Kevin W. Sharer
MBA Class of 1953 Senior Lecturer of Business Administration
Kevin joined the HBS Strategy unit in the Fall of 2012 and is currently teaching two sessions of General Management: Processes and Action. Before HBS, Kevin was CEO of Amgen for twelve years and before that Amgen's President for eight. Amgen is the world's largest biotechnology company and is based in California. He serves on the boards of directors of Chevron and Northrop Grumman and is on the Naval Academy Foundation and Chairman of the board of the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History. Before Amgen, Kevin was Executive Vice President of business markets at MCI, General Manager of several GE business units and on the chairman's staff, worked at McKinsey and was on two nuclear fast attack submarines including a tour as chief engineer of a new construction Los Angeles class ship. Kevin is a Naval Academy graduate and has master's degrees in aeronautical engineering and business. He is married and lives in Boston.
Great leaders have something that when you see it, you know what it is, but it’s hard ahead of time to describe exactly what it is. But the first thing I’d say is that leadership is not about charisma and it’s not about style. It’s something about authenticity. It’s something about integrity. It’s something about willingness to take risks. It’s something about the ability to make others feel part of a larger thing. It’s part of being able to articulate the social architecture in a way that others can understand, believe in and follow.
Managing in a Complex Environment
For the first time in anybody's memory we're starting to see the biopharmaceutical industry and the medical industry at large affected by a recession. I think there are a couple of reasons. One is very high unemployment, and every time the unemployment rate goes up, people lose health insurance. Second, I think people are more aware of what they have to pay -- some of the cost has been shifted to them. While people don't have a full understanding of their cost of health care, they now bear more cost. That combination, I think, is unique.
And so what we did, out of caution, is we said it looks like a 1% effect on sales. We cut some costs, and our earnings should still be fine.
But marketing was important. Even if we produced the greatest drugs in the world, we’d be in trouble if we couldn’t get doctors to prescribe them or insurers to pay for them. As for our reluctance to look outside the company for ideas, I like to say that 0.1% of the biologists in the world work at Amgen. Those other 99.9% care about disease just as much as we do and are generating ideas that we should be aggressively looking at. There was another problem. When our only two products were Epogen and Neupogen, we had operated as a de facto monopoly. As we launched new drugs, we began to feel for the first time the heat of competition from the likes of Johnson & Johnson and Abbott Labs. So some changes had to be made.
The best advice I ever heard about listening—advice that significantly changed my own approach—came from Sam Palmisano, when he was talking to our leadership team. Someone asked him why his experience working in Japan was so important to his leadership development, and he said, “Because I learned to listen.” And I thought, “That’s pretty amazing.” He also said, “I learned to listen by having only one objective: comprehension. I was only trying to understand what the person was trying to convey to me. I wasn’t listening to critique or object or convince.”
A video and the PDF of Kevin's thoughts about listening are available online.