Stars and Scars… Some Lessons Learned About Leadership

Posted May 2nd, 2024 by Arthur Tzianabos, in Corporate Culture, From The Trenches, Leadership

By Arthur O. Tzianabos, PhD, CEO of Lifordi Immunotherapeutics, as part of the From the Trenches feature of LifeSciVC

As the biotech industry continues to pick up steam, I have been getting a number of phone calls from folks in my network who are looking for CEO roles and from recruiters who are looking to hire good people.  It got me thinking (again) about leadership styles I have encountered in my 30+ years in biotech.  Many people aspire to be a CEO or a biotech leader someday, as if the title somehow magically confers insight and great leadership skills.  However, there is no question that the CEO title does put you in a position to be a great and effective leader that builds trust and commands respect when he or she earns it.

In my experience, CEOs of life sciences companies (if they are being honest) will tell you that they never anticipated just how difficult the job would be. Some have sworn ‘never again’ while others take the wins, losses, and inevitable battle scars onward to proudly serve the next company. For biotech CEOs, this speaks to how deeply they are driven by the mission to bring new medicines to patients, and how accepting and undeterred they are by the odds of success.

We know there are a plethora of books, classes, coaches, and quotes on leadership. The LifeSciVC blogs have taken up the subject many times because leadership is simply that important a topic and is central to a company’s success or failure. The different takes on leadership should remind us that there is no one right way to lead a company, a team, a department, or a function.  Initially, I thought that covering this topic again would not add much more to the conversation.  But then I thought people usually write about what makes a good leader.  What if I took a different perspective and looked at leadership styles and traits that I did NOT find effective for being a good leader? That could be even more impactful….so here we go.

I never set out to be a CSO, President, or CEO.  I was fortunate enough to have people who believed in me and felt that I could be successful in those roles. To be honest, I was a bit surprised to be pursuing these roles or being asked to consider them because I have always suffered from the ‘Imposter Syndrome.’  I was scared as hell to assume the roles and that feeling would always take me all the way back to high school.  Why?  We had won the New Hampshire State High School Hockey Championship for the first time in my school’s history in 1980 (and yes, right after the US Miracle on Ice hockey team won the gold at the Olympics in Lake Placid).  As a junior on that team, I busted my butt the following summer to get ready for the upcoming year and to my surprise, was asked by the coach to captain the team that would try and defend the title my senior year.   Although I was not the best player on the team, I came to understand that my coaches and teammates appreciated my drive, focus on the goal, and the ability to pull my teammates together to accomplish that goal. To this day, I am always intent on gaining the respect of my teammates and holding individual players and the company accountable for performance while maintaining focus on the mission.

I take a similar approach when working with Boards as a CEO or Independent Board member. Building trust and respect through frequent open and honest communication with the Board versus the requisite quarterly updates or outreach in times of need engenders a strong level of confidence and comfort. They know they can rely on me to communicate the good, the bad and the ugly. They know, too, that it will always be accompanied by well thought-out scenarios and recommendations for every major decision. To deepen their understanding of key accomplishments as well as the inevitable challenges, I do allow the Board to learn about the good and not so good news directly from key members of the team. This visibility provides educational and mentoring opportunities for company leaders while enabling the Board to see the team’s capabilities and commitment firsthand. I believe this collaborative style and leadership-by-example cannot be understated. In my experience, the best decisions have hinged on a leader’s ability to engage, listen, and work alongside the team to solve problems and score goals.  Biotech is a team sport.

As I think back on my career as an academic scientist and along the path to CEO, I have come to know that the best way to learn to be a good leader is to learn from leaders and that means learning from both the good ones and the not so good ones. In retrospect, the more insightful, powerful, and even painful lessons about leadership have come from not so good leaders.

Through the following recollections, reflections, and examples, I am going to highlight a few styles I have encountered that I would not emulate but learned a lot from:

“Last in” Wins

How damaging is it to have a leader who cannot make decisions, or worse, one that keeps reversing his/her decisions? This leader typically follows the lead of the last person they spoke to, not necessarily the person with the best answers. This approach disincentivizes a team to bring new ideas to the table and champion solutions that might solve problems. This leader comes first, and the team second. They frequently manipulate to their own advantage and lack a willingness to advance or mentor people unless the people do the bidding for them. Sometimes you can spot them by their willingness to pass the buck as well as the blame. With no clear vision and a wavering sense of direction, the team is aimless and powerless. Losing respect for their leader, team members become disengaged, and the good ones will leave.

Comfort Zone Seeker

This leader has a few overlapping characteristics with the ‘Last in Wins’ mentioned above but tends to have a higher emotional intelligence or EQ.  They can make decisions but are less forceful. Known to focus on a particular aspect of a decision that lies comfortably within their area of expertise, he or she gravitates to the minutia in that zone rather than considering the bigger picture.  I have also observed leaders operate in this manner when they are overwhelmed by a situation or important decision. Despite a strong EQ, when they are in the zone, it is easy for them to lose sight of the impact this can have on a team, company, or outcome.

