How Following Curiosity Can Lead To Amazing Impact With Dr. Michael Ku
Dr. Michael Ku wanted to attend medical school, however, it was not in the cards. His curiosity led him to pursue a degree in toxicology as well as computer science. As he discovered what his passions truly were, he realized he could make a larger-scale impact by earning a degree in pharmacy. Michael joins Tony Martignetti to share how he pivoted from pharmacy to the biopharmaceutical industry and now serves as the VP of Global Clinical Supply at Pfizer. He discusses how they digitally transformed the global clinical supply chain and leveraged technology to mitigate the risks of the pandemic. Michael shares how he gives back to the community he serves and colleagues around the globe through his mentorship work. Dr. Ku highlights the five mindsets (five C’s) that made the impossible possible throughout the development of a COVID-19 vaccine at the speed of science.
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How Following Curiosity Can Lead To Amazing Impact With Dr. Michael Ku
It is my honor to introduce you to my guest, Michael Ku. Dr. Michael Ku is the VP of Global Clinical Supply at Pfizer. He has over 25 years of biopharmaceutical experience. Prior to his role, Dr. Ku was Vice President of Clinical Pharmacy Research Services at Genzyme. In 2018, he received the prestigious Outstanding 50 Asian Americans in Business Award. Michael was also honored as a recipient of the 2022 Ascend A-List Award, which celebrated resilient courageous Asian business leaders and executives for both their professional achievements and commitment to their communities.
Michael received his PharmD from the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy, as well as a Master's degree in Business Administration from Anna Maria College. He also holds a Bachelor of Science Degree in Toxicology from the University of Toronto and is a graduate of the General Management Program from Harvard Business School. He lives in the Boston area with his wife, two grown kids, and his German Shepherd. It is truly an honor and a pleasure to welcome you to the show, Michael.
Thanks for the opportunity to join you. It's been a while. I appreciate the opportunity to spend some time with you.
Same here. I think about the long journey that a lot of the folks who've been working together at Genzyme in the past and seeing the impact that you're making in the world. It's amazing to have you here to share your journey into doing what you're doing right now. I'm thrilled. As we do on the show, we bring people on who have made an impact in the world, but they don't just show up and do that. There is a journey that gets them there.
I want to uncover your story through what I call flashpoints. These are points in your journey that ignited your gifts into the world. What I'd like to do is spend some time going into your story and understanding where the points in your life that have been transformational points, these flashpoints, that have revealed who you are. You can start where you'd like to start, but share your story with the audience so they can understand where you've revealed who you are.
It's a great question to start off this conversation. I've had a chance to reflect a little bit. You start with an origin story question to get those flashpoints out. Let's start with where I was born. I was born in the Philippines. It's quite a far distance away from the US. As a child growing up, I have parents that love their kids and want the best for them. It's an immigrant story as well for some of the audience. My mom finished high school, my dad didn't. They worked in a family business. They wanted the best for their kids. As they were looking at a charter course to explore to develop opportunities for their kids, they picked that extra state up North called Canada.
We headed up North from East to West. I end up growing up in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, and having a little bit of the how does the East meets West experience growing up. There was a lot of lived experience moving from a different part of the world to another, and not just studying and not knowing how that would work since English was not my first language, having to pick that up in second grade and all the rest. It shaped me as an individual over time, the different people I met, the cultures or even the sports that I did not know what they were such as hockey and other things that are happening in Canada.
It was a gift. It helped me learn that I was curious because of the situations I was put in. It probably plays out in my career journey about that curiosity being important. I got there like anybody else. Kids have high aspirations, especially in an Asian household. Parents always said, "You could be anything you want to be as long as you're a doctor, lawyer, dentist, engineer or nurse, or other things like that." I was on that med school track. I was pursuing pre-med at the University of Toronto.
As life would take it, it didn't all work out, but it was probably for the best. Sometimes these failure moments are maybe the flashpoints of pivoting. When I didn't get to med school without the grades that I thought I would get, I decided to pivot. Those pivots were maybe some of those lessons. I decided not to pursue that MD, but maybe do two BSCs. They're called BSCs up in Canada. I decided to pursue a Toxicology degree. It’s still in the pre-med track well before CSI was even popular.
I found my own passions. I loved tech and technology. I decided to pursue a double BSC in Toxicology and Computer science. In those days, people thought that was crazy. How could you do organic chemistry lab and Huffman coding and hashing to encrypt? One was a purpose-driven piece of literally having experiences in pharmacies and knowing a little bit of my calling, but also my passions of enjoying tech, coding, and building computers. I pursued those two. In life, you have a plan and you go with it until something happens in the fore.
