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, joined today by Mike Ullmann. Mike retired from Johnson & Johnson earlier this year after over 33 years with the Company. For the last 11 years, he served as a member of the J&J Executive Committee and the Executive Vice President, General Counsel leading a global organization of over 2,000 employees in 60 countries encompassing Legal, Government Relations & Policy, ESG Strategy, Intellectual Property, Corporate Governance, Data Privacy, Compliance and Security. As General Counsel of the world’s largest Life Sciences company, he successfully guided JNJ through high-profile and high-risk situations, while helping to grow the business to annual sales of $94 billion, increase shareholder value and maintain its reputation as one of the most admired companies in the world.
Mike – It’s a pleasure to see you again and have you with me today!
Michael Ullmann: Oh, thank you, Naji. It’s a pleasure to be here, and thank you very much for inviting me.
Naji Gehchan: Can we first start with your personal story, the in between, the lines of your journey to the exec committee of j and j and the inspiring leader you are today?
Michael Ullmann: Well, look, you know, I, I like to say Naji, that, that first and foremost, um, I’m a husband, a father, a son, uh, a grandfather, uh, a friend. Because I do think it really starts, um, with who you are as a person. And I think that, um, leadership really devolves I think from that, that individual level. And I think one of the things that we’ll talk about today is that balance between the individual and who you are as a leader and leading a large organization.
Uh, because to me, Um, in particular leading an organization of several thousand people, um, you always have to make sure that, that people see you as a person, as an individual, and that you’re not just a figurehead or you’re someone up on top of an organizational chart. And so I would always, um, in any of my conversations in, in any time I talk with people, Uh, would let people know what was going on in my life, and not, not to the extent of just talking about myself excessively, but just acknowledging, Hey, this is, uh, this weekend, uh, we had a, a birthday party for my grandson, and then I, I played golf.
And so, you know it just a little bit about who you are as a person. And so that’s what I like to talk about. Um, when I start off. And then look, I think that, uh, my story as a leader, uh, probably like many leadership stories is not a straight line, or certainly not like a straight upward line. Uh, you know, there are some twists and turns along the way and, you know, I, and I think, uh, happy to, you know, talk about that, uh, just to kind of trace my journey.
Naji Gehchan: I’m
Michael Ullmann: eager to hear more about that. Yeah, well, look, you know, I think, um, to some extent I think my, my leadership journey was somewhat unexpected. And, you know, I, um, in fact, uh, when I was in my twenties and early thirties, um, I don’t think, uh, in fact I know for a fact that people that knew me, uh, did not expect for me to end up where I did.
Um, I, I wouldn’t say that I was a slow starter, uh, but I certainly was not like a shooting star and a wonder kid that everyone thought from, uh, day one in the workplace that I was going to be super successful. Um, and I think what I’ve learned was that, um, you know, for every person, there’s a, there’s a right environment, there’s a right role.
There’s a right company or organization. And so I didn’t really change as a person, but I changed jobs, I changed roles, and then eventually, um, I think I found the right environment and the right role where I could flourish and achieve my potential. And, and so, you know, part of why I like to focus on this is that.
Um, I’d like to tell people, look, if you don’t feel like you are achieving your potential in your environment, yeah, it may not be you, and it may not be the environment or the company, right. It may be that this is not the right match. And don’t, don’t be afraid to, to make a change. Don’t be afraid to do something different until you find the right, the right company, the right match.
Um, because you’ll hear people say, oh, well, like, that’s a really good company, or That’s a bad company. And I think it really depends upon, you know, what’s the right fit. Now for me, the right fit was eventually when I got to Johnson Johnson and being able to fill a multitude of roles. But then secondly, I think the second part of my, uh, leadership journey.
Was that I was not particularly ambitious. And you know, that’s probably not what you hear from many of the leaders, you know, that, that, that you talk to. But I was very happy with my life. Um, you know, my wife and I had been married a few years. Uh, we had three kids. Um, I lived close to where I worked. I was, you know, focused on trying to be a good father.
