Home > Leadership Reimagined > Episode 28: Alex Gorsky

Episode 28: Alex Gorsky

Johnson & Johnson: A One-Dose Vaccine Victory

Janice Ellig, CEO and founder of Ellig Group, sits down with real leaders in this series of game-changing conversations, bespoke to fellow champions of change. Heralded by Bloomberg Businessweek as one of “The World’s Most Influential Headhunters,” Janice is often consulted for her expertise and her commitment to gender parity, equity, inclusion, and diversity.

We are honored to present this month’s episode of Leadership Reimagined, “Johnson & Johnson: A One-Dose Vaccine Victory” with Alex Gorsky, Chair and Chief Executive Officer of Johnson & Johnson. A longtime advocate of diversity, equity and inclusion and supporter of veterans’ issues, Alex’s influence has shaped both the healthcare landscape and the greater business community.

Tune in as Alex discusses his formative years as Army Captain and how his longstanding dedication to pharmaceuticals and supporting the community has allowed him to successfully lead Johnson & Johnson through this global crisis.

Episode 28: Alex Gorsky

33 years of unwavering commitment to pharmaceuticals, beginning as an entry level sales representative to now Chair and CEO, Alex shares insightful advice “I encourage everyone to not only look for promotional opportunities but development opportunities where you are exposed to areas of the business or organization where you would not ordinarily have an opportunity to learn.”

Alex Gorsky is the 7th to serve as Chair & CEO of Johnson & Johnson and the 9th leader since its founding 140 years ago. During his tenure, Johnson & Johnson has become the industry’s number one investor in research and development, delivering solutions to the world’s most urgent unmet healthcare needs. A leader among leaders, Alex is a member of the Business Council, the Business Roundtable, and currently sits on the board of directors of IBM and the Travis Manion Foundation.

It is with great privilege we present to you this episode of Leadership Reimagined “Johnson & Johnson: A One-Dose Vaccine Victory” with Alex Gorsky.

Leadership Reimagined is available on the following popular podcast stations:

Show Notes: Alex Gorsky

Alex Gorsky on how Johnson & Johnson was able to develop a one-dose COVID vaccine so quickly

This is the result of literally decades of investment in research and development, and in particular in the area of vaccines. We’ve been working for more than ten years on our platform. As you know, scientific projects like this are never a linear shot. They always involve twists and turns and ups and downs along the way. And in our case, we had invested in a vaccine company more than ten years ago. Some of the original work did not turn out as we had planned. But through that process, our scientists and physicians learned a lot. And it was about four years ago that we applied some of this technology against Ebola in Africa. And then we began testing it in areas such as HIV, and that gave us a tremendous amount of insight. In fact, we had over 100,000 patients of experience, and then when COVID-19 hit very early in 2020, that’s when we quickly assimilated the information and put it to work on a vaccine specifically targeting this particular virus. And the platform has demonstrated very strong safety. As I mentioned, it’s been used in young and old patients across a wide range of morbidities and mortality. The early data – the phase one and two, as well as our phase three data – demonstrated very strong efficacy in preventing hospitalization and death. And that was also against some of the more virulent strains. So we’re excited. We think it’s going to offer a tremendous breakthrough as we continue to tackle the virus around the world. 

In addition to discovering and developing the vaccine, the other big challenge was how to manufacture it at that scale. I don’t think ever in history that people manufactured so many doses in such a short period of time, but through not only the internal capabilities that we have at Johnson & Johnson, but also through a unique series of partnerships involving more than ten different partners on a global basis, we quickly built up drug, substance manufacturing, and fill-and-finish capacity. And we’re very proud of the fact that literally, within a matter of just a couple of days of approval here in the United States, we’ve delivered almost 4 million doses. We expect to deliver a total of 20 million by the end of March, up to 100 million in the first six months of this year on a route to almost a billion doses in 2021. Again, what’s really important to remember when I use those numbers, whether it’s 4 million, 20 million, 100 million, or a billion, that means the same number of patients will have been successfully vaccinated, because again, only one shot is required. 