If you have a plan in life, go with it until something happens.
I've completed a Toxicology degree. I was one year away from completing my Comp Sci degree. I got accepted to a pharmacy school in Boston. That got me to come over the border and settled with a minor in Computer Science. That has been critical for me because having that contextual background there has helped me to pursue a passion beyond medicine, which was the pharmacy. I came over in the early '90s. I decided to do a Bachelor's in Pharmacy. I traded up from a Comp Sci degree to a Pharmacy degree and then pursued a Doctorate degree. To me, those are the pivots along the way.
That gave me a foundation. I'll close off with I was privileged enough to have the opportunity to go to pharmacy school, but also for me to learn about the different places pharmacists can make an impact, and had a chance to work in retail pharmacy. In Boston, I worked for Osco for many years, moonlighting and part-timing to pay the bills for pharmacy school getting my Doctorate degree, but also worked at what was called NEMC or New England Medical Center as you're probably familiar with in the Boston area. Now it's called Tufts Medical Center. When I was there, it was called NEMC, New England Medical Center.
I had a chance to know what practicing inpatient hospital pharmacy was like, and taking care of one patient at a time bedside. That helped me in the bio-pharmaceutical industry to do that. Those are some of the touch pieces. We can certainly talk about the industry journey that got me to where I am now.
We'll pause here for a moment because I want to lean into some of the things that I'm hearing show up. This sense of curiosity led you here starting with this dual major that at the time would've been like, “What are you doing? Why are you doing this?” Now we see the connections are massive. There's a convergence of those two areas in a big way. It's fascinating that you're able to follow that curiosity and not let it pull you apart, and then finally find where you are going to lean in.
One of the things that come to mind around this is, what was the reaction of the people around you when you started to follow this path? For example, your family. Did they freak out when you started to do this and say, “What about the MD? Where's this path going to take you?” Were they accepting or were they more, “Do the right thing, Michael.”
Maybe closer to the epicenter of the activity were my classmates. They thought you were insane, “How do you keep track of two very disparate pieces?” What it's helped me in the future was the fact that I can hold two opposing thoughts or completely different thoughts at the same moment to make the best decision possible. That's because of being curious enough. That's where my peers were. They're like, “I'm glad I'm not you. We’re just taking this degree." It gave me a better context by seeing different perspectives. That's maybe that life journey of the lived experience of moving around different countries.
My family knew I was going to be excited about the things I do. They were feeling for me not getting to med school, even though it was part of what I wanted to do. They were very supportive along the way. That's the big piece. As parents, you want the best for your kids and you'll support them. I got that support even though they didn't know what I was reading or studying while I was up late at night or working and practicing some of what I learned. They were supportive. They knew at that point that if I didn't get there, I'd find my calling. Who knew up to where I am now? Some of these things weren't well planned. You kept on exploring. That's being an explorer.
The explorer mindset. Tell me about the next thing that happened that was the leap forward for you. Was there another flashpoint that you want to bring up?
The first touch of the pharmaceutical industry happened well before pharmacy school. When I was up in Canada, I didn't get into med school and then pharmacy was out of reach. If you did not get into pharmacy school at the same time, there weren't many slots left to do that. There was some hope there that maybe pharmacy. What I do is I worked part-time as a pharmacy technician as I was in university and learned a little bit about healthcare, even though medical school was the goal but didn't work out. I learned a little about that.
In that job, I met one of the pharmacists that had said one summer as I was moonlighting and paying to go to school, “There's this summer job that I'm working for.” She was a pharmacist. She was doing her post-graduate training at a company called Nova Pharm. It's a generic company up in Canada in those days for those that may know. There was Apotex and Nova Pharm. I was in that Nova Pharm piece where the flashpoint was an opportunity given and an introduction that was shared. She said, “They're looking for a summer intern in this pharmaceutical company. Would you be interested?”
I said, “I'll do that.” We put together a resume and drop it off, and give us a call, which I did. One thing led to another. I was coming in to drop off the resume. When I met the secretary at the front door, she said, “The two leaders are here. Do you want to talk to them?” I paused going, “I was just supposed to drop this off and not have an interview.” Imagine those cringing moments. You can probably experience that. I'm like, “ Sure, I'll meet the director and the VP.” One thing led to another and it’s about those flashpoints, too. I had a good conversation with them. They were cool and wanted to know what I was doing at the University of Toronto.
