3 Key Lessons that have the potential to Change the World — An interview with J&J’s Alex Gorsky with Ideagen’s George Sifakis

Sep 30, 2019 · 12 min read

George: Welcome to the Ideagen Global Leader Podcast. Today we have with us Alex Gorsky, Chairman and CEO of Johnson & Johnson. Welcome, Alex.

Alex Gorsky: George, it’s great to be here with you this morning.

George: Alex, what originally inspired you to join Johnson & Johnson?

Alex Gorsky: Well, George, probably similar to a lot of executives, it was a number of factors that all came together. I had served in the Army for six years active duty after attending West Point. And you know, had asked myself that big question of well, what to do with the rest of my life? And look, I strongly considered staying in the military. I had a good career and was enjoying what I was doing. But I also had other interests. I had interests in healthcare. I had thought actually earlier on in my life of actually perhaps going to medical school. My wife and sisters were nurses, so healthcare was something that was in our family. And I was also I think interested in the idea of business. And so finding an opportunity like Johnson & Johnson, you know, the world’s largest healthcare company, and the dynamic healthcare marketplace just ended up being a very good fit.

Alex Gorsky: And after interviewing with several other companies in several other industries, you know, what I found I think most important at Johnson & Johnson was a chance to work for a real values-based company. And then so having had the opportunity to really work for the United States military and the Army and then join a company like J&J both really founded on values and a credo was just a great fit for me.

George: Well, that is really profound on so many levels. The Credo. What does the Credo mean to you?

Alex Gorsky: Well, it’s a real statement of inspiration and aspiration that’s been motivating the employees at Johnson & Johnson for more than 75 years. In fact, this is the 75th anniversary of Our Credo. And beyond being a mission statement that I think almost every major company has in today’s environment, the son of our founder, Robert Wood Johnson, Jr., had evolved these concepts about what the purpose and what the responsibility of a business should be to operate, not only in America, but around the globe. And over time, he refined these concepts and really distilled them down to a few critical elements, such as a strong responsibility to the patients and consumers that we serve every day. And was interesting, he actually took it several layers deeper by saying specifically to the mothers and fathers, the doctors and nurses who use our product every day, which he believed and we all continue to believe to this day, resulted in a very special responsibility that we have because of the nature of the work that we do.

Alex Gorsky: Secondly, he talked about a responsibility to our employees. And remember, when he was writing this document and bringing these ideas together, it was in the 1930’s and 1940’s, when relationships between labor and companies, particularly large corporations, weren’t always very harmonious, to make a declaration that employees should be paid a fair wage. That they should be respected for their dignity. And they should even have a safe working environment. I mean, those concepts at that time weren’t necessarily common among a lot of other companies.

Alex Gorsky: And then the third paragraph, he made a very explicit statement about our responsibilities to the communities where we work and where we serve. And he even talking about our business partners, making sure that we create good relationships with them as well as giving back to others in our communities who may not be as fortunate as we are.

Alex Gorsky: And then ultimately, he put the shareholder last, and said when we live up to these responsibilities, our shareholders should get a fair return. And what was interesting is he was actually the majority shareholder of the company at the time. And so he put himself last, but I think that if you look at that statement today, and it was long before corporate social responsibility and other concepts that we almost take for granted today were instilled, this is a document that goes back for more than 75 years. And what I can tell you, it’s as meaningful and as important in Johnson & Johnson today as it ever has been.

George: Well, we can see that, and we can see that in your leadership. Alex, you’ve been talking a lot about purpose lately. What exactly do you mean by purpose?

Alex Gorsky: Well, by purpose we mean what is it that motivates you every day to come to work and truly make a difference? At Johnson & Johnson, we’re a firm believer that when purposed, people can do things they likely couldn’t create or do on their own. When they feel like they’re part of something bigger than just themselves, when they’re helping others, when they’re doing things consistent with Our Credo. And that’s particularly important with millennials today, who really want to be someplace where they’re part of a larger purpose. And by creating that purpose within Johnson & Johnson, a purpose of helping others, helping people live longer, healthier, happier lives, helping people be their very best … Not only in terms of physical health, but also in how they engage at the workplace to ultimately make a difference.

Alex Gorsky: You know, we touch over a billion patients and consumers every day around the world. And when we talk to new employees, or recruiting, or even inspiring longstanding employees at J&J to continue, knowing that ultimately they are making that kind of a difference around the world, well, that’s pretty special.

George: That is very special. And it goes back to your leadership. And on that note, what key lessons/advantage points help you to successfully lead Johnson & Johnson?

