Robert Fallon of Phosplatin Therapeutics: “Invest in others”

Invest in others: No one gets anywhere on their own. Be the one who mentors a junior employee, offers feedback or perspective to a peer, or shares your lessons along the way. And don’t shy away from philanthropy or other means of giving of yourself to organizations or social purposes. As a part of my […]

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Invest in others: No one gets anywhere on their own. Be the one who mentors a junior employee, offers feedback or perspective to a peer, or shares your lessons along the way. And don’t shy away from philanthropy or other means of giving of yourself to organizations or social purposes.

As a part of my series about the strategies that extremely busy and successful leaders use to juggle, balance and integrate their personal lives and business lives, I had the pleasure of interviewing Robert Fallon.

Mr. Fallon is President and CEO of Phosplatin Therapeutics LLC, an emerging, clinical-stage company developing highly differentiated small molecule approaches to oncology immunotherapy, that he helped found. Currently conducting multiple phase 2 clinical trials, Phosplatin has attracted an experienced core management team and a renowned Scientific Advisory Board under Mr. Fallon’s leadership.

He is a highly respected manager with decades of global transactional and strategic leadership. He is former chairman & CEO of a large publicly-traded company, the Korea Exchange Bank, and prior to that he ran all of Asia-Pacific for J.P. Morgan Chase.

He holds a B.A. in mathematics from Ohio University and an M.B.A. from Harvard Business School. Mr. Fallon is also Chairman Emeritus of CIEE, The Council on International Educational Exchange and a member of The Council on Foreign Relations.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit. Can you share with us the “backstory” behind what brought you to this particular career?

My road to Phosplatin comes, really, through an overarching desire to make an impact in the world and a lifelong intellectual curiosity. It’s an unexpected journey, having spent 31 years in Asia as an international banker. After returning to the US in 2008, I began teaching International Banking as an Adjunct Professor at Columbia Business School and participating on a variety of Boards, including that of my undergraduate alma mater, Ohio University.

As an Ohio University Foundation Trustee, I was exposed to a variety of the university’s exciting new initiatives, including research work by Dr. Rathindra Bose around his synthesis of novel platinum-pyrophosphate anti-cancer compounds called phosphaplatins. The science Dr. Bose presented was incredibly compelling, and I was intrigued with this new class of drugs. Dr. Bose’s presentation initiated for me a year-long process of discussions with him at Ohio University’s Edison Biotechnology Institute to dig deeper into his research and what this could mean for the treatment of patients with cancer, eventually leading to conversations with the university about making this breakthrough available to patients on a commercial basis.

Once we began thinking commercially, I started meeting with oncologists, pharmaceutical executives, venture capitalists and others, who had the right medical and market perspectives to tell me honestly whether this science was viable as an oncology treatment. As a former banker, I anticipated we’d find a chink in the armor, but instead I found that others were also intrigued with the novel mechanism of this compound that did not seem to rely on DNA damage to interdict cancer. After about six months, I was convinced that we needed to form a company and work toward making this treatment available for patients. We gathered five investors and licensed the compounds from Ohio University to start Phosplatin Therapeutics in 2010. By 2012, I stopped teaching at Columbia to devote myself completely to the company because I felt a strong sense of commitment to what we were doing and to our investors.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you started? What lessons or takeaways did you take out of that story?

At Columbia, I had an informal meeting at a deli with a former student and CBS graduate, Matthew Price, Phosplatin’s current Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer, who, at the time, was working with a boutique investment firm advising a pharmaceutical company with operations in Taiwan. While we were talking, I shared with him this opportunity I was exploring, and he was interested — immediately. He had that entrepreneurial spirit, and we had an excited and lengthy conversation that lasted through lunch, into the afternoon, all the way until the deli closed. We plotted out the preclinical work we’d need to do, timelines leading to IND, and more…and it was all on the back of the proverbial napkin. We laugh when we think about it and definitely should have framed it. I guess the lesson here is that you don’t always recognize the impact of the moment you’re in, when you are in it.

