Amgen's CEO Provides Candid Reflections on Leadership

Kevin Sharer, the Chairman and CEO of California-based biotechnology giant Amgen, Inc., faced some stiff competition when he came to HBS last Thursday. Despite the draw of the Oracle of Omaha, Warren Buffett, who was speaking at the same time, Sharer’s inspiring talk pulled a standing-room only audience out to Aldrich to join in a discussion about the importance of corporate leadership.

It was Sharer’s first visit to HBS as CEO of Amgen, and conventional wisdom might have suggested he would have taken the opportunity to talk about the incredible rise of biotechnology and the powerhouse that Amgen has become in the industry. Indeed, with a history of blockbuster performance in products Epogen and Neupogen, a promising pipeline, and the opening of a 285,000 square foot, 8 story state-of-the art research facility in Cambridge on October 19, things at Amgen have rarely looked better. So how do you map Amgen’s success? Sharer gave the audience his answer by addressing a broader topic which he clearly feels very passionately about – leadership and what he sees as it’s indispensable role in motivating organizations.

“Leadership has been the most important force in the history of the world, and it is clearly the most important quality in running companies,” Sharer contends. Drawing on the writing of John Kotter and others, Sharer outlined a vision of corporate leadership that stresses a progression from operational to personal and finally strategic competency. “Get the operational stuff under your belt early,” Sharer advised. What really separates the wheat from the chaff when it comes to leadership, he claims, is whether managers have the ability to grow their personal and strategic leadership abilities.

“If you don’t think the world is political, you’re nuts,” Sharer warns. But he says the answer to succeeding, as a CEO or any senior manager, in a world that is political is not by being blessed with style and charisma – “The great misconception is that leadership is style-driven – it’s not.” Leadership to Sharer has less to do with personal magnetism and more to do with credibility, working to develop people and communicating persuasively and effectively.

At the core of Sharer’s message was that leadership isn’t a one-size-fits-all proposition, but that there are many different styles for successfully motivating an organization. “Know yourself” seemed to be the most important piece of advice he offered, and his suggestion is that only by knowing who you really are can one develop into a capable leader. This is a career strategy that seems to have worked very well for him. A 1970 graduate of the United States Naval Academy, Sharer talked about having to “take apart in his head” the workings of the nuclear submarine he worked on at age 27. Sharer later went on to McKinsey and then GE, where he held a number of executive positions under the leadership of Jack Welch. At age 40, Sharer was President, Business Markets Division of MCI Communications and in 1992 was made President and COO of Amgen in 1992. Sharer says he knew he could lead the world’s largest biotechnology company, but he is quick to admit his shortcomings too. When asked by Alok Sanghvi (OE) to share his weaknesses, Kevin quickly listed four, including his tendency to be “a little intimidating, so people don’t feel comfortable giving their true opinions.”

When it comes to developing leaders within Amgen, it looks like Sharer is putting Amgen’s money where his mouth is. He recently hired a new slate of top managers at the company, including HBS graduate Richard Nanula (formerly CFO of Disney and President & COO of Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide). “The fortunes of Amgen will rise or fall based on the work of this team,” Sharer said.