And, uh, and I loved my job, so I was certainly working, but my feeling was, Hey, I wanna do a good job. I’m in healthcare. And we can, we can certainly talk more about being in healthcare later on. Um, but it was, look, let me, uh, let me find that right balance, uh, you know, work life, home life. Um, but I think because I was not overly ambitious, What I focused on at work was helping other people succeed.
It was, you know, how do I help, uh, the people I’m working for succeed? How do I help my, my colleagues succeed? Uh, you know, at the time I wasn’t managing people, so it wasn’t helping people, uh, you know, that I was managing. But I was really, look, let me, uh, do what I can to make the company successful, to make my colleagues successful.
Um, ultimately that was recognized and appreciated and that began my journey as a leader, I think, in part because I was perceived as someone that was, um, you know, looking for the success of the organization, not for my own success. And then I think ultimately that kind of transitioned into the type of servant leadership.
That, you know, I have always been a proponent of and as I’ve moved up in the organization, tried to follow.
Naji Gehchan: I love that. And thanks for sharing first and really, you touched on incredible co uh, concepts. I would like to go and dig a little bit deeper. I loved what you said about the fit and this is why I was smiling, cuz even, you know, we’ve seen people who were, who are unhappy or performance is not there, and that’s one of my beliefs.
It’s probably the casting. And as leaders, we have responsibility for our people to, to share with them this, because every time we talk about servant leadership, people mismatch performance. Like how do you deal with performance? Actually, if you really care about your people and they’re not performing, you’re gonna tell the person.
Help them out find a better fit if it’s really a job fit as you shared. I, I, I love this part too. Um, I, I’m sure it’s hard to kind of summarize 33 years of, uh, of your experience at, uh, at j and j with one leadership learning, but I would love to kind of go there if there is one. What, what is the biggest.
Leadership learning during these years, that is also what you would like to transmit for, uh, for leaders moving forward?
Michael Ullmann: Yeah, look, um, there are obviously many, uh, learnings I could share, but it, but if I had to pick one, I think it would be, um, a sense of humility, right? Meaning that, um, I, I never felt that I had to have all the answers.
In particular because I, I was fortunate enough to lead a, uh, very large, you know, organization in many different areas, but I always felt that my job was not to be a, a superstar. My job was to, you know, be kind of, uh, the person that would motivate, empower other people. And I think if you surround yourself with good, smart, hardworking people, And you, you trust them and you give them the, the latitude that they need.
That that’s really the, to some extent, the secret sauce of leadership, at least in a large organization. And you know, to some extent, well, what I’m about to say is not very humble. And so when I talk about humility that may, it may not quite sound that, uh, I have humility, but I do think that. That, um, that level of humility that I had, which is, look, if the, if it’s the people around me who are shining, like I don’t need to shine as the leader, uh, because they, if my organization does well and we are accomplishing even more than what’s expected of us, then that will reflect well on me as a leader.
And I, I think that, um, That sometimes is counterintuitive to people who feel that if I’m a leader, I, I need to make sure that the most senior management, you know, sees me as the critical part, the critical hub in the wheel, that I’m the one that’s really making everything work. And I was always very comfortable just kind of, again, I have, I’m not a wallflower.
But I was very comfortable making sure that the people around me had that opportunity to make decisions to, to show what they knew. And then frankly, if you do that, you attract better talent. So it becomes somewhat self-serving because you know, good people want to work somewhere where they’re gonna get recognition and they’re gonna be respected.
And they’re going to get that type of exposure that they want.
Naji Gehchan: So Mike, I’m obviously a big believer of what you’re saying and and truly thank you for highlighting those important pieces. You know, I can, but think about some of the leadership today and some of like those who are in big lights. With quite the opposite actually of what you’re describing.
