Naji Gehchan: Hello, leaders of the world. Welcome to spread love in organizations, the podcast for purpose-driven healthcare leaders, striving to make life better around the world by leading their teams with genuine care, servant leadership, and love.
I am Naji, your host today, having the pleasure to be joined by Melanie Ivarsson Chief Development Officer at Moderna. In this role Melanie leads the Clinical Development Operations department and delivers with her team all clinical programs within the Moderna portfolio. Prior to joining Moderna, she was Head of Global Clinical Operations at Takeda and spent 9 years at Pfizer in Clinical Development. Melanie also held roles within the early clinical development group at Eli Lilly. After receiving her PhD from the University of Bristol, she completed postdoctoral research at Lund University and New York University. Melanie also holds an Executive MBA from MIT Sloan School of Management.
Melanie – It is such an honor to have you with me today!
Melanie Ivarsson: Thank you so much. It’s great to chat to you. The honors is mine.
Naji Gehchan: I would love to hear first your personal story what brought you to pharma in the first place to joining a month before the pandemic was declared one of the companies that helped humanity be out of the pandemic with vaccines – what is in between the lines of your inspiring journey?
Melanie Ivarsson: Absolutely. So, um, as you nicely summarized at the beginning there, um, I started off in academia as a neuroscientist and did a couple of postdocs. Um, and I’ve really enjoyed. So how that helped my brain be trained to think, to deeply analyze problems.
That was an amazing training for me. I’m a systems neurophysiologist by training, so I’m thinking big connections, big picture. And that actually is really the arc of my entire career. It’s the building, the big picture, how things connect together is what really fascinates me. Um, so during my academic career, I realized sitting in the lab at two o’clock in the morning that I actually didn’t have any interesting questions to ask about that were narrowed, that I wanted to ask the big questions.
Um, and that made me start to think that maybe, um, research grants and very focused academic work. In that discipline wasn’t the right place for me to be. And so I started my career at Lilly, um, in their clinical pharmacology department and spent, you know, 20 years moving through very large pharma company where you get to talk about very big problems.
Big organizations that are connected together in lots of sort of different ways. And you get to ask those big questions. Um, and I went all the way through Lilly, then Pfizer for nearly a decade, um, Shire, which then got acquired by Takeda. And in the last couple of years of my time in the sort of Takeda um, era, I was also doing my executive m MBA at M I T in parallel.
And that really gave me a different way of looking at some of these big picture problems, how to build organizations, organizational processes, strategy, how to put teams together. And it was at that time that I thought to myself, I could go. You know, do approach this differently, these learnings. Let’s don’t go and do something different.
And Moderna reached out to me looking for a, a new chief development officer. It was a newly created position at the time. Clinical development had 30 people in it. And they hadn’t even done a large scale clinical trial, and they wanted somebody who could come and build their organization slowly over a couple of years, a nice slow build.
And I thought, well, I’m never gonna get an opportunity like this. Go and build it the way I want to. Slowly. Over time, thoughtfully, carefully build out an organization that can deliver its first sort of phase three study in 18 months from now. Wow. As history shows, that isn’t quite what happened. I turned up on the 3rd of February as we all were about to get sent home as the pandemic was being declared and the weak Moderna decided that they were gonna go and develop a Covid 19 vaccine.
And so my nice gentle build, um, Uh, literally had to take place in days and weeks rather than the years that I thought. Um, and, and you know, the rest is history. We went off and developed our Covid 19 vaccine, um, in partnership, um, with, with the government and, and many others, uh, that enabled that. And, and it was an incredible experience, not what I was expect.
Um, but just an incredible experience and I learned so much about leadership and building teams. Um, and now where we are today, um, we, we are at again, a yet another inflection point. So, uh, an amazing leadership journey.
Naji Gehchan: Well, thank you so much for your, for sharing it and, and I, I’m gonna go and dig into this a little bit more from a leadership standpoint and, and your learning.
So you obviously led team as you said, like you thought you had 18 months to build and scale up and growth. But actually you did it in a couple of months in a crisis mode where not only in internal cr like the word was o obviously anxiously waiting for you to bring us hope, and you did. So what is the key leadership learning you took with you from this experience?