What does leadership mean to you? As a leader, how do you best inspire others?

One of the key elements of being a CEO is inspiring your team to work hard toward a common goal. Leading a company to success holds many parallels with summiting a mountain. Before embarking on an expedition, mountaineers must develop a solid plan and equip themselves both for the climb and for any contingencies they can expect. They plan their route, train physically, procure gear and hire the right guides. Similarly, CEOs plan a company’s path forward, develop and train their people, equip them with the right resources and position themselves for sound advice. Equally important is cultivating an environment that encourages strategic risk-taking. Being willing to shoulder blame and to give credit where it’s due helps empower people to make bold decisions that often return a considerable reward.

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 get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

I’m fortunate to have had so many mentors along the way. No one succeeds in the world without the help of another. One of my first mentors was the president of Ohio University, where I did my undergraduate work. I had arrived at Ohio University on a scholarship and became involved in the Ohio Fellows Program and student government. The President and I became friends and, since he was a former associate dean of Harvard Business School, I asked him to write my recommendation to HBS. Interestingly, I quit HBS after two days. The buttoned-up, corporate environment was so different from my transformational four years at Ohio University during the late 1960s, that I just didn’t see myself fitting in. I walked into the Dean’s office and said I needed to join the Peace Corps. I went as a volunteer teacher to Samoa and felt really good about making an impact teaching kids math and science.

When I arrived in Samoa, my flight in landed on a grass runway that was a cow pasture, with children literally shooing cattle away to clear the way for the airplane. A couple of years after I came, another Peace Corps volunteer arrived to build the country’s first airport. He was talking about capital markets and build-own and operate financing matters and such, a bunch of things I didn’t understand. In that moment, I realized I could make an impact on a much bigger scale if I were equipped to do things like build a country’s first jet airport. From Samoa, I handwrote my essay to get back into HBS, on top of my banana crate desk using a leaky Bic pen and a student composition book. In my essay, I described how I hadn’t been ready four years earlier when I had been accepted to HBS but, having now experienced a bit of life, I was primed to put an HBS education to use to make the world a better place.

Both Ohio University and my Peace Corps experience had a great impact on where I am today.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now shift to the main core of our discussion. This is a question that nearly everyone with a job has to contend with. Was it difficult to fit your life into your business and career? Can you articulate what the struggle was?

Without a doubt, it has been — and still is — difficult to balance life with business and career. In my mind, I see three Venn diagram circles: one that represents what you put into your career and professional reputation, one which represents your relationships with your family, your spouse, your children, parents and siblings, and a third which represents what you need for your own self-actualization, which includes time for yourself for whatever is important to you: to read, think or pursue a hobby. If you can visualize three circles intersecting in a Venn diagram, the finite amount of time you have available to fit in the activities of all three circles is only the size of one circle. So, there is always a struggle to find the right equilibrium, and it’s never possible to give equal time to all three circles at any given point in time.

Hearkening back to your earlier question, my wife is really the one who helped me with this challenge. When I was traveling all over the world during my investment banking days, she managed the home and our family so that I had time to do what I needed to for my job. We benefited from having a shared world perspective. She’s actually the one who first decided to go into the Peace Corps and felt the call to make a difference in the world. We had known each other since high school and somehow always found our way to each other.

In order to give greater context to this discussion, can you share with our readers what your daily schedule looks like?

During this time of COVID, I’m hunkered down at home like most others are. After waking up, I do exercises or some form of fitness training. By 9 am, I’m at my desk, working through a long string of emails and participating in the various meetings that are on my calendar. Like many, I find that in working remotely, I’m working longer hours than I did before, and our entire team has been even more productive during this time, possibly because we are not traveling to clinical sites, attending conferences or otherwise tied up in commuting. Phosplatin has 16 people, so even just staying abreast of what everyone is doing remotely takes some amount of time. Around 6 pm, I try to break away to spend some time with my wife. We like to enjoy a glass of wine together and watch the sunset. If I can, I sneak back to my desk around 9 pm for some time to try to wrap up what I’ve been working on during the day. For me, it’s extremely satisfying to end the day feeling that I’ve completed the day’s work.