Like those who want to be in the light and reading dark organizations. And I, you know, I don’t want to go into politics also, but it’s those type of leaders obviously that you’re reading a lot about. Uh, and, and sometimes we’re discussing about kids before I’m, sometimes I reflect on this and why are those leaders having most of the lives?
While we both know the, the negative effect of this type of egocentricity, I, I’d love to get your reaction, how you think about these pieces and if, if you’ve ever been challenged about the way you lead people. You talked a lot about humility, shining through others, putting the others in the front, helping others be successful.
Have you ever been challenged on, on your style of leadership being too nice too kind? Several people I talked to, they would tell me. You know, I’m considered too kind. I’m too nice. What, what, what would be your reaction to this?
Michael Ullmann: Well, you know, naji, um, kindness is one of my favorite words. And, and I think it is underused in our society.
And, and interestingly enough, um, you know, I, I would use the word kindness to describe my leadership style. Now, I think that kindness though sometimes is, um, Is misinterpreted, right? Kindness doesn’t mean that, you know, every employee gets an A plus, right? Kindness doesn’t mean that, um, everyone is wonderful and does great at their job.
To me, what kindness means is treating people with respect and trusting people. Um, but you know, there are times where. Um, you do as a leader have to make tough decisions. Uh, and even there, you can do that with kindness. Uh, you can do this in a respectful manner. Um, so did I ever get challenged in my leadership style?
Yes, I did. Um, you know, and usually it would be that, uh, there was someone that maybe wasn’t performing. It didn’t happen a lot, but. Someone wasn’t performing well and I’d get push, uh, pressure, like move that person out or take action. And my feeling would be, look, let’s, um, let’s give this person a chance.
Let’s, let’s make sure there’s appropriate feedback that someone has the opportunity to kind of correct. Um, and sometimes that works, sometimes it didn’t. But it does get back to, I think something you said earlier, Naji, which is. What’s the right environment in the right role for people? And you know, it doesn’t mean if someone is not succeeding, it doesn’t mean that they’re a, they’re not smart.
It doesn’t mean that they’re a bad performer. What it may mean is that they’re not in the right role in the right organization. And I think, you know, I would say almost all the times I had to deal with that, um, the person realized that, and, and the person kind of welcomed that feedback. Because no one, no one likes to be unsuccessful in a role, right?
No one doesn’t wanna perform well, uh, but sometimes there’s inertia. And so I think if you treat people with kindness and you, you make that effort to help them succeed, even if at the end of the day they don’t, I think people kind of realize that, you know, things worked out for the best, and I think that’s important.
But I would say on the whole, you know, over 95% of the time, I think that people accepted my leadership style or my, the senior most leadership did, in part because my organization was successful. And I think that there was that realization that, look, you know, I, I, in fact, my, our c e O would say this sometimes, you know, Mike, you have your way of doing it.
It’s not the way other people do what their, their duties is manage, but you have good results. And so that’s okay. And look, frankly, I think it, it says a lot about a C E O and, and people at that level. Uh, and I try to do the same with my own organization, which is recognizing people have different leadership styles and, you know, as opposed to I’m the leader.
And you’re all going to manage in my way. I think another key part of leadership is recognizing and respecting different people, manage in different ways and lead in different ways. And as long as they’re creating the right culture, you know, as long as they’re treating people with respect and uh, and, and making ethical decisions and, and achieving results.
I think as a, as a senior leader, um, you, you do have to allow people to manage in style that’s right for them.
Naji Gehchan: Mike, uh, as you are, were working in j and j. You obviously took the company also during the last 11 years to a multi-billion, uh, successful company and serving so many, uh, patients and, and consumers in healthcare across the globe. Uh, you also went, uh, through developing a Covid vaccine and literally j and j single dose, uh, COVID vaccine.
Help humanity get out of, um, of the pandemic. So, uh, uh, can you share with us this particular journey you’re learning, leading those teams? In unprecedented times, delivering with speed, integrity, high quality. Also diversity. You worked a lot on how to make sure that you, you are representing the, the populations, um, when obviously all humanity.
