As part of our series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company” I had the pleasure of interviewing Ashley McEvoy.
Ashley McEvoy is Worldwide Chairman, Medical Devices, Johnson & Johnson. She is a member of the Johnson & Johnson Executive Committee and leads the global Medical Devices sector for the Company, generating approximately $23 billion in revenue. Building on Johnson & Johnson’s rich heritage in healthcare, science and technology, Ashley leads a diverse team that continues to display the same century-plus pioneering spirit when they first introduced and revolutionized the process of sterilization in operating rooms around the world. Ashley and her team act with the profound belief that the intersection of medical technology, software, and biopharmaceuticals are the key to navigating the top five causes of death worldwide and they are relentlessly pursuing that potential impact with passion. Under Ashley’s leadership, Johnson & Johnson Medical Devices has accelerated its ability to tackle the most pressing global healthcare challenges across four franchises in general surgery, orthopedics, eye health, and interventional solutions. As the #2 medical devices company worldwide, Johnson & Johnson Medical Devices is propelled by their aspiration to reimagine the future of health today by innovating across the continuum of patient care, prioritizing and modernizing health, and promoting health equity. Core to their strategy is delivering meaningful innovation through medical interventions that are accessible to all — and are smarter, less invasive, and more personalized at a lower cost.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dive into our discussion, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?
I’m a little non-traditionalist in that I have the honor and privilege of leading the second-largest medical devices company in the world, but I don’t come from a doctors’ or nursing family — nor was I a young kid saying I want to be a CEO and run the world. I happily landed onto this path because I loved to serve others, and I liked the business part, and then I fell in love with healthcare.
I grew up outside of Philadelphia in the suburbs, as a ‘Campbell’s kid’. My dad worked for Campbell Soup for 25 years in Camden, New Jersey. He led innovation and insights and marketing and analytics, and I learned a lot from people who would come from all around the world to talk at our dinner table about food science and consumer behavior. I was fascinated by basic questions like: what kind of food were people choosing to eat, why did they make the choices they did, and how could we better serve their needs? I knew early on that no matter where I ended up, I was going into the service industry.
I went to UPenn, where my dad went, and where I played field hockey and lacrosse. I suppose like many of us, my first real appreciation of being part of a team and doing your individual part and finding a way to contribute to a group effort came from sports. Initially, I put this to practice to use in Advertising, first in New York City and then in Europe, working on iconic global brands. I had a good time along the way, continuing to explore the same questions of how brands can affect behavior that I was first exposed to at my parent’s dinner table.
And then, 25 years ago, I found out about Johnson & Johnson, which believed in big brands, yes, but also with the weight of a commitment to science and to patient care behind this belief — while also being a worldwide leader in health. I jumped at the chance to work on brands like TYLENOL® and ZYRTEC® — at the most junior level, mind you — where you not only learn the science, but you also learn to appreciate, in a much deeper way than perhaps any other industry, how brands have the power not only to affect behavior but can be teachers — and educate consumers on how to manage their health.
While mine was not the traditional path to healthcare, with the service industry as my North Star, it’s not too surprising that I would land in what I consider to be the ultimate service industry — which offered an opportunity to parlay my passion onto a major global cause and have a big impact on people all around the world. Healthcare, at root, is about caring for people. I really wish the word ‘people’ could be featured somewhere in the term ‘healthcare’ itself, because it’s too easy to lose sight of that. Those of us in the healthcare industry know what people outside the industry might not see as clearly: we get to not only help people achieve a better quality of life when they’re at their most vulnerable but actually help save their lives. There’s nothing more priceless and more humbling. I immediately saw so much honor in that and purpose, and I continue to do so to this day. And for me, purpose matters — it’s what drives me.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
My experiences working with our teams to reshape care pathways and digitize our business end-to-end have been invigorating. I get excited about the best of medtech on sensors, miniaturization, and artificial intelligence of automatic navigation. This is technology that focuses on really tough tissues, combining software and biopharmaceuticals to deliver very local effects with a goal to cure cancer. Our teams are saving people’s lives with medtech innovation, and that’s no small feat.
I’m enjoying learning all things digital. How we digitize medtech, healthcare, and technology stacks, and how we connect hospital systems and support our people in the world of cyber security and privacy. I’m focused on all the ways we can reimagine the patient experience pre-op, intra-op, and post-op. I’ve spent a lot of time talking to many different companies about how they digitize their organizations; so, for me, that’s absolutely front and center.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
My central tenets surround leadership and owning who you are. You can only be one remarkable you — you can’t be somebody else. Also, remember too that you can’t deliver the mission of serving your community unless you take care of yourself. It’s the basics, there’s no magic recipe. For me, exercise is where I get my strength and it’s what gives me energy for the day. It’s a major de-stressor, I get good clarity of thought and it allows me to have a good night’s sleep. I think number one is to be good to yourself, it’s the inner voice in all of us that sometimes can be our own worst enemy. We tend to talk ourselves out of things so often. Train that inner voice to be a positive, optimistic, “yes, you can” outlook and you can unleash your superpowers.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on your leadership style? Can you share a story or an example of that?
