McKinsey Health Institute

‘Stay grounded, stay humble’: Sanofi CEO Paul Hudson

Since joining Sanofi in 2019, CEO Paul Hudson has seen nine consecutive quarters of growth and more than a dozen acquisitions and business development deals, including mRNA therapeutics company Translate Bio and biotech company Kadmon. Next year, Sanofi expects to have the first broadly protective option against respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) for newborns and infants, a development that would spark joy for many parents with young children.

Like many executives who navigated the COVID-19 pandemic, Hudson, among the first non-French CEOs of the pharma giant, has become skilled in the art of creating a new playbook in company leadership, including navigating a workforce with rising expectations from a job and the ability for more remote work. In a fall conversation with Martin Dewhurst, a McKinsey senior partner and McKinsey Health Institute coleader, Hudson reflected on what he learned during the pandemic, the uncertainty of the market, and the advice he gives to colleagues.

How the pandemic brought out the best in Sanofi

Martin Dewhurst: The pandemic, which was so challenging for all CEOs, arrived early in your tenure. Looking back, what got you through?

Paul Hudson: The pandemic came just a few months into my tenure. We’re a healthcare company, and we’re purpose driven: we were running at full speed. While the rest of the world, of course, was trying to protect itself, we had 30,000 manufacturing people going to work every day because we still needed to make medicines. Diabetes, cardiovascular, multiple sclerosis—people were depending on us. In our research labs, we had to keep the experiments going.

Normally, as the new CEO, people say to you, “Oh, are you working on culture? It’s a three- to five-year strategy.” For us it was a little bit different. I got to see the company at its very best, entirely purpose driven, focused, strategically aligned to the plan we laid out a few months earlier. And just really going for it. And doing it remotely.

I had a sort of inverse journey. Where most CEOs try and develop a culture over time, I got to see the company at its best just a few months into the job. The challenge for me was, could I keep it at its best? And what would that look like after the pandemic? That’s where it got really interesting.

Martin Dewhurst: As you said, it’s inspiring to see so many colleagues rise to the challenge. But what we’ve seen more broadly is that, at the same time, it was pretty exhausting. How did you see the journey through the intensity of the pandemic and out the other side?

Paul Hudson: I think everybody was motivated by the fact that we were delivering for patients and for the company at a very difficult time—and remotely. The further in we got, people did start to get a little bit tired. You know, a little frayed around the edges, trying to balance kids at home and schoolwork and pets and family members and many, many different things.

We started to think about how we could care for the mental health of our people, like trying to give people space and trying to make sure that they understood that they could turn their cameras off. That feels like a lifetime ago.

We’re now in a situation where things have changed radically and completely. We’ve had this billion-person proof of concept that you can run companies remotely. We’re just about to open a new office in Paris, and it’ll be smaller. It will be much more conducive to collaboration and sharing.

And I’m glad, actually, that some of these new ways of working have blown up the presenteeism and have allowed people to understand, “Know when you need to be together, and know when you can do it remotely or individually.” It’s not one or the other. Some meetings at Sanofi will only be face-to-face—no hybrid offered. Compliance committee, talent management, an innovation summit, for example: we want people to be here. We want spontaneity, we want the corridor conversation. But we need to recognize that it doesn’t need to be five days a week.

Navigating uncertainty

Martin Dewhurst: As we look forward, how do you see the next three years?

Paul Hudson: We declared a strategy through 2025. We’re ahead on all the things we said were important. We are moving in a slightly different direction, I think a more worthy direction, which is to go after first-in-class, best-in-class medicines. When you do that, you take additional risk but are taking more shots to do things that will really make a difference to somebody’s life.

And I think that is the new Sanofi, frankly. That’s what we’ve become. And I’m really excited about that. The next three years, we’ll start to see more data, pivotal readouts, and breakthrough clinical data.

Martin Dewhurst: In the even shorter term, in 2023, you’ve got geopolitical uncertainties, economic woes, supply chain disruptions. How do you navigate through that?

Paul Hudson: Our commitment to society is, we have real initiatives that will help us deliver on our objectives when things get a little bit tougher for everybody in all sectors, frankly.

In general, you have a situation where you have to be more and more efficient to deal with those challenges, to deliver on your commitments and to reinvest in R&D. We started this work in 2019 and have made progress.

We’re using a lot of predictive analytics and AI to try and see forward where our gaps will be. Will we have a gap on a component or a disruption in our supply chain in the third quarter of 2023, or first quarter 2024? We can have that level of specificity now with predictive analytics and AI. That’s trying to help us navigate where those gaps could be and take action, order early, build inventory.

