The CEO of the Belgium-based pharmaceutical company UCB gets candid about its transformation journey, its patient-value purpose, and the pandemic. 

Jean-Christophe Tellier had glimpsed his future and contemplated the way forward. It was 20 years ago, when the rheumatology physician was offered a partnership position in a private practice. Coming from a family of medical doctors, it seemed like his future was preordained—which is what bothered him most. 

“I was sitting at my desk in my office and realized I didn’t want to be in the same place 20 years later,” says Tellier.

The problem was, not unlike today’s younger generation of nomadic workers, he didn’t know where he wanted to be. The hospital environment wasn’t right for him, he says.

So he joined a pharmaceutical company, not necessarily as the be-all and end-all of his career but more “as an exploration to satisfy my curiosity,” Tellier says.

Thus began a journey more than two decades long that has taken the 60-year-old French native from clinical development to marketing—where one of his roles was overseeing the launch of a popular sleeping aid in France—to his current position as CEO of Brussels-based UCB. The mid-sized company specializes in neurology and immunology drugs to treat conditions like epilepsy, Parkinson’s disease, psoriasis, and yes, rheumatoid arthritis. “I thought I’d be in this industry for two or three years,” Tellier says. “But the more I worked in the industry, the more I realized that I could have as much of an impact on the lives of patients from this side of medicine than as a physician.”

Since becoming CEO, Tellier and his leadership team restructured internal operations, refocused the business model around digital, and reoriented UCB’s purpose around the idea that patients are at the core of the business. In Tellier’s first year as CEO, profits increased by 35%. Revenue over the last five years has grown by nearly $1 billion to a projected more than $5 billion this year despite the global pandemic. Tellier attributes the financial growth to UCB’s cultural transformation, which he says is less about commanding from the top and more about everyone in the company aligning behind the new vision.

UCB’s new purpose sounds simple, but Tellier says the pharmaceutical industry has often been so far removed from the patient that it lost sight of its real mission. Physicians, regulators, and healthcare systems are the primary points of contact and thus get all the industry’s attention. Coming from outside the industry, Tellier saw things differently, and his goal has been to transform UCB to align with the vision of humanizing pharmaceuticals. To do so, he’s leaning heavily on his past—the agility to change, the willingness to take risks, the ability to adapt to ambiguity, the interest in learning new skills—to inspire his workforce. “People change through experience, and our goal is to change their experience of what this industry and company can be,” Tellier says.

Tellier spoke with Korn Ferry about the pandemic, the importance of purpose, and UCB’s transformation journey, which he says is now in the “accelerate and expand” phase. Below is an edited version of that conversation.

You’ve said the pandemic is a reminder of the emotional link between pharmaceutical companies and patients. How so?

Well, there can be a tendency in our industry to think that our customers are stakeholders like regulatory agencies or the doctors our salespeople visit. The patient has traditionally been far away. It’s experiment, discover, create, sell, and then the medicine eventually gets to patients. But the suffering inflicted by COVID-19, and how supply chain issues impacted people’s ability to get drugs and treatment, really underscores how at the end of the value chain is a patient that needs to be treated. Pharmacology is not all science and no empathy. We are here to help patients, not just publish the results of clinical trials.

The pandemic has helped to humanize pharmaceuticals then?

The trend already started for some before the pandemic, but in a way, yes. When you are developing drugs, you are comparing groups to one another through clinical trials. You are looking at big numbers and different sets of criteria to determine averages. Our goal is to try not to define the average patient. We don’t want to be doing average work for the average patient. We want to truly understand what makes patients different and then connect the science to them. Instead of starting with the science, we start with the patient.

Why is that such a radical idea?

Because we aren’t just putting drugs out on the market. We are engaging patients not as a manufacturer of products but as a service provider. Patient value comes not just from our differentiated products but also from the experience and access we provide.

Logistically, what structural changes were required to make that shift?

