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Advantages and Disadvantages of a Psychiatrist as a CEO

WSJ Monday June 14-2003

DANIEL VASELLA, the chairman and CEO 01 Novartis, has a reputation as an impatient competitor—a style that seems at odds with his previous career as a psychoanalyst and physician. The head of the Swiss-based drug maker rarely discusses his earlier incarnation. “I didn’t want people worrying” that they were being analyzed, says Dr. Vasella, who trained as a psychoanalyst in the 1980s after he completed medical school. “I’m not anyone’s therapist nor would I want to be, just as I don’t want to be anyone’s physician.” Still, he acknowledges. “what is in one’s history affects how one acts and thinks.” So April, when he considered acquiring French-based company, Aventis, Dr. Vasella weighed his emotions as much as his rational public thoughts. When French The officials balked at his slice and pressed for an all-French deal, he remained confident that a Novartis-Aventis merger made sense. He was’nt angry about France's shift and heavy-handed interference and worried that he might be dragged into a bidding war. It’s very important to me to be aware of my feelings,” he says. In this instance, he decided, with his board’s backing, not to make a bid.

Psychoanalysis is intense treatment that encouraged me to say whatever comes to mind to uncover unconscious thoughts. “It gave me freedom to behave as I am rather than how others think I should” Dr. Vasella says. Psychoanalysis is out of fashion. “But it takes a long time for the brain to learn new patterns, which is why analysis takes so long. And I wanted to understand and learn as much as possible about myself,” he says.

Dr. Vasella first sought analysis when he was 17 years old, emerging from a childhood marked by illness and loss. At eight, he contracted tuberculosis and spent a year in a sanatorittrn away from his family. At 10, his eldest sister died of cancer, and three years later his father died.

Unable to afford treatment as a teenager, he waited until he was a 26-year-old physician and had some patients whose illnesses had psychological roots. For four years, he commuted four times a week between his home and office in Bern and Zurich, where he saw a "training analyst” who helped him explore his own psyche and prepared him to become an analyst himself. While working as an internist, he began analyzing under supervision, some patients with psychosomatic illnesses.

But in 1988, when he was 34, he decided to switch from medicine to business. “I didn’t change because of analysis, but analysis allowed me to change,” he says- “It gave me the self-assurance to be self-determining rather than determined by circumstances,’ he says. “I was aware that life can be very fast paced, and I had a hunger to do a lot in a short period of time.”

Dr. Vasella joined Sandoz Phanna, the pharmaceutical arm of Swiss conglomerate Sandoz, where his wife’s uncle was group chairman, and quickly showed his leadership abilities in the intl’s New Jersey office. As product manager of Sandostatin, a drug used to treat pancreatic cancer, he forced researchers, developers and marketers to work together, pooling information and listening to the ideas of other managers. Sales soared when the group discovered the drug could be used to treat side effects of certain cancers.

If he says he prefers business to medicine, it's because he can be more openly aggressive. After he moved to the top of Novartis In 1996,which was formed from the merger of Sandoz and Ciba-Geigy, he shed many old businesses and laid off 12,500 employees. “In business, you ask ‘how are we going to beat our competitors,’ and aggression is expected,” he says- In hospitals, competitiveness can be more underhanded and “the politics can get nasty.” Dr. Vasella uses his analytical listening skills when interviewing prospective managers. “I ask myself, ‘am I interested, relaxed, tense or bored, and what is this candidate doing to make me feel one way or the other? Do I feel nervous, for instance, because he is jumping from one detail to the next, or bored because he isn’t saying the true story?’

He also recognizes that family dynamics are recreated daily in business. “It’s a hierarchy that in some ways reflects the power distributions in families, so you have people relating to supervisors as fathers or mothers, or supervisors acting like parents and forgetting that their colleagues are adults,” he says. He doesn’t expect employees to be as self-reflective as he is. “I need people to be very focused on results, and we wouldn’t do well if everyone was like me,” he says- Yet he wants employees who don’t feel hesitant to take a stand and voice their views. “I want people who can say, ‘I think like this’ or “I think like that,’ and then we can have a good debate,’ he says. Dr. Vasella has advised a few employees suffering from serious distress or addiction problems to seek outside help. But because he is the CEO, he says, company employees rarely reveal their problems to him.