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Be sure you make an impact

An Interview with N. Anthony “Tony” Coles Jr.
Posted July 14, 2014
This interview was originally published in the Spring/Summer 2014 issue of the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School ONE magazine.
Throughout a distinguished career of more than two decades in the pharmaceutical industry, Dr. N. Anthony “Tony” Coles Jr. has adhered to a philosophy that will sound familiar to members of the Carey Business School community: Make a positive impact in your endeavors.
A 1982 graduate of the Johns Hopkins Krieger School of Arts and Sciences (with a BS in natural sciences), Coles has been generous in giving back to his alma mater. He has served on the university’s Board of Trustees since 2004, and he has established a scholarship at the Carey School for students who intend to study the business of health care.
In addition to his JHU degree, Coles holds a medical degree from Duke and a Master of Public Health from Harvard.
ONE Magazine recently had the opportunity to speak with Coles, the chairman, chief executive officer, and president of San Francisco-based Onyx Pharmaceuticals until its acquisition last year by Amgen. He talked about his career path, his approach to his work, and his definition of the phrase “business with humanity in mind.”

You’ve stated that your essential business philosophy is, “Whatever you do in life, be sure you make an impact. Secondly, leadership is about service.” How did you develop that outlook?

I’ve had a number of great experiences in my life. I’ve gone to some great schools, I’ve worked for some great organizations, and when you have a set of experiences like those, I think you have a responsibility to leave this Earth in better shape than when you found it. It’s the idea that “To whom much is given, much is expected.”

In your career, you’ve successfully merged medical and business expertise. In what ways would you say the study of business can be valuable to those who want to make an impact in a health care-related field?

If you believe in making an impact, there are a number of professions that enable you to affect lives directly, and medicine certainly is one. You have the opportunity as a direct result of a diagnosis, a treatment choice, or an operation to change one life at a time. Now, if you think about scale and leverage, being in a position where you can influence something like the business of health care and effect change at the population level, that’s a really wonderful opportunity to create change. Because now it’s not just one life at a time, which is noble enough, but it’s scalable, sizable broad impact when you’re involved in the business of health care. Now, you have the opportunity to impact thousands of lives.

At Onyx Pharmaceuticals, there were a number of things we did in terms of having this kind of broad impact, through our products and in other ways. I’ll give you an example: We provided direct financial support to the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation, which is committed to finding a cure for the second-most common, and a very deadly, blood disease. So as a CEO with a philosophy of transforming lives, I saw that the grants we made to the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation would have a real impact on the hundreds of thousands of people around the world who have the disease. That’s the kind of scale that a business opportunity can bring with the right focus and intention.

You decided in 1992 to leave clinical medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital to work at Merck. To what extent was that decision influenced by a desire to make the kind of broader impact that you just described?

The decision was all about that. I realized that while I loved medicine and patient care, I could have a much deeper impact and create more change by working in the pharmaceutical industry, where you’ve got great resources, breadth, and many opportunities. If you’ve got resources and the intent to make change, that’s a powerful combination.

You’ve gotten to know Bernie Ferrari since he became Carey’s dean two years ago. What would you say he brings to his role as the leader of the business school at Johns Hopkins?

Bernie is someone with all the management and strategic skills to organize the thinking at Johns Hopkins University about how to best connect business and health. Just think about the great organizations he’s been a part of, the great set of experiences he’s had, from the Ochsner Health System to McKinsey & Company. He’s a consummate strategist and businessperson. And being able to apply those skills at Johns Hopkins—a place known for leadership in health care and academic research— means Bernie will create the kind of change that can be deep and meaningful.

You’re credited with bringing a positive change to the company culture at Onyx. How did you achieve that?

I believe everyone should be treated with respect, no matter where they sit in an organization. Everyone has the ability to contribute and to lead. At Onyx, the key was to make our mission bigger than us. One thing I’ve learned as a leader is that people want to be inspired; they want to know they’re working for something that is greater than they are.

I would tell people all the time, “We all work for the patients.” That was our mission. If we can all be inspired by creating change and working on behalf of other people, it can really help to change a company’s culture.

Under you, Onyx had about 1,000 employees. How did you convey this sense of mission to such a large organization?

I did a quarterly series of town hall meetings, and it was a wonderful opportunity for me to talk about the business, where we were headed, to explain who and what we worked for, and for the employees to ask me any questions they had. That personal contact between leadership and staff is essential in a mission-based organization. You can’t set the tone of an organization from the top without it.

At Carey, we say we’re about “business with humanity in mind.” What does that phrase suggest to you?

It means that as businesspeople we can never forget our humanity, our own shortcomings, our own limitations, and our own potential as people who are trying to create value and succeed in business. If we as businesspeople can recognize that we do indeed work for society, then we will make an impact on a day-to-day basis. If you’re just there to complete a project without any kind of context for how that project relates to the life of an individual, then you’re living beneath your potential to make a difference. When we realize that in business we are really serving others, only then can we create the environment for change and meaningful value creation. During my days at Merck, we followed the idea once expressed by George Merck, the former president, that if we remember the patients, then the profits will follow. It’s the old notion of doing well by doing good.