In March 2020, when Eli Lilly announced that it would begin providing drive-through COVID testing services to the state of Indiana’s healthcare workers, more than a few hospital administrators likely scratched their heads.
After all, the giant pharma company was not in the business of providing healthcare services, any more than it was a medical device manufacturer.Read More
Still, drive-through testing turned out to be just the most recent offshoot of an effort under way inside a specialized facility at Lilly Research Laboratories. As months turned to years, as much as 40 to 50 percent of all samples being tested for COVID within Indiana were to end up being processed inside the Lilly facility.
“A CFO may look at this and rightly ask, ‘What are the costs that are going to be required to establish this? What are the sets of risks associated with deciding to move forward with something like this?,’” observes Anat Ashkenazi, who at the time served as head of strategy and transformation for the pharma behemoth as well as CFO of Lilly’s R&D arm.
For Ashkenazi, who would be named CFO of Lilly within 12 months of COVID’s arrival in North America, the pandemic would become the ultimate testing ground and not just for the virus.
“I remember walking into this office on the day that we announced that I was taking on the CFO role, and there were only three or four other people working on the whole floor—the building was empty,” remarks Ashkenazi, who had joined the company 20 years earlier with an MBA in hand from Tel Aviv University.
Ashkenazi’s appointment had been hastened due to the abrupt resignation of her CFO predecessor, who Lilly management had concluded had exhibited poor judgment when it came to a personal relationship in the work environment—a management drama that would unfold as the pandemic bore down.
Asked to recall some of the challenges that she faced during the first 30 days of her CFO tenure, Ashkenazi comments, “I would say that trying to build connections quickly with the management team with whom you’ll be working was important and very difficult to do when you’re virtual. That was one of the things that I had to figure out: ‘How do I get this done?’”
Like all of us, Ashkenazi, a mother of three (between the ages of 11 and 17), faced challenges during the pandemic that tested the boundaries between work life and home life. Still, she seems intent on letting us know that her greatest lesson or takeaway from the pandemic has to do with Lilly’s resolve to step up and become one of its community’s primary testers.
Says Ashkenazi: “We can talk about ESG, but I don’t think that you can run a firm successfully over many years without having a clear line of sight into your role in the community and acting on it.” –Jack Sweeney
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CFOTL: Tell us about today’s Eli Lilly … what sets it apart from other pharma giants?
Ashkenazi: We are all fully engaged in providing meaningful benefits to patients through the drugs that we discover, develop, and manufacture. I think that we all do really incredible work and that while there are some truly outstanding companies out there, what I find unique about Lilly is the people that we have, and I think that this is a focal area for us. We put an emphasis on hiring the best and retaining the best. Retention is just as important as bringing someone in. You want them to stay, you want them to grow with the organization, and you want them to be able to do meaningful work. I think that this does set us apart—this focus on innovation.Read More
We’ve had a strategy in the organization that we haven’t changed for many years. In fact, we know what our North Star is. We’ve always been working toward and iterating around the edges of this same strategy, which is to nurture the ability to be agile and understand what’s going on. We have been able to adjust and focus on ever-changing important things in the moment, but our core strategy—the essence of what we do—hasn’t changed. And this is really important.
We actually went back—and I don’t know how many companies do this—and we studied this. We did not assume that we were the best. In fact, we asked, “What has been our strategy over the years? What have been the other companies’ strategies? How do they all compare?” In some cases, we were similar; in others, we were different. But where we were different, we needed to decide whether we wanted to stay different. Where we were the same, did we want to stay the same? What might be things that we should change?
Then we took a second step, which I thought was incredibly important: We looked at how we execute work in Lilly—at successes and failures—and we’ve learned from that. We actually created this set of learnings around what you should focus on when you lead a major change or initiative to ensure that it’s successful. We’re very thoughtful about learning from our own mistakes and successes. And we don’t shy from this, and we revisit it every so often.
This hasn’t resulted in wholesale changes within our organization. I would say that 99% of the people here just focus on what they need to deliver that day, that week, that month for patients. But we always have a group that is looking at what questions we need to ask ourselves. Do we have the right people? Do we have the right skill sets? So, I think that it’s the combination of good people and being very thoughtful about how we deliver the work that sets Eli Lilly apart.
Eli Lilly | www.lilly.com | Indianapolis, IN