It turns out that the role in Nova Pharm was the US Department. Not knowing it was foreshadowing my journey to the US at some point, but it was the division in Nova Pharm that supported the submissions of ANDAs, Abbreviated New Drug Applications for generics. Since it was a generic company, they were trying to get their products approved in the US. I had no idea how to get anything done in Canada, but who knew I was working in a Canadian pharmaceutical generic company looking at how to do regulatory quality and so forth.
I was given that first opportunity, which I will never forget because my first mentor that set my tone in terms of heading history was a person by the name of Ed Oliver. He was the Vice President in charge of regulatory quality at Nova Pharm there. He gave me the chance. Somebody needs to give you the chance to go through the door. He did. He mentored me a lot. To this day, I thank him for a lot of the things he's done that have made a lot of fingerprint imprints on me. As a leader too, not just giving access. That certainly set the tone from Nova Pharm to Astra to our common ground of meeting each other at Genzyme, and then now to Pfizer.
I love what you shared because there's the sense of sometimes these chance opportunities that you're like, “I don't know what this is going to lead,” but it leads to an aperture of opening up new possibilities. You say yes to a lot of things early in your career and then it blossoms into something much bigger as you continue to go on. I love that ability to see that this could be something, but not knowing what that is.
My curiosity led me to say yes. Ed would tell me when I was studying up in Canada, "Michael, you're going to be a professional student. I can see it." I said, "Don't hold me to that," but who knew? It was a sad moment to split up and leave Nova Pharm to come to the US to go to pharmacy school. It was those moments that he shared with me that kept me curious. The degrees I have are not because of the degrees. Who knew? I'm running the research supply chain at Pfizer and I don't have a Supply Chain degree. It's all the other degrees combined that got me to where I'm now. In life, it wasn't completely planned out, but if you're curious, you have a good heart and you meet some amazing people like Henri Termeer, lots of things happen.
If you are curious, have a good heart, and know amazing people, lots of good things will happen.
I have this desire to slow down to dig more in. I also want to see what were the things that led you to Pfizer because we have a lot to cover in terms of the amazing work you've done there. Tell me some things you're proud of along your journey at Genzyme and the industry before jumping into Pfizer.
When I reflect back, and the reflection is one of those gifts as leaders, the moments of lived experiences, going to pharmacy school and working at NEMC or Tufts, the privilege and opportunity to serve and take care of patients one at a time, and see the impact while I went into that profession was critical for me to the future roles I had. When I decided to combine all those lived experiences, I wanted to be able to hopefully make an impact beyond just one patient at a time. That's what brought me to the industry to learn more about what the bench looked like versus what I knew what the clinic looked like, and try to convert over to what the bench-to-clinic experience could look like. Who knew that would be in clinical development and the space of clinical research pharmacy and this world of clinical trials?
It gave me the opportunity to figure it out. Could I multiply and create network effects with the shared knowledge? That’s what brought me through. Ironically, the purest answer out of all the movements of companies from Astra to Genzyme to Pfizer was either acquisitions or reorganizations. I'm pretty committed to companies if I believe in their purpose and their vision and mission. Sometimes it's not that gets you to move on opportunities. As I say sometimes, when one door closes, another opens. That’s what led me down.
The gift of Genzyme that you and I shared was the gift of the culture there, the patients first. It converged with me because of my lived experience being a clinical pharmacist, not just in inpatient but ambulatory care, being in neighborhood communities serving patients at Osco and others. That converged to figure out, “How do I work this out?” Also, a passion for technology. I always love to be on the cutting edge of some things. That's why it's called biotech. The tech part and the bio came in. Who knew Toxicology and Comp Sci were going to head those imprints of where I was heading?
You've used a word a couple of times in a couple of variations of the same word, imprints and fingerprints in your journey. There's something intentional about that. Things that stick with you along your journey, this patient-first and curiosity. That's powerful. Once you start to see these things come into your life, they stick with you along your path, and then they become integrated into how you show up and how you want to add value. That's a beautiful part of your story. It's important to take it to the next level and see how did the journey from Genzyme to Pfizer become real for you? It seems quite an interesting leap. We know that they're very different companies, but I think that it would be interesting to hear your perspective on why Pfizer. Why did you go there?
