Biotech exec Dr. Gaurav Shah, president & CEO at Rocket Pharmaceuticals, shares four principles of biotech leadership that he learned from the stage as a GRAMMY-nominated recording artist.
Gaurav Shah, M.D., president & CEO of gene therapy developer Rocket Pharmaceuticals, admits that his company is in a place he never would have dreamt it would be just five years ago. He had his doubts about the company’s first Series A round of financing. He didn’t foresee the company taking five programs to address rare and devastating inherited diseases into the clinic in as many years. He would not have bet that by 2020, he’d be talking with BioProcess Online from a new manufacturing facility preparing to develop commercial products for all five of those indications.
Dr. Shah’s humility suggests that he’d also be the last to admit that much of his company’s success is born of his leadership. Interestingly, his leadership style is heavily influenced by music, his passion that runs parallel to science. Dr. Shah is a GRAMMY-nominated musician and producer for his work on a children’s album called Falu’s Bazaar. On a recent episode of The Business Of Biotech: Summer Executive Sessions, we explored how leading the band has informed his leadership of a new biotech. The conversation resulted in some concrete lessons for any biotech leader—even if the only thing you can play is the radio. Here are the 4 top leadership lessons that Dr. Shah finds interchangeable, whether he’s on the stage or in the boardroom.
The leader is not the leader. “When you're in a band, the leader’s job is to be the greatest listener. Step one is to bring in musicians that you admire and respect and think the world of. You want to worship your bandmates, because you want to be able to sit there on the stage and be inspired by what's going on around you. My greatest memories in this life on earth are being on stage in the midst of that sound and not playing, not doing anything, just listening. You get to enjoy that direct parallel in biotech when you make it a priority to work with people better than yourself.”
Your team is your first audience. “In music, when it’s time to contribute something, your greatest audience is your band. In biotech, it’s your team. You're always performing for them more so than for the people in the seats. You want to surprise one another. You want to do things that make your bandmates, or your team, say, ‘wow, I've never heard that before.’”
Understand the crowd you’re playing to. “Seek to understand what your audience is looking for. In music, that means changing a set list, or the way a song is performed, while you’re on stage. Maybe it’s time for a slow song. Maybe it’s time for a solo. It’s the same in biotech. You have to understand what will drive the audience, whether that’s the investment community, or regulators, or the media, or the patients you ultimately serve. Understanding what your audience is telling you is critical. It's more important to hear their story than it is to tell yours.”
Seek transparency in everything you do. “In music, if you play the wrong note, there’s nowhere to hide. Music exposes all your vulnerabilities. That kind of transparency is important to the culture, to supporting one another, and to anticipating each others’ next move. That’s hard to achieve in biotech, where there are many ways to avoid transparency. Achieving it requires a culture where the truth is spoken, where bad news travels fast, and where courage is defined by saying what you really think, as opposed to what’s polite, what the boss wants to hear, or what serves your personal agenda. Transparency is the basis of a functioning biotech team.”
Dr. Shah’s been playing in bands since he was an 8th grader. Five years into his tenure at Rocket, he likens the company’s maturation to any number of the musical acts he’s been a part of. On its gene therapies, he says the company has “tapped into a world that’s as deep as the ocean. We’ll expand our pipeline over time, our team is growing, and I feel like we’re just getting started. We got the bad together, we figured out how to do this, and we’re ready to keep going for decades to come.”