Alex Gorsky: Well, that actually goes far beyond my leadership. Because there’s no way a single individual can lead a company of over 130,000 employees with hundreds of operating companies spread around the world. What it takes, I believe, is a group of leaders who are fully committed to a common purpose like Our Credo. And in our case, look, it starts with our senior management committee and our executive committee. And then each one of those people, of course, have got a group of strong, capable, seasoned leaders under them that cascades down through the organization.

Alex Gorsky: And so what I’ve learned is, it starts with purpose. And our case the purpose of Our Credo, the responsibilities that we have. Next and very important, is surrounding yourself with great leaders. In many cases leaders who are better than yourself. Who aren’t just like you. I think it’s important to have a diverse and inclusive team around you. I mean, if we all look, talk, sound the same, you really don’t need that many people around the table. However, it’s when you bring different backgrounds, different experiences, different perspectives together that you ultimately get to a better outcome. And so that’s another concept that I’ve found to be very, very important.

George: And as we look at the future, how are you and your leadership team and your employees at Johnson & Johnson looking at the future to address the world’s most vexing issues?

Alex Gorsky: Well, it does start with collaboration. Because in today’s world it’s so fast-moving, that if you’re not constantly collaborating internally, externally with the broader healthcare space, with other partners in the industry, you just can’t be successful. And so let me just give you a couple of examples. Externally, in the way that we innovate. In fact, over the last six years, we’ve created something called Innovation Centers. And rather than having a singular focus of our internal employees … I mean, think of it literally as lab coats and a large brick and mortar building … What we’ve created is our connections with a much broader ecosystem. So whether it’s in San Francisco, San Diego, London, Boston, Texas, Toronto, China. Other places around the world. We pull together scientists, businesspeople, legal experts that create strong networks with academic centers, with venture community, all with the single objective of trying to identify early science and technology that ultimately can make a huge difference for patients and consumers.

Alex Gorsky: And these relationships that we develop can take many different forms and formats. For example, it may mean a small investment, a partnership. In some cases, we actually house young startups in something we call JLABS, where it just be a few people who have an idea that want to collaborate and share ideas so that they can actually build a new venture. And by working in this way, along with having strong internal insights and capabilities across all of our different sectors, we find that it helps us get to the very best science. And frankly, we’re agnostic about the source. We’re most focused on getting the best science, the best technology that’ll ultimately is going to help us better serve customers and patients.

George: And so based on all those unique and incredibly important perspectives, why do you believe that effective leadership is so vital in this digital age?

Alex Gorsky: Well, look, leadership is critical for us, whether it’s as a country, as a company, as a community, to come together and frankly accomplish many of the important things that need to be done. And I’m more convinced than ever in today’s environment, it’s so fast-moving, where you can just be overloaded with social media, with the news of the day, where our contacts … And there’s so many ways to be distracted. To have a sense of purpose, to feel a sense of responsibility as a leader in getting an organization aligned by common goals, common objectives … And again, this higher purpose is more important than ever. There’s a difference between managers and leaders. Leaders tend to inspire. They give people an aspiration. Again, so they do things that they probably didn’t think they were capable of doing, versus just managing a scorecard or day-to-day activities.

Alex Gorsky: And while both can be important, in my mind there’s no doubt that great leadership, with great people, that’s absolutely essential. You know, whether it for … Again, for businesses or for our country to be successful.

George: Incredible. Why is cross-sector collaboration, which we touched upon earlier, and innovation, which we discussed a bit, so vital to helping to solve many of the world’s most vexing issues? And to go further, how do you infuse collaboration into your daily mission to achieve your goals?

Alex Gorsky: You know, one of the things I’m most excited about at Johnson & Johnson is that diverse, broad array of different sciences, technologies, and skill sets that we represent as the world’s broadest based, most diverse healthcare company. Whether it’s chemistry, whether it’s new technology, whether it’s great engineering, or consumer insights. Those different areas provide us with a unique line of sight to opportunities, to unmet need within the healthcare arena. And what we’re particularly interested in is not only having expertise among our pharmaceutical, our medical device areas and our consumer groups within those particular sectors, but looking for opportunities across. I mean, at the end of the day, a patient or a consumer doesn’t care if it’s a pharmaceutical product, a medical device, or consumer approach. They just want to feel better. They want to feel healthier.

Alex Gorsky: And so what we’re trying to do is build teams. In fact, we have something we call The Lung Cancer Initiative. Where rather than trying to look at lung cancer as just from a therapeutic approach, or by one of our sectors, we brought together a unique team of experts to say, let’s go cure lung cancer. Let’s bring completely new perspectives to the table. And are there convergent opportunities or ways that we can blend these different disciplines together in very unique ways? Again, it goes beyond just a single sector approach, but goes for a much more holistic outcomes-based approach.