Maybe we'll start with the imprints or the things that we learned from Henri, an amazing leader. It takes us back to you and I know the story of Myozyme and for me, running that team. The first part was giving me the opportunity to come to Genzyme with a blank piece of paper, creating a department from scratch to a global team that covered the US, Europe, Latin America and Asia. For over thirteen years, I was there. If you ever get that opportunity, you should say yes to it. If you're going to build something from scratch, not everybody gets the opportunity. It started with that piece.
When we get into the journey of Genzyme and rare diseases, what we learned was every patient matters. It didn't have to be diseases that had millions of patients. Diseases that had 3,000 patients were as important. I still to this day remember the time in those meetings with Henri. We had to make a decision on the clinical design and trials of Myozyme. We took the decision on one patient data because we all knew every patient mattered. It wasn’t just the patient. It was their families, their caregivers, and their loved ones. If we could do something to change that trajectory, it was important.
As you probably remember, that was bold of Henri to make that decision to go full into a phase 2 and 3 with that one data. It was about what we learned from him. It's leading with the head, the heart, and the guts to be encouraged to go through it. That made a huge imprint on me, and so did my team. I always tell everybody I learn a lot from my team. It's like a family. We built that at Genzyme to allow us to make those products available to patients who need them most.
Translating the journey to Pfizer years later, who would've known? I can tell you there were a lot of people telling me, “Don't go.” You and I experienced the integration with Sanofi to close that off. My goal was to keep my team in a good place post the integration to make sure of all the insights that we did to deliver care to patients and deliver hope, and that what we are doing at Pfizer now, but also at Genzyme to deliver hope, was not lost in all those activities, and making sure the team had a place to unleash their potential.
As life dictated, things were evolving there at that organization. I got a call from New York City from an executive recruiter who was from Pfizer directly who I still keep to this day, but reached out. For a while there, knowing the industry as much as I have, not just within the roles, but also in associations like ISPE and others that I was leading. I wasn't quite sure whether they were looking for an external leader in that role so I hesitated. I took a break from the integration and went away. The phone call still kept coming to my voicemail. I decided to check it out after I talked to some Pfizer colleagues, and was told that the person I'd be reporting to was a remarkable leader. I figured I owed it to at least explore the opportunity.
I wasn't necessarily sold to come, but it was the conversations and then meeting the team and knowing that it wasn't going to be like Genzyme, but some of the essence of Genzyme. I could carry over that patients first, the patient focus, having the end in mind, and redefining what the supply chain was going to be as I did at Genzyme to hopefully help a much larger organization deliver hope to the world. Who knew there was a pandemic ten-plus years after I arrived?
It's truly remarkable, not to say Pfizer is an amazing company. It's a different animal. It's a different type of organization than what you're used to. You come here and you realize that you're stepping into different waters. How did you find yourself assimilating into the culture?
As an outsider, it's always tough. What I appreciated from Genzyme was employee number thousand something. It got to about 12,000. I walk into Pfizer of number 100,000 whatever with a legacy of 160 years or so unlike Genzyme. The goal for me was to figure out how do I understand the ecosystem quickly. How do I create partnerships and collaborations or coalitions of the willing and able to know that we all have the same purpose? At Pfizer, we talk about our purpose is to deliver breakthroughs that change patients’ lives, and creating breakthrough medicines and vaccines that change patients' lives, and follow at the speed of science. That's what we did prior to our common experience at Genzyme.
No different advisor to do that. We wanted to do it with urgency. Maybe I use the word velocity, which I define as the speed with purpose. It’s not just speed. It is about the speed with purpose to get it because patients are waiting. We remember that in the day. That's what got me to go, knowing that there was an opportunity. It was at that place and time in my career that was the pinnacle role. It was a larger supply chain. I had an opportunity for me. It wasn't going to be a copy and paste because, by all means, it was a different ecosystem and a bigger impact that I knew if I had the chance with the right team, which I have. I'm blessed with amazing teams to make them possible.
I want to dig into this for a moment and say when the pandemic struck, what happened? What did your team do to make this all come into place? I love the fact that there's a digital component of this too, which is to say that you had to mobilize the technology to make this come to life.
When you cross-train and train in the past and these moments, hopefully, all that training comes to fruition when the calling happens. The first piece when we got any inklings of something happening in Asia, my first priority was the health and safety of my colleagues. You can imagine, I have teams that are part of my organization that are all over the world. I had teams in China, Japan, and the Philippines, but also in Europe, North America, Latin America, and also in Africa and the Middle East. The first piece was what's happening? I assembled a rapid response team to understand. Also, since I run a supply chain, I need business continuity in place.
