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Steve Schaefer of Takeda: Lessons I Learned From My Military Experience About How To Survive And Thrive During A Time Of Crisis

Plan, but adjust: As important as it is to have a plan, it is often difficult to know exactly what may be coming around the corner and what any change may mean to the success of the team’s goals. To be a truly resilient organization, we must be agile and adjust as things change.

As a part of my series about “Life and Leadership Lessons Learned In The Military,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Steve Schaefer, Senior Vice President, Neuroscience Business Unit and Chief Operating Officer, U.S. Business Unit at Takeda Pharmaceuticals.

Steve Schaefer is Senior Vice President of the Neuroscience franchise for Takeda’s U.S. Business Unit. He is responsible for the strategy and execution of the commercial neuroscience portfolio, including field sales and operations, omnichannel marketing, market insights, data analytics and business insights. Steve is also the Chief Operating Officer of the U.S. Business Unit (USBU) and is responsible for leading the U.S. Commercial Operations Business (USCO) at the company.

Steve joined Takeda in February 2017 as the SVP of Takeda’s former General Medicines Business Unit. As part of Takeda’s acquisition of Shire in 2019, Steve led the combined integration of a neuroscience, retail GI and ophthalmic portfolio and team. He fosters innovation by taking a cross-functional approach to better understand the patient journey experience and deepen customer engagements by capturing provider, payer and patient insights. This integrated focus has helped shape and drive incremental improvements in the lives of patients.

Most recently, he’s applying a similar collaborative approach to address patient and customer needs in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, and he also leads the U.S. Business Unit’s COVID-19 Response Team. In this capacity, his team develops, plans and provides evolving guidance on the USBU’s pandemic response to approximately 19,500 employees.

A passionate advocate for talent development, diversity and inclusion, Steve is an active mentor. With more than 20 years of experience in the pharmaceutical industry, Steve has held leadership roles in multiple therapeutic areas, implemented new marketing and sales strategies to deliver growth, launched products and transformed business models. While at Eli Lilly and Company, Steve spearheaded the development of its Next Generation Commercial Model, where he was responsible for developing forward-looking commercial strategies across the globe to drive volume growth in the rapidly changing healthcare environment.

Steve is a decorated veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps where he obtained the rank of Captain. He has a Master of Business Administration — Finance degree from LaSalle University in Pennsylvania and a Bachelor of Arts degree in Economics from the University of Illinois.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your childhood “backstory”?

I grew up in Chicago in a very middle-class neighborhood, one where the parents would get together regularly, and all the kids played together … at least most of the time. I remember this one kid — I won’t name him here — who was the ringleader and would often exclude me, for reasons I couldn’t identify or understand then or to this day. While that was a very difficult experience at the time, it motivated me to be more inclusive and to fight for those who couldn’t fight for themselves. This is ultimately why I joined the Marine Corps and what continues to inspire me as head of Takeda’s Neuroscience Business Unit, where we have an opportunity to advocate and fight for people who have mental health or neurological conditions who are often overlooked and stigmatized.

And what are you doing today? Can you share a story that exemplifies the unique work that you are doing?

At Takeda, I wear a few different hats — first, I lead the Neuroscience Business Unit, where our vision is to transform the life of every Takeda neuroscience patient so that they can live the life that they want. We focus today on commercializing and supporting treatments for people with neurologic and psychiatric diseases, including Major Depressive Disorder, ADHD and binge-eating disorders. But we’re also staying close to our colleagues in R&D who are researching therapies for rare epilepsies, sleep/wake disorders and Parkinson’s disease, where there is so much need. In my job, I have the privilege of meeting with patients whose lives are impacted by their disease. Their stories of struggle and misunderstanding are what motivate me and my team to do more and do better… for them.

My other hat is more operational — I am the Chief Operating Officer of the U.S. Business Unit (USBU), Takeda’s largest commercial business unit outside of Japan. Through this work, I’m focused on leading a team of multifaceted specialists who act as catalysts across the USBU, enabling Takeda to deliver on our promises and fulfill our potential. We are in a position in which we could put 22 new drugs or formulations into market within the next five years. The process to commercialize treatments after the FDA has approved them is an incredibly detailed and rigorous one that requires a lot of different moving parts to work together in harmony. I love knowing that the groundwork the team is laying today will benefit patients for years to come!

Can you tell us a bit about your military background?

I was an officer in the Marine Corps for seven years, serving all over the world.

Can you share the most interesting story that you experienced during your military career? What “take away” did you learn from that story?

It’s funny, but the best memories I have are of the fun times. Times spent with my peers when we were in different countries. I’ll never forget renting a van with a bunch of my peers in Israel to take a weekend out of Tel Aviv. On the way home, not reading Hebrew, I filled the van up with diesel fuel. The van took regular gas and we ended up stranded on a highway on the way to Haifa. After a great time in Tel Aviv, we had to walk 5 miles to the next exit for help!

My “take away” from that story is that even when you’re working hard every day, you need to take time out to have fun. The Marines gave me friends that will last a lifetime and the memories we made together will hold a special place in my heart for the rest of my life.

I’m interested in fleshing out what a hero is. Did you experience or hear about a story of heroism, during your military experience? Can you share that story with us? Feel free to be as elaborate as you’d like.

