Dr. Christopher Boerner: “There are 86,400 seconds in a day”

Create opportunities for the workforce to unify and come together. Our recent BMS for Community global initiative inspired and mobilized our 30,000 Bristol Myers Squibb employees and their families to come together for one purpose: COVID relief. As a part of our series about “How business leaders can create a fantastic work environment”, I had the […]

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Create opportunities for the workforce to unify and come together. Our recent BMS for Community global initiative inspired and mobilized our 30,000 Bristol Myers Squibb employees and their families to come together for one purpose: COVID relief.

As a part of our series about “How business leaders can create a fantastic work environment”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Christopher Boerner.

Dr. Christopher Boerner is currently the EVP & Chief Commercialization Officer at Bristol Myers Squibb where he is accountable for the company’s global commercial activities. Prior to this, Chris has held senior roles leading both the ex-U.S. and U.S. commercial organizations at Bristol Myers Squibb. He joined Bristol Myers Squibb in February 2015. ​

Prior to joining Bristol Myers Squibb, Chris served as the Executive Vice President of Commercial for Seattle Genetics, Inc., where he led all commercial activities for the company. Previously, he was its Senior Vice President of Commercial and its Vice President of Marketing. Before joining Seattle Genetics, Chris was with Dendreon Corporation, where he led the marketing team. From 2002 to 2010, he was with Genentech, a member of the Roche Group, where he served in a variety of commercial roles, including Director of Marketing on Avastin, Director of Avastin franchise strategy and Associate Director of Oncology Market Development. Prior to Genentech, he was with McKinsey & Company, a global strategic management consulting firm, where he served global pharmaceutical and biotechnology clients. ​

Chris received his Ph.D. and M.A. in Business Administration from the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley, and holds an A.B. in Economics and History from Washington University in St. Louis.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

When I started out as an undergraduate, I actually had no interest in science. Not knowing what to study, I decided to major in history. Taking a class with Douglass North, who won the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences in 1993, expanded my way of thinking, and ultimately led me to pursue a double major in history and economics.

After graduating college, I didn’t have my career mapped out. Instead, I took opportunities as they arose. It was important to me not to over engineer my career, because I knew I might miss out on opportunities. After a few years consulting in St. Louis, I enrolled at the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley in 1996. While working toward my PhD, I wrote my dissertation about the pharmaceutical industry and in my research I read an article, oddly enough, about how Bristol Myers Squibb was exceptional at developing and commercializing remedy in the oncology space at the time. I focused my research on product development and pharmaceuticals and after graduating decided to work in the industry. I took a job at a global management consulting firm and my clients were primarily leading pharmaceutical companies. I became fascinated by the work that was being done and by the impact the remedy that these companies were developing could have on patients. I was particularly interested in oncology because, like so many others, my family faced a devastating loss when cancer took my cousin’s life, leaving her young children without a mother. She’s the person I keep in mind every day that I come to work.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading (or as a leader) your company?

I think that 2020 has been an unprecedented year for everyone across the world with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and I’ve navigated circumstances, along with all of the Bristol Myers Squibb workforce, that I could never have imagined. This year, our employees were faced with adapting to a fully remote environment right at the beginning of an integration. We wrapped up 2019 celebrating the integration of heritage Celgene and heritage Bristol Myers Squibb employees and coming together as one company. We started 2020 with a dedicated focus on the integration and building our new company culture. When the pandemic struck the U.S. a few months into the year and all of our employees were forced to work remotely, we were concerned with how our employees would join together if they weren’t physically together. Bringing together two companies in the midst of a pandemic has been a challenge, but it really encouraged us to rethink our priorities.

It’s been amazing to see how our teams have been able to come together, despite the pandemic. Since everyone was working from home, it leveled the playing field for the employees, so it no longer mattered which office teams were based out of. Working through the pandemic and the integration simultaneously has given us an opportunity to think outside of the box when overcoming obstacles and this innovative way of thinking can be carried forward in all that the company does. We’ve made tremendous progress with building the culture of our new company and progressing our pipeline, in spite of the pandemic, and that’s a testament to the dedication, innovation and unrelenting focus on patients from our incredible employees. I look forward to continuing to evolve as one company with our newly formed culture.

