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Mohamed Issa on commercial strategy, entrepreneurship, and Big Pharma leadership

Joe Knight spoke to Janssen's SVP of Immunology

In this episode of the Venari Podcast, our Life Sciences Commercial Consultant, Joe Knight, spoke to Mohamed Issa in the first in a series of interviews with senior leaders in big Pharma.


Mohamed is SVP of Immunology at Janssen, with significant experience in neuroscience, oncology, and commercial pharma. He discussed his career to date, leadership philosophy, how he prepares for launches, and the decision that have helped him to get where he is today.

 


 

Balancing act

‘I started my career right out of pharmacy school on the commercial side of the industry,’ Mohamed notes. ‘I started in sales and marketing and then progressed into leadership of both of those functions over time’, which took in global marketing and business development roles. After a short stint at Roche, he moved to Pfizer, during which time he applied the varied learnings he’d picked up across different roles into co-founding a new venture: Noor Pharmaceuticals. ‘The company evolved several times from inception to eventually being a leading CPG company,’ he recalls. ‘And we had the chance to lead that organisation from inception to, eventually, a successful exit’ – something Mohamed calls ‘one of the most formidable parts’ of his career journey.


Mohamed informed his superiors at Pfizer about Noor’s fundraising, signalling his intention to remain in the role while launching the new company. As he was in business development at Pfizer at the time, ‘it got a little sensitive [...] there was some discomfort in the company providing the needed documentation to give our investors security and their ownership of Noor.’ He decided to leave Pfizer, and shortly afterwards received a call from J&J to lead their first ever launch of a Hepatitis C cure; not only was it a great opportunity, but his new employer was ‘open to providing whatever documentation was required to start Noor pharmaceuticals at the time.’ He did both jobs for about five years before stepping down as CEO of Noor to take on a chair-like role on their board, eventually successfully exiting the business through a sale. This entrepreneurial experience was vital to influencing his leadership style and approach to work – more on that later.


Learning from experience

Mohamed has been at J&J for the past 11 years, leading ‘commercial teams across multiple therapeutic areas and even sectors’, ranging from medtech to general management roles. Nonetheless, his experience of building up and working for a smaller company has had a vast influence on his professional development – both in terms of mindset and skillset. Staking your own money and taking on debt mean a high tolerance for risk is necessary, but Mohamed notes that there’s also ‘a sense of resilience and tenacity that’s built over time when leading a small organisation, especially when it’s your own as a startup. As a startup founder, you’re always on this emotional rollercoaster that’s never-ending.’ Coupled with the resilience to counter these highs and lows is the ‘need to be almost a pathological optimist’, as Mohamed puts it: the belief that problems ‘will always naturally work out.’


Strategies for success

As for the skills needed to successfully launch a startup, a very important one for Mohamed is being an all-rounder. ‘I can bring more value when I combine my passion for science and my passion for business to make a bigger difference as a generalist,’ he says. Indeed, juggling responsibilities between very different roles at Pfizer and Noor during the latter’s early days helped him to develop functional leadership skills early on. He also notes the importance of resourcefulness when leading a startup as opposed to a Big Pharma organisation. As an example, Mohamed cites an occasion when they raised $6 million from investors, having hoped for over $30 million – ‘and we ended up doing with $6 million exactly what we thought we would do with 30, and maybe even more.’ Arguably the most important aspect that emerges from launching a startup is ‘leadership capability’: that is, the need to create and translate an inspiring vision. Having a purpose and fulfilment is crucial for bringing people together in what can be a challenging environment, though out of the maelstrom ‘you build lifelong relationships, and you have this constant focus on team and culture because you feel like it’s you that they came with.’


Building the best teams

Given his experience of directing Noor through tricky periods all the way to a successful exit, it makes sense that Mohamed has strong feelings about what leadership entails. He describes building as strong a team as possible, and creating a culture that enables them to surpass their own expectations, as ‘arguably the most important job for a leader’. Hiring and retaining top talent is ‘paramount’ for Mohamed, with the recruitment process being a carefully calibrated process of deciding whether you need specialists or generalists on board. He accomplishes this by using external recruiters in tandem with J&J’s ‘world-class’ HR department – and hiring also leads Mohamed to think about succession planning, which ‘enables those discussions to really happen from a strategic point of view.’


Five core aspects

Mohamed admits that he could easily fill an entire podcast interview with his thoughts on work culture. He breaks it down into five key facets of a ‘powerhouse’ organisation that allow teams to perform at their best:


  • Purpose: ‘Teams need to know why they exist and believe in the higher order value they’re creating.’

  • Clarity: ‘I’m pretty obsessive about this notion of clarity: clarity in vision, clarity in strategy and really everything in between’.

  • Autonomy: ‘[People] need to have agency in their work. They need to have the freedom to operate, to meet and exceed their objectives.’

  • Responsibility: ‘Your work doesn’t just matter to you as an individual, but it matters to the broader organisation, the person to your left and the person to your right.’

  • Rewards: ‘Organisations need to generously reward amazing performance and reward teams and individuals when expectations are exceeded.’


Preparing to launch

In Mohamed’s view, the key part in the commercialisation process ‘is often around launches, and that’s the biggest inflection point.’ He notes that teams working on a launch usually don’t have as much time as they’d like, so he tries to motivate them to keep on top of the base processes ‘while also categorically focusing on the most critical priorities’ for success. These include target product profiles, negotiating with health authorities, and ensuring that the product, package insert, and label are ‘consistent with what the expectations are.’ These will differ depending on the size of the company, and so internal forecasts and goals are crucial as they inform investment decisions as well as the response to a product when it arrives on the market. Mohamed is quick to note, however, that ‘launching products today is different than [in] the past and will continue to evolve as the commercial landscape changes with us.’


Looking back to look forward

When looking back at the decisions that have most influenced his career, Mohamed mentions what Steve Jobs said about only being able to connect the dots when looking backwards. This makes perfect sense to him now, although Mohamed does regard the moment he decided to be ‘a general business leader instead of a specialist’ as a pivotal moment for him; he believed that he could better serve people by combining his passions for science and business. He began to look for ‘critical competencies’ in job roles and structured his career around these, focusing more on the variety of experience that would serve him best in his journey towards becoming ‘a broader healthcare leader’ rather than a specialist in marketing or sales. This allowed him to work in roles outside of his background in pharmacy, spreading beyond areas like oncology, immunology, and neuroscience to gain a broader understanding of diverse business models, buying processes, and patient journeys. ‘It was that one decision that allowed all of those things to then trickle down,’ he says.


Naturally, then, this has informed Mohamed’s view on dispensing career advice. ‘Decide if you want to be a specialist or a generalist, and then from there create a competency roadmap’ to help you identify the experience and roles you might need to get where you want to go.


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