What was watching you and you did it, you delivered. I’d love to, to hear the story behind the scenes and your
Michael Ullmann: learning. Sure. Um, well, look, I, I think there is a lot of pride there. Um, you know, the fact is while in the US the, the change hit Covid vaccine is really not being used. Uh, it still is in many of the developing parts of the world still being used, um, frequently in Africa, in other areas.
Uh, because it is one dose requires regular refrigeration. Uh, so there is a lot of pride in the fact that we continue to have an impact now to go back to really three years ago exactly to 2020, um, look, it was obviously a very difficult time for everyone personally as well as professionally. I, I think that to some extent the, um, one benefit that we had at Johnson and Johnson was we had a purpose.
And whether you were working on the vaccine, but really everyone in the organization, even if you were, you know, working on the Tylenol brand, you were working on other healthcare products because the need for oncology products and immunology products and surgery, it didn’t go away because we were in a pandemic, right?
The, uh, the healthcare needs of the world were still there. Um, and so I think that when people went home in March of 2020 to work, It really helped, um, our people because they actually felt that, um, rather than being bystanders to this pandemic, that we were working to make a difference. And, and I think that as a leader, that was very important.
And the message that certainly that, you know, I really took from there was when people feel they have a purpose in what they’re doing. They will work, um, very hard. They will work very passionately and they will really care about what they’re doing. So I think that then the next balance that I would say I, I found as a leader during the pandemic was, um, the importance of optimism, right?
That I would do meetings almost every day and I would do webcasts and zoom meetings. And I think people want their leaders to be hopeful to be optimistic. We’re going to get through this, you know, this is the worst, you know, health crisis of our lifetime. But, you know, with people like us working on this, you know, there is a, a way out.
Um, now you have to be realistic. It’s not like next week the pandemic will be over, but I think that element of optimism is very important in leadership. With that, however, I would say also came a, um, the importance of being openness, right? I would, uh, in, in all of my meetings and webcast, you know, I would talk about my own vulnerability, right?
Here’s, you know, I’m worried about, my mom is 90 years old, you know, uh, we worry about her. Um, you know, Thanksgiving, uh, first time I haven’t been with my children, you know, since they were born and, and things of that nature where, That balance. And I think, you know, Naji, that’s something as a leader that, um, you kind of have to work on developing.
But what is that right balance between being optimistic and being hopeful, but also sharing some of the, the challenges that you’re facing? And I, I think based on the feedback that I got, that that. That was effective. It was genuine. You know, there’s a lot of talk nowadays about authentic leadership. Um, I don’t know if I really was thinking that way, but I think that’s the way it came across.
And then I guess a fourth thing I would say about, um, leading during the pandemic was, um, the importance of being able to trust and delegate to people because it wasn’t like, you know, Pre pandemic where you might gather everybody in a room and, and make a decision that people, especially the people in my organization working on the vaccine, um, they had to make real time decisions.
And if you were working in Asia, like we didn’t wanna wait 12 hours every day for someone, you know, here in the US to make a decision. And so it was very much about, you know, Come to me. I mean, the, the, the message that I had was, you know, if you need more resources, if you need more money, you know, if you need more time or people let me know.
But other than that, you know, or if I can be of any help, you know, because you want my advice. But other than that, like you decide, you know, you’re qualified, you decide, you go ahead and make those decisions. And I think that following the pandemic, um, I, I, I won’t say that. Uh, I think we have made improvements in that.
I think we have continued that. Maybe not as much as we did during the pandemic, but I do think I see a bit more willingness to delegate and let people lower in the organization, make, make decisions. I love those
Naji Gehchan: and, and I hope we, as you said, we keep some of the, if we can say positives of the pandemic, but really in the leadership style, in the managerial Yeah.