Did you find that as your success grew it became more difficult to focus on the other areas of your life? Can you explain?

As Phosplatin continues to advance through clinical trials, which currently are underway in multiple locations in the US, Europe and China, the workload is definitely expanding and becoming more demanding and that work circle in my Venn diagram seems to be growing larger. Not only are we dealing with clinical data that is critical to seeking FDA approval for our drug, but we are also involved with more patients and continually reassessing what we are trying to do to improve patient outcomes, as well as connecting across multiple time zones. In addition to our clinical trial work, we have research collaborations in the US, Europe and Asia. And, of course, the COVID pandemic has created longer workdays, as I mentioned earlier. While it is hard, I find it’s important to be rigorous about setting boundaries to spend time with family and get some exercise each day. In my case, I decided not to do emails from my mobile phone. My team knows how to reach me in an emergency, and being disconnected allows me to get the most out of the time I am away from work. I can recharge and get back to work feeling refreshed and energized with a renewed perspective.

What was a tipping point that helped you achieve a greater balance or greater equilibrium between your work life and personal/family life.

It may be generational, but not having “grown-up” with the iPhone, social media or even laptop computers for much of my career, I think it’s a bit easier for me to decouple from e-communications compared to others who have had these integrated into their lives from the beginning. It’s wonderful to have the technology, and I do use my phone for email when I’m traveling overseas or at certain times. However, as I mentioned earlier in this interview, keeping an equilibrium while tending to your career, your family and yourself is a challenge older than these new technologies.

Ok, so here is the main question of our interview. Can you share five pieces of advice to other leaders about how to achieve the best balance between work and personal/family life? Please share a story or example for each.

Love your family: This seems so obvious yet, in some ways, investing in your family is the toughest axiom because it’s easy to prioritize the pressing demands of work. However, your family has been pillars upon which you have built your success, and it’s critical that you appreciate and honor them.

Keep perspective: Find time to think about the world beyond yourself. Read, think about the world. Try to imagine how others view us. Right now, I’m really concerned about the political discourse in the US and the partisan tone it has taken. I believe that a broader perspective, while not a panacea, could add a healthy balance to the way some issues are being discussed.

Invest in others: No one gets anywhere on their own. Be the one who mentors a junior employee, offers feedback or perspective to a peer, or shares your lessons along the way. And don’t shy away from philanthropy or other means of giving of yourself to organizations or social purposes.

Decouple from technology: Find those places in your life where you can get away from the barrage of updates and communications, and use that time to decompress, to think and recharge yourself.

Don’t take yourself too seriously: It’s good to be the type of person that can take on a variety of roles or projects and who always rises to the challenge, but no one is indispensable, and learning how to delegate and manage others are important skills. Embrace diversity and keep a sense of humor.

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

You often hear that it’s important to leave the world a better place than the one into which you were born. I’m not sure if it’s a quote, but it is a maxim by which I’ve tried to live. There are so many ways of doing that. I’ve been inspired by many of our investors, who say that they are investing because they like that we are trying to improve treatment for cancer patients. Some have had cancer in their family, others may not and had been considering donations to a school or university, but they saw value in our work — and felt good — about the potential to improve the lives of cancer patients.

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? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I believe that a program of national service, mandatory for all students who finish high school, could go a long way in promoting civic values. My experience in the Peace Corps was so formative to my worldview and to who I am as a person, and I believe that kind of participation would really benefit young people. There are a number of ways the details could work out — whether the service takes place before, during or immediately after college — and a range of options, including service at a VA hospital, in a classroom through Teach for America, through the military, National Park Service or more. I hope that our leaders can consider an idea like this very seriously.

What is the best way for people to follow you online?

Thank you so much for these fantastic insights!

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