As a part of our series called ‘Five Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became A CEO,’ we had the pleasure of interviewing Will Lewis.
Will joined Insmed in 2012 as President and Chief Executive Officer and as a member of the board of directors. He became chair of the board of directors in November 2018. Will is the former Co-Founder, President, and Chief Financial Officer of Aegerion Pharmaceuticals, Inc. (Nasdaq: AEGR), and previously spent more than 10 years working in investment banking in the U.S. and Europe. He also previously worked for the U.S. government. Will holds a Bachelor of Arts degree cum laude from Oberlin College as well as a Master of Business Administration and a Juris Doctor with Honors from Case Western Reserve University. Will serves as the chair of the board of trustees of BioNJ, the life sciences association for New Jersey. Will is a member of the board of trustees of Case Western Reserve University as well as a member of the board of the Helix Acquisition Corp.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I came to my current role via a circuitous path. I initially worked for the U.S. Government in foreign affairs, then attended graduate school (JD/MBA) because I was convinced I would become a lawyer or a politician but instead found my way to international investment banking and subsequently to a biotech startup as a founder of a rare disease company. My attraction to the field of biotechnology comes from personal experiences like so many of us have with healthcare. These experiences provide a degree of motivation it would be hard to match with any other industry. It is one field where you can enjoy a rewarding career while knowing you are contributing to the betterment of humanity.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
In my time at Insmed, we have grown from a group of less than 30 to nearly 600 and secured approval for our first product in the U.S., Europe and Japan. It is a wonderful story of success for employees and patients but it did not come without its challenges. I can recall one day during a heavy rainstorm in the original office space where the roof was leaking in two locations — the IT/Computer closet and the lab. Both had blue tarps covering the important equipment and it would be fair to say at that moment I paused to think “we have a lot of work to do…”
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
In the original office where the company was located there was an interior door that separated the finance group from the rest of the company. For some reason it was always closed, and I didn’t like this because it seemed to divide part of the company and I wanted everyone to feel a part of the team. It seemed odd to me to ‘close off’ the finance group from the rest of the company. One day, only weeks into my tenure as CEO, I opened it. You could have heard a pin drop when I propped it open. Everyone looked at me. “You can’t prop open that door,” I was told. “Why not?” I asked. “You just can’t.” Apparently, there was one employee who had a variety of responsibilities and was fairly senior who kept telling everyone it had to stay closed. When I asked him why he simply said, “It has always been closed.” When I went back to the door later that day it was in fact closed again. I felt like I was in an episode of “The Office.” Needless to say, he no longer works at the company and that door remained open until I had it removed from its hinges. Lesson: always question. Just because something has always been a certain way, doesn’t mean it should remain that way.
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 about that?
When I joined JP Morgan in investment banking I came from a non-traditional background. I had not gone to one of the country’s best business schools and prior to the day I walked into the bank I don’t think I could have explained what investment banking really was. Despite this, I was a hard worker and eager to learn and the person who ran my group, Jes Staley (now CEO of Barclays), gave me several opportunities. His willingness to sponsor me was something that stayed with me for a long time. Throughout my various pursuits I have always been fortunate to receive sponsorship from someone. It has always come in the form of that person giving me the chance to do something — a project, a task, a role — that was above my station at the time. When those opportunities have presented themselves, I have leapt on them. Their belief in my potential, more so than a particular position I wanted to achieve, is what ultimately drove me.
As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
I recently became Chair of BioNJ, the industry advocacy group for life sciences in New Jersey. My very first action was to sponsor a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion two-day seminar featuring more than 40 speakers from across the country to highlight the importance of DE&I in life sciences. A central point in the conference was this — ours is an industry that absolutely must deliver because people’s lives are at stake. Driven by this fundamental need, the biopharmaceutical industry has the opportunity to lead the way in creating and supporting diverse and inclusive workplaces. We need the very best talent to advance medicine and we cannot compromise on that. It is essential that we draw upon the broadest, most diverse pool of talent and perspectives to enhance the outcomes we are pursuing for patients. Representation of all backgrounds as we advance critical medicines will help ensure that we are best serving the needs of broad and diverse patient populations.