Melanie Ivarsson: So it is all about the people and how they make decisions together in a, in that moment of, In that moment, um, I think what I learned is that I absolutely did not need to be the smartest person in the room, but I needed to enable everyone else to talk to each other and make the right decisions and move things forward and put things in place, have the right conversation, and that’s a time when a leader has to actually lead from behind or, or take a step back and look at the full extent of the.
Of the problem ahead of them. So I’d never developed a vaccine before. That was not my expertise. It wasn’t a case of me turning up in Moderna and going, this is the way to do this. There were many better people who had all the right expertise. Um, we asked ’em to come on the journey with us and through our own team.
We have an incredible, very small, nimble. That this was their reason for being, this was the public health crisis that they hoped they would never have to live through. But for all people who develop vaccines, this is what they’re actually trained to do. That one day, a rapid vaccine response is going to be needed by the world.
Um, and this incredible team of people came together to do this, and my job was to not get in their way, get out of their way, enable them as much as. Get them what they needed. Um, open doors for them, wipe away their tears, be there for them late at night, early in the morning, um, and help get them up this incredible hill that we had to climb up together.
Um, and that took many different forms from going into really quite controversial and difficult conversations in the early days, trying to work out who was gonna do what and how. Thinking through, can we do this to, um, sending, you know, when everybody had to work through the weekend, um, sending everybody, you know, a, a nice food package so that they could just put things in the oven and not have to worry.
You know, it takes many, many forms to keep a team going through all those different times. Um, and my job was to just enable and not be in the way.
Naji Gehchan: I love it. Like I said it several times, enabling others and not getting in the way to do it. And, and as you said, there was this, I love how you framed it, right?
Like there was this big purpose that is so important and everyone was waiting for it. Uh, would you have a story or an example because you shared some of those, and I think in those moments of crisis, um, you, you always have ups and downs. Like there is this big purpose, but there is also some time.
Negative news that you get and you have to help the team go through it and keep on going. Like you have stories and examples on how you lead teams, specifically in those highs and valleys that they go through emotionally also in development. Any example on how you’ve done this for them to keep having the faith to get to the
Melanie Ivarsson: result?
Yeah, and I, well, I think it’s. One of the greatest challenges for all of us during the pandemic was leading when you couldn’t be in the room together. So there is a, particularly in a, in a small biotech, there’s a lot to be said for just getting in a room. The leadership at Moderna historically had been very in person, and so they walked the corridors.
I turned up at the beginning of February and we all got sent home within six weeks. So most of us had never met each. I had to hire a team almost entirely remotely. We all did. Um, and that team, um, needed to find a way to get to know each other virtually. You build a lot of trust through that sort of personal connection.
Being in a room with somebody shaking their hand, um, taking a few moments to sort of, Have the kind of conversation that helps you build stronger, uh, professional connections that is incredibly difficult over a Zoom call. And, um, that’s also very difficult when time is of the essence. Not only did we have to do that within ourselves, but we also were under operation whoop speed.
We were working with government partners, we were working with a network of investigators, um, that we’d never worked with. Everybody had heard the call to action. Everybody was there incredibly well intended, wanting to do the right thing. And you have this bringing together of private public partnership.
The government, the n I h uh, academic trialists, this little tiny biotech that had never done this before, that had. Technology that was full of hope. And then we also had to partner with other companies that were in the race as well. We all had to get out of each other’s way. We, the collaboration there was extraordinary.
So, you know, everybody was so well intended, but there were days when you just had to remember that because, You know, everybody was used to doing things a certain way, and so you bring all those people together, you can’t get them in a room. Um, you’ve just got to kind of cut through it. We threw time at it.
Time was our most important resource, and so we made enormous amounts of time for each other. Our friends and families really suffered during this period, but it was the most extraordinary experience of all our careers. So if you needed to be on the phone at eight o’clock on a Saturday morning or a Sunday morning, To have the right conversation with someone.
You did that. And so making enormous amounts of time for each other and also carving out times in the day where you’d say between six and eight, go be with your families. Have dinner. Take some time away. Let’s all get back in here at eight o’clock tonight. We don’t. We have to rest as well. And so finding that balance of being there for everybody, asking them to do this exceptional.