Way of how things were handled and the, the pace, right. Uh, that we developed innovation for patients. Um, You, you mentioned it, and this is why I always like to take this pandemic, cuz as you said, I think it really brings this idea of we’re all here for one purpose and overworking. And I remember you shared an anecdote about relaxing afternoon where Yeah.
Where you were sent back to work. Like even from family standpoint. Uh, if you wanna share this for sure. Um, But the, I I’m, I’m interested also to hear, you know, without the pandemic, so after it and before it, how did you make sure that your people constantly think of this purpose and have patience in mind when taking the decisions?
This is where sometimes I feel it’s hard, right? Like each of us running through operations, leading organizations, Our, our team sometimes can be in the small details that we forget this big picture of patients. So I’d love to hear from you how you managed to keep this after the rush of adrenaline in a pandemic or even before
Michael Ullmann: that.
Yeah. You know, Naji, I would, I would say that that to me, um, was always, I think one of the biggest challenges of my role. And in particular because, you know, I, I’m not a scientist. I’m not doing, uh, research and the people in my organization, you know, were not developing vaccine. You know, they were not actually working in the labs, developing the vaccines, creating new cancer drugs.
Uh, there are people in functional roles working at a death and so, You know, how do you inspire people and how do you make sure that people understand that they have a purpose? And so I think what helped is even before the pandemic, way before the pandemic, um, that was something that I always worked at.
And frequently it would be when we would do, um, webcast, uh, getting patients, people who had benefited from our products, getting doctors, people who use our products, but. Making sure that the people who were sitting in the company headquarters of the desk had line of sight to what, you know, what is actually happening in the real world, and what do people look like?
What do patients look like? What did doctors look like? Hear them talking about our products. That was always very important. And then frankly, it really was, I think. What I always tried to do when I talked to different groups, and let’s suppose I was talking to a, a group of, you know, paralegals, which is just making them understand is that, you know, any pharmaceutical company, you know, it, it’s like being on a sports team, right?
Not every position is a glory position, but you need people in every role. And so, uh, a pharmaceutical company, Needs, uh, a, uh, an intellectual property group and they need, uh, patent lawyers and they need patent paralegals. And, you know, while it may not look like your job is a glory job or that you’re actually impacting patients, the, the people that are developing the next line of cancer drugs, they could not do that without you at your desk doing your job.
And so, That was always part of my talk track. Uh, and I think very important because again, when people realize that their role is critical, they will, they will go through walls. They will work as hard as they can. And that to me is a leader, is really what you’re trying to do. You’re trying to inspire people to be their best.
Naji Gehchan: Mike, now I’ll give you a word and I want the first thing that comes to your mind.
Michael Ullmann: Okay, so the first word is leadership. Uh, responsibility. Uh, do you want me to expand or just give you one word? No, you can expand. Yeah. I mean, responsibility, leadership is, um, whenever I would talk to, you know, people earlier in their career, like, what are your aspirations?
It’s like, well, I want to be a leader. I wanna manage people. And it’s like, well, why? You know, and it’s, uh, you know, I think that to me, um, the, the larger your organization is, the bigger leadership role, the greater responsibility that you have is, and so to me, the one word that leadership is, is it’s about responsibility to other people.
What about E S G? E s G is a critical, okay. One word, uh, future. Um, and I would say that, um, you know, we had spent quite a bit of time over the last four or five years on E S G, but the reality is social responsibility has been, um, part of the ethos of Johnson Johnson going back over a hundred years. Yeah.
We have, uh, like pictures. Of j and j products being delivered, uh, in the San Francisco earthquake of, I think it was 1908, uh, but part of the culture and the, the history of the company is being at disasters, being in times of crisis and, and being in healthcare, being able to play a role. So yeah, where we are today in E S G is somewhat of a, it’s a progression.
But I think that to me it is you’re constantly working on and improving not only your company, but the world around us for the future and for future generations.
