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Percival Barretto-Ko: “Listen with curiosity. Speak with honesty. Act with integrity”

Lead with clarity of purpose. Leading with a clarity of purpose is critical, particularly in times of crisis and distress. Each of us, by our own lives and stories, helps shape our clarity of purpose and fuel our commitment and collaboration as an organization. It highlights the unique perspectives that both build our inclusive culture […]

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Lead with clarity of purpose. Leading with a clarity of purpose is critical, particularly in times of crisis and distress. Each of us, by our own lives and stories, helps shape our clarity of purpose and fuel our commitment and collaboration as an organization. It highlights the unique perspectives that both build our inclusive culture and drive us to deliver value to patients.


As a part of our series about “How business leaders can create a fantastic work environment”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Percival Barretto-Ko President, Astellas Pharma.

Percival is responsible for the operations for Astellas Pharma across the U.S., headquartered in Northbrook, IL, with over 3,000 employees. Astellas is a company dedicated to improving the health of people around the world through the provision of innovative pharmaceutical products. Astellas focuses on serving patients’ unmet medical needs across multiple therapeutic areas, including Cardiology, Hematology, Immunology, Infectious Diseases, Oncology and Urology.


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

Born and raised in the Philippines, I witnessed what it means to lack access to healthcare. Since then, throughout my career, I have seen health disparities around the world, and that recognition gave me clarity of purpose. My work in the pharmaceutical industry has given me the ability to be part of a solution to those health disparities. This is my personal “why.”

Meeting the unmet needs of patients is our collective clarity of purpose. It is our job to ensure patients receive life-sustaining therapies, by translating complex medical innovation to patient access and care. Even the greatest of healthcare innovations is meaningless without patient access.

That is our value proposition for patients whose lives we can touch. I see my role as going beyond leading our vision and strategy to creating a vivid image of how we will continue to deliver value for patients and what lies ahead.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

2020 has been a remarkable year to say the least. From a global public health pandemic to the focused attention on issues of racial unrest and social injustice, we were tested as an organization, as a community, in our ability to keep patients and employees at the center of all we do.

As the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded, it challenged our organization to move forward amid great uncertainty in our environment. It also reminded us yet again of how a health crisis disproportionately impacts communities of color — of the chronic health inequities that exist in our system.

We had to make quick decisions to protect the well-being of our patients, prioritizing product supply, safety in clinical trials, and access. Similarly, we had to recognize the needs of employees. We provided crisis training for managers, offered childcare, mental health support and financial resources, and provided job training and search services for employee family members in need.

Just as we were navigating through COVID support, our country suddenly found itself thrust into a “Race Pandemic” following the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and others that shone a spotlight on broader issues of racial injustice and inequality. It was critically important that we not turn a blind eye to what was happening and its impact on our employees.

We took a stand publicly, in partnership with other industry leaders, as PhRMA unveiled a series of new commitments to Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, stating: “Diversity is essential to a robust innovation ecosystem that can create new medicines for those who need them. America’s biopharmaceutical companies are pushing for necessary, positive, and long-term change to better meet the needs of all Americans.”

Our African American Employee Impact Group (AAEIG), one of seven employee advocacy groups launched several years prior, led a 1,500-person forum where many employees spoke from the heart, sharing their stories of discrimination and microaggressions — as young adults, as families, even as professionals interacting with customers. It reminded me how important it is to never stop learning, and never stop listening, to those with very different life experiences from yours.

Are you working on any exciting projects now, and how will they impact your people?

Everything we do at Astellas is deeply rooted in our values as a patient-centric and people-driven organization. We strive to create an environment where the best talent can deliver the best science and the greatest value of innovation to our patients. We refer to it as our 3Ps — Patients/People/Performance.

Our long-term focus on employee diversity and cultural inclusion has taken on more imminent and strategic importance, not because it was popular, but because in terms of access to healthcare and workforce unity, it was critical. As a result, we are activating our organization at every level to the needs of the diverse patient populations we serve.

In addition, at the start of the year, we introduced a three-year people strategy, creating three employee-led teams to integrate best-in-class strategies that would increase our ability to attract, develop and retain top and diverse talent across the Astellas network. We are implementing new and innovative approaches to recruiting, building new partnerships with key professional and collegiate organizations, and launching training programs that address topics like implicit bias in the workplace.

Our goal is to create a diverse workforce and inclusive workplace where all employees can thrive. Only then can we hope to hear, listen, and respond to the voices and needs of those we wish to serve. Only then can we be the compassionate, caring, and empathic organization that our patients, partners and employees deserve.

Ok, lets jump to the main part of our interview. According to this study cited in Forbes, more than half of the US workforce is unhappy. Why do you think that number is so high, and how do we go about creating a more positive and engaged work environment?

Every day I am reminded of how privileged I am to be doing what I do for a living, to be helping to make a difference in people’s lives. Our singular purpose at Astellas is helping people gain access to great medical innovations taking place all around us, innovations to which I am fortunate to contribute at Astellas.

When I took the helm at Astellas several years ago, the first thing I asked my colleagues was to crystallize their clarity of purpose, their “Why?” We all have one, but to embrace it and engage in the journey forward, we must be able to articulate our why.

Am I surprised that more than half the U.S. workforce claims they are unhappy in their jobs? No. But is it fixable? Without question. It will not happen overnight. It took time for us to achieve our record high employee engagement score at Astellas. As leaders of companies, as leaders of people, we have an obligation to create a mechanism for listening to our people, for engaging them in open and honest dialogue, and for ensuring that all voices are heard.