Will we have a gap on a component or a disruption in our supply chain in the third quarter of 2023, or first quarter 2024? We can have that level of specificity now with predictive analytics and AI.

Paul Hudson

We also recognize the energy challenges, the inflationary challenges that are coming. We are going to be like everybody else in trying to minimize our energy footprint. Our electricity is 100 percent green here in France, our home country. We’ll be net zero in 2045—before that, we hope—and carbon neutral by 2030.

We’re aware of our responsibilities. The world has changed. As for the geopolitics, we try and get medicines to everybody who needs them. We ship medicines to all countries; we try and do our best to make sure every patient gets what they need. We try and protect our people in war zones; we try and do everything right wherever we can.

‘We get to do things that have never been done’

Martin Dewhurst: How do you see the cultural journey evolving?

Paul Hudson: We’ve done a huge amount in this area. I took over as a CEO in what for many would be seen as sort of a traditional, conservative industry. As we look forward and look at data and AI amid the challenges that you mentioned, I get a chance to lead a company in a difficult period using new tools where the playbook got shredded. It’s completely shredded, and I get to do it differently. I get to do what’s best for our company and our place in society.

We get to leapfrog. We get to do things that have never been done, but if it wasn’t for the challenges, I’m not sure we would have all taken the leap that we have to try and change the nature of work and still deliver. Quite incredible, really.

Martin Dewhurst: When you think about your career, what has been the most valuable advice that you’ve received?

Paul Hudson: I was raised in a family that respected the value that you “treat other people like you would like to be treated yourself.” I’ve always tried to live by that. Some days are harder than others. That’s a sort of a compass bearing for me.

I also was given advice by a boss, many years ago, who said, “Stay grounded, stay humble, know what you know, know what you don’t know, be willing to talk about it.”

And advice that I give others, which maybe is borne out of my own journey, is take your work seriously but don’t take yourself too seriously. It’s just the reality. There are long days without laughter, there are long days without caring. Be prepared to laugh at yourself.

I find laughter and humor should never be targeted, but it can be very energizing. It can be very engaging. It can really help people be connected. If you’re in an auditorium with one thousand people and nobody’s listening, they won’t laugh. You want people to be connected to the purpose of the company and what you’re doing. And I think if we have been taught anything, it is that the unexpected is just around the corner. Be light on your feet. Don’t take yourself seriously, but do your absolute best every day with your work.

Martin Dewhurst: Pivoting from work, you have described yourself as a hands-on dad. What has that meant to you? And what advice do you have for future leaders also thinking about how they get whatever the balance is in their lives?

Paul Hudson: It’s been a journey for me. I would say that I have not always been perfect at it. Whenever I’m traveling, I try to get home by the weekend; I’ve always made an effort to listen to the children when they needed me.

But you know, there’s one thing being home, and there’s one thing being present. And with the jobs that we all do, they’re very time consuming and there’s always something; an email or an SMS. And it can consume your entire day and your private life.

If you’re with your family, be with them. It might not be all day. I do a lot of work on Sundays, for example, in preparation for the following week. But it doesn’t mean I can sit on the sofa and tune out. It means that when we’re talking, we should talk. We’ve always tried to eat together when we’re all in the same house.

These are small things, but they erode very quickly if you get overwhelmed by the volume of work. I’m not perfect, by a long way. I’m definitely a work in progress. But if you’re there, be present. Even if it’s not as long as you would like to be there, I think it matters more to be directly connected to what’s being told to you.

Martin Dewhurst: Final thoughts?

Paul Hudson: One final thing: the expectations of us, as CEOs and as senior leaders, has really changed. And I think the younger generation has a demand and a requirement to be very connected to executive leadership, purpose, and to be able to talk truth to power, if that’s the right expression.

If we think we could do these jobs like we’ve always done them, I think we’re living in a fantasy. It’s not hierarchy and command and control. Those things have gone. And those clinging onto it need to know that the AI is smarter than all of us and that AI plus human, focused on insights, is more powerful than any of the individual components alone. And that younger, next generation of superstars aren’t waiting to sit around a boardroom table, nor should they.

They’re just passing through. They’re just collecting experiences; they want to do something impactful. And if we’re not offering it to them, they won’t stay.

I’m a work in progress, but it’s a remarkable journey we’re on at Sanofi, and I’m proud of it.

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