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Profile: A personal journey with Alcon head Jeff George

This article was originally published in Scrip

Executive Summary

Continuing Scrip's new executive profile series, in which we interview key industry people to find out what makes them tick, what inspires them, what challenges them and more, the man behind the C-suite mask this time is Jeff George. He shared some inner secrets over a glass of Sprite with Eleanor Malone.

Mr George is only 41 but since May 2014 he's been in charge of the world's largest eye care business, Alcon. Before that he headed up generics giant Sandoz for more than five years, after leadership roles in Novartis Pharma in Emerging Markets and Novartis Vaccines where he ran Western & Eastern Europe. Prior to that he worked at Gap Inc and McKinsey & Company.

Scrip: You're quite young to have been in charge of so many major businesses. What's your special magic?

Jeff George: I don't know that I have a special magic! But I put a priority on creating an environment where we develop really strong cohesive teams that are really aligned to accomplishing objectives. I'm the leader of the team but it takes a team to really move Alcon or Sandoz or any organization in the direction that it needs to go, so I think a team-based approach to leadership is really critical.

The other thing that is really important for leadership within Novartis [Alcon was acquired by Novartis in 2010] is the ability to zoom in and zoom out. So on the one hand to zoom in and be very deep on operational details on a day to day basis, but to be able to zoom out and think differently, to be able to think about the bigger picture and how the landscape is evolving over the next 5-10 years.

The third element is a very strong focus on execution and performance. Performance you know is something you've got to be relentlessly focused on in any business, but I think it's especially true at Novartis.

Scrip: What are your long-term aspirations?

JG: To do a great job running Alcon and to accelerate Alcon's growth - I'm very excited about the prospect that we have right here and right now and that is really what I'm focused on.

Scrip: What were the key things that shaped you when you were growing up?

JG: Number one was the opportunity to live abroad. I had the opportunity to live for three years in Brussels, from the age of seven to 10. It was really eye-opening for me to have the opportunity to be with such a diverse group of people. Linking back to your earlier question, I take a really global approach to things and I think it stems from my childhood, and that's also why I studied international relations and international economics, and emerging markets political economy, because I was fascinated by all things international: that was something that was incredibly important in shaping me.

The second element was my upbringing with my parents. I'm lucky to have a mother who was a professional psychologist and instilled in me a focus on people and on my own development. The notion of personal development is something that is deeply ingrained in me. Coupled with that, my mom is a very intellectually curious person so I think that I have a thirst to learn about new things, and it's why I loved, for example, coming into Alcon: I knew almost nothing about eye care a couple of months ago! I enjoy learning about new things, and that's exciting too.

Also my father was an executive [Bill George was formerly chairman and CEO of Medtronic] and now teaches leadership, and is someone who has been a very influential role model for me in many respects, as a mentor.

Scrip: Who has been your biggest influence, apart from your parents?

JG: I had an exceptional boss at McKinsey in Robert Frank. Robert was a guy who had a tremendous combination of intellect and emotional intelligence and he's also just a terrific leader. He's someone who really helped shape me as a leader and is someone who I still keep in touch with. It's more of a friendship now, but for a number of years earlier in my career he was really a mentor for me.

Scrip: What's the best advice you've ever had?

JG: "Know thyself", as Socrates said. There's something that's so powerful about having an understanding of your own strengths and weaknesses. The more self-aware I am about my weaknesses and development areas the better leader I can be. I looked at my team at Sandoz after five and a half years at the helm there, and was really proud to say that every single person on that executive committee was smarter and better than me in some way. And that's important in any team environment, to have a team that's comprised of people that are stronger and better in several areas than you. And my job is then to be a leader of leaders.

Scrip: Who do you admire in the pharmaceutical industry?

JG: I admire my boss a lot – Joe [Jimenez, CEO of Novartis] has a laser-like ability to focus in on the key issues, which is really distinctive. He's also both tough but very fair and has a very thoughtful and balanced way of managing people, which I really appreciate. He balances a focus on the mid- to long term and the short term very well: placing big bets for the future but at the same time really focusing on driving operational performance and execution in the short term. And Joe is really gifted at communicating with simplicity. I've learnt a lot from his ability to take complex things and make them simple.

I've had a unique opportunity to work with Joe Jimenez, Joerg Reinhardt [now chairman Novartis] and Dan Vasella [former CEO and chairman of Novartis], and I respect each of them tremendously for different reasons. Dan for being a bold visionary and doing things that were contrarian to what a lot of people thought were the right thing at the time, going into generics for example, buying Alcon is another example - these were big, big bold bets. Joerg Reinhardt is one of the most talented product developers in the history of pharmaceuticals, and you see the fruits of his and a lot of other people's labour over the years coming through in our pipeline today. In addition Joerg's a really talented people leader and people manager. All three have been really influential in my own development - each one of those has been a mentor to me in the last eight years.

Scrip: What else helps us understand your approach to your role?

JG: I've had a chance to live in a lot of places. I'm American but I've lived in Brussels, in Basel, Switzerland, in Munich, Germany; I've had the chance to live in Beijing, Paris, Johannesburg and Cape Town, and have also lived both in Boston and San Francisco. So I think having the experience to live in a number of different places has made me more comfortable with change, more comfortable with ambiguity, and more comfortable with people of many different cultures, which I think in a global company like Novartis is something which is inherently important.

Scrip: What has been your proudest moment?

JG: Two proudest moments. One was when I married my wife, Renee, and the second was the birth of my first daughter Dylan because it was like a dream come true to have a young daughter.

Scrip: And your proudest moment at work?

JG: It was a thrill to launch enoxaparin [Sanofi's Lovenox] in generics because everyone told us it wasn't possible to do a generic version and we made it into the first billion dollar generic blockbuster. And then my team and I were really proud to announce the Google deal [between Alcon and Google X on the latter's smart lens technology].

Scrip: What has been your most difficult moment?

JG: I was not happy as a first year associate at McKinsey – it was a very tough job, a very tough first year. I was working a lot of 90-100 hour weeks, 15-17 hour Saturdays, and it wasn't a lot of fun. However, it taught me both about how I wanted to lead when I got into a position as a manager, and it taught me a lot about the importance of discipline, both in terms of how one leads one's own life, but also in terms of how you lead other people as well.

Overall I really appreciated my experience at McKinsey because of the skillset that it gave me and the vantage point that it gave me at a relatively young age to take a C-level view of a lot of problems, and so I'm appreciative for the time but it was a very tough first year.

Scrip: How do you step back and get perspective?

JG: I have a wonderful wife who tells me when I'm full of it, in all candour, and doesn't let me get away with much. I'm blessed to have two fantastic and beautiful little daughters, Dylan [7] and Stella [3], who are really the light of my life.

The other thing is just finding time to recharge my own batteries. I meditate every morning; I've meditated every morning for 10 years. I'm naturally a very high-energy person, so meditation is something that allows me to recharge and center myself before the day begins. Also, I go running, typically four times a week: it is really important for me just to get out and listen to music and let go, to get away from work.

Scrip: What do you listen to?

JG: I listen to a lot of different types of music, so everything from Bob Dylan to Bob Marley, to Dave Matthews to the Rolling Stones to Mark Knopfler to Norah Jones – a whole host of different types of music.

Scrip: If you weren't a pharma executive what would you be?

JG: I love my job so much that I don't spend a lot of time thinking about what else I could be.

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