And then trying to preserve some sense of sort of wellness and rest, um, and making sure that people were actually able to sort of physically and mentally cope, um, was really, really essential. And as a leader, you’re going through it yourself, and you can only see people from the shoulders up, right? You can’t see.
How, how they’re really sitting. You, you’ve got to become this incredible good reader of those little small signals. Um, and I, after a while, I started to, uh, feel that I could read people, um, through their emotions, through the Hollywood, you know, the Hollywood squares on the, the screen in front of me, and became very good at detecting that face of that individual that.
They’re not where they need to be right now, and a quick follow up call. Everything okay? How are you feeling? What’s going on? Um, so emotional intelligence had to become a finely honed skill in a completely different medium. Um, and so I would say for leaders, um, nothing prepares to you for that kind of experience.
Um, but we all became very good at, at doing it. I.
Naji Gehchan: Well, thanks for sharing this. And uh, Mel, during, as you were, as you were talking, obviously what you’ve done, what other, uh, pharma companies stood up for the execution and did was something we all hoped for, right? Like you talked about this multi-stakeholder partnership and speed to get to a solution, uh, in on percent time.
And obviously this is what we all hope for. Doing all the time. Right. But obviously you cannot operate as we operated during Covid and like relentless hours, et cetera. But at the same time, there’s other people who still are waiting for better treatments. Mm-hmm. In all different diseases. So I’m wondering what are the key learning that you’re taking with you that we can implement at healthcare leaders?
In a more normalcy word, but we’re obviously speed and impatient for patients Yeah. Is still so important.
Melanie Ivarsson: It’s, it’s such a good question and, and one that we are, we’re all grappling with as an industry now. So what made. Covid such an exceptional time for our industry is that the entire ecosystem became focused on one thing.
So companies themselves didn’t compete with each other. We knew that we had to make enough doses between us or successful vaccines for the world, so we became. United in that mission, regulators, um, ethics committees, clinical trial sites, suppliers, CROs, vendors, labs, everybody. Um, were prepared to prioritize the vaccine and therapeutics work above all else.
And I think that is the reality is how much of that machine it. To deliver on really what ended up being just a few successful vaccines, um, and a few successful therapeutics at the end of the day. Um, so when you then try to, um, you know, bring that out into something like cancer or Alzheimer’s, what it would take to deliver the same focus, that becomes incredibly challenging.
Do what I hope it also does though. Recognizes, helps companies recognize what parts of their process they don’t actually need. Um, it’s very easy to believe that you need to go through number of steps to get somewhere, and it takes six weeks when at a time like that you can do it in a day if you can get the right people.
At the table, the virtual table in our case, to do it. And so I think, um, Moderna had never created any of these processes, so we were creating them as we went along for this development plan program. And now that we’re scaling up to doing so much more work, um, we are trying to recognize what got us there and what we can.
Where do we need to create more process, and where do we just always want to be this nimble? So strategic decision making is an example of somewhere where you really want to be very crisp and nimble. You don’t want to have teams having to wait weeks and months to go to governance and have to go and do all those pre-meetings and navigate all of the, you know, the different opinions before they go into the room.
You’ve got to decide what to your culture going to be of decision making. How are decisions going to be made? Are you then prepared to operationalize and execute on those decisions with great speed? And, and how quickly can you do that? Um, and sort of hold onto the core of that incredibly nimble pandemic, strategic and execution capability.
That we developed. And I think, um, I remember talking to one of my peers who was working for a much larger company, one of the big giants that was, um, in the vaccine development space with us. And I was. Talking about the need to get something approved and having to sort of hunt down two people to do it.
And she said, well, I have to get it through about 600. Right? And that’s the difference. I know she was being, you know, a little sarcastic probably in her comment, but I think she was trying to say the point that. Um, you know, everybody has, wants to have an an opinion and then that’s when you start to realize how important it is, how you structure your organization and the processes you put put into it.
Um, and when you start to feel that things are really slowing down because you need to go and gain yet another opinion on something, then you probably need to kind of sit back and go, okay, if we got this right, because we didn’t need all of that last time on, what’s changed?