Alex Gorsky on the formative role of military service in his career

There’s no way I’d be where I am today, were it not for my time at West Point, the United States Military Academy, or my time serving my country on active duty in the Army. They were just such formidable experiences. It’s where I learned about leadership, for example, and how to work together as a team, how to overcome significant challenges. You don’t have all the resources that you would like and you’re getting inundated with a rapidly evolving situation. I learned a lot about diversity, working with people from different backgrounds who didn’t look and talk and walk or sound like me. But ultimately we needed to come together, get a line behind the mission, find a way to compliment each other, support each other, work so that we got the very best from each other, ultimately so that we could get the job done. I’ve learned that it takes a lot of grit and that frequently, whether it was in battle, life, or work, we’ll fall down, and we have to pick ourselves back up. Dust ourselves off. Find a way to not only keep ourselves moving forward, but to keep our teammates moving forward. We have to bridge that gap between facing reality and creating a sense of optimism and hope for the future where people see light at the end of the tunnel. I try to use all those different skill sets each and every day. Being exposed to those at a very early point in my career was seminal in making me the leader that I am today. 

Alex Gorsky on his journey from sales rep to CEO

I wish I could say it was all due to a grand strategy or design or career plan. But as with many people, I think it had to do with hopes and dreams. It had to do with a lot of hard work and learning and mentoring along the way. I was incredibly fortunate to join a company that really believes in development, and I’m very proud of the fact that I started at the very entry level as a sales representative. I learned so much about customers, about working with accounts, with hospitals, with physicians, with other decision-makers that were using our products every day. I saw what kind of service and support and help they needed in making decisions and ultimately helping patients or consumers that they were serving. I was fortunate to join a company that recognized and placed a premium on leadership early on, and I had a chance to move into sales management, where I had the opportunity to manage a number of different people. Later I moved into marketing and from there into various general management positions where I really learned about the diversity of the business, whether it was finance, working with research and development, working with our supply chain, or working with our global colleagues on different product or portfolio opportunities. Getting exposed to the acquisition process and all those others were really important steps along the way. I always encourage everyone to not only look for promotional opportunities but look for development opportunities where you get exposed to areas of the business or the organization that you would not ordinarily have an opportunity to learn. And it’s when you build up those different capabilities and skill sets that you truly develop a foundation to not only be successful in whatever job you’re in but also to take on additional responsibility in the future. I did have the opportunity at one point to lead Johnson & Johnson for a short period of time. That, in and of itself, was developmental for me. Going to a new organization and having to learn not only a new business but also how a different company operates. It gave me a lot of insight and opened my eyes to the potential for doing things in a different way.

I always knew deep down that Johnson & Johnson was even more than a company. It was almost like a family for me. When I had the opportunity to rejoin in a different sector, I knew that it was the right decision, and I was incredibly fortunate then to be able to move through several different positions to where I am today as CEO and Chair. 

Alex Gorsky on Johnson & Johnson’s Race to Health Equity initiative

I think all of us have learned many lessons from COVID-19. The past year-plus has been like none other in our lives. Whether it’s being quarantined due to the virus or dealing with friends or family members who are directly affected. It’s about changing the way that we work together. And unfortunately it also brought to a head many events, particularly last summer, concerning racism and social injustice in our country. The major lesson for many of us as companies is the important role that companies in America play in having to come up with better solutions and ways of working together to help us overcome so many of these issues. The other thing I think we’ve learned is that we aren’t ensuring that our healthcare systems are robust and truly providing access, particularly throughout communities of color, where these societal inequities translate into inequities in terms of healthcare. And we need to do a better job than that. 

As we watched some of these events unfold at Johnson & Johnson, we knew that this was a really important time not only for us to step up, but frankly, for companies across our country to step up. And we felt the best place to start would be in the area of healthcare. We made our first commitment that said, “look, before we take on any other external initiatives, let’s make sure our house is in the very best order it can be.” And working across our enterprise with our leaders, following a series of really deep and moving discussions around issues of racism, around bias, around inclusiveness, we gathered a lot of feedback and made what we feel are some bold commitments about what we’re going to be doing internally and why. 

We’re very proud of much of the progress that we made over the last several decades. We realized we need to do even more when it comes to recruiting, when it comes to training and development and retention, promotion. We put very explicit goals and objectives in place. And again, this was not just a United States effort, this was a global effort. We’re sharing those goals so that we all, as leaders, internally and externally hold ourselves accountable and responsible to see even more progress over the next several years. 

