5 Leadership Tips from Sidney Taurel, Chairman Emeritus of Eli Lilly

The Global Leaders Series offers students a personal and privileged conversation with a well-known leader from the business world. During these student-led interviews, speakers share their views on effective leadership and the lessons they learned throughout their careers. The series is a unique way to explore fundamental questions around management, and to gain insights about how to grow as a leader. The series is held in collaboration with the HEC Paris MBA’s General Management and Leadership (GML) Club.

Sidney Taurel knows what it’s like to be an outsider. The native Spaniard grew up in Casablanca, immersed in a different culture and religion than his own. When he became Eli Lilly’s CEO in 1993, he wasn’t just the first non-US citizen to hold the position — he was the first CEO in the company’s 130-year history to be born outside the state of Indiana. “Ever since my childhood, I’ve been the odd person out,” the HEC Paris alumnus explains. “That’s forced me to adapt and to always place myself in the other person’s shoes. Later on, it made me a champion of diversity and inclusion.”

During his stewardship at Lilly, the pharmaceutical giant swallowed the bitter pill of losing its Prozac patent protection. Even today, the antidepressant remains one of the biggest-selling drugs in history.

At a Global Leaders Series event held in March 2021, Taurel was interviewed by current student Jean-Pierre Godeme, MBA ’22. The lively discussion focused on Taurel’s storied career, including the challenges he faced and what he’s learned about leadership from those experiences. Along with his 37 years at Lilly, Taurel has held three US Presidential appointments.  He currently serves on IBM’s Board of Directors and as Chairman at Pearson.

A few of his insights:

1. Choose an Employer with a Strong Sense of Mission

Sidney Taurel spoke to about 100 members of the HEC Community via Zoom

Sidney Taurel spoke to about 100 members of the HEC Community via Zoom

“I had just earned my MBA when I interviewed with Eli Lilly.  I had 10 interviews in a single day and, at the end of it, they made me an offer. Even though I no particular desire to join the pharmaceutical industry, I accepted. The reason I made that choice is that I really liked the people. They had integrity; they were ethical and genuine.

“When you are joining a company, make sure that the company’s values are consistent with your own. As you go up the ranks in an organization, you are called upon to embody the company’s principles.

“I also discovered the great importance of purpose within a company. In the pharmaceutical industry, your work improves people’s quality of life. I received such psychic income from the testimonials of patients whose lives had been saved by Lilly’s products. Working for a company with purpose is critical to your success, motivation and performance. It’s the biggest driver of why you go to work every day.”

2. Improve your Leadership Skills by Being an Outsider

“Ever since my childhood, I’ve been the odd person out. When I studied at HEC Paris, I was one of perhaps 20 foreign students in my master’s program. For you, you have all chosen to earn your MBA in a program where 93 percent of the students are international. Studying outside of your country of origin is a great opportunity. I also recommend that you seek out international assignments during your careers. Because great leadership is all about stepping out of your comfort zone, taking risks and managing change.”

3. Seek Out Turn-Around Situations

Current student Jean-Pierre Godeme, MBA ’22, moderated the talk

Current student and VP of the GML Club Jean-Pierre Godeme, MBA ’22, moderated the talk

“In 1982, I was named general manager of Eli Lilly’s affiliate in Brazil. The affiliate was going through a very difficult time, facing inflation and over 100 percent annual devaluation. I revamped the sales strategy, pruned the product portfolio and reduced the size of the organization by 40 percent. We went from $5-million worth of losses in one year to a $5-million profit the next. I learned so much from engineering that turn-around.

“When you face a crisis, you have an extraordinary opportunity to change behaviors, both yours and that of your organization. Turn-around situations are accelerators of development. So is working for a startup, or creating a new division or a new program at a large company. Seek out opportunities that change the scope of your job, increase the number of people you supervise, or move you from line management to staff management. A big component of leadership is inspiring people, setting them up to succeed and developing other leaders.” 

4. Ensure that Everyone Shares the Feeling of Success

“Inspiring people is easy to do in a company where you have an impact on people’s lives. To share one small example: our manufacturing people never really had a chance to see the results of our products. At the time, we were only one of three companies in the world making insulin. We brought in diabetic patients, who were insulin dependent, to talk to the team. As you can imagine, the impact on our employees’ motivation was remarkable. As a leader, try to multiply the opportunities where your employees can see their positive impact on people’s lives.”

5. Never Waste a Crisis

“In a stable environment, when things are going well, people don’t feel the need to change. Yet the environment around you is always changing, the competition is always moving and there is always emerging competition, emerging opportunity and emerging threats. Unless you are prepared to change, you are not going to move as fast as you need to in order to stay ahead.

“When we lost the patent to Prozac, it was Eli Lilly’s largest product. Whenever a pharmaceutical company loses a patent, their profits drop by up to 80 percent within a few days. Prozac represented 20 percent of our sales and 50 percent of our profits. Losing that patent was a life-threatening event for the company – but it also was an opportunity.

“Because we were asking financial sacrifices from everyone, I worked for one symbolic dollar that year. We increased our R&D investments to 21 percent of sales, far above the industry average. We also created the concept of ‘open source innovation’. We created a small company, InnoCentive, where we shared chemistry and biology problems on a website. Anyone, anywhere, could contribute and earn a reward for their solution. That helped us reduce our costs and improve the speed and efficiency of our R&D. Our stock price took a hit, but we survived the challenge, remained independent and ended up creating a more agile company.”

Related stories: Read about another event in our Global Leaders Series, a conversation with Reed Hastings, CEO and Co-Founder of Netflix.