Are you working on any exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Along with my more than 30,000 Bristol Myers Squibb colleagues around the world, we just completed our first global workforce charity event, BMS for Community, which took place during our annual Global Patient Week. Together, as one unified Bristol Myers Squibb community, inclusive of our global workforce, our families and our patients, we joined together and ‘moved for minutes’ over four days to support the COVID-19 relief efforts of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies around the world and the American Red Cross. It was so exciting because BMS for Community provided us an opportunity to come together during a time when we’re all far apart. For every minute each of us moved, Bristol Myers Squibb donated 1 dollars to the Red Cross with the goal of moving 1 million minutes for a maximum 1 million dollars donation to the Red Cross. My family and I cycled many minutes over the four days, while my colleagues around the world walked, hiked, ran, swam and even volunteered their time to support local charities in their communities. It was an exciting opportunity for all of us to join together regardless of role or location for one purpose: COVID relief.

According to a study in Forbes (https://www.forbes.com/sites/davidsturt/2018/03/08/10-shocking-workplace-stats-you-need-to-know/#43456713f3af), more than half of the U.S. workforce is unhappy. Why do you think that number is so high?

Today, more than ever, individuals are seeking corporate cultures and workplace communities that prioritize diversity and inclusion. There was a recent survey of Generation Z adults in the United States that asked what they found to be the most important characteristics in a future employer. More than competitive compensation and benefits, the top response by more than 36 percent of Gen Z’ers who are about to enter the workforce, was an employer that prioritizes a culture of diversity and inclusion. Employees are highly engaged when they not only have a seat at the table, but they know that their voice is being heard and their work is contributing to the overall mission and purpose of the company they work for. Additionally, they are seeking this inclusion in a workplace that welcomes and embraces diversity of thought, ability, background, and experience.

Based on your experience, why do you think an unhappy workforce will impact a) company productivity b) company profitability c) and employee health and well-being?

I would rather approach this from a positive perspective. A workforce that is positive and proud of the company they work for and the mission and purpose of that company is good for business, good for the economy and good for the families of the employees.

Can you share 5 things that managers and executives should be doing to improve their company work culture? Can you give me a personal story or example for each?

Create opportunities for the workforce to unify and come together. Our recent BMS for Community global initiative inspired and mobilized our 30,000 Bristol Myers Squibb employees and their families to come together for one purpose: COVID relief.

Find quality time throughout the year to remind every member of the company the mission and vision of the organization. Each year, we designate the last week of September as Global Patient Week. Global Patient Week reinforces what more than 30,000 Bristol Myers Squibb employees do every day throughout the year, in every function, in every office and in each country: keep patients at the center of their work. During that week, we reshare our vision for transforming patients’ lives through science. We connect employees with patients and formally recognize these everyday heroes as a central focus of the corporate culture. The week-long employee event invites patients to share their stories and meet the people who play a role in their very personal fight against disease.

Offer life-changing and career-enhancing experiences that connect the company’s mission and work to the workforce. Our Coast 2 Coast 4 Cancer cross-country bike ride which started in the United States to raise money for cancer research and more specifically, the V Foundation for Cancer Research, has expanded to Europe and Asia. It’s probably the most impactful thing I have done in my career. Every single one of our employees who cycles has a personal connection to cancer and the ride empowers them to bring that connection to life in a powerful way that they will never forget.

Continue to build and evolve a corporate culture that embraces diversity and inclusion. In my role as the Chief Commercial Officer at Bristol Myers Squibb, I am so excited each and every day to collaborate with such a talented and diverse team globally. I am truly appreciative of Bristol Myers Squibb’s commitment to recruit individuals with diverse abilities and to drive a culture of inclusion across our organization.

Prioritize transformation and innovation in everything the company does. For Bristol Myers Squibb, that includes delivering on our mission of bringing transformational treatment to patients. It also applies to empowering unique abilities within the workplace. I am very proud of one of our People and Business Resource Groups in particular, the Differently-Abled Workplace Network (DAWN). It means so much to me that our company has taken a proactive approach to hiring and supporting differently-abled employees. Innovation and transformation not only improve corporate culture, but gives everyone a great sense of pride in where they work and collaborate.

It’s very nice to suggest ideas, but it seems like we have to change the culture regarding work culture. What can we do as a society to broaden change in the US workforce’s work culture?

One of my mentors, Harvard Business School Professor Gary Pisano asserts that culture is a social contract, an unwritten set of rules on how colleagues agree to behave. Both leaders and employees must be explicitly clear about the social contract they want to create and be a part of. Colleagues need to engage in conversations about culture and commit to being respectfully candid even when it feels personal and delicate. For our company in particular, innovation is absolutely critical to think about in this moment as we form our new culture.

I’m passionate about fostering a more inclusive culture and believe there are a number of simple actions we can all take, like speaking up against discrimination in any form and making sure everyone’s voice is heard during meetings. Culture is defined by every employee at the company and management must encourage the organization to continue to shape the culture by speaking up when there are opportunities for the organization to continue to improve.