Me Go, Not We Go

This leader is an ego-driven individual who values what he/she brings over the contributions of the team. They exert power and bolster their position, in part, by publicly demeaning people. I recall a company meeting many years ago where a new strategy was to be unveiled, which was the result of months of research, teamwork, and scenario planning. Without any heads up to the team, the CEO decided to go in a completely different direction and took the opportunity to communicate this during the meeting. It was clear to all who attended that the leader had little respect for the process or the people. It also highlighted his general disinterest in building a good company culture. Unfortunately, this blatant demonstration of poor leadership coupled with a general lack of caring for people led to the loss of good people.

Smart but Insecure

Sometimes leaders who are highly intelligent are also very insecure. This makes it difficult for them to communicate effectively. I have observed leaders like this who always seemed to have their own agenda. They deliberately set out to circle the wagons ahead of meetings by conducting one-on-ones to sway individual team members. Over time, this style of leadership became apparent, and the team figured out how to circle the wagons themselves without the leader. They developed a collective agenda of their own and came armed with it to future meetings. I am sure you can imagine how this played out. Suffice to say that I have seen power in numbers. I have also seen how this tension and lack of unity between the team and its leader becomes frustrating, grows tiresome and can be derailing.

Politically Astute

I have known leaders who are thoughtful and politically savvy. They may genuinely care for people and yet be unwilling to go the distance for them when the political winds seem to be blowing in another direction. While this type of leader can withstand any political heat, they avoid taking a stand that could fuel the flames. Not surprising, they also tend to be reserved and reluctant to bring people under the tent. This somewhat aloof, unapproachable leader values a team who is willing to go along to get along. Team members who acquiesce grow silent, yes men and women prevail, and the confident minority who are willing to pose important questions seek another place to contribute.

People Pleaser

Who doesn’t like a leader who you believe cares about you, the company and helping patients who need new medicines? They are loyal, and sometimes to a fault. They promote harmony over having tough conversations. You may be familiar with a leader who is willing to bend and even fold under pressure by others with seemingly louder voices, including department heads, individual board members or angry shareholders. He or she fears having to make an unpopular decision instead of providing sound rationale for a change in course and asking others for support. They have trouble acting swiftly, especially when changing direction. While we all believe in the promise of new medicines, this leader has been known to nurture false hope, drag their feet, and limit the options for a successful outcome. This leader can enjoy great success when choosing smart, experienced, and honest team members and advisors who are equally loyal, respectful, and willing to push for the best path forward versus the path of least resistance.

Leadership by Division

One style that had the most impact on me was a leader who maintained control by dividing the team. It can take quite a while for the team to figure out how this person is leading the group. I observed how routine one-on-one meetings with individual team members were carefully orchestrated. What was discussed behind closed doors was often the purported failings of other team members. At the same time, this leader would sing your praises using this as a tool to both flatter and manipulate. Dissuading team members from discussing details from weekly one-on-one meetings made sense because who wants to tell a colleague that the boss thinks you are a shining star while his/her days are numbered? The CEO became the primary confidant and conduit of information sharing and presumed caring. The team was controlled by the ‘safe zone’ that the CEO had built with and for each member of the team. Growing more distrustful of colleagues, it would have been impossible to know the extent to which the team was being controlled until the awakening came. Certain members of the team began to question and then reluctantly share information from their one-on-one meetings. The truths were revealed, the lies were exposed, and the breaking down of silos was replaced by an earned trust and respect for one another. Over time, the emperor had no clothes, and the rest was history.

Future Leaders

Who you work with and for is often greater than 90% of job satisfaction.  Most people value this more than a title or how much money they make.  As CEO of Lifordi Immunotherapeutics as well as a venture partner at 5AM Ventures, I am again doing my level best to lead by example. Being a good and respected leader doesn’t just come with a title. It is earned and it is no accident that good leaders attract repeat employees who follow them to the next company. It is helpful to recognize the signs of a good or bad leader as early as possible by observing it in others and examining yourself. It is a useful exercise to look back as well as around for the lessons from leaders in your life and career. Even going so far as to list them out as I did before writing this blog, noting what was instructive and what was not helpful or possibly even damaging. Oftentimes the painful lessons are the most memorable but also the most actionable.

For the record, these leadership styles and traits are observations I have made in my life and career and are not necessarily based on my own supervisors.  So please, if I have worked for you in the past, do not make any assumptions. I have had many great bosses and observed great leaders in my career.  Lastly, in case you are wondering, we did repeat as State Champs in hockey in 1981…the only time it has been done in the school’s history.  Just sayin’.



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