The first was what's happening because just like the learnings at Genzyme, my team is my family. It is about making sure we're all taken care of and making sure that we can then take care of the patients we serve. To me, that was a big piece. It was to understand what was going on. It's scary in terms of seeing this move from Asia to Europe to North America and then to South America. The first piece is to focus on that. What we had to do was hunker down and realize what it is that we could do. I give it to the leaders at Pfizer, from Albert all the way down our research and development teams, to challenge ourselves to be bold and say, “If not us, then who? Could we contribute to this?” The story has been written now in terms of the partnerships we had on the vaccine with our partner in biotech. Also, it’s such a gift. As you probably know, Tony, as long as we've been in this business, some folks that are professionals in the industry have never ever seen a product even make it to market.
I've been blessed from the days of Astra to Genzyme to Pfizer to see products make it to the finish line, and that's where the impact happens. We got this opportunity to look at a vaccine, but also with our amazing scientists on both the vaccine side and our antiviral side to bring two products to the world during this pandemic. It is a lifetime of achievement that is incredible. I call myself lucky. Luck is defined as hard work meets opportunity. We always work hard and the opportunity shows up, and then set a stage.
As a leader, I give a credit to my team. I have an amazing team that has purpose and care. They have compassion and action. We knew we had to do this. I was running supply chain central command on the top of my garage in Massachusetts as my neighbors are going, "Mike, why is your light on at 3:00 in the morning?" "I'm a little busy." These things happen. It is an amazing team, decentralized because we had to be. The folks that were critical had to come in and globally pack, label and ship this product. They didn't have the privilege of being remote to do this. It was a combined team effort. Everybody knew the purpose. Everybody knew that patients come first.
The biggest moment for my reflection is that at Genzyme, we talked about the patients. It was like third person sometimes unless the person is the patient, or your loved one or your neighbor. We did that. I took that concept and helped create and build on the culture here at Pfizer. When the pandemic hit, there was a stark realization that everybody could be a patient. It was crossing borders. We all had to do our part. Everybody did their part. The frontline, critical emergency workers did their part. Everybody did their piece. It wasn't just our story. It was everybody coming together.
I always reflect in the supply chain that when there's a calamity in the world, a hurricane, tsunami or volcanic eruption, other parts of the world can come to the rescue and help out because they're not the ones impacted. In this pandemic, everybody was impacted. That was a big piece from leadership and crisis management to know you had the team. I keep telling everybody that the A-plus team at Pfizer made the impossible possible.
There's something that you embody here. It's the title of my forthcoming book in a few years. It's not coming out until 2024. It’s called Be the Calm in the Chaos. You had to be the calm in the chaos. If you were in a panic at that moment, then you wouldn't be able to accomplish the things you did. That's an important thing to notice about yourself. It is that no one can accomplish amazing things if they're sitting there freaking out. You have to be able to slow things down, see things from a different view and different angles, and see, “What do we need to accomplish? How do we get clear about the next steps?” It's important to see that.
The calm under a lot of chaos is perfect. I got to give it to my family. I give it to my wife, Kit, my two kids, Mikey and Megan, and even our German Shepherd. You need support when it comes in. They're constant support. They knew what I was doing and what dad was trying to do, and they were all in. I learned a lot from them. That's the thing when you have families. My wife keeps me grounded despite the chaos and where things are. That's why I give it to her. She gives me straight talk and tells it like it is.
She was mentioning to me as I was starting again to travel to see my team to thank them in person, which is the big piece that I wanted to do. I accomplished that goal of catching up with the folks outside the US, including folks in the US. I had to take this short trip from Boston to LaGuardia. I was tired. You leave it to your wife to tell you that. I said, "I'm tired. I'm out of shape." She said, "You're just older. Get on with it.” When you have a life partner like that who says it like it is, you know you've got a great partnership. It's amazing. The people around you personally and professionally allow you to do amazing things. Who knew that I'd be in the position where I’m at to be able to make an impact and contribute my portion to society?
Partnering with amazing people personally and professionally will allow you to do amazing things.
I want to flip to that. It's a great transition point for me because I want to talk about some of the other aspects of how you make an impact. You've been recognized as a great leader in the Asian community. You've won awards. There's a lot of giving back that you do. People look to you as someone to admire from that perspective. I'm sure you don't feel that way, but I wanted to get a sense of how you feel about giving back to different communities, and just the feeling of ensuring that other people are following in your footsteps.