As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.
Regardless of the challenge before you, I believe to lead you must first define the reality as you and those around you perceive it. Before we can seek to create an inclusive, equitable society, we must first understand what is lacking. Strip the superficial away and really expose the issue at hand, whatever it may be. Above all, the first step is to listen to understand. It is OK to be critical but when you do so, talk about the good, the bad and the ugly with affection for the underlying system you are seeking to improve. Improvement comes from working within the system to help it evolve into something more than it was when you started. Be the change you want to see in the world. Start with the community where you have influence and build from there.
At our company, early on I prioritized the recruitment of women across the organization and especially in the senior ranks and to our Board of Directors. We did this quietly, just because it was the right thing to do for the betterment of our business. We now are turning our ability to bring about this kind of change to even broader communities. Accomplishing this inside a company is no different than doing so on a larger scale. The history of our nation, which is itself an experiment in governance, is built upon self-improvement; boldly examining the ways in which we can improve the society around us. This experiment can only continue if everyone is all-in on the effort. It will not always be easy or even at a pace we all might find adequate, but the improvements we have seen prove that it is possible and worthwhile.
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 CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
An executive’s primary responsibility is to enable those around her/him to perform better.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
The most important notion to dispel is the idea that the hierarchy implies superior capability or knowledge. The best CEOs are merely first among equals, working with those around them to come up with the solutions. CEOs don’t have all the answers. Rather they are reliant on those around them to help discover the answers. They channel the talent that surrounds them and they cultivate it. Ultimately, they own the responsibility for the decision, but they are not its exclusive author. The CEO should therefore coach, not direct, to elicit the best performance from the team of which they are a part.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
The biggest change from my expectations is the notion that as leader, you need to keep a certain personal distance from everyone who surrounds you. When you are a part of a team, you can be friendly and even social with those with whom you work. The moment you become CEO, these kinds of outreach are viewed differently, either by those at whom they are directed or by those more broadly. “It’s lonely at the top” is a truism that refers to your bearing the responsibility for the company independently from all those who surround you and the consequent behavior that requires. There was also a striking learning about what people expect from the CEO — that it has little to do with how you are as a person, rather it is the title and what that means to people. I recall at our first holiday party, our Head of Human Resources at the time approached me around 9:30 pm and said, “it’s time for you to go home.” I was startled — “why?” I asked. My wife and I were having a great time. “Because no one here will truly relax until the CEO leaves.” It was an important moment to understand that the role itself creates a gravity that has nothing to do with intention. I will add that I guess the insight from this is to go in understanding what the job will require. I spent a lot of time reading about leaders and CEOs before I ever got near a CEO job. This is something I recommend highly for anyone who wants to do the job well. There are many great examples of effective CEOs with a range of styles and personalities. Study the range and grab the components that align with your particular style of leadership.
Presumably not everyone is cut out to be an executive. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?
Curiosity and passion are personality traits that fuel your ability to lead; building trust and asking and answering the question “how can I help?” is what will keep you in place.
Learning never ends and this should speak to you at a fundamental level — only you can answer the question “do I find the opportunity constantly to learn more?” attractive and motivating. As an executive and especially as a CEO, you will be asked to opine on a variety of issues and problems you can’t possibly have knowledge for, so be curious and ask questions. Learn through whatever means you can — maybe it’s reading, maybe it’s talking to people in the field you are trying to understand. This will enable you to engage productively in whatever challenge presents itself.
Trust is built by drops and taken away in buckets, as the saying goes. It is a constant pursuit. People give trust when you are transparent and authentic. This means being who you are, warts and all. Self-introspection and a quest for personal improvement is a reasonable ask for anyone given broad responsibility, but remember, no one is perfect. Just keep trying.
Finally, asking “how can I help?” of those around you will reveal a path to collective accomplishment.
