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Navigating Turbulence With Clarity Of Purpose

Percival Barretto Ko, SF ’11

“It’s natural to react to a crisis in a purely tactical manner,” says Astellas Pharma President Percival Barretto-Ko, SF ’11. “When you do, however, you risk losing the connection to your purpose, your story. By that I mean, what is the narrative thread of our company that carries us through periods of turmoil? If you have clarity of purpose, the same story line should serve you just as well in bad times as in good.”

Barretto-Ko became laser-focused on narrative continuity in early January 2020 when he first heard news of the global spread of the novel coronavirus. With more than 17,000 employees, Astellas Pharma has offices in nearly every corner of the world, so the implications put Barretto-Ko on red alert. Perceiving a potentially massive threat, he quickly assembled a crisis task force to assess the implications of various pandemic scenarios.

“My charge to the task force was to build our response on the three pillars that provide our clarity of purpose—patients, people, and performance,” says Barretto-Ko. “Astellas has always put the patient first. Then we do everything we can to support and celebrate our people in their efforts to fulfill that mandate. When you have a singular focus on the patient and the right people in place, performance naturally follows.”

Translating themes into tactics
Astellas’ priorities focused first on patient continuity. “We made sure  that our supply chain was robust and that patients continued to receive the medicines they need,” Barretto-Ko explains. “We also launched affordability measures so that financial hardship would not be a barrier to treatments.”

For its people, Astellas was one of the first pharma companies to pull its labor force from the field and out of harm’s way. In keeping with Barretto-Ko’s commitment to his staff, the company created a comprehensive benefits package that included mental health services, flexible working arrangements, even job-seeking assistance for employees’ family members laid off during the shutdown. “At the end of the day,” he says, “we knew that if we delivered on our values for our own people that they, in turn, would perform on behalf of our patients.”

Jumping the innovation curve
With these fundamentals well in hand, Barretto-Ko also has been contemplating his longer-term vision. “One of the enduring takeaways from my year in the MIT Sloan Fellows Program was to think creatively in the midst of a crisis. When you’re on the hamster wheel of day-to-day business, you tend to inch along an existing curve of innovation. Instability, on the other hand, can knock you off that curve and onto a new one that you might not have landed on for years—if ever. Innovation is at the heart of who we are at Astellas. It’s in our DNA. This new normal will undoubtedly provide us the opportunity to continually innovate while staying true to our narrative.”

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