It goes back to the days of Ed Oliver giving me a chance and then mentoring me. I took that so much that somebody took the time. That meant a lot because I knew they were busy. They could have spent their time somewhere else. I've learned a lot from him over the years, a lot of other things that I'm sure we can talk about separately. Leaders model behaviors. For me, that’s paying it forward. I have this tagline that's about paying it forward, not just to the next level of generation of leaders to come. I've done a lot of mentorship, coaching, and sponsorship along the journey. A lot of those might be tuning in.
The other part was I realized coming into a larger organization, not that it wasn't the case with Genzyme, but coming to Pfizer as a senior Asian leader, there wasn't a lot as I arrived. I realized that I was looked at as a role model. What did that mean? I quickly learned about giving that time back and sharing my lived journey while helping to demystify some things. I have a lot of day jobs and night jobs. The day job is running the R&D supply chain. The night job that some people might not know is I sit on Pfizer's corporate D&I board. I sit as the Enterprise Colleague Resource Lead for the Global Asian Alliance which represents that set of minorities.
I work in intersection and allyship with the Black council, the Latino and Latinx communities, and disability and others. I learned a lot about myself like learning things that I never thought about at school going through. How I paid it back through was we've created leadership programs for Asian Americans because I realized I need to make my seat count. If I have this seat, you need to make it count because I'm not going to be in the seat forever. Hopefully, we can create the opportunity for everybody to unleash their potential because everybody's an innovator.
What I've been doing is paying that forward. We have a unique program at Pfizer that I've been privileged to help be a sponsor and leader for an Asian leadership forum that trains the next ability for mid-level and senior leaders to develop their skills to be able to occupy seats like mine and be able to make an impact in the way they can across the board. I've done that. I've partnered also with some not-for-profits outside to do this journey. That's also why I got recognized, and I'm humbled to be in the presence of some of the leaders that got those awards.
I give it back to also that. I have that leadership team, the Global Asian Alliance Leadership Team. I have a lot of different leadership teams. I'm blessed and fortunate with the team members I have in that night job organization that is passionate. I've learned a lot about leading an organization where you have formal authority, but also even tougher when you lead a volunteer organization. That leadership is different when you lead with purpose on top of that.
I've been blessed. I usually use the #PayItForward and do that. Where I'm sitting now is I'm not going to be here forever, but the goal is to pay it forward. I've been fortunate to meet a lot of mentees that have learned so much. They think I don't, but I do. Even my kids, I know they're young adults now, but with their beginner's eye, I learned so much from a perspective, even taking my six-year-old son to go to his first college visit to figure out, and me being curious about Northeastern, checking out the campus. It's different now. We sometimes forget when we're not in those ecosystems anymore.
I love what you shared because there's something about that, which is to say that learning goes in both directions. It's not always about you paying it forward. It's about you teaching others. You're learning as you teach and as you share your learnings and your experiences, but there's something that comes back to you that also is powerful. That's the impact that is amazing.
The piece to build on in our team, we have these things that we celebrate in my global organization. We talk about patients first. We celebrate a patient-first award across the team. We celebrate people who embody that. The other one is we celebrate what we call the Learn Fast Award. We didn't want to call it to fail fast because we try not to fail intentionally. I've had those scars a little bit in the journey, but learning and getting insights out. I always talk about these three mindsets that I come across, which is what drove my digital strategy in 2014 for my organization.
It's learning from hindsight to go to insight and to have foresight. Where I sit in the supply chain, it's never dull and boring. I tell people in this supply chain, especially when you can't find toilet paper, you realize it might be important, the supply chain area. We always like the fact that we're challenged. I always tell people that it's never dull and boring, but we'd like dull and boring on Fridays at 5:00 PM. In the supply chain, sometimes that doesn't happen. We want to be able to have a better ability to predict. Those are the frameworks I've taught my team to think about hindsight, insight and foresight.
There's something I was going to ask you about, which I remember reading in the case studies that were done about your work. I remember the C’s that you have. Is it three C’s? Would you be willing to share some insights on the C’s?
It was a good reflecting moment. I get asked to tell the journey as to what it was like running the smaller supply chain compared to the commercial one. I boil it down to what I embodied, but also what the team embodied altogether. It was these five mindsets that I saw for us to make this incredible journey in 266 days to bring a vaccine to the world for COVID. It was five C's. Don't ask why they were C's. I keep telling everybody that when I was growing up, my parents always told me I could only get A's. I don't know why I have C's in these mindsets.