Anyone who seeks to be CEO or a leader of any kind because it gives you authority is not going to be successful in my view. The ‘authority’ you are given is incidental to your suitability for the position and does not create the means for success, it merely amplifies what you bring to the role.
What advice would you give to other business leaders to help create a fantastic work culture? Can you share a story or an example?
I am a strong believer in taking the time to define the Mission (why the company exists), Vision (where the company wants to be in the future), Strategy (how we will achieve the vision) and Culture (how we agree to behave when pursuing the foregoing). For culture, start by asking the employees to define your existing work culture and what they want it to be. A great culture is one where people have the opportunity to perform their best and enjoy where they work. Who wouldn’t want to be in such an environment? Once there is alignment on what the preferred culture is it makes its pursuit far more natural. Remember that there are a variety of ways to act as a collective group — find one that suits you and your team best. The goal is not to attract everyone, but rather to attract those who will find success within your given culture.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
I believe the mission of the industry in which I operate is to help sick people live longer, healthier lives. Its advancement is helping to make the world a better place. In terms of my leadership, I believe that creating a place where people can advance both professionally and personally will benefit not only their families but also their communities. The community we have created at Insmed should represent an example of the kind of community in which we all would like to exist. The more successful it becomes, the more people will believe its emulation is worthwhile and, in this way, we will transmit this positivity beyond our walls. As individuals we can take our talents, such as they are, to other environments: non-profits, community groups, etc. As a company, supporting and encouraging this kind of behavior magnifies this positive contribution to society. Remember, whoever you are, “It’s not about me” — it’s about the community around me and the efforts I can make to enhance it that make it all rewarding.
Here is the primary question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Read “What Makes an Effective Executive” in Harvard Business Review by Peter Drucker. Read it again, and again. It is timeless and contains everything you need to know for how to successfully lead a small group, department or company.
- Ambiguity is the mother of all conflict. Always seek clarity on the basics. It is shocking when you ask everyone in a team meeting what the goal of the meeting is, or who is responsible for a specific item, how quickly it becomes clear that there is ambiguity. Across a range of activity, for any task, strategy or objective, focus on getting everyone to agree who has responsibility for what; if the objective is defined the same way by everyone, the path being followed to get there is clear. Absent this overt clarity, you will create unintended friction and at best things will take longer and be less pleasant.
- Coach, don’t direct. Your goal is to enable those around you to be their best.
- Identify Mission, Vision, Culture, & Strategy. Define each carefully and revisit them regularly. They will serve as a kind of compass point for your journey in leadership. Keep them in mind whenever you are asked an important question about the business — ask yourself, “how does this fit our Mission, Vision, Culture and Strategy?”
- Listen to understand. Ask questions, but always question with a sincere willingness to learn.
If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
Regularly do a good deed in a way where you try not to get credit.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I have two, which are on my wall:
- “There is no finish line.” I didn’t understand this when I started out in my different careers, but it is really a statement about the boundless opportunity available to us in life. No matter what goal you set or task you take on, it is just a stop along the way to the next. Opportunity is endless. Enjoy the journey.
- A quote by Reinhold Messner, world famous Mountaineer and the first man to ever climb all 14 of the world’s 8,000+ meter tall mountains, which he did solo, and without the aid of supplemental oxygen: “Whenever an idea took hold of me, it would bring with it a spontaneous burst of strength…like a great weight being lifted from my chest, even in the knowledge that I was committing myself into danger…I became single-minded, guided by this idea, carried along, driven. There could be no more freedom for me then. People who say I planned my adventures for mercenary reasons have no conception of this inner explosion of the soul.”
I can identify with this sensation and hope that all who feel summoned to a task or take on significant projects have this experience. It is a kind of spontaneous energy that comes from seeing an outcome that can be so impactful or meaningful and for which it feels like you alone hold the secret in that moment when the idea hits you. You know you are onto something when it energizes you in this unique way. Most importantly, it is this feeling that your action may be unlocking something meaningful that makes it rewarding — it is never about the money.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them
Elon Musk. He sees how to crack open opportunity in the face of the world’s skepticism across multiple industries.