all the information, none of the junk | biotech • healthcare • life sciences

Never Back Smug: A Lesson for Life Sciences From Newt Gingrich

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at school. “When judging some of these personality traits, it’s pretty universal. You can learn a lot by seeing the way somebody treats a receptionist. I’ve not done deals with people because of the way they interacted with my receptionist,” More says.

Another warning sign to More is what he calls “the silo mentality.” This is when a CEO strictly boxes people in the company into departments, so that he or she is the only person with a complete view of what’s going on. He didn’t say really what character flaw that exposes, although to me it sounds like paranoia or insecurity about one’s power over the minions. Then again, More says this isn’t necessarily a disqualifying characteristic. There are exceptions to the rule, like Steve Jobs, a famous jerk and fan of silos. (While sometimes assholes can be effective CEOs, that’s becoming less true in today’s world, according to a report last week from my colleague Greg Huang).

The best executives have an incredible focus, and deep burning desire in the gut to achieve a goal. They don’t want to be in the 99th percentile of what they’re doing, they want to be the absolute best, More says. For an obvious example of that mentality, watch New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady in the Super Bowl on Sunday. I’m no Patriots fan (Go Packers!), but I have to admire Brady’s burning intensity to be the best, and his recognition of how to bring out the best in his offensive line, running backs, and receivers. A great CEO also has relentless desire and surrounds himself with great people who can perform critical tasks around them, Blair says.

Beyond that, there’s the ability to inspire. While it may not be a character flaw, weak leadership, or weak ability to inspire is something that Blair says he probes for. “Intellectual leaders are one thing, but do the people working for him think he’ll run through brick walls to get the company where it needs to be?” Blair says. “I can remember one time asking people that, and hearing that if faced with a brick wall, their CEO would first take a long walk to the left of the wall to look and see if there’s a way around it, then take a long walk to the right, and then maybe grab a rope to hang over and try to climb it and take a look. That was not exactly a salute to his leadership.”

Some entrepreneurs, More says, are bound to shoot back, “what about the character flaws of VCs?” There are certainly many of those, and probably enough to fill up several future columns. At least for today, I’d love to hear your stories about what you think are the most deadly character flaws you see in biotech executives. Please post your thoughts in the comment section below, or send me a note at ltimmerman@xconomy.com (and specify whether you’d like your comment to be public or not.)

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  • Nano string

    Luke, going by his words about dishonesty, the gentleman should be disqualifying Romney as well – the most dishonest candidate ever. Why name Gingrich about smugness, and then not name Romney for dishonesty?

  • Krassen—sure, there are plenty of dishonest politicians, but like I said, I’m not trying to go in depth on politics in this space. Dan Primack at Fortune has done a nice job truth-squadding some of Romney’s statements.


  • A bunker mentality is one of the biggest flaws I’ve seen. We can argue whether this flaw is pervasive throughout the industry, but there are some leaders (and companies) who are committed to open, transparent dialogue with all stakeholders, regardless of the issue. Unfortunately, in our industry, many of the those CEOs are based on the other side of the Atlantic!

  • Jonathan

    Hi Luke,

    Sounds like Bob is one of the more enlightened VCs and I agree with him completely about character issues. However, a great biotech ceo needs to remain nimble and flexible in their thinking, adaptive to change vs using brute force to quickly abd burn all your cash. So perhaps breaking through the brick wall, first requires a thoughtful, contemplative look to the side, just as long as it does not evolve into constant inaction, or fear of failure as I like to put it. However, I do understand the investors perspective, make your milestones, we are here to fund you. The great biotech CEO, in my opinion, should be in it for the long haul, not just to reach an investor milestone or a transaction. I think true entrepreneurs will push themselves and their team to limit to find a way to get the job done, albeit it may take them much longer than first predicted.

  • Just got this comment from John McCarter of Soluble Therapeutics in Birmingham, AL.

    “You can tell a lot about somebody’s character by the way they interact with those that occupy a “lower rung” on the corporate ladder. While I am normally in the position of soliciting backing from either VC’s or corporate partner’s, I always keep my radar on for how these people treat the servers at restaurants we patronize, etc…

    I served and bartended my way through college/grad school – I like to think my asshole-dar is well tuned.”

  • Paul Frohna

    Consulted for a CEO that made loads of money investing in biotechs, which made him think he could run a biotech. Believe me, two VERY different tasks. Trying to maximize profits by cutting costs like investors want, but even before a drug was approved and on the market. Today’s biotech environment requires an honest, dedicated CEO that understands business even more than science.

  • Deborah

    More and Blair are right on. Integrity trumps all else when thinking of people to back in leadership and in life. People will follow a leader who has integrity.
    A big downer are leaders who have to be the smartest person in the room and who “know all the answers” . It tends to remove the oxygen from the room. Instead of bringing energy and ideas from all corners of the organization to solve problems, these leaders tend to train people just to do what they are told. Not a winning strategy but somehow seen in too many very smart people.
    Great leaders get every brain in the game!

  • Been There Done That

    I think a lot of the bad behaviors in start up management are a direct result of the Board of VC Directors impatiently pushing for their ROI. I had a boss who was ill-tempered and mean, but then again, he had to present data constantly to an impatient BOD.