Advice For New CEOs During The Pandemic

Taking the top job under the best of circumstances is no easy feat—for this CEO, doing it during a global pandemic added some unexpected hurdles. Here's how he managed.

In the spring of 2021, I accepted the role of Chief Executive Officer at a biotechnology company. Under normal circumstances, taking the top job is not an easy feat; doing so during a global pandemic added some novel and sometimes unexpected hurdles.

While I am still in active learning mode, there are several key takeaways I’ve gleaned that may benefit other business leaders starting new positions during the pandemic, even as it waxes and wanes across the globe.

• Acknowledge the uncertainty. The world as we knew it has changed in significant ways over past 16 months. Your employees have had to deal with unprecedented levels of uncertainty and stress as they have been forced to navigate an ever-changing set of guidelines and circumstances, in addition to new leadership at work. Both family and work routines have been overturned. Don’t be afraid to acknowledge this reality—doing so not only provides credibility in the eyes of others but can also be a bridge to a deeper connection and trust. Part of your role as a leader is to provide inspiration and direction to the organization, but it’s also important not to ignore the elephant in the room.

We have all been touched by this pandemic in different ways. Lead from the heart in addition to the head, while exuding characteristics such as optimism, to help your team navigate this difficult time. This approach will help you to diminish some of the fear often associated with uncertainty, leading to both a happier and more satisfied workforce, as well as improved overall productivity.

The proverb, ‘There is nothing certain, but the uncertain,’ comes to mind when thinking about the transformations experienced since we first learned about Covid-19. As we hopefully enter the final stages of the pandemic, remember the uncertainty is far from over. What the world looks like over the next twelve months is unknown, but we as leaders need to be ready to embrace this reality and forthrightly address any additional uncertainties.

• Patience IS a virtue. The saying ‘patience is a virtue’ originates from a poem by William Langland in the 14th century. In Langland’s day, patience may have been hard to come by, but with no Internet, telephone, airplanes, etc., it was also a necessity to get through the day. Flash forward to current times in our everything-now culture and there is a tendency to think of patience as unnecessary or somehow old fashioned. In reality, it is more important now than ever. Every new morsel of knowledge cannot be digested instantaneously. Every business colleague in the organization cannot be met simultaneously.

As you are adjusting to your new executive role, be sure to take the time to reach out to individuals throughout your organization and find a mutually convenient time to meet, ideally in-person if possible. Depending on the size of your company, it may not be feasible to meet with every employee. In such cases, avoid focusing solely on your direct reports and make sure to get to know individuals in all key functional areas and levels. While most of the employees at my new company CohBar are still working remotely, except when they need to be in the lab to run experiments, I have made a point to meet individually with each researcher at our facilities in Menlo Park. It’s here I learn about their unique challenges and opportunities.

Since some of our employees are based outside the Bay Area, it has not been possible yet to meet everyone face-to-face. In those cases, using Zoom as a tool to assign a face to a name and then dig further into the person behind that face takes time and patience. As difficult as it is to have a “real” connection with people you already know via videoconference, it is that much more challenging when you have never met them before.  Take the time and effort to make that connection and it will pay dividends down the road.

• Accept ‘anywhere’ as workspace. Every new decade in the past seventy years has brought transformational changes to the workplace, leaving lasting effects on us all.  In the 1940’s, office layouts were inspired by factories and production lines with rows of desks close to together with managers tucked away in offices.  The following decade was the advent of the open-plan office, which encouraged team collaboration. The 1960’s started the wave of women entering the workforce in significantly greater numbers and introduced initial technological advances such as the earliest word processors.

During the subsequent decades, the workplace underwent a dizzying rate of change, incorporating computers, Internet, mobile phones, laptops and e-mail.  With office technology in the 21st century including increasingly advanced and personalized technology tools such as video conferencing, the workforce became mobile. With employees no longer tied to a desk, people started to work from a variety of different places such as cafes, coffee shops, and their homes.

These changes allowed people to rapidly adapt to in-person restrictions imposed by the pandemic, which dramatically accelerated the concept of ‘anywhere’ being an acceptable workplace. Whether that place is a Zoom-friendly nook in a cramped living room, a balcony with wi-fi access in a high-rise or a sandy beach, productivity—not location—should be the measuring tool.

• Adaptability in research. Faced with the pressure of a global pandemic, researchers and companies were forced to adapt to unprecedented challenges over compressed timeframes.

Biotech and pharma companies conducting clinical trials have had to pivot or pause studies, affecting patients worldwide. In addition to institutions closing their operations, many patients were unwilling to participate in clinical trials—or even to receive routine medical care. According to a study published in JAMA Oncology, nearly 10 million cancer screenings have been missed since the inception of the pandemic. These missed appointments and delays in clinical studies have greatly impacted the need of many patients around the globe for both existing treatment and new therapies.

At CohBar, our Phase 1b study for the treatment of nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH) and obesity was paused due to the pandemic. Once we resumed the study, we faced additional challenges, such as having subjects test positive for COVID-19 during the study. Working diligently with our partners, we were able to overcome these setbacks to complete the trial and are now expecting the top-line results in early July. As we plan future studies, we must continue to navigate the hurdles caused by the effects of the pandemic.

Thankfully, our preclinical work was considered essential and continued largely unabated during the pandemic. We were able to move several programs forward, expanding into new indications such as idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF) and acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), and are on track to have our IPF program in the clinic next year.

The advent of the coronavirus pandemic challenged pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies to revise the “business as usual” approach and adapt to novel ways of operating. We are learning that this disruptive innovation has generated a new model for life sciences moving forward.  Successful executives will embrace these changes, in the process turning these new challenges into opportunities.

Joseph J. Sarret, M.D., J.D., is Chief Executive Officer and Director of CohBar Inc., (NASDAQ: CWBR), a clinical stage biotechnology company focused on the research and development of mitochondria based therapeutics, an emerging class of drugs for the treatment of chronic and age-related diseases. He can be reached at: joe.sarret@cohbar.com.