Number two, we realized that since we’re the largest healthcare company in the world, we needed to do what we could to expand access to care in many of these underserved communities. And so utilizing our broad network, for example, with nursing organizations, with physician organizations, with medical schools, how can we increase the number of diverse candidates in all of these programs? Because we know that the more diverse healthcare providers that we can support, the likely better access, the better reach and engagement they’re going to have in these communities. How can we help contribute to some of the infrastructure in these communities through local community health clinics and additional outreach. For COVID-19, do we get directly involved vis-a-vis bus tours into these communities for testing and ultimately for vaccination programs? And then last but not least, how could we use our size for good? If you just think about Johnson & Johnson, all the networks, the societies, the other external organizations. Our supplier base, where we invest billions of dollars every year across thousands of suppliers around the globe. How can we share some of our philosophies, some of our processes and systems, and how we hold ourselves accountable with these partners so that hopefully they, too, could take up similar goals and objectives that would multiply our efforts?

Alex Gorsky on gender inclusion and equity at Johnson and Johnson

Having women play just an integral and vital role in everything that we do at Johnson & Johnson goes back to the very beginning. Johnson & Johnson was founded in the 1880s, and as early as World War One, when, of course, many men at that time in our country were deployed to Europe for the war, the women ended up running many of the factories. They took leadership roles throughout the Johnson & Johnson organization, bringing things like first aid kits and other really important healthcare products and services to support those in need. And since then, if you look at how women have helped to shape the science, the commercial aspects, and the global footprint of Johnson & Johnson, it’s been significant. Women now make up about 50% of our employees, almost 40% of our managerial ranks, and a very significant proportion of the leadership from VPs all the way to our board-level. And we understand that just doesn’t happen on its own. It requires investment and commitment in terms of recruiting, training, and development efforts. For us, particularly in areas of STEM, unfortunately, there’s still an underrepresentation of women in science and technology and in other areas. We made it a point to double down, whether it’s in our research and development areas or manufacturing or information technology group, because we think that, again, these are all places where we can certainly benefit by providing additional opportunities for women. And again, we’ve got a very comprehensive set of programs ranging from employee resource groups to internal STEM-oriented programs, education as well as direct training and development to make this happen. So I’m very proud of the progress that we’ve made. There’s still more that needs to be done. But even today, if you look at Johnson & Johnson, our supply chain, our global supply chain, arguably one of the most complex, diverse supply chains in the world, involving over 3500 line items, everything from biopharmaceuticals, vaccines, cell-based therapies, medical devices, whether it’s orthopedics or cardiovascular or vision care, or even our broad array of consumer products like Tylenol and Neutrogena and Aveeno. This area is managed by Kathy Wengel, a woman who’s been with Johnson & Johnson for more than 30 years and again represents an incredible achievement and position of responsibility for a woman directly in the heart of STEM.

Alex Gorsky on Johnson & Johnson’s all-star women leaders

Our Medical Device group is run by Ashley McEvoy, a woman, again, one of the largest medical device companies in the world. Jennifer Taubert runs our pharmaceutical business, which is the largest pharmaceutical business in the United States and one of the top in the world. And if you look at our board, I couldn’t be more proud. People like Dr. Jennifer Doudna, of course, a Nobel Prize laureate. People like Mary Beckerle, who runs the Huntsman Oncology Institute Anne Mulcahy, former CEO of Xerox, who’s our lead director at Johnson & Johnson. We just added Dr. Nadja West; we’re really excited to have her join. She was the first three-star African-American woman general and Surgeon General of the army. So just a wonderful addition to our Board of Directors. In addition to Marillyn Hewson, of course, the former CEO of Lockheed. 

Alex Gorsky on how CEOs can collaborate to promote DEI

We know that if we want to be our best as leaders, if we want to be our best as companies, we’ve got to represent the stakeholders that we are engaging with each and every day. And we can only do that if we bring out the best in our employees, if we create an environment where everyone can be successful regardless of your background. And so having this strong commitment, having this fundamental core belief that diversity ultimately is in the best interest of not only society and our country, but also in business and helping all of us be better as a company, that’s how it starts. Now, I think it also takes a commitment in terms of ensuring that we’ve got the kind of policies and processes and priorities and investment inside our organizations to bring that to life. Because as all of us know, we can have wonderful aspirations, but if we’re not putting the right resources behind it, if we don’t hold people accountable and responsible, it just won’t happen. It’ll become just another checklist, so to speak. And so we’re encouraging people to say, “let’s talk about how we bring that to life.” Sharing best practices – we’ve spent a lot of time in organizations like the Business Roundtable, not trying to reinvent the wheel, but trying to ensure that companies are aware of some of the great programs and initiatives that are already in place that we can replicate and hopefully amplify so that ultimately we multiply the effort. And last but not least, I think it’s about being transparent about where we are on this journey. Specifically in some of the work that I’ve done at the Business Roundtable, sharing the governance committee, where we have responsibility for diversity and inclusion, the recent decision, we’re asking companies to provide very specific metrics regarding the composition of their workforce, of the managerial ranks and senior leadership as well as at the board level. I think when public companies are transparent with that information, it’s a source of motivation to want to do better and to demonstrate their commitment. And so I think these are all areas that we’re really trying to focus on, to help companies not only embrace this, but to demonstrate the kind of positive change I think that we’re all striving for. 

