Jean Luc Butel is an international executive with over thirty years’ experience in the global healthcare industry.  He has worked solely for US Fortune 500 companies in the field of medical technology, biologics, diagnostics and high-tech start-ups and has experience of managing organisations at national, regional and worldwide level.  He has also led important industry organisations and has Board experience with American, European, Japanese, Singaporean, Indian and PRC organisations. He has proven leadership in consistently delivering results, bringing innovation globally, acquiring and developing talent, building winning teams and working in both the private and public sector.


Connecting the dots is vital for visionary leaders

Leaders need to have the courage to make tough calls, to set and uphold ethical values and to connect the dots so that they can articulate a clear vision. In life sciences the rate of innovation is accelerating due to the convergence of new technologies, access to data and computing power (AI, VR, AR, deep neural network, quantum computing, etc) and not everyone can envisage how the pieces fit together. Successful leaders must also have the ability to bring together winning teams and these teams can’t be static, they must be dynamic. Business is like a never-ending team game, you’re on the pitch all the time in constantly changing circumstances so you need a deep reserve of rotating talent who can step in as frequently as needed. Today, traditional business structures are not really enabling this dynamic, and this is where new business models must consider talent as an eco-system asset and not as “belonging” to a BU or a geography.


Choose your own path

I earned a BA in International Affairs from The George Washington University and an MBA in international management from the American Graduate School of International Management. At graduate school I was offered places at several leading companies, of which J&J impressed me the most. Prior to university, I’d been a missionary in Fiji so when I saw that J&J included the Fiji Islands in the list of locations where it needed new managers, I asked them if they’d consider me for that. They flew me to New Brunswick for an interview and then to Fiji to get a better understanding of the role. After six months training in Sherman, Texas, where I started as a night shift supervisor, and six months at J&J HQ in New Jersey, I started in Fiji as a General Manager of a J&J JV with manufacturing, exports markets, government’s tenders, distributors, direct retails sales, hospitals’ contracts, etc. Everyone told me that I’d made a mistake by choosing to start in such a small country and in what was the smallest J&J affiliate. Actually, this was the “secret”, this was the best way to start my career because I had to get involved in all aspects of the organizations on a daily basis and yet I was under the same management norms and discipline expected of any GM at J&J. The upside was incredible.


Keep broadening your experience

After three years in Fiji, J&J thought of sending me to China to establish a consumer product JV. It was another unusual job and certainly a challenging one, but J&J guaranteed me they would give me all the needed resources. As a result, I was able to put together the new joint venture in record time, learning a lot in the process. Then in 1989, the year of the Tiananmen Square protests, J&J hit the pause button with its investments in China. After six months I transferred to Singapore to launch AccuVue disposable contact lenses in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia as the company thought I needed to move into mainstream marketing.  From there, I eventually took a job with Becton Dickinson, becoming President of their business in Japan and then as the Worldwide President for the consumer business. This was followed by a series of leadership roles with major US health companies including a return to J&J in the US, Medtronic in Japan and Singapore and Baxter in Chicago.


I have a clear management philosophy

The most satisfying part of my career is, by far, the opportunity to build, coach and lead winning teams. My experience can be summarized in a few principles that, at least for me, passed the test of time. I consider that diversity – intellectual diversity as well as race, gender etc – is the most important of these ten principles, perhaps the first among equals.


  1. Promote and value intellectual honesty, diversity and agility.
  2. Rely on facts, analytics, empirical evidence and data but do not ignore intuition and experience.
  3. Know how to connect the dots.
  4. Know what you do not know.
  5. Listen patiently but act decisively.
  6. Provide “air cover” to the team and/or the individual (as long as they work hard and ethically).
  7. Hire people that are smarter/better than you.
  8. Care, passionately, for the team’s and the individuals’ development and success.
  9. Demand the “Gold”, always.
  10. “Step out of the way”.


Building a team requires rational analysis and intuition

Building, coaching and leading winning teams is the most important part of an executive’s role. Management credibility is, first and foremost, based on an ability to deliver outstanding results consistently, predictably and ethically (winning teams will always do this) and because there is no long-term without the short-term (winning teams know how to manage this delicate balance).

Team members need to know you will give them air cover – from company politics in particular – that you will stand for them and in return they will give you loyalty and hard work.

I always had a “contract” with the teams I led. We always agreed as to what we mutually expected of each other. In that way, we were able to hold each other accountable and establish a high degree of positive co-dependence.

My advice is to hire people who are smarter than you are, to understand your own and the team’s “blind spots” and weaknesses so you can then fill in the organization’s gaps as you build. The beauty of our connectedness today is that talent is available worldwide, so we have a much bigger pool in which to search.

The more difficult challenge in deciding who to hire is the balance between your intuition and rational analysis. This is a delicate undertaking and yet brutal honesty with yourself is needed because if you do not keep this balance, you will then make costly mistakes.

Finally, the interview. If you want to hire top talent, you must really push people during the interview process to where they are uncomfortable. It is amazing to see how often candidates go through the very same interview process and questions. CVs can be dressed-up, people take classes or are coached to conduct the perfect interview.  So, you need to have an interview strategy, agree amongst the interviewers “who is going to cover what” and above all take the candidates outside of their comfort zone as this will help you to find the right talent.


Embracing equality, diversity and inclusion is essential for every good leader

I was born in France but now I am a Singapore citizen. Much of my career has been spent working overseas in the Far East where I was a minority and North America. As a result, I’ve experienced discrimination myself both from colleagues and other stakeholders about my age (either too young or too old), my accent(!) and my faith. Even today stereotypes can be very strong. We still have a long way to go with ED&I but my view is that the tone has to come from the top. Accepting ED&I isn’t enough, leaders need to embrace it, value it and demonstrate through the implementation of real measurable programs that will bring about behavioural changes throughout the company.

ED&I is beneficial both to the people working in the company and to the organisation itself. In life science we are experiencing an incredibly fast convergence of new technologies and disciplines. For example, in a very short time we have gone from the simplicity of the “doctor’s pad” to where we are today which is a very complex environment. We need people to connect the dots, to be able to understand that our eco-system is made of increasingly fast moving and changing parts (just look at the speed-to-market of Covid vaccines) and for that a diversified workforce is essential to successfully manage this new ecosystem. To succeed in a diverse world, you need a diverse organisation.


My advice to aspiring minority leaders – value who you are

The concept of diversity starts with you, value who you are. Value your own uniqueness and don’t try to fit into a mould. Smart organisations don’t need people who fit into a mould, they need a unique set of personalities and experiences, so find the organisation that will accept and value you even if this takes more time than desired. I have never really “bothered” to look at people’s weaknesses, I just play to people’s strengths. Diversity allowed me to build this “talent puzzle” where one’s weakness is another’s strength.


If you enjoyed this – do watch our Inspiring Leaders Webinar that we hosted in May. This 60 minute panel discussion offers unique insights on leadership and growth from industry leaders in the life sciences. Watch it here!

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