Naji Gehchan is on a mission to improve life. Formerly the Chief Marketing Officer & Business Unit Director for France, Benelux & North West Africa at Eli Lilly and Company, he is now Senior Director of Sales for Lilly Diabetes USA. We are honored to share his story in print.
The interview, by Jill Donahue
A few years ago, Naji was sitting in a workshop at Disney University in Orlando. As an icebreaker, the facilitator asked each participant for their first childhood memories. While others recounted their love for Disney characters, Naji’s first memory was about war. Born in Beirut, Lebanon during the civil war, Naji remembers moving around to avoid bombings, seeing his parents’ house destroyed and then rebuilding everything.
“It was a lovely childhood,” Naji reflected sincerely. “Excuse me?” I asked. He went on to explain that his parents instilled in him and his sister the joy of living; even on the toughest days. “We experienced joy daily and had the attitude that every day was a bonus,” he explained. He was surrounded by people who loved him and that made him feel safe. And this set him up to appreciate the importance of trust and love at home and at work.
As a little boy, Naji watched Red Cross volunteers come every day to help his grandfather who was burned during the war. He had always wanted to join the Red Cross. They were the helpers through his childhood, and he wanted to be a helper too. It was a natural choice for him to pursue medicine in school.
He joined the Red Cross while still in school. Naji wanted to be on the rescue team. After 60 hours of training he received a certificate to be a rescuer, but he had no idea about the lessons yet to come. It was the ultimate school of leadership, where everyone has a single purpose and common values. Naji compares this to his work today where he strives to feel the bond within the teams working together on the noble goals of ensuring patients receive the treatments they need.
He remembers being on the first rescue team after a terrorist bombing in Beirut. “I had just a couple of seconds to make the decision for myself and my team…. do we risk our lives to save others? We went full steam ahead and spent the next 6 hours finding and saving survivors. That was a defining moment. My life has been dedicated since then to serving patients and leading teams and organizations toward the noble purpose of making life better.”
As a physician he did not have a positive image of pharma. That all changed when, from business school, he had an internship at J&J. This is where he discovered the real pharma. “I loved it,” he said. “I saw that I could have impact on thousands and millions of lives – bringing something so valuable to society and community,” he added.
He chose Lilly because of their values. He loved how they develop people and their strong ethics. He felt the people had the same values as his. And he loved their history eradicating polio, developing insulin and the great marketing they had. He decided to try it, on a short-term contract in clinical research, medical affairs, then leading a launch in medical.
That was 10 years ago. He then wanted to move to commercial as he believed he could impact more lives there, both inside and outside the organization. He became the Business Unit Head of Cardiology and now is the Senior Sales Director for Lilly Diabetes USA.
THE SEVEN LESSONS
There are seven big lessons he took from his childhood, adolescence and young adulthood in a wartorn country that he brings to his leadership today. In Naji’s words:
1 Resilience – Sometimes things are tough. We need to turn the page and rebuild. The faster we figure out how to take the positive from a terrible story, the better. Everything can be rebuilt. When I was 9 years old, the war was over, we started rebuilding. Then war hit again when I was in med school. My resolve was even stronger to help and rebuild. And the amazing piece? We always build better then before!
2 Imagination – It is essential to have an environment where you can really imagine. Every time you think you can’t, just imagine. Imagine there are no more patients suffering from psoriasis in the world. Now what do we need to get there? What if we’re crazy enough to imagine a world without psoriasis?
3 Safety –Many times, organizations assume that people know what they need to know – but often they don’t. No one feels safe enough to say, “I just don’t know.” This is a big problem. Safe environments are critical to provide for people to speak up and ask for help.
4 Trust – To build trust is a continuous journey. In the Red Cross, we trusted each other, we trusted our organization and the communities we served. It was mutual trust. We need to build that trust in our work environment. It should be theoretically so much easier here than at the Red Cross. But still, people in our organizations don’t always trust that their leaders or their teammates have their back. I always knew my Red Cross teammates would come and save me and they knew the same of me. I want that kind of trust in my pharma teams.
5 Teamwork – The trust I talked about creates the essential teamwork the patients need us to have. We all have different backgrounds and different roles, but together we are serving patients– one common goal. The more we team together, the better we can serve patients.
6 Feedback – It was the small but consistent things we did in the Red Cross that led to improvements. We never left the ambulance without debriefing. We always learned from what went well and what didn’t – both individually and collectively. We built our strength as a team. Now, in business, we have so many disclaimers but we’re all on the same team – we want to help people get better. We need to focus on this. Trust is again critical to this. People need to genuinely believe and trust in you and be open to giving and receiving feedback so we can all improve.
7 Love and care – If you don’t genuinely care for each other, what is there? Our current world is in desperate need of love, hope and integrity. I want to bring loving and caring into our culture. Last year it was my #1 priority to spread love in the organization. I said it to the exec team and to my team and they looked at me like I was crazy. But it started to spread. Now many people talk about it and it is funny to see the number of heart and smile emojis shared in the organization. We all need to feel that we are cared for.
When asked what he loves most about his work now, Naji answered simply, “I am serving patients.” They launched two products faster than anticipated with this obsession of getting those innovations to patients who need it. Those medicines have changed thousands of patients’ lives. In the clinical data they could see it was dramatically improving lives “and the team stood up to the challenge” and got it in patients hands faster then ever in France.
In every single meeting, he starts with patients; how many patients they are impacting and what feedback they are getting. Even in his KPIs, he looks at how many patients they helped. “Every single time I go back to this purpose. I always end meetings with this question ‘Would a patient really care?’,” he explained. “If the answer is no, don’t put your energy into it. If it is yes, put your energy there. Let this be your decision tree,” he advised.
WHAT DOES THE FUTURE HOLD?
His personal vision is to impact more and more people. “My future will take me to wherever I can impact more people. I want to impact healthcare in the communities I serve, I belong to or I come from.Whether it’s a molecule, or anything to improve their care, their health knowledge like the startup we cofounded for the MENA region, I will always be looking for where I can have the biggest impact to improve patient care.”
He says “Live your why – whatever it is – strive for it, spread love along the way – life is too short and so unpredictable to spend one more second doing something you are not passionate about and ready to die for – literally.”
Thanks to Naji for sharing his incredible journey. How lucky for us in pharma and for us as patients around the globe that his path brought him to pharma where he is indeed helping others – as he set out to do as that small boy in wartorn Lebanon.
Author, Engage Rx: The 3 Keys to Patient-focused Growth
Co–founder, The Aurora Project
Jill, HBa, MAdEd, is a keynote speaker, author and thought leader who has authored two books on Influencing in patient-focused ways and co-founded The Aurora Project, a global patient-centricity group. She also serves as Associate Editor of Healthcare Sales & Marketing.firstname.lastname@example.org