Tony Coles, MD, is executive chairman and CEO of Cerevel Therapeutics, a biotechnology company specializing in the development of new therapies for diseases of the central nervous system. He has had a dazzling career, and shared his insights on board success with TLN at its recent Healthcare Board Initiative virtual event. The takeaway? Listen, learn, then speak your mind!
Coles cofounded and served as CEO of Yumanity Therapeutics, where he was instrumental in establishing and advancing potential new treatments for the treatment of Parkinson’s disease and Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s disease). He remains its executive chair. He also was chair and CEO of Onyx Pharmaceuticals, Inc., which was acquired by Amgen in 2013. Prior to Onyx, he was president, CEO, and a member of the board of directors of NPS Pharmaceuticals, Inc., and held senior posts with Vertex Pharmaceuticals, Bristol-Myers Squibb and Merck.
Coles currently serves on the board of directors of McKesson and Regeneron and is a member of the board of trustees of Johns Hopkins University. He is also a member of the Council for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, a member of the board of trustees of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and a member of the Harvard Medical School Board of Fellows.
The Q&A below is an edited version of some of his remarks.
TLN: As you know, the focus of TLN is to prepare Black talent for boards and senior leadership positions in the health ecosystem, a place that you are extremely familiar with. We could state the obvious, but we would love hearing in your own words why it’s so important that Blacks are represented in boardrooms, especially now?
TC: I probably would have given a less nuanced answer a year or so ago, where diversity brings the best out in all of us, diverse perspectives enhance outcomes, different voices representing different points of view will get a better product. I saw a study of member companies of the New York Stock Exchange that companies with diverse boards had an average 12% higher earnings per share growth compared to companies with non-diverse boards. So the business case can easily be made. But a year ago, George Floyd happened, a sea-change event for our community and for the nation at large. It was a turning point in my understanding of the value of the role we serve in these boardrooms. So not only are we there to provide service to enhance the business outcome or the service outcome, but we play a really important role in being the conscience in this really important national conversation. We all know so well what a diverse perspective brings in terms of a clarity and understanding of the mission to address the inequities, the structural and the systemic problems that this country has faced. All of that starts at the leadership level and in the boardroom.
“Not only are we there to provide service to enhance the business outcome or the service outcome, but we play a really important role in being the conscience in this really important national conversation.”
TLN: What advice do you have on leadership for those graduating from our Healthcare Board Initiative?
TC: I know that this group has been well-trained and well informed about being a good director or good trustee. So I won’t rehash the things we all know so well, but I would offer a couple of perspectives. One would be to listen more than you talk. You’re much more effective if you really understand the landscape and the issues, particularly as a new board member, as your feel for the tone, the tenor of the conversation, the strategic direction of the company, and importantly, making that transition from executive contributor to director, which is not always the easiest transition for any of us to make. Being a wonderful executive is different than what’s required to make a good director. I might also suggest that when it comes to board leadership roles, the listening piece is really even perhaps more important. I chair the compensation committee for McKesson. And one of the things that experience taught me is it’s really the chair’s role to listen as carefully as possible, gain the consensus of the committee members. This is where the notion of service leadership is so important, because we are truly there to serve the shareholders of the company or the trustees and the fiduciary duties for the enterprise, as well as the management team. And this notion of servant leadership really gets tested.
TLN: How did you find your voice as a Black board director in the boardroom? And what was the most difficult conversation in which you had to use it?
TC: I think I found my voice by really understanding what I was there to do. At the end of the day, it really is about boards really wanting to focus on a handful of things. They approve budgets and set strategy. They hire and fire CEOs. And they provide a fiduciary oversight duty for the stakeholders that they’re responsible to. If you are finding an effective way to speak to an issue in any of those three areas, with the constituents or the stakeholders in mind, I think you can actually get to a good place. And that is how I actually practiced and found my voice.
As for the most challenging conversations, they have had less to do with the business directly. There are challenging conversations around matters of litigation or ethics or other things that occasionally beset organizations and boards. But I think the most challenging conversations have been the ones around race and diversity. I’ve been doing this almost 20 years. I have perspective from a time when many of those issues didn’t come up. The horrific death of George Floyd has made this conversation a lot easier. I had a great conversation with the CEO of an organization where I’m on the board. And I described to him what it felt like and what it means to be a Black person in America at this moment. And I said to him, “You’re my friend, I want you in my life. But if you with your leadership responsibility and post can’t help fix this, then I have to make the difficult decision to move on. We work so hard to get to these positions, but if we can’t change the world, in our own way, when we get to these positions, what’s the point? I grew up with the notion of service; we have a responsibility to a much higher purpose and calling.