I started with the first C which was I saw a lot of caring in this journey. It wasn't just during the pandemic. It was before. I saw colleagues care about the patients we serve. That was translated into seeing compassion in action, people having the end in mind, knowing that as I talked to people that all patients aren't created equal. We learned at Genzyme and as well as Pfizer and even at Astra that patients have different needs depending on the disease they have. You can't look at it one way. You have to meet them where they need to be met. The care and compassion were there. It was important.
Patients have different needs depending on the disease they have. You cannot look at them only one way. Meet them where they need to be met.
The trait I have is curiosity, which I define as exploration and action looking for new things to do. If we've never done it, nobody has the answer. We have to be explorers. Not that we have to climb amazing mountains, but be curious enough to explore new things or new ways of doing things. A third C that I saw was a lot of collaboration. You need that to make the impossible possible. I saw a lot of people connecting in action. You can see that when teams are high-performing, people can complete other people's sentences. What I've seen is other leaders take on more work knowing that's the right thing to do even though that would put more pressure on them versus having somebody else do their part. I saw that.
When I defined connection, the other piece that I always look at it is you can think about how you connect the dots too. In large complex ecosystems, connecting the dot is hard. There was a Steve Jobs quote that I recall a while back that he said, “In life, it's hard to connect the dots going forward. It's easier to connect the dots going backwards.” You have to try to connect it as best you can because when it's in the past rear-view mirror, it's too late. Patients’ lives are at stake. Collaboration was important.
In the fourth C, I talked about creativity, which I defined as innovation and action. I'll use Professor Linda Hill from Harvard Business School, a professor and dear colleague now. She used the word innovation as anything that is new and useful. I had to instill in my team that everybody was an innovator. Sometimes in our industry, innovation may seem to be where the scientists are, which is true. The sparks of things are. Everybody has to do their part to be able to get the product to the patient.
Everybody has to be innovative. Innovation has to happen. Last but not least is the word courage. One of our Pfizer values is to have the conviction in action, which is you got to go and do it in a conviction act. I saw a lot of courage. People knew what was at stake. Every minute, second, and hour mattered. We had to do our part. Those five mindsets I boil down were great ways to get me to step back and see what the team did, and what we all did collectively to try and make something happen that was scary for all of us.
I'm glad I asked because it's beautiful when you shared this because it embodies the importance of the mindsets you need to be a powerful leader and a powerful team. Those five C's are the combination of all the things that you've built over time. It's the imprint that you've created as a leader. I don't know how to even follow up on that. I want to ask, what are some lessons that you've learned about yourself that you want to share that you haven't already shared or some personal lessons through your journey?
With all the degrees, it wasn't never about the degrees. It was about learning. It was probably a big piece to do that. The other part to consider, I used to tell this to the different folks I mentored, as well as for me to reflect on, was I learned that in life, is it important to have the correct answer or the best answer. I take a pause at that. I've learned that in life there are probably lots of correct answers. If you wanted to get that A, you should get the correct answer and get there. In the real world, it is about getting the best answer, especially the things that we're having to deal with that are complex. To do that, you have to have a network that is broad and diverse.
If you want to call somebody and go back to Who Wants to Be A Millionaire Lifeline TV show, I realize that you need to have good friends that are diverse experts in areas you're not good at. You can call them because you might have the correct answer, but they're probably going to have the better answer. If they're friends, they'll pick up the phone or pick up the text. If they don't, maybe not. The life lesson for me is to have diverse networks. Maybe also in the relationship of mentorship. It takes commitment to have a mentor-mentee relationship and coaching as you do well in others.
I've also realized a life lesson for me is sometimes three diverse introductions are more powerful immediately than a mentor-mentee because that takes time to build up. What I've also done is introduce people to my diverse network. It could be non-pharma for sure as I've been able to meet many wonderful people in different verticals. I've seen that that's been a life lesson. If you have a diverse network, you could try and get the best answer if you have friends that are a little more diverse than where you're at.
I love what you shared. There's something that comes to mind. I've said it on the show a couple of times. There's this quote that you alluded to earlier where you said, "Success is where preparation meets opportunity." There's a nuance to this, which I always play with, which is to say that success is where preparation and your connections or your network meet opportunity. It's important to have that right network of people who you're willing to build and foster and connect with that creates that opportunity to make an impact. What you shared speaks to that. I'm glad you shared it. Thank you. Last question. This is the one that goes off the rails and is completely different from what we've shared so far that I ask every guest. What are 1 or 2 books that have an impact on you and why?