Alex Gorsky: So we’re quite excited about it, and we have some other early opportunities across our different groups. They’re working on similar pathways. But we’re quite optimistic, again, using this approach will lead to hopefully very different outcomes for the future.

George: Alex, that is incredible. And that’s the type of focused leadership as well that I think is so vital in terms of accomplishing these critical goals. Such as curing lung cancer or treating it.

Alex Gorsky: Well, it’s not always easy. Because in our organization, we tend to define ourselves by how we’re organized. And so getting people to think beyond that … And not just doing collaborative efforts in their spare time, as sometimes we have in the past. But by really having dedicated, focused teams where you’re removing the organizational barriers and focusing completely on, again, addressing unmet need, or a patient’s or a consumer’s needs. It really brings a different approach. And so we’re quite excited about it.

George: Thank you for that. Thank you for all that you’re doing here. This is a point in the interview where we always like to ask a specific question. It’s a deep and simple question, with profound insights into who you are in your leadership. And that is, simply, what are the three key lessons you have learned that have the potential to change the world?

Alex Gorsky: Well, look, I try to keep learning every day. And one thing that I’ve found now, having been in this role for six years, is that you have to have a constant appetite to learn. You must have a constant curiosity. And a constant sense of dissatisfaction. While being obviously proud and pleased with many of the things that we do, you always have to be helping to inspire the organization to be learning, to be more agile, to be evolving. Because that’s the only way, frankly, that we’re going continue to help patients and consumers and innovate going into the future. And it’s the only way that we can be as competitive as we need to be.

Alex Gorsky: Next, I think it’s about inspiring the organization. You know, we were talking earlier about sense of purpose, I truly believe people want to be inspired. Now, what’s critical, is I think it’s essential to be a realistic optimist, where you come in. You can look at the facts. You can understand the situation in a granular and in a real authentic way. But at the same time, it’s not just about admiring the problem. And when you can do that in an organization and inspire people, again, to take on some of these issues, make sure they have the resources, the plans, the skills, and the capabilities to do it, that is so important. And so again, inspiring the organization.

Alex Gorsky: And last but not least, I think it’s about engaging. It’s about engaging with customers, your own employees. What you find today is there’s a high expectation … Not only for CEOs, but I think about leaders around the world … Where people want to be able to connect. And you know, more and more of what you find is that having an ongoing dialogue is so important. It’s a little bit like making deposits in the bank. And you know, you can’t just make it all at one time, you have to do it over time to develop interest. And you know, what we find is that when you’re engaging, when you’re talking, when you make people feel that their point of view … That they as an individual matter and can make a difference, then collectively that creates a very powerful and I think impactful organization. And so communication is also absolutely critical.

George: Evolving. Inspiring. And engaging. Three key lessons from Alex Gorsky, Chairman & CEO of Johnson & Johnson. Alex, what is up next for you in Johnson & Johnson?

Alex Gorsky: We’ve got so many exciting things. I’ve been fortunate to be in this industry now for almost 30 years, and what I can unequivocally say is there’s never been a more exciting time in science and technology and innovation as there is today. When you look at the explosion of new approaches that we’re seeing across all of our different sectors … Whether it’s cell-based therapies, where we can actually better harness the body’s own immune system to take on important areas in cancer, for example, to actually bring about cures. To think about how some of the technology more frequently associated with Silicon Valley, like robotics, like AI, like machine learning, can be applied to make surgery less invasive to lead to better outcomes is incredibly exciting.

Alex Gorsky: And then the opportunity to engage consumers, in not only the traditional consumer way, but actually to be healthier. To lead a healthier lifestyle and to put a better focus on wellness and prevention. All these areas, I really believe we’re at a unique point in time to see these kind of opportunities coming together that will have a dramatic impact on health and healthcare going forward.

George: Alex Gorsky, Johnson & Johnson, today was truly the most inspiring interview in the history of the Ideagen Global Leader Podcast. Thank you for all that you’re doing, and thank you for all that is happening at Johnson & Johnson.

Alex Gorsky: Well, George, thank you very much for having me this morning. And on behalf of the more than 130,000 employees at Johnson & Johnson, we’re really proud to be participating in this discussion. Thank you very much.

George: Thank you so much, Alex. How can folks learn more about Johnson & Johnson?

Alex Gorsky: You can reach any of our websites, I encourage you to do that. The more all of us know about our health and healthcare, the better it is for everyone’s future.

George: Alex Gorsky, leadership defined. Thank you, Alex.

Alex Gorsky: Thank you.

For more information on Ideagen, visit:


For more information on J&J, visit:




Convening the world’s leading companies, NGO’s and Public Sector to achieve the global goals by 2030

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade