As part of our series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Robert Frechette.
A results-driven leader with 25+ years of experience with Fortune 500s and start-ups, Rob Frechette brings novel medical technologies from concept to commercialization at Medtronic. As Vice President of Research and Development, Respiratory Interventions, Rob is responsible for global technology and product development, which includes ventilators, airway access devices, breathing tubes and related accessories. Rob leads a team of global engineers across a variety of disciplines and geographies. Rob holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Biomedical Engineering from Boston University and a Master of Business Administration from Nova Southeastern University.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I’ve known since an early age that I wanted to do something technical with my hands. Growing up, I enjoyed tinkering, fixing motors, school science projects, and math. The harder the problems, the better. I developed an interest in medicine, so when I got to Boston University, the idea of applying engineering principles to physiology problems was a natural fit. I studied Biomedical Engineering which has led to an interesting and rewarding career.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
One of my first jobs was at a med-tech company in the Boston area. My responsibility was to perform testing on a variety of raw materials to make sure they were in the specification. To do that, I had to use a brand new, very expensive piece of equipment. During my first week on the job, I accidentally destroyed it. I was sure I was going to be fired, but my boss laughed it off and was very supportive. We had a good conversation about being accountable, learning from mistakes and moving on with a positive attitude. I had to take a lot of razzing after that from the engineering staff, but it was a lesson I never forgot.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I’ve had some amazing professors and great bosses throughout my career that supported and encouraged me along the way. I also read a lot on a wide variety of topics, and I find lessons and inspiration from many authors and business leaders. But I am most grateful for the lessons I learned from my mother during my teenage years. I grew up in a relatively small town with my parents and two brothers. My father, unfortunately, died very young and left my mom to raise three boys. It was tough like it is for most families in this situation, but my mom was a rock. I remember her working very long hours, shuffling us all around, paying the mortgage, keeping the house up, and never missing a beat. I learned so much from her about responsibility, work ethic, overcoming adversity, and persistence. I look back on those times frequently as a source of inspiration whenever I am faced with challenges in my own life and career. Her influence, in many ways, made me a better person, father, and leader.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
While I was not part of the team that began Medtronic, I can tell you that our culture of “purpose-driven business” has led to many successes including the one I wrote about in the next question. When you have a group of people who are all inspired to innovate solutions for the clinicians they are in direct contact with (and ultimately for the patients), real and rapid results happen.
Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
2020 was a year that started with great uncertainty, with the number of COVID cases escalating daily. Ventilator issues were threefold — checking a ventilator put hospital staff at increased exposure and required full personal protective equipment (PPE), which was rapidly becoming scarce, but also there was a growing shortage of ventilators throughout the world. In April, several doctors reached out to us in the respiratory therapies group to ask if we could develop a ventilator that could be controlled remotely. Rather than a top-down management approach, the strong relationships and direct line from the clinical specialists to those creating the solution allowed the team to activate immediately with first-hand knowledge of the problem.
We sent our engineers, who were working virtually, ventilators and R&D equipment to their homes. There they took advantage of a primordial remote operating system that was typically used to test ventilators remotely during development. In less than a month — including a rigorous product development and quality control process — the team transformed this primordial remote system into a fully functional remote ventilator ready for use in the intensive care unit. Previously, the timeline for this type of software development was up to a year or longer.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
Giving up was not an option. As we watched COVID-19 cases rise and PPE become scarce, knowing that millions would be affected by this virus was our guiding light to find remote monitoring solutions for physicians and patients. What sustains our drive is knowing we are not alone in working towards the shared goal, both internally and globally, of helping patients get better faster with fewer complications across the continuum of care.