Alex Gorsky on public health lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic

I think there will be volumes of books and journals and online pieces written about this pandemic. And for me, it starts with a few really essential learnings. I think first is the importance of global public health programs. I think for far too long, we have had a maniacal focus on efficiency and effectiveness when it comes to our healthcare systems. And those items are certainly important to make sure that we’re getting the biggest bang for the buck, so to speak, and that best practices are applied. But I think what this pandemic has demonstrated is that we need an even more ardent focus on things like sustainability, like durability, resilience over time in certain areas. We’re going to need to have some redundancy so that we can handle surges, for example, in ICU’s and CCU’s, so that we have additional PPE on hand, so that we have the capacity and the infrastructure to rapidly develop multiple vaccines. And that’s going to require some investment. I think it’ll be critical for healthcare systems, politicians, government officials and industry to work together to come up with a much more robust approach for global public health going forward. Is that happening? I think it is. I think those discussions are taking place as we speak. And look, I realize making investments in prevention can always be challenging, but if we don’t make those investments, look at the cost in terms of trillions of dollars, millions of human lives, let alone on economies, on society that we have suffered through with this pandemic. And we’ve all got to ask ourselves, seriously, what else should, could, must we be doing to ensure that we do a better job? Because unfortunately, given the global world we live in, we’re likely going to experience something similar in the future if we don’t take these kinds of prudent steps. 

Alex Gorsky on how Johnson & Johnson adapted to remote work during pandemic lockdowns

If you had asked me 13 months ago, “could we continue to service and support customers? Could we continue to discover and develop medicines and devices and new consumer approaches? Could we continue to close our books at the end of each quarter in a fast, accurate, compliant manner? And could we do all that in a virtual, connected, agile way?” I would have called it a long shot. But to see how quickly our organization pivoted and adapted so many different new technologies, just as we are even on this podcast, and how we evolved, it’s really been remarkable. We tried to provide them with the right tools. It does require us to work differently. And look, I remain somewhat concerned, in the longer term, that to be able to reinforce and to build value systems and culture in a company does require some proximity with other employees and being together and having that serendipitous running with them in the cafeteria or someplace else that you just don’t quite get on Zoom or a more vicarious experience. And so, long term, I’m not an advocate of going back to exactly the way that we were, but I do think it will likely be some hybrid of the way we’re working today in a very virtual world and in a world where we do occasionally spend time together. We can still collaborate, partner and spend important time together so that we can continue and innovate. But by and large, remote work has not shown much of an impact at all on our research and development programs thus far. And we’ve been able to keep the overwhelming majority of our programs on track. But I do think that’s something that we’re going to have to watch closely going forward. As the half-life of some of those relationships and that time together potentially fades, we’ve got to make sure that we do everything we can to make it seamless and to keep people working together. 

Alex Gorsky on upcoming developments in medical technology

One of the best parts of my job is just the sheer array and diversity of innovation of new technologies, whether it’s in the biopharmaceutical, medical device, or consumer platforms. I’m certainly excited about some of these new scientific approaches via mRNA, via DNA, cell-based therapeutic approaches in areas such as oncology and cancer, or even to the point where in the future can we apply some of the same vaccine technology to prevent cancer or Alzheimer’s disease from occurring in the first place. I think the uptake of technology in the hospital is going to accelerate in a very rapid way. I’m excited about applying robotics, digital techniques, connectivity, and artificial intelligence to the operating room of the future – never to replace the surgeon, but to dramatically improve the design of the surgery, the procedure itself, and certainly the outcomes post-surgery. And last but not least, on the consumer side, I think all of us have become a lot smarter consumers of healthcare over the past 13 months. And I think going forward, whether it’s the information that we find out online, our desire to get more involved in some of those day to day health care decisions about bringing diagnostic kits and other treatments into the house with our families, all those are exciting areas of opportunity for a company like Johnson & Johnson. 