Health equity. Health equity is, I think, uh, boy, one of the critical, critical unmet needs. Right now in our society and, and health equity, certainly just in this country where, you know, we have embarrassingly high infant and maternal mortality rates. I mean, among the, uh, the highest rates in the Western world, uh, where we have, you know, people that don’t get appropriate, healthcare is frankly inexcusable.
And I think even on a global level. Where, you know, the, the unmet healthcare needs around the world and the variations and life expectancies in a world like Earth is, uh, is very hard to justify. And so, look, I know from my perspective, um, you know, you, you can talk about large issues like this and it’s almost like boiling the oath, right?
Which is. Health equity, how, how are we going to self health equity? Um, what I tried to do in my organization was to, uh, you know, come up with projects, right? Like four or five projects. They’re not gonna solve health equity in the world or in the United States, but, you know, can we help? One project we did was in public housing and asthma, and that, the, that the fact, a large number of children, Living in public housing have asthma because of poor environmental conditions.
So we had a group of people in our organization work on public housing in Washington DC. So again, it’s, um, I think as a leader, when you talk about big issues like this, um, it, it’s helpful to say, okay, what can we do on a bit of a micro level? And again, you’d love to be able to solve the issues of health equity around our country, around the world, but let’s, let’s try to at least have an impact
Naji Gehchan: that’s, that’s super powerful and really thinking about local impact that can happen and make it, and make it happen.
The last one is spread love in organizations.
Michael Ullmann: Well, I think that, uh, look, the way that you spread love and organization, it starts with kindness as we’ve talked about, right? It, it talks about as a leader, um, what’s the culture you’re creating? And that to me, um, as a leader, probably the most important role that you have. And in particular, you know, in a large organization.
Is, you know, you can’t impact. I mean, to some extent, as a member of our executive committee, I was leading an organization of 140,000 people, you know, 2000 directly, but, uh, company of 140,000. So you can’t touch, you can’t touch that many people individually. You can’t touch 2000 people individually. What you can do as a leader is create a culture, create a culture.
Where you can, um, really demand kindness. I was going, I wouldn’t say just encourage, but ensure there’s kindness. Uh, ensure there’s ethical leadership, that people are making value-driven decisions, treating people in an ethical way, uh, looking out for patients and consumers in a, uh, values-based manner.
And so I think that by creating that culture, That’s how you spread love in an organization.
Naji Gehchan: Any final words of, uh, wisdom Mike for healthcare leaders around
Michael Ullmann: the world? Yeah, look, I think that it being in healthcare is really a privilege because we do have the opportunity and the responsibility, um, to impact healthcare, um, and impact the lives of people and.
You know, I think that it is so gratifying on those occasions when, you know, I, I meet people, I talk to people and they will say, oh, uh, Johnson or Johnson Johnson, like, uh, yeah, my mom was on your cancer drug. Or, you know, my dad takes this product and, and it’s made a difference in his life. And I think you realize that that ability to actually.
Help people live happier, uh, longer and healthier lives. Uh, I can’t think of a better field to be in, a better industry to be in. Um, it’s why I gravitated to healthcare. It’s why I stayed there for almost 35 years. And in fact, now in a nonprofit way, I continue to remain involved, uh, working with the, uh, the global healthcare ngo Americas.
Um, where I’m on their board of directors, but so I continue to be in healthcare. I always will be in healthcare because again, it is, uh, a privilege and, uh, it just, it really makes you feel that, that you can’t spread love around the world and really help make a difference in people’s lives.
Naji Gehchan: Thank you so much, uh, Mike, it’s definitely why we wake up every morning in this industry, uh, trying to make life better for patients.
Yeah. Thank you so much for being with me today. It’s such an honor and, uh, great chat. Thank you.
Michael Ullmann: Well, thank you Naji, and, uh, I really, I love what you’re doing. I love the whole concept around spread love because I think it really is such a critical message. And Naji, you’re doing a great job. So thank you for what you do.
Naji Gehchan: Thank you all for listening to Spread Love 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.