Naji Gehchan: I love it. It’s reminding me about organization, lab, and, you know mm-hmm.
All the design work we need to go through. It’s, it’s, yep, totally. Uh, if I, if I double click last question here on, now that your adrenaline cutoff is going down, how are you making sure that your team and how can we make sure as leaders, uh, that our team constantly think of the purpose and why we do what we do after the adrenaline rush?
Melanie Ivarsson: Yeah. Again, another fabulous question. Um, you know, one of the things that we grapple with here all the time is how do you pull that culture through an organization and how? Um, how do you do that when you scaled so quickly? So I’ve, in the last three years have done a 20 x build. So I started with 30 people.
My organization’s now about 600 and it will grow again, maybe nearly double, um, again within the next year. That’s an extraordinary build because actually, I used, I’ve gone from knowing everybody’s name and knowing them reasonably well to not, and, and that’s difficult for any leader. And so you need to disseminate out, um, the culture and what’s important and be visible and contactable.
Um, we had a lot of people in the pandemic wherever they were. And so we’re not, it’s, we can’t even just bring everybody back into the office. I think the whole industry has grappled with virtual ways of working. So we’ve created, hopefully an environment that is much better for people’s own wellness, lifestyle, work life balance, because they can work where they’re at and they can fit in other important things in their lives much more easily.
Um, but at the same time, Cultural core of an organization. And that purpose of, of what’s important is becomes very dispersed in that. So we created, at Moderna, we created something called the Moderna mindset, and they, these are 12 mindsets that cover many of our, the ways we, we think about things. Um, it’s.
We pursue options in parallel, we pivot fearlessly in the face of new data. We’ve, we obsess over learning. These are just examples of some of them and there are way of speaking to each other in our own language, um, to make sure that we’re asking each other the right questions. We’re challenging each other the right way.
They’re, they’re sort of path, our cultural core and that really helps us. Move programs, move our work forward together because we, we have a very strong culture that everyone’s bought into. Um, and it allows us, I think, to have the right conversations. We’re always learning. Um, and as we evolve and grow, we’ll probably think differently about this and evolve and, and grow.
But for now, Those mindsets, that understanding of how you shop together every day and bring people together has been an incredibly strong, um, and effective, uh, mechanism for us, I think. So I would
Naji Gehchan: love to give you now a word and I looking for a reaction to it. So the first one is
Melanie Ivarsson: leader.
And you want me to tell you what I think when I hear that word? Yeah. Yeah. I think leadership is, is for everyone, right? Leadership, everybody in an organization, um, has the opportunity to demonstrate leadership. But I’m gonna react with a word that may surprise you, and that is, I strongly believe that leadership can be kind and there is nothing wrong with leadership taking the full picture into account.
Um, and so I’m gonna react with the word kind.
Naji Gehchan: I love it. It’s, it’s all my podcast co with the mission of spreading love and leadership. So I totally by kind the second word is impact.
Melanie Ivarsson: You want me to react with one word or a sentence?
Naji Gehchan: We can do a sentence.
Melanie Ivarsson: So I think, um, an Im, again, impact is, um, can mean very, very different things to different people.
Um, we. Had the opportunity to have enormous impact on the world. Not everybody gets an opportunity to be part of something like that, and it will define them. I, I see that in my team and my colleagues and the people around me that, that, that, that experienced be defines them to a certain extent now and something they’re rightly incredibly proud of.
Um, but impact can be something. Different. And for me now, it’s about enabling others to be the best that they can be. So the impact I would love, um, to leave is my impact on others to amplify what we’ve done and what we believe in. Um, and to, to go on to amazing things. Um, and that’s part of the legacy. So if by working with.
Um, my impact on them is something around the way we’ve done things together and made decisions and the, the joy they’ve taken from that and they carry that forward. Um, I would be very happy.
Naji Gehchan: What about health equity?
Melanie Ivarsson: Oh, that’s an incredibly important topic and one that we all became so aware of during the pandemic.
Not only. Disproportionate impact of covid itself on people from different backgrounds, but then access. Um, and so health equity, um, is something that we built into the way we have done things. So, you know, people are possibly aware that we actually made the, uh, very difficult decision halfway through our clinical trial to actually slow down enrollment.