Alex Gorsky’s parting words

One thing that we learned through this pandemic is the importance of health to everyone. And that is to everyone as a person, as a leader, as an individual, as a family member, the importance of health to our societies, to our countries, and certainly to the globe. It’s particularly important that we do whatever we can to take care of ourselves because if we don’t have health and wellness, it’s so difficult to be our best. And we also know, even in this case, that the healthier that we can be, the more resilient we’re likely going to be when faced with these kinds of circumstances. So whatever job, whatever stage in life you’re at, young, old, in between, I just encourage everyone to invest some time in your own personal health and wellness. And that’s not necessarily running a marathon, it’s finding a way to stay active, to stay engaged. It’s finding ways to ensure we’re getting the rest that we need, finding ways to eat right and incorporate those daily habits and daily rituals that ultimately help us be healthier. And that’s good not only for each of us as individuals, but for all of us as families and for all of us as communities of the world. So please take care of yourselves. To be in charge of your own health destiny is really important. 

Episode 65: Nicole Sandford
Revolutionizing Women's Health: Insights from Aspira's CEO
Read More »
Collective Intelligence: How To Build A Business That’s Smarter Than You
Webinar with Jennifer Sundberg, co-CEO of Board Intelligence and co-author of the book “Collective Intelligence: How To Build...
Read More »
Boardroom Diversity Without Marginalizing Anyone
By Janice Ellig, CEO, Ellig Group C-suite and boardroom diversity in 2022 America While women have come a long way, we...
Read More »

More Latest Insights

Stay on top of the latest insights from Ellig Group.

Read More
Janice Ellig team image

Janice Reals Ellig

Chief Executive Officer

As the head of the Ellig Group, Janice is dedicated to increasing the placement of women and diverse candidates on corporate boards and in C-suites by 2025. Janice joined the legacy firm in 2000 and became Co-Chief Executive Officer in its transition to Chadick Ellig in 2007; she assumed sole ownership of the company as the Ellig Group in 2017 with a new focus on Reimagining Search. Prior to her career in executive search, Janice spent 20 years in corporate America at Pfizer, Citi and Ambac Financial Group, an IPO from Citibank, where she was responsible for Marketing, Human Resources, and Administration.

Heralded by Bloomberg Businessweek as one of “The World’s Most Influential Headhunters,” Janice is often consulted for her expertise and her commitment to gender parity, inclusion, and diversity. She frequently appears at speaking engagements and as a media guest, and she has penned multiple articles for outlets such as Directors & Boards, Directorship, Corporate Director, The Huffington Post, and Forbes.com. Janice also co-authored two books: Driving The Career Highway and What Every Successful Woman Knows, acknowledged by Bloomberg Businessweek as “the best of its genre.”

A tirelessly active member of the industry and champion of her causes, Janice is Founder of the Women’s Forum of New York’s Corporate Board Initiative and its signature event, Breakfast of Corporate Champions. Since 2011, Janice continues to spearhead this event to honor companies committed to board diversity and to encourage CEOs to sponsor board-ready women for the Women’s Forum database. (LINK: www.womensforumny.org).

Janice is personally committed to several NFP organizations: Board Director of the National YMCA and Past Chair of the YMCA Board of Greater New York; Trustee of the Actors Fund and Committee For Economic Development (CED); Incoming Chair, University of Iowa Foundation; Women’s Forum of New York Past President and Chair of the Corporate Board Initiative; member of the Steering Committee, US 30% Club and The Economic Club of New York.

In recognition for her many philanthropic activities, Janice received the University of Iowa Distinguished Alumni Award in 2011 and the Association of Executive Search Consultants (AESC) Eleanor Raynolds Award for Volunteerism in 2008. Named one of the “21 Leaders for the 21st Century” by Women’s eNews, she was also a recipient of the Channel 21 Award In Excellence for her contribution to “Excellence in the Economic Development for Women.”

“Listening to our clients’ needs, learning their business and understanding their culture is how we present the best talent and provide  a competitive advantage. We place candidates with the character, competencies, commitment, (intellectual) curiosity and courage to make a difference. Our goal is always to go beyond the expected and deliver valuable advice, measurable results and great talent!”

– Janice Reals Ellig

  • Champion of gender parity, diversity, and inclusion
  • Industry expert, speaker, and author
  • Founder of the Women’s Forum of New York’s Corporate Board Initiative
  • Committed board and committee member and philanthropist

T: (212) 688-8671 ext. 226
E: Janice@ElligGroup.com