More Musings from an Old CEO
By Natalie Holles, CEO of Third Harmonic Bio, as part of the From The Trenches feature of LifeSciVC
The only way we grow as leaders is by stretching the limits of who we are – doing new things that make us uncomfortable but that teach us through direct experience who we want to become. – “The Authenticity Paradox” Harvard Business Review, 2015
After an intense twelve months at Third Harmonic Bio, this blog post assignment snuck up on me. In my scramble to divine an appropriate topic, I mentally scrolled through a few obvious (“Leading through Adversity”) and non-obvious (“’It’s a Work Trip!’ Why Skiing Makes Me a Better CEO”) candidates. None felt particularly fresh – who’s not leading through adversity right now – nor timely – it’s not snowing yet . . . I keep checking, but no luck.
However, a topic I’ve thought a lot about recently in my moments of self-reflection, and frankly, self-questioning in the wake of a major setback, is the tensional notion of how we as wizened leaders in this industry find balance between relying upon the powerful pattern recognition that comes from decades of experience in this industry and being open to . . . (wait for it, cringe) . . . change in how we do what we do.
There’s no real hack in our industry – learning drug development is an apprenticeship process. I remember early in my career sitting in on project team meetings at Genentech, catching only every third concept or so, and leaning over to ask another person in the cheap seats “what does CMC stand for?” Then gradually, I accumulated wisdom through the years, mostly through the rough spots (“No, we do not agree” is never a good opener for an FDA letter) but through the wins as well.
I also learned leadership, at first by watching and then later by doing. I remember a CEO who used to spend seemingly inordinate amounts of time in the break room making espressos for anyone who would walk in from any part of the organization and chatting about their lives, their work. Waste of time? Actually, brilliant. The comradery, the sense of connection it garnered, as well as the close understanding of even the tiniest nooks of the business it afforded him, all paid off, through the dark days (see: “No, we do not agree” example above) all the way through to the massive win that company eventually achieved.
So we go through our careers, and we take it all in. It’s through those years of moving from sitting in the chairs on the edge of the room, to sitting in the chairs at the table, to sitting in the chair at the head of the table, that the patterns establish themselves for us – what works, what’s going to lead to disaster, how to be, how not to be, to make it all go. We get to the leadership years of our career, and that pattern recognition is what drives much of our decision making and our sense of what it means to be a good leader. The fluid intelligence of our younger years “crystallizes” (this has always felt like euphemism) into the experience-based intelligence we largely rely upon to drive the bus.
But is this all there is to leadership?
For me as a CEO, this question hit me smack in the face this year when my company went from being what I thought I had signed up for – clinical stage, aggressive pace, build mode – to something much different – early stage, uncertain path forward, batten-down-the-hatches mode. In living and leading through a really rough transition period, I had to acknowledge that some of my personal leadership principles, the ones that I’ve held for years as this-is-what-makes-me-good-at-this table stakes, weren’t working in our new set of circumstances. I needed to adapt. This old dog needed to learn new tricks.
The internal tension wasn’t over realizing that I needed to be better – I am always trying to be better at my job. The tension was around the fact that the pattern recognition upon which I had relied, on which I had counted so fundamentally to drive my leadership, might be falling short right when I needed it most. And that, my friends, felt like yet another failure. Another loss. I had a very pivotal discussion with my executive coach, in which I acknowledged that I had to do things differently, and I remember telling her “You have to let me mourn this.”
In follow-up to that tough conversation, she sent me the Harvard Business Review article I quote above, which delves into the question of how a leader can be “authentic” as the ethos of today demands, but also be open to changing how she defines herself. The thought-provoking tagline of the article reads “Why feeling like a fake can be a sign of growth.” Huh.
I realized I had to be open to doing something that felt completely unnatural to me as a leader, to “try on” new behaviors that might be better suited to this company, this team, at this time in our evolution. So awkward. We all know what they say about old dogs and new tricks. But if as the article suggests, I chose to look at it with an almost playful mindset, as practicing something about which I’m passionate, to improve my skill level and elevate my performance, that I could wrap my head around.
Like taking the harder line in a couloir on a powder day.
Yeah, like that.
See, skiing DOES make me a better CEO.