The white population because we actually had a largely white, um, Number of clinical trialists, and so we actually stopped enrolling white people into our clinical trial in order to give access to people from different communities the information to make an informed decision about whether to enroll in the trial.
We thought that was incredibly important thing to do and it allowed us. To go out and build relationships with the different communities. Um, and we built, um, a diversity and inclusion board with a number of health equity experts, and that was probably one of the most single, most important and informative things for me personally that we did.
This was something that, like the rest of the industry I knew was important, but had done very little about person. And now it has become incredibly important to us. And so we now move forward with all our development programs With this in mind, um, And that is very, very important that you not only health equity starts with the way you study a new vaccine or treatment.
Um, we, 20 years ago, we talked about the fact that we didn’t have women in clinical trials, right? That everything was just studied in healthy, young, mostly white men. We’ve, and that then meant that all prescribing information and access actually was only fit for purpose for one small part of the popul.
Um, in order to make sure that there is access for all and equity for all, we’ve actually got to start by asking the right questions for all of mankind, and that starts with the basic clinical research and this topic I’m very passionate about getting right.
Naji Gehchan: The last word is Fred Love and organizations.
Did you say gridlock? Spread love. Can organizations,
Melanie Ivarsson: oh, spread love in organizations. Yeah. I, I, I couldn’t agree with you more. I think, um, people give their hearts and souls to their place of work. Um, they, people in healthcare are just the most incredibly dedicated, passionate, and committed, uh, people in the industry.
Unbelievably altruistic in the way they will put, um, The, the, the project they’re working on, um, above all elses for them. So I think we should thank them by making sure that we know that we want them to look after themselves. Um, wellness is incredibly important. Um, and we strive always to make sure that people take care of themselves first.
And it’s something I always say to people. I do a new high coffee connect once a month for all the new starters into the organization, and I go, Put yourself first, work out what it is that you love and who you love, and put them at the top of your list every day. Um, because nobody should be sacrificing what they love.
Um, for this place, one of the little anecdotes I would, um, share with you is we offered some clinical trialists, um, a a a token of, of appreciation. And they could, um, either exchange it for, um, something for themselves or they could exchange it for a charitable donation. It was extraordinary, the incredibly high number of people who’d not only gone into a clinical trial and dedicate, dedicated their time and effort to the advancement of science, but then when, um, offered.
The opportunity to sort of take a token of appreciation, chose to then even give that to charity. Um, I thought that was, uh, remarkably, uh, interesting about true altruism, um, and how it sort of works in in healthcare.
Naji Gehchan: Any final word of wisdom, Mel, for healthcare leaders around the world?
Melanie Ivarsson: I think, um, We are so blessed to have the opportunity to work in the sector of the industry that we do. Um, hang on to your, um, your true self through all of this. Um, I’m not ashamed to talk about the fact that as a leader, I believe kindness is incredibly important.
That’s who I am. Don’t try and be somebody else. Don’t try and emulate a leader. That you see somewhere else and think, I need to be like them. Be yourself. Whatever is important to you, show up every day. Be principled. Bring yourself to work. Care about the people in your organization. Enable them the best you can get out of their way.
That’s something I spend a lot of time trying to do, um, and, and enjoy it. It’s a real privilege. It’s a real privilege. And one day. You’ll be sitting on a plane next to somebody who’s had their life changed because of something you worked on or developed. Um, in our case with the vaccine, it happens a lot.
Um, it’s incredibly rewarding. Um, but yeah, just look after yourself and look after each other. Wow.
Naji Gehchan: What, what an amazing way to sum up this discussion. Thank you so much, Mel, for being with me today and this incredible chat.
Melanie Ivarsson: Thank you. That was wonderful to meet you. Thank you so much.
Naji Gehchan: Thank you all for listening to SpreadLove in Organizations podcast. Drop us a review on your preferred podcast platform
Follow us on LinkedIn and connect with us on spreadloveio.com. We’re eager to hear your thoughts and feedback. Most importantly, spread love in your organizations and spread the word around you to inspire others and amplify this movement, our world so desperately needs.