporated into everything the company does. And while the leadership team at Santarus walks the talk, the fact that annual revenue nearly doubled from $26.5 million in 2005 to $49 million in 2006 has done its part in encouraging employees to buy in.

Proehl spoke with Smart Business about building collaboration and the importance of making good hires.

Q: How would you describe your leadership style?

I’ve hired some very experienced folks at the senior level, and I’ve tried to set up a team environment where we get good interaction and input, and we have open discussion, and then we make decisions. It isn’t a situation where there’s a unilateral decision-maker. People have to be able to openly share ideas, whether they’re similar ideas or whether they’re ideas in disagreement with what we’re talking about and feel comfortable that there’s no retribution if they disagree with the boss or other folks in management. We try to set up a situation where there is an open discussion among the senior team so they can raise issues, we address them and come to a decision that everybody then is supportive of.

Q: What are the dangers of being a unilateral leader?

It’s one of those things you might be able to get away with when you’re a small company because you’re knowledgeable about everything going on. The problem is that type of leadership style is very limiting if you want to really grow the company. There’s just no way to be knowledgeable enough in all areas that we’re involved with that you can make all the decisions yourself. That’s where your senior team can really play a major role.

Q: What is the danger of growing too fast?

The most important thing is being able to maintain the culture as you bring a lot of people in. We went through that at one point in 2004 when we scaled up our commercial organization. We brought in 250 people over a six-month period, and at the time, the company was only about 50 people.

You can very quickly lose control of your culture if you’re not careful. You have to make sure when you’re growing rapidly to continue to focus on really bringing in high-quality people who match the values system you’re looking for.It’s easy to get caught in a situation where you’re trying to hire so many people that you might ignore that and you bring people in because they’re warm bodies.

Trying to make sure we’re really staying true to our culture and true to our values is part of the reason we go through a rigorous process of interviewing candidates.

Q: How would you describe your interviewing process?

We’ve established five core values that really define our organization: team-work, ownership, productivity, integrity and quality. When we’re interviewing, it’s something that we always try to find in new hires.

You can train people and develop skills they don’t have, but core values that people bring to an organization are hard to change. If their values system is not the same as the values system of the company, the likelihood is that they’re not going to fit long term. We spend a lot of time in the interview process not only looking at the skills, experience and knowledge people have, but really trying to figure out their core values and how they fit with our organization.

Q: How can a values system be identified during an interview?

We put people through a cross-functional interview process, where we’ll have people from all different departments interview somebody. If a candidate is a district sales manager, they might interview with somebody from finance, somebody from commercial and somebody from human resources.

In those interviews, each of those folks is going to be asking questions to really try to identify the candidate’s core values. The commercial interviewers are going to focus all about the skills and the experience. The people in finance or HR or manufacturing are more focused on, ‘How’s this person going to fit within the organization?’

By doing that, we get a good overview of whether everybody feels comfortable that the fit is going to be right with the organization.

HOW TO REACH: Santarus Inc., or (858) 314-5700