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CEO Dialogue Series

Single accountability, purpose and self-care: Leading Ipsen beyond the patent cliff

18 October 2022 in CEO Dialogue Series

In a CEO Dialogue with IMD President Jean-François Manzoni, Ipsen CEO David Loew discusses his leadership style as he orchestrates the French-born pharma firm’s response to its best-selling drug facing generic...

In a CEO Dialogue with IMD President Jean-François Manzoni, Ipsen CEO David Loew discusses his leadership style as he orchestrates the French-born pharma firm’s response to its best-selling drug facing generic competition for the first time and shapes a more focused and impactful organization. Here are a few selected highlights of this discussion:

When former Sanofi Pasteur Vaccines head David Loew became CEO of mid-sized biopharma firm Ipsen in 2020, he felt like he was standing on not one, but two burning platforms.

The year before, Ipsen acquired a business developing a medicine for a rare genetic disorder that triggers abnormal bone growth. Post-acquisition, it faced an unexpected regulatory setback, leading Ipsen to withdraw its US application for the drug – a bitter outcome in pharma where medicines are developed at great cost and risk.

The challenge for Loew didn’t end there. The global French-based firm was also staring into the abyss of a “patent cliff”, with its blockbuster cancer drug facing the drop in sales that comes with post-patent generic competition.

“People knew that the biggest product, which was like half of the profit, was going to face a patent cliff,” says Loew. “So, there were these two burning platforms that we really had to fix.”

Faced with this baptism of fire, and under pressure to reposition Ipsen for the future, the Swiss executive devised a four-pillar strategy that included the replenishment of the firm’s drug pipeline through a clear and highly specific focus on where to play in the market, alongside a purpose-based commitment to work collaboratively with all stakeholders through a patient-centric and community-minded approach. “Focus. Together. For patients and society” became the new mantra for the c.5,000 employees.

The early signs of this strategy have been encouraging. Canadian health authorities approved the rare bone disease medicine earlier this year and Ipsen has resubmitted its US new drug application following a request for further analysis of trial data. The FDA has planned an Endocrinologic and Metabolic Drugs Advisory Committee meeting to discuss the data surrounding the investigational product on 31 October 2022.

Loew also orchestrated acquisitions and growth in new products to more than make up for the erosion in sales of Ipsen’s cancer medicine, with forecasts of at least 7% growth in sales this year announced in July. And, last year, Beaufour family-owned Ipsen announced plans to divest its consumer healthcare division — one of Loew’s biggest strategic decisions as he pivots the firm to become more focused on specific areas of medicine within oncology, rare disease and neuroscience.

Empowering executives through single accountability

Reflecting during the CEO Dialogue on his approach to leadership and transformation, Loew explained his strong belief in “single accountability”: when delegating projects to his top team, he holds one individual accountable for each project’s progress.

“It creates a bit [of an] adrenaline rush in that leader to know that, while you are contributing as a member of a company, and with other members having also a big stake in a certain project, you are the one who is going to get the call,” Loew says.

He also explained his belief in surrounding himself with people who have different skills and traits that augment his own. This means – first and foremost – some honest self-reflection. “You need to get to know yourself very well. Where are you good? Where are you not so good? Look into the mirror and think, ‘Okay, I need to work on myself.’”

It also involves being willing to ask for feedback, even from subordinates. “If you don’t ask, everybody knows what your weakness is – except you.”

But embracing difference and addressing areas of weakness does not mean capitulating in the face of opposition, especially when driving an organizational transformation.

It's probably a question of character that you need to be comfortable, not wanting to be loved by everybody for your decisions. You need to be very strongly grounded in your values and in your vision.

Shared purpose grounded in personal experience

Loew’s values and vision were forged from the fire of personal experience and deeply linked to a sense of purpose in his career: finding solutions that keep people healthy or enable them to regain their health. He recalled how several years ago, two close family members were treated for cancer with a drug that he was responsible for. 

“This was a life changing experience for me, where you really realize [that] what you’re doing has such a big impact on people,” Loew says. This highly personal purpose now informs Ipsen’s mission and transformation.

Driving organizational change has also meant making changes to personnel: reshuffling about half of the top leadership team by bringing in executives with fresh perspectives from the outside, while retaining insiders with organizational knowledge – all aligned through a shared purpose and direction of travel.

“You want to create the mayonnaise between all these people,” he says. “It is really important to spend time on developing a very strong executive leadership team, which knows where we want to go and has a strong cohesion and shared values, [a] shared culture. It takes time, but it’s really worth it.”

Loew has had plenty of opportunity to refine his recipe for the perfect mayonnaise, with a career path of clear leadership progression in pharma spanning 30 years, starting at Swiss drugmaker Roche in 1992. Becoming group CEO at Ipsen marks a career high that he has aspired to since his teenage years.

Looking after yourself so that you can lead

This personal ambition and the potential positive impact of his work in pharma have been powerful motivators. “You don’t become CEO by checking in at nine and going home at four: that doesn’t work,” he says. “You will do quite a substantial amount of work, but for me it doesn’t feel like work. I really had so much pleasure [from it].”

Nonetheless, the role of CEO, especially leading complex and often painful transformations, comes with a unique level of pressure that must be actively managed. Loew unwinds by getting out on the open water to sail or wakeboard. “As corny as it sounds, it helps you lower the adrenaline you build up during the week. Adrenaline, in a way, makes you stupid because it triggers a ‘flight reflex’. So, you want to get rid of this flight reflex… You want to pause and sometimes calm down.”

And time with friends and family – to remind yourself of who you are and where you come from – is crucial. “You have some CEOs who can become a bit narcissistic and that’s always a danger. Being connected with your friends and your family is so important to keep you grounded and humble and down to earth.”

Watch the full discussion to hear more from David Loew, including on the importance of a clear and sharp strategic focus, how he is driving growth at Ipsen through innovation and acquisitions, and how he and his leadership team are transforming the culture of Ipsen.


Jean-François Manzoni

Jean-François Manzoni

IMD President

Jean-François Manzoni is the President of IMD, where he also serves as the Nestlé Professor. His research, teaching, and consulting activities are focused on leadership, the development of high-performance organizations and corporate governance.

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