Amgen CEO Admits He Was Arrogant and Bad Listener

Amgen CEO Admits He Was Arrogant and Bad Listener

April 17th, 2012 // 1:05 pm @

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To hear Kevin Sharer tell it, he was not always a very good listener. And perhaps few would disagree. But one day, he had an epiphany when an IBM executive told him that listening was about comprehension. Until then, the outgoing Amgen ceo was more concerned with making sure he got his point across. “My conversations were all about some concept of intellectual winning and ‘I’m going to prove I’m smarter than you,’” he confesses in the McKinsey Quarterly, which is published by the consulting firm.

Some might say he learned to listen too late. Over the past few years, there were FDA warnings over health risks associated with the Aranesp and Epogen anemia meds and reduced Medicare reimbursement. Congress investigated marketing practices. The SEC probed a failure to disclose that a key clinical trial ended over safety concerns. Recently, the biotech took a $780 million charge as part of its hope to settle various civil and criminal marketing probes. Along the way he was voted one of the worst ceo’s or simply considered vastly overpaid (read here and here).

Pehaps the episode that most displayed a tin ear, though, was a refusal until last year to pay a dividend in response to a long-standing clamoring among shareholders. These pleadings included awkward exchanges at annual shareholder meetings and public berating from key stockholders (see this, this and this).

But as he heads for the exits – with some $49 million in retirement pay to cushion his golden years (look here) – Sharer has time to reflect on the many missed signals. “It’s terribly important to be able to hear danger, which is often a very weak signal. If there’s a lag in your ability to hear it, you are going to be in trouble because the rest of the world—the press, blogs—is a gigantic amplification system for these signals. Listening is a threshold skill: if you don’t have it, you will fail, but having it doesn’t mean you will necessarily succeed,” he writes.

“The failure may happen rapidly—the danger signal came, you didn’t react, and it got you. Or it may occur in a more grad-ual way, when an accumulation of all your bad listening practices erodes personal relationships, causes you to make lower-quality decisions, or leaves you unable to monitor implementation. Eventually, executives who don’t listen lose the support of their teams and colleagues. And once you’ve lost that support, it’s almost impossible to get it back. You can’t be effective as an executive, and you’re going to get fired,” he continues.

“…Listening can be learned, but to change your behavior on any important dimension you’ve got to have deep self-awareness. You have to change, and you have to want to change—and you can’t fake it. That’s what my epiphany was about. I started thinking: I’d better change my style. I was maybe 90 percent tell, 10 percent listen, and I knew I’d better try to move closer to 50–50 and force myself to be more patient.” Why was that so hard? He admits he was arrogant.


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