There's a lot but I'll go with the go-to books that I share with all of my mentees whenever we start a conversation. The first book is Start with Why by Simon Sinek. It goes from what we learned at Genzyme and what we do at Pfizer. The patients come first. You start with the why before the what and the how. There's a quick story with that. Ironically, in 2009 when Simon Sinek put out his first TED Talk video as an unknown person coming in, back to my life partner, my wife, as I got home from Genzyme, she's like, “You got to go see this TED Talk.” I said, “Why? I'm tired.” She goes, “It's the stuff you tell me about Genzyme, but he says it much better. Watch this TED Talk.”
I watched it. I'm like, “He does say it a lot better.” There you go. That's why I love Start with Why. He made it so simple, the rundown TED Talk video that's not like the polished ones. That's Simon Sinek. That is what I start with people. Find your purpose. Make sure you know your why before you're what and how, and you'll do amazing things.
The second is maybe a compilation of one author, two books. Professor Linda Hill. The two books that are great are Being the Boss and Collective Genius. Being the Boss talks about the three tenets of being a leader. First, be able to manage yourself and then manage your network before you even manage your team. When you can manage an informal network or a volunteer organization, you're able to do amazing things because you create coalitions of the willing and able.
The Collective Genius talks about how everybody can innovate. It is the disparate industries that you need to innovate by thinking about the things you could be doing, not just the things you should. That stretches the mindset. I've lived that. Creating a culture of innovation for me and my team at Pfizer is one of the key tenets of how we're able to make the impossible possible. I can keep going on with a few more other books, but those are probably the ones that are my go-to that I share with people.
First of all, I love Linda Hill's work. It's fantastic. I've read both of those books. They're fantastic. It's funny when you mention Simon Sinek’s Start with Why and the TEDx video, it is what I had in mind when I started this campfire. I was thinking to myself, “Humble beginnings. Here's this guy sitting in this small little room doing a TED talk and now he's a megastar.” We don't just appear on stage doing amazing things. We start from humble beginnings. There are things we have to be able to do before we get there. It's funny you mentioned that. That's very much apropos. There’s one book that I want to make sure we put a little plug in. Albert's book was fantastic, Moonshot. It's also a fantastic read. It dives deeper into the story of the whole journey of bringing the vaccine to life.
There are a lot of lessons there for others. When we have the gift of what we've learned, just share it. The goal is to not just bring a vaccine or an antiviral for a pandemic. It's to bring other medicines and vaccines that are as important to those patients, families, and caregivers that are looking for hope. That's what we talk about for us in Global Clinical Supply at Pfizer, we're here to deliver hope. We're not delivering the medicine and vaccine. We're delivering hope. That's how we live our culture, to make the impossible possible, and to hopefully create many breakthroughs with high velocity for the patients we serve.
I'm grateful, first of all, for all the work you do and what you've been able to accomplish for mankind. I'm thankful for you coming on the show. This has been such an amazing episode. Many great insights and stories. I can't thank you enough.
Thank you for the opportunity. It's great to reconnect from our Genzyme days. I appreciate your patience. I know it's a lot of the scheduling for me with this stuff, but I'm glad we're able to have this time to connect and share some of the good insights that hopefully will help others.
Before I let you go, I have one last thing to ask you. What's the best way for people to reach out if they wanted to find out more about you or if they wanted to reach out and talk to you?
The best way is we're connected digitally on LinkedIn. That's the best place to reach out to me so that everything is in one place. I try to make it simple and connect with people that way.
Thank you again. Thanks to the audience for coming on the journey with us. I know you're leaving with so many great insights. That's a wrap. Thank you.
- Start with Why
- Being the Boss
- Collective Genius
- LinkedIn – Michael Ku
About Dr. Michael Ku
Dr. Michael Ku is VP of Global Clinical Supply at Pfizer and has over 25 years of biopharmaceutical experience. Prior to his current role, Dr. Ku was Vice President, Clinical Pharmacy Research Services at Genzyme. In 2018, he received the prestigious Outstanding 50 Asian Americans in Business Award. Michael was also recently honored as a recipient of the 2022 Ascend A-List Award, which celebrated resilient, courageous Asian business leaders and executives for both their professional achievements and commitment to their communities. Michael received his PharmD from the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences University, as well as a master's degree in Business Administration from Anna Maria College. He also holds a Bachelor of Science Degree in Toxicology from the University of Toronto and is a graduate of the General Management Program from Harvard Business School.
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