Imagen Therapeutic’s CEO on leadership and diversity in biotechnology

 Interview by Lauren Harris, Director of X4 Life Sciences.

Geoff Muckle worked at GSK, Bayer & Roche before becoming CEO of Imagen Therapeutics, a biotechnology company improving the outcomes of cancer patients by accelerating drug discovery and the development of new cancer therapies.

As a market leader in commercialising oncology diagnostics and 20 years’ experience in pharmaceuticals, he has successfully grown companies, built and led sales and business development teams, and been involved in developing many new potential cancer drugs.

Find out about his journey into the profession, why good leaders need to let people fail and how the industry needs to change to become more diverse.

How did your journey into the life sciences sector begin?

After my studies in South Africa I moved to the UK and did not know in which direction to take my career. I knew two things, 1) I loved the combination of business and science, and 2) being more of a type A person, I wanted to work with people.  After a few chats with my older brother, who at the time was a medical rep, he convinced me that the pharmaceutical industry is where I needed to be. I started my career as a medical rep with GSK in 2001. My plan was to work hard in sales, marketing, and commercial roles and to slowly climb the corporate ladder.

I really enjoyed working in Big Pharma and went from GSK to Bayer and then to Roche working in numerous commercial and management roles. Throughout my pharmaceutical career my passion for science grew more with each role, in particular within Oncology. That eventually took me into contract research with a US-based company called Champion’s Oncology, where I headed up the international expansion of the research services we offered to the cancer drug discovery and drug development industry.

I thoroughly enjoyed working in drug development and ended up accepting the position to lead a very exciting biotech in the UK called Imagen Therapeutics, who is focusing on targeting cancer and supporting both cancer patients and companies developing new cancer drugs.

Are there any moments inside or outside the workplace that helped shape you as a leader today?

Before I came to the UK, I took a year out and joined a youth group in South Africa called Abundant Life, and I was elected to lead the group. It was a charity dedicated to reaching out and supporting under-privileged people, mostly children in social care or orphanages.  We traveled around South Africa for a year, with a group of young people of similar ages to me and shared a Christian message of love and hope.

That was an extremely challenging year. I had just completed high school and hadn’t had many leadership opportunities up until that point, and suddenly I was thrown in the deep end! I had to lead the group, plan our travel schedule and activities, manage a budget, deal with young people politics, and deliver various programs at various locations to various audiences.

I think that experience gave me a fantastic advantage, especially when I began my pharmaceutical career with GSK. I felt I was uniquely equipped already at an early stage in my career to manage my time, priorities, people, and situations.

If you surround yourself with people who are willing to give you the space and tools to grow and develop as a leader, then that can often be the most powerful way to develop.

I would advise young adults to consider taking a gap year between their studies, or a placement year, or even something similar to what I did, because I believe situations like that at a younger age develops you more as an individual, and this could mean the difference between you winning the opportunities and even getting promoted over your colleagues.

What’s been the biggest challenge over the last 12 months?

I think the biggest challenge has been doing everything virtually. Rather than the emphasis being on building rapport face to face, we have had to adapt and find ways to connect with customers in video meetings, when sometimes clients will not even share their video.  It has been a big change, but we’ve been surprisingly quite successful in conducting business in this way and it has challenged a lot of the norms and habitual work practices, especially around sales and marketing.

What’s your leadership philosophy?

My philosophy is to give people the space and allow them to fail.  Some leaders get frustrated because they expect their team members to operate at the same standard as they do, and you can never expect this.  I believe it is critical for people’s development to create a culture that provides people with a safe enough space to fail.

I was fortunate enough to be managed by several strong leaders that had the same philosophy.  You can’t expect people to grow unless they bump their head or burn their fingers.  It is through challenges that one learns.  So, allow people to fail and don’t punish them for it.  That is the way I was led throughout my career.

What has helped you deal with the pressures of the last 12 months?

My family life is a big part of how I manage my own mental health and the pressures that come with running a business. I am married with five kids, four of which are under the age of 12, so there is never a dull moment in the house.  Weekends are crazy busy and always really fun.

My mental health has not been perfect throughout my career, often life is stressful in and outside of work, but family and friends have helped me personally to put everything in my life, including my job into perspective.

There are peaks and troughs and sometimes things go your way and sometimes they do not.  If you study successful leaders, the consistent and most common trait you find is having a positive “can-do” attitude. It is about recognising when things or situations are not going your way and digging deep to focus on the mind on solutions.  Be confident in yourself and control your attitude.  I cannot tell you what the magic formula is, but I’ve always very quickly said to myself, okay that’s a knock, let’s get up and let’s keep going.

According to recent studies, women in healthcare represent 65% of the workforce, but approximately 25% of leadership positions. What do you think it will take to accelerate change across the sector?

I am acutely aware of these stats and it is such a shame that we have not been able to fix this problem. It is challenging to accelerate change, but this can only be solved if we are intentional about it, at a company level.  We need to set a goal in terms of genders and ethnicities, and then measure ourselves against those goals.

We must have a proactive approach when it comes to diversity and inclusivity. Ultimately it comes down to company culture and having people with the right attitudes in senior hiring roles.  I think this is the key challenge. How do we change our mindset and culture? ‘If we do what we’ve always done, we’ll get what we’ve always got!’

This kind of change across the industry can only come from the top. It is the Managing Directors and the CEOs of companies that must set the goals and lead by example.

The practical issue is that often the talent pool is not diverse enough at higher levels. You want to be diverse, you set your goal, but sometimes just cannot find individuals to fill your senior roles.  This is where businesses need to look at how they are developing their talent and making intentional decisions now to support the future needs of the business.  Succession plans need to be intentional also.  So, start looking at your teams and start strategically putting people into roles and developing them.

Additionally, we need to review the way we advertise for roles, the way we brief recruitment agencies and the way we conduct interviews.  Again, the more intentional we are about being diversity and inclusivity, the more successful we will be at it.  The true measure of success are leadership teams across your business that have ethnic minorities represented, and both genders.

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