Our structure, like many other pharmaceutical companies, was very hierarchical and siloed. But with product cycles getting shorter, we had to completely change how we operated to move faster. We had to get flatter and more collaborative. So some of the changes we’ve made include centralizing functions, like finance and human resources, across practice areas instead of having separate departments for each one, and creating cross-functional teams to reduce interfaces between departments and the number of stakeholders around the table.

Did it work?

It’s an ongoing process. Some teams work very well together; others are less fluid. Part of the reason for that is because practice areas (meaning those working on different drugs for different diseases) had been so siloed for so long that they had developed their own language, making it difficult for people in the same company to really understand each other.

You’ve said that reorganizations are never a solution. What do you mean by that?

In order to thrive, organizations always have to be learning and maturing. The goal of any restructuring should be to get rid of the behaviors you don’t want and facilitate the kind of behaviors you do based on where your organization is in its journey.

What kind of behaviors do you want to get rid of?

Lots of people look at the world as an equation to be solved. But in the environment of uncertainty and ambiguity we are in now, that view doesn’t work anymore. We don’t want people who think their solution is the only solution. We don’t want people who are hung up on their expertise and won’t consider other points of view.

And what kind of behaviors do you want to facilitate?

We want our experts to work in an open way with an open mind. We want them to come together to think with diversity to create a holistic outcome for patients. We want our experts to understand that they are not just here to provide answers; they are here to contribute and serve as well.

You actually have a hidden KPI (key performance indicator) for that, right?

Yeah, I call it the “zone of discomfort.” In order to do new things, you have to be willing to be incompetent for a while. One way to tell if people are comfortable with discomfort is by measuring the number of real open- ended questions they ask in meetings. The more of those they ask, the more accepting they are of not knowing all the answers. It shows they are looking to learn. When I first became CEO I did an assessment, and 90% of the time, no open-ended questions were being asked in meetings, even with the board. But to really understand different points of view and contribute to a holistic outcome, you have to be vulnerable.

How big of a cultural change was required to make that mindset shift?

Big. Everyone has to be aligned on the purpose, because if you have discrepancies at the executive level, that leaks through to the entire organization. Luckily, we have leaders that have a sense of service and self-awareness and want to grow and buy into our mission.

So is the mission developing new drugs or treating patients?

Both. Our business is built around innovation and developing new drugs. There’s an assumption in pharmaceuticals that discovering new medicines in and of itself is a sufficient purpose, and there’s some truth to that. But for us, we don’t feel we’ve done our job until the patient we have committed to treat can be treated to the best extent possible.

What role has digital played in bringing UCB closer to the patient?

Well, our industry is heavily regulated, of course, and there are issues involved with dealing directly with patients. That said, digital has been a major factor in helping connect patients directly to their overall health environment, which includes pharmaceutical companies. We are able to have more and more interactions and dialogue with patients because of digital. We can connect them to information, expert advice, and other resources to improve care. It goes to the heart of improving the patient experience and creating more patient value.

It also helped get your medicine to patients during the pandemic, right?

It did. The digital transformation of our supply chain ensured that patients could get their medication through direct delivery so that they didn’t experience an interruption in care during the crisis. We were also able to help the Belgian government with COVID-19 testing by recalibrating some of our diagnostic machines.

What other ways did the structural and cultural changes you’ve made help during the pandemic?

Well, by nature, you’d expect that at least some of our more than 7,500 people would revert to previous behaviors as soon as our workforce moved to fully remote work. But the changes we made required people to be highly connected internally and externally. And since the collaborative relationships were already in place, it made the challenge of remote work less painful.

How has all of this impacted recruitment and retention of talent?

In terms of recruitment, the patient-value model is proving to be an attractive proposition for candidates to join the company. We are seeing an upward trend of more applicants coming from other, bigger pharmaceutical companies.

In terms of retention, my view of success is to develop our talent to the point where they have the skills to get any job they want at any company they want, but they still choose to stay with us. And so far, that’s what they are doing.