I highly recommend The Code Breaker by Dr. Jennifer Doudna, I read that over the July 4th weekend. I felt like I was back in biology class learning all about RNA, but the whole development of CRISPR is amazing. It was wonderful reading about how she had managed choppy waters in the world of academia and still held her voice and became a serial entrepreneur and scientist. Dr. Doudna is a member of the Johnson & Johnson Board of Directors and won a Nobel Prize, and I couldn’t be more admiring of her work and who she is as a person.
Also, I just finished Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste, which is an enlightening book about the history of racism in the United States. The author discusses how other countries have been studying this history and what insights can be gleaned as we move forward on our improvement journey to make the world a safer place for all people. In leading Johnson & Johnson Medical Devices, I aim to empower a winning culture by championing diversity, equity, and inclusion and building a diverse workforce. We need more people in business and in leadership roles that are going to reflect our patient population. People that bring their unique points of view, life experiences, and cultures to assemble a community with diversity of thought. If we create an environment where everybody feels like they have a voice and a sense of belonging — there’s nobody that can stop us.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Johnson & Johnson has been around for 135 years in healthcare. As the largest health company in the world with deep expertise at the intersection of care and emerging technologies, we bring a global infrastructure, a robust understanding of diseases, cross-sector expertise, a pharmaceutical pipeline, a vast innovation network, and trusted partnerships throughout the globe to fully consider diverse therapeutic solutions. It’s just a huge, unique sandbox for being able to help the 7 billion people on this planet.
We’re also a credo-driven company, founded on the idea of prioritizing patients and customers and employees and shareholders return — in that order. That’s not just something we post on our website, it’s something that guides our decisions as a company and the way we work.
And finally, in addition to the moral compass, and the deep sense of purpose, we’re also a company that celebrates families — and families of all kinds. I always want everybody to feel safe and have a sense of belonging and have a sense that they are included. We always say ‘we have to start with a healthy house at home’ with Johnson & Johnson. Not many companies let you run five different companies through 25 years and have 5 kids, which I have been fortunate enough to do at Johnson & Johnson, so it’s a special place.
The road to success is hard and requires tremendous dedication. This question is obviously a big one, but what advice would you give to a young person who aspires to follow in your footsteps and emulate your success?
- Choose the right industry. Choose where you want to spend your life and where you want to make a difference.
- Marry your personal values with your professional values. When they are in unison, amazing things can happen and you can achieve a heck of a lot for our businesses and customers, but also for our families and our communities.
- Prioritize your care. Focusing on the basics — food, sleep, exercise — will fuel you throughout your day and over the long-term. Businesses that are in it for the long term are also invested in your wellness for the long term. If you take care of yourself and are taken care of at work, you’ll do your best for your business, your customers, your family, and yourself.
Often leaders are asked to share the best advice they received. But let’s reverse the question. Can you share a story about advice you’ve received that you now wish you never followed?
I’ll say this — everybody, and I mean everybody, has at some point felt a little lost or overwhelmed during their career journey. The intellectual honesty is to say ‘it’s okay’. You’re not expected to be the smartest person in the room or to know everything…but you should have the resourcefulness to know who you can ask for advice and ask for help. That’s a sign of a courageous leader that has the confidence to say, “I don’t know everything. I know who I am, I know what I’m good at, I know some things that I’m working on.”
Also have your eyes wide open towards the talents of those around you and lean on your community. Notice when a colleague is really good at delivering tough bad news, at reframing a business opportunity, or maybe at dealing with a difficult talent situation. It’s about embracing some of the commonalities that we all have and then being thoughtful and deliberate. Everyone has different talents and being a student of what those are gives you a compass of how to really access other people’s gifts. Then you can and learn from that and pay it forward by sharing your gifts with others.
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
- Being purpose driven. The purpose, the calling, is what provides your North Star, keeps you going and makes the work fun and exciting and fulfilling and rewarding.
- The ability not just to embrace change but be a change agent. When change is the only constant, business as usual is what breaks you. Having the flexibility to bend not break allows you to not only face challenges but maximize their inherent opportunities.
- Curiosity. Being in leadership is about being in a position of authority, but that doesn’t mean leadership is about being authoritative. Nobody’s judgment is perfect, and no one has all the answers. Maintaining a growth-mindset, staying curious, asking questions, remaining open to continuously learning are the only ways to achieve and maintain your success.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a C-Suite executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what a C-Level executive does that is different from the responsibilities of other leaders?