How would you describe your leadership or management style? Can you give us a few examples?

I actively listen and ask a lot of questions. This may seem incredibly obvious, but it’s key in building trust among your teams and understanding others points of view. I find that even though I’m leading a Commercialization organization with thousands of individuals, it’s critically important to find ways to engage with people in smaller group settings. In those smaller settings, people are more likely to tell you what they need and it’s easier to connect.

Since the pandemic began, I’ve had virtual touchpoints with people all across the Commercialization organization. We called these engagements, “Coffee with Chris,” and I’ve probably held at least 20 of these over the past few months, each with around 10–15 people. I wanted to create a safe and informal environment where people could voice their concerns and communicate what was on their minds. This was highly successful, because I not only got to know the people deeper in my organization on a more personal level, but I was hearing themes arise, like the need for more flexibility during the pandemic, that I could take as action items back to leadership.

I’ve also adapted our traditional town hall format into a two-way dialogue. I found that after years of hosting large meetings where I was talking for up to two hours, I was only hearing myself and wasn’t hearing what was on people’s minds. This year, we’ve held quarterly question and answer sessions in lieu of formal updates. I’m joined by our entire Commercialization Leadership Team and after we provide brief, pertinent updates, we open up the majority of the session to employees for Q&A. People have responded very positively to this, because we are able to directly address what is on their minds.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped you get to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

As I previously mentioned, Gary Pisano, an expert on innovation management and author of the book Creative Construction, has been instrumental in evolving how I think about innovation and the need to embed it in all that the company does. We both studied business at the University of California, Berkeley and that’s where we met. About five years ago, Gary and I met for dinner and were having a conversation about how to incentivize people to be innovative in a big organization, like Bristol Myers Squibb.

Gary shared that the most successful companies are the ones that are able to think about both sides of the equation when it comes to innovation. According to Gary, all companies want to be innovative, but you can’t have innovation without key tensions. It’s an innovation paradox and what I think of as the ice cream and castor oil dichotomy. All people want ice cream, which are the easy components of innovation, such as psychological safety. In order to have an environment where employees feel psychologically safe, there must be brutal candor, this is the castor oil. Another example of this is that innovative cultures have a high tolerance for failures, but there’s an equally high intolerance for incompetence. I realized that at Bristol Myers Squibb, we needed to evolve our conversations so that we were balancing the ice cream with the castor oil. We now have a dedicated work stream to innovation framework and ensuring that we’re able to embed this at all levels and in all processes.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

Just a year before I started at Bristol Myers Squibb, oncology employees organized a massive fundraiser in support of cancer research called Coast 2 Coast 4 Cancer (C2C4C).

The C2C4C ride involves often novice cyclists from across the company who have committed themselves to extensive training so that they can give back to cancer patients on a west-to-east relay ride across the U.S. The event has evolved so that the rides span Europe and Asia.

I’ll never forget the first time I set out for a Coast 2 Coast 4 Cancer ride, with my cousin Jackie’s name on the back of my jersey to honor a life we lost too soon to cancer. It was the kind of moment that sticks with you — when you realize you’re part of a collective force that can achieve more good than you ever could on your own.

In the six years since I began riding, our colleagues across the U.S. and Europe have ridden thousands of miles and raised more than 7 million dollars for people affected by cancer.

It is nothing short of incredible to see one team finish their leg, hand off their baton to the next team whose embarking on the beginning of their journey and then hear the heartfelt stories on the road shared between riders. The ride is probably one of the most moving and impactful things that I’ve done in my career and holds a special place in my heart, along with each and every rider’s personal stories of family members, friends and colleagues who have faced cancer.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson” quote? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

The Coast 2 Coast 4 Cancer cross-country bike ride in the United States raises money for cancer research and more specifically, the V Foundation for Cancer Research. The founder of the V Foundation and the champion college basketball coach, Jim Valvano, provided so many ‘life lesson” quotes that are among my favorites. One that particularly stands out is, “There are 86,400 seconds in a day. It’s up to you to decide what to do with them.”

His quote reminds me that each day presents a new opportunity to be innovative and accomplish things that others before may have considered impossible.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

At Bristol Myers Squibb, I look forward to continuing to help our company deliver on our mission of bringing transformational treatment to patients. By focusing on innovation and execution, we can strengthen our ability to bring innovative treatment to patients faster. The way we are ultimately going to make progress against the different disease areas we work on is not by Bristol Myers Squibb alone. It will be in partnership with institutions around the world where innovative research is taking place every day.

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