Should a Scientist Run Your Drug Company?

Includes: JNJ, LLY, PFE
by: Derek Lowe

There's an interesting article that showed up in the Financial Times about the leadership of drug companies. Specifically, the number of them that are run by scientists (always lower than you would have thought) is dropping even further.

Only one large western pharmaceutical company will be run by a scientist (John Lechleiter of Lilly) following completion of the current round of acquisitions, in spite of the growing need for strengthened innovation to develop new medicines. . .

The changes reflect a shift for the scientists who once dominated senior pharmaceuticals positions to give way to executives with backgrounds in marketing, legal or other more general business backgrounds.

The evolution mirrors growing legal and marketing expertise required to operate in the US, which remains the world’s largest medicines market, although its recent sluggish growth and renewed demand for greater innovation and science-based assessment of drugs may suggest different skills will be required in future.

I wonder, though, how many of the background assumptions here are true. I don't think that the large drug companies have been dominated by scientific leadership for some time. This (to me) isn't a recent shift, although it may well have accelerated. And we've gotten into discussions around here a couple of times (most recently on the news of Lechleiter's appointment) about whether you even want a scientist in the top job. Opinions, to put it mildly, are divided on how much difference that makes, and (if it does) which way you'd rather go.

My take, for what it's worth, is that scientific training can be desirable in a drug company CEO, but it's not sufficient, or always even necessary. The skills needed don't overlap as much as you might think between science and management, even in a company that makes its living from science. The problem is, I don't think that the particular skills associated with law and MBA degrees are sufficient, either. Being good at running a large organization is a rather rare quality. And it's not always easy to recognize: some companies have issues (good ones or bad!) that will swamp most of the signals you might try to get about the qualities of their CEO.

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Tagged: , Drug Manufacturers - Major
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