When he took the helm of Johnson & Johnson 10 years ago, Alex Gorsky would not have predicted he’d be leading the global health care company in the race to end a pandemic.
But Gorsky has spent most of his final two years as CEO focused on the development and production of a COVID-19 vaccine – just one small part of Johnson & Johnson’s massive global operation.
“Never have we had such a spotlight on the development of a vaccine, let alone on how data is reviewed, critiqued, and eventually how it’s used for the approval of a product – and we’ve been seeing that in real time,” Gorsky said in a conversation with Dean Bill Boulding of Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business as a guest of the Distinguished Speakers Series.
There has been an unprecedented level of interest in the vaccine-development process and transparency has been essential to combatting misinformation and vaccine hesitancy, Gorsky said.
Building trust in the vaccine
“Overall, the level of acceptance [of a vaccination] is pretty close to what we would have projected early on,” Gorsky said. “Based upon some of the data we had, we knew the last 25 percent (of vaccine administration) would be a challenge. … We understand there are a lot of people who find the science complex or that there may be historical issues that result in them having anxiety and concern about vaccines.”
According to a spring 2021 release from the Edelman Trust Barometer, trust in government and the media have sunken to low points, while the public’s trust in business continues to build. According to the survey of almost 17,000 people in 14 countries, respondents said they trusted their employers most, followed by business. Choosing from a list of social issues such as climate change and racism, 84 percent of people in the survey said they expected their employers to take action against vaccine hesitancy.
Concerns about the safety of COVID-19 vaccines, three of which have been approved so far for use in the U.S., emphasize the importance of public education about scientific processes and how to verify sources of information, Gorsky said.
“We have to acknowledge that it’s a challenge, just like many other issues are in our society,” Gorsky said. “And that’s all the more reason for government, for business, for health care systems to partner and try to have as unified a voice as possible when we’re explaining and educating people about these issues.”
Developing an accessible solution
In developing its vaccine, Johnson & Johnson also wanted to ensure the vaccine could be used around the world, requiring standard refrigeration and just a single injection to be effective, he said.
“We know that infamous last mile is perhaps the most challenging part of ensuring that you’re ultimately going to get patients treated, and we also wanted to make sure that price and cost was not a barrier,” Gorsky said.
After much debate within the company, Gorsky said, Johnson & Johnson decided it would make the vaccine available around the world at a not-for-profit price, so the company would earn no profits during the pandemic.
“We anticipate that the overwhelming majority of doses of our vaccine will be used in emerging and developing markets, where it will be so important for us to get people vaccinated to ensure that we have long-term control of COVID-19,” he said.
COVID-19 has shown how essential global cooperation is to surviving a pandemic – not just COVID-19, but also the global health events to come, he said.
“Global public health has always ended up being, unfortunately, the 11th most important priority on the ‘Top 10 list,’” Gorsky said. “I think we have learned through this that if we don’t have strong, durable, resilient, agile, global public health programs, we don’t have national security, we don’t have economic security, and frankly, we don’t have security as a society. … It’s going to take a long-term commitment in terms of investment to make sure we’re better prepared and in a better position when that next pandemic should challenge us.”
Leadership requires followership
Gorsky also reflected on how training at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and his service in the U.S. Army prepared him for leadership roles throughout his career.
“A kind of spirit that was ingrained in us at the both at the Academy in the Army that I try to carry with me today is there’s no such thing as leadership without followership,” Gorsky said. “You know – being able to engage, and empathize and inspire a team of diverse people to do something that maybe they wouldn’t think they could do on their own. … That’s really the magic of leadership. And it doesn't happen unless people feel as though you're approachable that you care about them that you're committed to them.”
He suggested to new graduates and younger members of the workforce that their careers don’t necessarily have to follow a linear or traditional path.
“Don’t think of your career, necessarily, as a vertical ascent,” Gorsky said. “What’s most important is that you build a strong foundation in the skills, competencies, leadership that you're learning, and then that you make sure that you’re measuring yourself by experiences – by skill sets and capabilities – not just by job titles. It’s the person, I believe, who gets there best, not necessarily first, who will do best in the long run.”