PharmaView: CEOs: Head Cases?

Jan. 11, 2011
For CEOs, maybe therapy comes with the territory.

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In early December, Pfizer CEO Jeffrey Kindler resigned unexpectedly. According to reports, he had simply had enough. The long hours and business pressures of running the world’s largest drug company took their toll, and, in the words of the Wall Street Journal, “he was becoming increasingly frazzled.” His wife urged him to quit, and apparently the Pfizer board, which had been concerned about both his performance and temperament, didn’t try to talk him out of it.

One can’t help but think of Kindler while watching Season 2 of the HBO series “In Treatment,” which chronicles the ongoing therapy sessions in the office of a New York psychologist, played by Gabriel Byrne. One of Byrne’s patients (played by John Mahoney, aka the dad from “Frasier”) is the embattled CEO of a consumer products company, struggling to keep his wits, and job, amid a growing scandal—the company’s popular baby formula has been tainted by contaminated raw materials from abroad, yanked from store shelves, and the media (“the vultures”) are looking for a scapegoat. (Shades of Abbott’s melamine and Baxter’s heparin crises.)

Though Mahoney’s character believes he has handled the entire situation adeptly and ethically—he followed the J&J Tylenol script, he says, the “gold standard in how to handle a recall”—ultimately the blame rests upon his shoulders. He is ousted by the “concerned” company board.

It’s compelling TV, as Mahoney wrestles with his personal and professional demons on Byrne’s therapy couch. The underlying theme of their conversations: It’s lonely at the top, and no one—not even Mahoney’s wife—understands the pressure and pain that go with the job.

It begs the question of what kind of men (or women, in a scant few cases) chief executives really are. We know that they’re high achievers. And we know that they are compensated extremely, extremely well.

In another article following Kindler’s resignation, WSJ’s Joann Lublin wrote about the challenges of “occupying the high-powered cocoon known as the corner office.” Today’s chief executive faces more stress than ever, she noted, due to the economy, globalization, heightened regulations, and so on. When they assume their positions, CEOs know they are in some respects temporary employees, she implies. If circumstance doesn’t get them, burnout will.

Lublin talks about how Novartis directors had to caution former CEO Daniel Vasella, who stepped down in 2010 after 14 years at the helm, to slow down. “We were concerned he was travelling around the world all the time, and it was affecting his family life," one director said.

In “In Treatment,” Mahoney—as fine an actor as they come—is able to elicit sympathy despite his curmudgeonly character. He’s portrayed as an old-school CEO, the kind that devote their lives to the company and are loyal to a fault. He cared, but ultimately paid for someone else’s mistakes. We pity him.
It will be interesting to see what kind of sympathy, if any, Kindler gets. Do you feel for him, or judge him purely on his professional merits or flaws?

Does he care what we think? Was any of the stress burdening Kindler drawn from a responsibility to employees and patients, as well as to shareholders?

We’ll never know. As with celebrities, it’s hard to glean CEOs’ true selves from their public personas. When J&J’s William Weldon says to Congress, "I know that we let the public down,” do we really think he cares? 

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to meet AstraZeneca’s David Brennan, who seemed amiable enough and even allowed what was supposed to be a 10-minute interview to run several minutes long. According to his bio on the company website, “David is married with four children and six grandchildren. He enjoys scuba diving, cycling and is an amateur photographer.” It’s almost as if they’re trying to make him seem human, normal, in the face of our preconceptions.

Still, we can’t tease out Brennan the person from Brennan the CEO. It’s hard to see him as much more than a politician when he says tritely (in a current AZ promotional video), “When a medicine works for a patient, that’s a blockbuster because it allows someone to live their life more fully.”

Merck has a mandatory retirement policy for its executives at age 65 (probably a good thing from a mental health standpoint), and as such Richard Clark is on the way out. He’ll be replaced by Ken Frazier, who is to become the first African-American CEO of a major pharmaceutical. Like most of today’s pharma heads, Frazier is not a scientist but rather a lawyer by trade—though apparently he’s one with a heart. On its blog, Fast Company tells the story of Frazier in his early days as a Philadelphia attorney who volunteered his services to overturn the conviction of a death-row inmate—the man was eventually proven innocent and freed after 19 years in prison.

Yes, CEOs are people, too, sometimes good people, with families, friends, and lots to worry about. But who are they really? Only their therapists know for sure.

About the Author

Paul Thomas | Senior Editor