2020 has introduced unprecedented challenges for our mental and physical well-being. Together, we are finding our way forward. I am proud of the actions taken by my company, my colleagues, and the biopharmaceutical industry in recent months. We have learned, we have grown, we have certainly come together, but we have a long way to go.

What specifically should managers and executives be doing to improve their company work culture? Can you include any personal story or examples?

  1. Lead with clarity of purpose. Leading with a clarity of purpose is critical, particularly in times of crisis and distress. Each of us, by our own lives and stories, helps shape our clarity of purpose and fuel our commitment and collaboration as an organization. It highlights the unique perspectives that both build our inclusive culture and drive us to deliver value to patients.
  2. Kindness matters. In a highly competitive industry such as biopharmaceuticals, our managers and executive leaders must always set a standard for treating each other with compassion, kindness, and respect. I close every employee townhall with the refrain ‘remember to be kind to each other’. Recently, an employee of ours sent me a t-shirt that said, “be kind,” and she thanked me for sending a message of kindness to our community. It stayed with me. We know this intrinsically when it comes to the patients we serve. But it must also be second nature within our organizational culture, and we must all live by that standard.
  3. Recognize the importance of vertical insight. We believe we have created, and continue to enhance, an inclusive environment of culturally diverse backgrounds and personal experiences that helps us ensure that people are heard, have an opportunity to bring their authentic selves to work, and have a direct line to leadership and strategy. This is critical to every aspect of our business. I also meet with groups of employees monthly. As we have certainly experienced during this unprecedented year, when times are particularly challenging, listening and elevating employee voices must be a top priority.
  4. Be aware of your place in the world and make a difference. We must care about each other, our patients, our partners, and improving the lives of those less fortunate. We give our US employees five paid days off to volunteer each year, and they provide 25,000 hours annually to causes important to them. We have a long history as a compassionate and caring corporate citizen. This is one of the things about Astellas of which I am most proud. This is also one of many reasons why Astellas has been recognized among the Best Places to Work for the last six years.

How would you describe your leadership or management style? Was there a particular moment or experience in your professional life that stuck with you and perhaps changed your way of thinking about your role as a leader?

Fostering open, honest, and direct lines of communication has always been central to my leadership style. I always strive to maintain a high level of integrity in leadership, to prioritize direct and honest feedback, and to act boldly to proactively address important and often challenging issues.

To be bold is to be driven by our clarity of purpose, ensuring a singular focus on the patient. To be bold is to be authentic. To be bold is to be driven by integrity, ensuring that we do everything in our power to always do the right thing. This is critical to building successful and trusting relationships, inside and outside our organization, and to our overall business success.

For me, this is not a job — this is a mission. That realization hit home relatively early in my 15+ year tenure at Astellas. I had the opportunity in 2007 to visit a children’s camp. This wasn’t any ordinary camp. It was a camp for children who had undergone transplants — kidney, lung, liver. Almost immediately, I saw in their eyes how much they valued every simple joy in their lives, every single day. These were the sickest and, at the same time, some of the happiest children on earth. The gift of life their transplant provided was profound, for them and for their families whom I had the privilege of meeting as well. It was during this visit that my job stopped being a job and became a mission. I had the chance to see the impact we can have on the everyday lives of these kids…and on the lives of the patients we serve. I carry that feeling with me every day.

As a person of great influence, how have you made the world a better place? Is there a movement you would like to inspire in the future?

In considering this question, I think it is important to take a step back, for in many ways past successes and failures have been redefined amid the turbulence of 2020. As COVID-19 data began to shed more light on profound healthcare disparities in communities of color, the timing of these two pandemics — public health and social injustice — unraveled systemic and deeply rooted issues. It raised challenging topics we need to confront as a society, as an industry focused on healthcare, to understand why such disparities and inequities exist, and to begin the process of eradication and healing.

Having witnessed health disparities and race and gender inequity firsthand in my youth, global well-being, particularly of underserved populations, has always been a priority of mine. I was privileged to be invited earlier this year to join the Americares Board of Directors. Americares is an organization with a singular focus on improving health for global communities affected by poverty or disaster, something very much aligned with Astellas’ mission to support healthy living for people around the world. I have also become an active board member of Chicago United, an advocacy organization celebrating 50 years of dedication to achieving parity in economic opportunity for people of color.

I am extremely proud to be part of the biopharmaceutical industry at a time when we are recognizing, acknowledging, and acting on the systemic changes needed to better meet the needs of historically underserved communities. Lasting change can only happen with grassroots support and buy-in across the board, including workforce diversity and inclusion, clinical trial access and representation, policies that support affordable access to medical care in communities that need it most, and patient voices heard…all driven by industry-wide principles and commitment that must act as our guiding light.

In closing, is there a favorite “Life Lesson Quote” you are willing to share and how it made an impact on your life?

“Listen with curiosity. Speak with honesty. Act with integrity. The greatest problem with communication is we don’t listen to understand. We listen to reply. When we listen with curiosity, we don’t listen with the intent to reply. We listen for what’s behind the words.” Roy T. Bennett, The Light in the Heart

This to me is the secret to being authentic and caring about others. You can always tell when someone is feigning listening but focused on what they want to say next. That is disingenuous, and it tells the other person that your words and thoughts are more important than theirs. It also shows a lack of respect and consideration for who they are and what they have to offer. If ever there was a time when we should make an extra effort to truly listen to and show compassion for those around us, it is now.

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