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Real leadership and innovation starts by looking beyond the edge (Guest blog)

Before I came to GSK, I was a rheumatology specialist in the Netherlands where I adopted a way of interacting with patients that still shapes the leadership principles I now utilise in research and development. In particular, those years on medicine’s front line will be crucial over the coming weeks and months as we launch a new programme at GSK, Patients In Partnership, to bring the patient perspective closer to our science in one of the most exciting projects of my current career (you’ll hear more about this from GSK in the coming months).   

Back then, I was always known for how I listened to my patients. Every time they came into my office – despite the time constraints for the consultation - I struck up a conversation. ‘What do you want to talk about?’ was my opening line. It was a natural, logical way of finding out what really bothered them rather than simply discussing joint inflammation and possible treatments.  

So I listened. They’d tell me of their lives as well as symptoms. Of fatigue, lack of appetite, depression, stress, even lack of intimacy with their partners, all vital factors that helped me assess my patients in a more complete and holistic way. For there is often another question that lies behind a question.  

I’m convinced that approach sped up the diagnostic and treatment processes. In science, we can become seduced into thinking we always know the answer. Sometimes we forget that ceding power by involving other voices and influences can help to achieve our ultimate objective – effective medical treatment – faster.  

And it helps leaders achieve their objectives too. I’ve always wanted my teams to be inspired, to display creativity, to challenge each other, to feel empowered to make the right decisions without always seeking guidance, to act with greater efficiency and purpose, and to genuinely collaborate rather than pay lip service to it.  

Before building a strong a portfolio of medicines at GSK, I built an academic department from scratch, formed a biotech company and founded an industrial medicine business. I realised that success in these ventures meant bringing together the best people with different skills in creative, open environments. We approached our ambitions with a sense of urgency, adventure and collective ownership. That’s how I achieved my leadership objectives. The next step was to focus on flawless and timely delivery of these objectives.  

At the heart of everything, though, was a desire to listen. If leaders are to inspire and motivate, they must first encourage having their biases disrupted by outside influences and deliberately surround themselves with people who seek different answers by challenging orthodoxies.

That’s why I’m so excited by the new Patients In Partnership project, which will involve patients as early as possible in the research and development process. Just as I asked questions of my patients, so GSK will ask questions and attain knowledge that goes to the heart of what patients truly need rather than what we believe they need.  

After all, patients are the ultimate client, the reason why I and my R&D colleagues first got into medicine. We know that innovation is not only found in the laboratory. It’s sparked by a whole chain of events, one of them being to capture the patient’s perspective and experience.

Such an approach inevitably means some loss of control over the way we work. But intuitive leaders understand that relinquishing control brings greater freedom, creativity and energy, which fosters a more empowering collaboration, which in turn sparks truly life-changing innovation.  

It all starts with asking the right questions. I hope the patient perspective I pursued as a medic, as well as the leadership principles that have guided my work, will help drive the success of the Patients In Partnership programme.  

Sometimes my work within R&D reminds me of growing up. My parents gave me the freedom to follow my own instincts and see the world before settling down. I recall crazy walks in remote places and on mountain-tops where the only light shone from the moon. I had to navigate treacherous paths not by focusing on what was directly in front of me but by looking at the edges. By widening your perspective even slightly you see better where you’re headed, what obstacles you must beware of, where the path is about to turn. It’s always next to where you want to go where discoveries lie. It’s about lateral thinking.  

Thus, real innovation often starts by looking beyond the edge rather than being guided to stay on a defined path. We need to be aware of other perspectives and inputs, engage with potentially disruptive possibilities, and be willing to have our expectations challenged.  

If leaders are to be at the centre of these creative collaborations, we need to listen. To the insights of our colleagues, our business partners and, most importantly, our patients.

Paul-Peter Tak

Paul-Peter Tak is Senior Vice President (SVP) R&D Pipeline, Chair of the Development Steering Team and Chief...
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