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EF: What are the lessons learned from this atypical year navigating the pandemic?

FM: 2020 and 2021 were years of major disruptions which required increased collaboration, and pushed innovation as never before. At the beginning of the pandemic, the uncertainty of an unknown virus, its severity, and the necessary measures to fight it, were some of the elements to deal with. In the second half of the year, we had to manage unprecedented volatility. Scenario planning was more than ever, a difficult exercise that required the best from the leadership in an organization. More importantly, leadership during these times is about connecting with employees, because as individuals, we have been tested up to our limits. Leaders need to be close to their teams and ensure solutions to accommodate their needs, whether they are flexible in policies or the best use of technology. A successful organization needs enough agility to adapt its operations to the new norm and to be resilient to go through a situation that has been prolonged for many months.

There were a lot of new conditions to manage: Balancing on-site and remote work, ensuring employees had the right work-life balance and ensuring continuous supply.

Companies like J&J have demonstrated the critical role that innovative pharmaceutical companies play in our society. I'm proud of the way that J&J has responded to our patients, our employees, and the communities we operate in.

EF: How's the region perceiving these advancements of the vaccine developments that you are performing in South Africa?

FM: The development of vaccines is playing a critical role in controlling the pandemic, altogether with social distancing, and other measures that governments are putting in place. I am proud that in J&J we have been investing and working with our vaccine platform for an extensive period. It has the same technology that we have used in developing the Ebola vaccine, and candidates for Zita, and HIV which are now in clinical trials. 

When we planned the clinical development of the COVID-19 vaccine, South Africa was one of the candidates to participate in the phase three clinical trial which had over 60,000 volunteers all over the world.

The recruitment of these phase three clinical trials needs to occur where the incidence of the virus is the highest, to have a greater impact. The success of the clinical trial comes along with the effectiveness of the vaccine. We need to understand that every discovery regarding the vaccine is great news for everyone as we are all competing against the coronavirus.

EF: Within months, companies have managed to press forward on innovation. This is one of the greatest discoveries, how do you feel about it?

FM: The biggest challenge we had was to press forward on innovation, without compromising the safety and the robustness of the process of clinical research. Clinical research can not have shortcuts. We learned during this process that collaboration is key to success. Developing Private-public partnerships, engaging with different research institutions and companies would allow working simultaneously on different fronts. Adjusting our processes to working in parallel wherever possible as opposed to in sequence, helped us shorten timeframes significantly. While phase two clinical trials were still running, we started phase three after concluding into successful interim results for phase two. Clinical trials aim not only to see how effective a vaccine is but also how long the immunogenicity is going to last. This is research on clinical trials must continue.

EF: How can we keep momentum on the importance of healthcare in the future?

FM: Covid-19 has demonstrated to us the importance of a healthy population and its impact on the economy. The adequate resourcing of health systems and the correct utilization of those resources using a patient-centric approach will be critical after the pandemic. Leaving no patient behind should be the priority. Clear collaboration among institutions has been demonstrated to be a valid instrument to achieve those goals.

We have seen the impact of Covid-19 not only on patients that have suffered from the virus directly but also on the rest of the healthcare system. With a significant part of the resources dedicated to mitigating the impact of Covid-19, patients suffering from non-Covid-19 diseases have been negatively impacted. There have been delays in diagnostics, monitoring, and treatments. This will lead to another problem in the future.

Learnings gathered on simplification of procedures, finding alternatives that reduce the number of visits to hospitals, and implementation of telemedicine are some of the examples that will increase access to healthcare and avoid a similar situation in the future.

The connection between Covid-19 and other diseases, and the connection between the Healthcare system and the rest of the economy, are two fields of study that should be further analyzed.

EF: How do you see the company of the future? What are the new skill sets needed for employees?

FM: I was once with a collaborator and he mentioned: “Digital is king. Collaboration is King-Kong”. I believe that these two are key skills to have. It does not matter which platform you're using, you need to have an agile team to find the most convenient solution fast. How to integrate communication platforms in your effective strategic planning, is the key to success.

The situation has demonstrated that the best use of technology can increase productivity, so mastering the digital environment is one of the critical areas to develop. There are also soft skills that have been demonstrated to be more important than the digital component. Collaboration, agility, resilience are some of them. People need to stay agile enough to adapt to changing environments, resilient enough to cope with different situations, and collaborate to maximize outcomes.

In the Healthcare sector, we have been speaking about digitalization for years, but we have learned more in the last few months than in previous years. 

EF: How has your management style evolved?

FM: I have necessarily adapted to the different phases. During the first months of the pandemic, motivation was the critical element, as there was a lot of uncertainty. People were struggling to effectively manage their work-life balance. What I've learned is how important is to best understand what your employees are going through. If you do not understand what the personal circumstances of an employee are, you will never know how to help.

Flexibility is an important component, and it is not only related to work policies. Flexibility is about understanding your employees’ situation and adapting, one size does not fit all. For example, at Janssen, we have implemented several flexible work arrangements to allow employees to adapt to their circumstances.

EF: How did you balance your tactic and strategic decisions to continue with your long-term plans?

FM: This year had a lot of decisions aimed at the short-term. The learning to balance tactical and strategic decisions is to remember what your priorities are. Our top priorities as a company were to ensure the supply of our products to patients that are in need, which directly translated into employee health and safety, and to keep a close interaction with healthcare professionals and different stakeholders, as we needed to ensure the adequate use of our products.

EF: In 10 years, when you look back at this year, what would you like to be remembered for?

FM: I would like to be remembered for working on the safety and well-being of our employees, co-workers, partners and beloved ones. Additionally, for helping in the advancements of a vaccine to tackle the pandemic.

We have been seen traditionally as the bad guys of the movie. However, nobody else has the capacity today to react and adapt in the way we are doing so, providing real solutions to critical needs.

The pharmaceutical industry is taking one of the most critical roles in history, and playing it at a huge risk. We are increasing our production capabilities and it has already been announced that the vaccine for the pandemic will be distributed on a not-for-profit basis. It is not only about science and technology, it's also about solidarity and cooperation. I would like to be remembered for working towards that.

November 2020
South Africa