Jim Robinson is President of Astellas Americas, a global, R&D-driven pharmaceutical company. His passion for the industry was spawned by a life-changing event early in his career. While working as a pharmaceutical sales rep, he sold a product that he understood saved the life of a little girl with asthma. This ‘a-ha’ moment had a tremendous impact on his career trajectory and has strongly influenced who he is as a leader today.
Jim recently sat down with executive coach, keynote speaker and Huffington Post contributor Craig Dowden (Ph.D.) to discuss his lessons in leadership.
CRAIG: Who were the earliest influences on your leadership style?
JIM: I’m the product of a strong mother and father who taught me the virtues of being humble.
I was also very fortunate that I had great mentors throughout my career. From them, I learned how important it is to remain open, be willing to learn and to recognize I don’t have all the answers. The only way to succeed is through continuous improvement.
Equally important, I learned a lot about what not to do, especially when it comes to how to treat people, because I saw firsthand the negative results of bad leadership. These were great learning moments for me.
CRAIG: What was a significant turning point early in your career?
JIM: The best thing I ever did was leave Chicago, my hometown, to work for Schering-Plough in New Jersey where I was exposed to important development opportunities and really talented people. I realized that you can be very successful with the right team around you.
If you’re trying to reach your potential, you need to surround yourself with people who are better than you are. It’s a great way to learn and to push yourself.
CRAIG: What is a piece of feedback you have received which you disagreed with?
JIM: Earlier in my career, the perception was that I was too nice. People thought this would interfere with my ability to make tough choices. However, my philosophy is you can be hard on the issue and good to the person. They are not mutually exclusive.
CRAIG: What is one area of development you are currently working on improving?
JIM: Being an open and active listener. As a leader, it’s tempting to jump into offering solutions to an issue or making assumptions about what the other person needs from me. In these situations, I recognize that sometimes the person just needs me to listen and do nothing else.
Engaging in active listening is especially difficult when you feel your day is fully booked and you don’t have time to do everything on your to-do list. However, if you don’t take the time to truly listen, it creates more problems than it solves. I have learned that from experience.
It’s also important to point out that active listening is essential when it comes to innovation. At Astellas, we are very focused on evolving our business models and approaches, which requires ideas and input from everyone across the organization – and from our partners and patients. We need to make sure we’re getting as much feedback as possible about what’s working and not working. Active listening is key to achieving that strategic goal.
CRAIG: How do you encourage people to speak up and share their perspective?
JIM: One way is through an internal and external blog that I contribute to, which allows people to get to know me and understand what I want to hear from them and why. Sometimes people are intimidated by me because they think I have all the answers, which I don’t.
Another thing I do is to make sure I meet with a cross section of the company each month over lunch. During these meetings, we sit down and get to know each other. I love creating relationships and engaging with people, especially with those who are honest with me in sharing their concerns.
Finally, and most importantly, we have encouraged all employees to ‘speak up’ as part of our culture of ethics and integrity. We remind our employees that they have an obligation to speak up about areas of potential confusion or concern, as good stewards of our business.
CRAIG: How do you make sure this happens?
JIM: The definition of leadership that I use often comes from John Maxwell: “Know the way. Show the way. Go the way.” Our leadership team must set the tone that we are absolutely 100% committed to this approach.
CRAIG: What made writing a blog an important investment for you?
JIM: Blogging is definitely a two-way dialogue. It establishes credibility by talking about what’s happening in the industry, current events, the things that I’m currently either doing or thinking about, and asking for feedback from employees. I also think it gives people a window into who I am as a person.
CRAIG: If you could go back in time and give yourself some career advice, what would that be?
JIM: “Relax. You’re going to be okay.” I was lucky that I had great opportunities, mentors and family members who helped me to be successful. I wish I learned what I know now 15 years ago.
CRAIG: How do you determine what’s most important to you as a leader and President of Astellas Americas?
JIM: What is most important to me is our people and our patients. We are a people organization, first and foremost. We invent, we innovate, and we bring medicines to patients. Yes, it takes science and technology to do this, but it also takes humanity -- people who make the science a reality and people who are taking our medicines. We can never lose sight of that.
CRAIG: What gets you excited when looking to the future?
JIM: I have been in the pharma industry for 25 years and was fortunate to have been a part of some amazing product launches and events that have shaped health care. It’s my belief that we’re in a period of time where we’re seeing unbelievable promise being delivered because the science is finally catching up. We are truly seeing innovation and invention like we’ve never seen before. I am excited for our team to play a significant role in shaping that, both now, and in the future for our patients.