The C-suite helps set an organization’s strategy for the future. They are not necessarily focused on just today — but what does the next horizon look like and what do we need to be armed with to continue operating successfully and meeting the needs of all the people we serve. I think it’s a combination of how you show up as an executive, how you convene and influence others, and interpersonal skills — which is really the heart of who you are and being an empathetic leader. You can’t bring people along a vision if your heart isn’t in it for the people first.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive? Can you explain what you mean?
It’s the same difference I was talking about earlier between being in a position of authority and being authoritative. Executives — and I work with a lot of them and have worked with many before — are not sole authorities. They’re not masterminds. CEOs and executives are successful because they’re team players. Our culture has a certain myth of a ‘good CEO’ as a brilliant tyrant, but most good CEOs run completely counter to that myth. Most CEOs are, in fact, the ultimate team players. No one person can have a full functional expertise of all the complexities across all the components of a business. Building and nurturing a team, and helping individuals and teams grow the muscle to collaborate effectively with other teams, is how leadership is practiced at the executive level. And here’s the secret — that’s a different skill set than the skill set that gets nurtured in a functional role. Oftentimes people assume leadership roles throughout the course of their careers by being exceptionally good in their function and getting repeatedly promoted, regardless of whether leadership suits them. Good leaders figure out that leadership doesn’t flow automatically from functional competence. It is its own skill that must be valued, prioritized, and fostered.
In your experience, which aspect of running a company tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?
Cultivating talent. I find joy in understanding how our teams work best and what motivates them…it’s also important for me to meet them where they are and helping, supporting, inspiring, and empowering them to get where they need to be — not only for our business purposes, but also for their personal and professional aspirations.
Our medtech leadership team discuss this all the time, because it truly comes back to making sure that our colleagues know they are and feel supported — that they have the tools and resources they need to take care of themselves and their families, especially during these unprecedented times. We can’t forget how important our talent are and it’s our job to enable them to bring their best selves to work every day.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading From the C-Suite”? Please share a story or an example for each.
I really try to practice compassionate leadership, which is fundamentally about connecting with people. This means having an understanding of, and an openness to, and a curiosity about one’s team members as people — and using that as a starting point to create the space for them to be their best selves, give their best on behalf of their company’s customers (patients, in the case of Johnson & Johnson), and remain fulfilled and motivated as valued contributors to their company’s mission, all while making a positive difference in the lives of others.
Although this approach might have run counter to some conventional leadership playbooks in previous years, I’m very encouraged that we’re seeing more and more mainstream discussion of these and similar principles as keys to leadership and to building a healthy work culture. And I really love this exercise of boiling it down to five key principles — so thank you for the opportunity.
In my experience over the course of two decades as an executive at Johnson & Johnson, I’ve really learned to appreciate the importance of:
- Inclusion. When we actively encourage our employees to bring their whole selves to their role and eliminate any pressure to blend in by downplaying their differences, we not only help our employees feel safe, but we make it safe for them to unleash their authentic creative energies and express their best ideas.
- Elevating diverse voices. Inclusion is necessary, of course, but not enough by itself — we should also actively champion the perspectives of all our employees in all their diversity. This has the double effect of helping to ensure that the business is culturally sensitive and responsive and able to meet the needs of diversity customers, while also ensuring that the inclusion practiced in the first bullet can create a greater sense of belonging among our employees.
- Valuing and empowering. How do you get the most out of your people? By meeting them where they are and helping to support them, inspire them, and empower them to get where they need to be — not only for their business purposes but also for their personal and professional aspirations.
- Practicing resilience. Perseverance pays off, pure and simple — and failure can fuel motivation. Creating an environment where it’s safe to fail not only creates the incentive for your employees to think outside the box, try new things, and take risks, it also gives them practice in building resilience by harnessing the frustrations of failures and setbacks to breed future success.
- Supporting wellness. We all struggle at times, and it can be even scarier to feel like you have to hide it rather than address it and get the support you need. Promoting physical health is essential, of course, but it’s not enough anymore. Workplaces can support mental health through open dialogues, programs, and other tools and resources that address burn-out, work-life integration, being a working parent, and maintaining a sense of purpose. Those that do are best situated to help their employees navigate their journey, take care of themselves and their family, and bring their best selves to work. Not long ago, this might have been seen as a progressive recruitment and retention strategy; more and more these days I think we’re seeing this commitment become core to just about any business.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
The mental wellbeing of people is critically important. We need to de-stigmatize depression and mood disorders. They’re part of healthcare and they’re part of being a human being and if we get the right people at the table, we can convene together and ultimately help people through their journeys. So, the movement would be focused on reaching out, connecting with people and making sure they can be their healthiest physically, spiritually, and mentally.
How can our readers further follow you online?
I’d love to connect with your readers on LinkedIn.
Readers who are curious to learn more about Johnson & Johnson Medical Devices — including our “My Health Can’t Wait” program, which we launched last summer to provide people with the resources and information they need to prioritize their health, be their own best advocate, and make choices about their care with confidence during the pandemic — are more than welcome to visit us here.