Additionally, making virtual care more available than ever before due to the speed at which new technology is developed is exciting. For example, when Medtronic was contacted by Governor Cuomo to setup remote patient monitoring at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in New York City, which was set up as a remote hospital to manage a potential flood of COVID-19 cases, the team quickly installed 400 Nellcor™ pulse oximetry monitors through Vital Sync™ continuous remote monitoring. This install would typically take weeks to months; Medtronic did it in three days. This remote monitoring allows 400 patients to be monitored by 10 clinicians.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
The most critical role of a leader during challenging times is to be nimble. If there is one thing that the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us is that many companies, regardless of their industry, were culturally and structurally unprepared to face the challenges that arose. By remaining nimble, specifically due to the company’s newly instituted operating structure, allowed us to break ground and find solutions quickly.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
For my team, the best way to boost morale and inspire each other is to be surrounded by people who are willing to act quickly and take a risk. During this turbulent time with COVID-19, my team lived by the phrase, “Go fast? Go alone. Go far? Go together.” Knowing we have a team so committed to solving clinical issues for patients motivated us to embrace the goals of the projects at hand and do whatever necessary to achieve those goals.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Each situation is different, so I approach each one on an individual basis rather than with a “one-size fits all” strategy.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
It may seem difficult to make plans after such an unpredictable year, as it took a pandemic to break down barriers to innovation. For the future, having streamlined processes, both internal and external, will allow for teams to move quickly, be prepared and offer the opportunity to take risks.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
The number one principle that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times is the fact that even when a company’s flaws are exposed if the right culture, structure, and employees are in place, teams can be quickly mobilized to innovate solutions.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
Thank you for this question, but I prefer to focus on my own company and the lessons we have learned. Difficult times offer a company a chance to reevaluate aspects of a business that are perhaps not thriving and search for more effective ways to achieve its goals. The new strategies employed can then possibly be utilized by other divisions.
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
At Medtronic, it all starts with our mission. We strive to do our absolute best to improve patient lives. It really is that simple. This is the foundation that keeps us focused during good and bad economic times. During COVID-19, it was challenging as many elective procedures around the world were postponed. This hit some of our core businesses particularly hard. But Medtronic has a highly diversified portfolio of products and technologies that helped keep us financially balanced and allowed us to make significant, meaningful contributions in the battle against COVID-19.
My group, Respiratory Interventions, provides a wide variety of products and therapies for respiratory care including ventilators, breathing tubes, airway access devices, and related accessories. Naturally, this business played a key role in supporting COVID-19 patients globally. With support from our senior leaders, we significantly increased our manufacturing output while quickly launching new, targeted products and therapies. Living our mission, being nimble, and leveraging the strength of our diversified global portfolio of businesses was critical.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Be nimble: In the age of COVID-19, the conventional wisdom that the best care is delivered in-person by experienced caregivers may soon be overturned. My team and I quickly learned this and pivoted to provide remote monitoring solutions to those who needed it most.
- Collaboration is key: We are so thankful for our recent collaborations with Space X and Mt. Sinai Hospital (New York). Partnering with Space X has led to the production of thousands of PB980 solenoid valves in just a few months and a partnership with the physicians at Mt. Sinai Hospital led to the development of a dual-circuit that allowed two patients to be ventilated on one PB980.
- Don’t hesitate and take risks: In March 2020, Medtronic was the only company to step up and deliver a remote monitoring solution for physicians and COVID-19 patients. Why? We knew we needed to take risks to quickly find a solution for our customers.
- Trust your team: Without my team, we would not have been able to share this story. Medtronic piloted remote ventilator management and adjustment system — and rolled it out to U.S. customers as a free upgrade in just four weeks. Previously, this type of software development and upgrade could take up to a year or even longer.
- Expect the unexpected: If there is anything 2020 taught us it’s you can never be too prepared. With the right team in place who are passionate to find a solution to a problem, there will never be a mountain too high to climb.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
One of my favorite “Life Lesson Quotes” is from Mark Twain when he said: “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do.”
I try to keep this in mind when faced with opportunities and challenges. This had led me to take on a wide variety of interesting roles in my career and to try new personal things in my life as well.
How can our readers further follow your work?
To follow the team’s work, please be sure to follow Medtronic on Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook to stay up to date on the latest global innovations. If you would like to connect with me on my personal LinkedIn, please feel free to do so.