Ordinary People Achieving The Extraordinary: Lessons In Leadership From The Court To The C-suite

Posted April 30th, 2020 by Josh Brumm, in From The Trenches, Leadership

This blog was written by Josh Brumm, CEO of Dyne Therapeutics, as part of the From The Trenches feature of LifeSciVC.

I stood in front of 15 skeptical parents and prepared to sell them on an improbable mission.

They had all signed their daughters up for the first-grade basketball team. I would be coaching that team. And I was here to advise them that this would not be the type of experience their six- and seven-year-olds were used to.

I clicked on the PowerPoint that shared my vision: I would teach the girls teamwork and skills. I would establish clear roles. And I would hold them accountable for doing their jobs well. We would not give everyone equal playing time. We would not hand out participation trophies. We would insist that every girl come to every practice and every game with the team’s mission firmly in mind.

That mission? This team would go to the AAU national championships in Orlando to play at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex. 

I know some of the parents thought my presentation was over the top. After all, these were ordinary girls, not athletic superstars. For many, it was their first experience playing organized sports. But I knew from my own long experience in athletics that teams need a mission, a vision and a plan.

Over the next two seasons, the girls of California Crush Basketball became nearly unbeatable. We kept teaching, learning and competing. As fourth graders, the girls made it to the championship in Orlando, placing second as national runners-up. Mission accomplished.

This story encapsulates my approach to leadership – an approach I think is broadly applicable across biotech.

It’s all too easy in this industry for startups to lose sight of their founding mission in pursuit of the next big thing. When I joined Dyne Therapeutics as president and CEO in October of 2019, I made clear that we would stay true to the mission that Atlas Venture and our founders had laid out for the company: We would pioneer life-transforming therapies for patients with serious muscle diseases.

Then we added another layer to our vision: We would become the world’s leading muscle disease company.

Our FORCETM platform, which deploys antibody-oligonucleotide therapeutics to modify disease-causing RNA in a cell’s nucleus, has the potential to treat diseases beyond muscle. Nonetheless, I feel very strongly that we cannot lose focus by chasing all the possible applications of our platform. We have a clear mission, and it’s a vitally important one. People living with relentless muscle diseases such as myotonic dystrophy type 1 and Duchenne muscular dystrophy are losing strength and function month after month. We owe it to them to move as quickly as we can to bring our investigational therapies to the clinic.

Drawing on my leadership experience – including, yes, as a first-grade basketball coach – I have established five straightforward principles aimed at setting our team up for success:

#1: We keep our mission top-of-mind

One of my colleagues noted the other day that at Dyne, you can’t so much as grab a new pencil without being reminded of our goals. It’s true. Our monthly goals are taped to the door of each supply closet, and our annual goals are posted in huge type in the break room. Each and every member of the team knows what we have to accomplish in May, in June and next December.

We know, of course, that any number of things could throw us off track — this is biotech, after all. But uncertainty is baked into our industry; it’s not a reason to waffle on establishing goals.

The goals are not just for show, either. Every month, we assess how we performed against them. We hold ourselves accountable, both as a management team and as a company. We’re here to get a job done, and if we’re slipping on any one metric, we put our heads down and redouble our efforts until we’ve caught up.

#2: We check our egos at the door

When I first came in as CEO, I told my team that Dyne has no place for egos.

Some of us will have our photos on the corporate website. Some will not. You may be asked to go to a conference. Or you may not. Your presentation slot may be 15 minutes – or it may be 30 seconds. We know such decisions can lead to bruised egos, but we ask the whole team to make an effort to rise above. Our expectation is that no one will dwell on, mope about, or gossip about such issues. The inefficiencies of such griping have always bothered me; doers do and there is no place for excuses.

I’ve tried to model that behavior by example. My executive team – and by extension, the broader Dyne organization – is a superstar group, all of them. We support one another, we stay focused and we get our jobs done. It’s a team that’s all about the mission, not the “me.”

#3: We communicate to comprehension  

I believe in transparency. I believe in communication. And that’s how I run Dyne.

Our team members understand their roles; we make sure they also understand how their “to do” lists ladder up to our larger ambitions. After each board meeting, for instance, we hold an all-company town hall to share decisions and goals with the entire team. We reinforce those takeaways in one-on-one check-ins. That’s a vital part of communicating to comprehension: We take every opportunity to reinforce our key messages via multiple platforms, so every member of the team internalizes our mission.

I’ve told the management team that I believe in telling it like it is. I don’t like to sugar-coat or dance around a topic: I believe in honest, straightforward communication. Only then can you feel confident your team truly understands your message – and will stand behind you in both the banner moments and the more difficult times.

The COVID-19 pandemic has admittedly made communication a challenge, but like most companies, we are finding our way through. We have weekly all-company Zoom meetings to ensure we’re all aligned on our goals and getting the support we need to accomplish them. I have also made it a habit to pick up the phone and call members of my team regularly, just to check in. It’s a good way to maintain that sense of connection and common purpose that’s intrinsic to Dyne.

We’ve also started a leadership group text thread. In the early days, we used it for strategic planning around our coronavirus response. It’s now also a channel for giving virtual high fives. In addition, we’ve started sharing items that make us laugh. In such a stressful time, it’s important to be able to step back and smile while also continuing to demonstrate the importance of transparent and clear communication. The text chain is a fun way to do that and has absolutely drawn us closer as a team.

#4: We operate in a paradigm of “quality, speed, cost” – always in that order

Quality is the bedrock, of course; we must do things right every step of the way.

Speed has two components. We move with urgency, knowing that patients are counting on us. I also think of speed as a way to keep us focused. On any given project, we know we may fail before we succeed. That’s inherent to biotech. What’s important to me is that we fail fast. I insist that we evaluate our progress objectively at each step. If what we’ve done isn’t working, we must swiftly move on and find a better solution.

As investors everywhere will agree, it’s crucial that we keep an eye on cost as well. But you’ll note that I’ve put cost third in this paradigm. Quality and speed come first; if we succeed on those fronts, I’m confident that we’ll have the funds we need to deliver for patients and for stakeholders.

Following these operating principles in this order is not always intuitive or comfortable, but as I told my team at my first all-employee meeting: “Comfort is the enemy of progress.”

#5: Our definition of success is simple

All the principles I’ve laid out so far ladder up to how we define success at Dyne: We do what we say we are going to do – period, full stop. We keep our commitments to patients, teammates, ourselves and all Dyne stakeholders. What we do, and how we do it, define us.

Importantly, the “how” matters as much as the “what.” That’s at the core of my leadership philosophy, whether on the basketball court or in the C-suite. We endeavor to act with integrity and transparency, always.

As I look around and see the team we’ve built at Dyne – backed by the incredible power of our FORCE platform – I am confident in our ability to achieve our mission to bring transformative therapies to the patients who so urgently need them and become the world’s leading muscle disease company.

As I think about the incredible odds we face each day in our collective profession, I’m reminded of a quote from basketball coach Jimmy Valvano. Cancer has taken Coach Valvano from us, but before it did, he won the 1983 NCAA National Championship against all odds. I think his words are so appropriate for all of us today.

“God must have loved ordinary people because he made so many of us. Yet, every single day, in every walk of life, ordinary people accomplish extraordinary things.” Jimmy Valvano

At Dyne, our team of ordinary people is achieving extraordinary things, and I’m privileged to be leading the charge.

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