The heroes to me are the families. I saw this personally. The biggest heroes amongst them were the wives who volunteered to be liaisons for other wives/families while deployed. There is something to be said for creating a community within a community and making sure that the families of deployed servicepeople have the resources and support they need during these lengthy absences. They were, and still are, my biggest heroes.

Based on that story, how would you define what a “hero” is? Can you explain?

Heroes are people who focus on the greater good and put the needs of others before their own. And they do it without being asked and almost on instinct. They know what needs to be done to make a situation better, and they just do it.

Does a person need to be facing a life and death situation to do something heroic or to be called a hero?

I firmly believe that heroes can be anyone and come from anywhere. We should celebrate those who demonstrate selflessness and a focus on the greater good. They are among the best of us.

Based on your military experience, can you share with our readers 5 Leadership or Life Lessons that you learned from your experience”? (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. Have a consistent set of values: When you live your values, it’s a natural roadmap to making the right decisions.
  2. Build connectivity and empathy: This means connecting with people in a way that’s real to them and sharing in both the risk and the reward.
  3. Decentralize decision making: You must trust, train and empower your team to make decisions that will positively impact the team’s ability to accomplish the mission or meet a goal.
  4. Plan, but adjust: As important as it is to have a plan, it is often difficult to know exactly what may be coming around the corner and what any change may mean to the success of the team’s goals. To be a truly resilient organization, we must be agile and adjust as things change.
  5. Admit when you make a mistake: Everyone knows you made it already — you may as well admit it.

Do you think your experience in the military helped prepare you for business? Can you explain?

There is no question that my military training prepared me for the business world. As your readers know, military combat is usually the last resort. Most operations are designed to protect life and property and to create stability and vitality for people who often aren’t equipped to defend themselves. We often achieve our goals by engineering solutions and providing resources, manpower and the comfort that comes with knowing allies are nearby and prepared to help.

I am fortunate because I get to do the same thing every day at Takeda, but with a different focus — I get to fight against diseases that often lay in the shadows. The rarer the disease, the darker the shadow. Patients often suffer in silence, afraid to acknowledge their struggles for fear of being stigmatized, mocked or simply not believed. People with neurological disorders, especially, need to be heard and their experiences valued, and I see our mission as providing comfort, solutions and peace of mind that we are doing everything possible — in research, science and treatment.

Another aspect where I believe my experience has benefitted me is the knowledge that we cannot allow perfect to become the enemy of good, as the saying goes. In the military, we are constantly aware of what is around every corner, quickly calculating risk and planning scenarios often based on limited information. But as we all know, missions rarely go exactly as planned. So, when things change, we are trained to make quick decisions and do the next “best” thing to still achieve the objective of protecting and defending populations in need. If the last almost two years have taught us nothing else, it’s that we need to constantly pivot quickly, be agile and follow our north star — our patients — to make sure that they, and those who care for them, are getting what they need. We encourage our employees not to strive for perfection, but rather prioritize the actions that will help advance our business and focus on patients, customers and each other.

As you know, some people are scarred for life by their experience in the military. Did you struggle after your deployment was over? What have you done to adjust and thrive in civilian life that others may want to emulate?

I am extremely proud of my military experience and career. I gained a certain type of discipline and it taught me a lot of critical skills that have served me well. That said, I am not blind to the fact that coming back from deployment can be difficult for many. I’ve seen it in my own work as I’ve run across vets who struggle with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, but because no one knew of their combat experience, they struggled silently, which for some, impacted their job performance. In one case, it was only after I provided some context to the person’s manager that they got the support they needed within the organization. That’s why I’m so proud to do what I’m doing now. I’m in a position as a leader to give voice and context to those individuals and help THEM thrive.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

There is so much exciting work happening at Takeda right now, not just within my own business units, but across the company. We have treatments for cancer, gastroenterological conditions, rare diseases and blood disorders already available to patients, plus a lot of groundbreaking research that we believe has the power to transform patient lives. One of the things I love about Takeda is our principles of Patients-Trust-Reputation-Business, always in that order. We make decisions that are always with the patients’ best interests in mind. It’s a focus that’s very much aligned with my own personal values. I’m proud to lead a business unit that is focused on elevating the conversation around mental health, psychiatric diseases and other rare neurological conditions so we can bring these diseases and the people affected by them out from the shadows.

What advice would you give to other leaders to help their team to thrive?

Trust and empower your people, have a plan but be ready to adjust. The COVID-19 pandemic taught us all a lot about that! I would also encourage leaders to think with an inclusive mindset. Diversity, Equity and Inclusion is a non-negotiable strategic business imperative, and it needs to be a way of life and a way of managing. If you don’t have a diverse organization, ask yourself why and look at all aspects from hiring to mentoring to the measures in which employees are evaluated. Examine how implicit bias may be impacting your organization and most of all, be open to driving organizational change. This is something that I’m personally committed to, and it’s a learning process but one that will truly benefit us as a company.

What advice would you give to other leaders about the best way to manage a large team?

I was recently speaking with a very senior, retired member of the military and he used the phrase “eyes on, hands off.” I loved that because it means that in managing large teams, you help guide and reassure them, yet empower them to make decisions without feeling like they need your sign off or approval. You can’t — nor should you — make every decision. Help people realize their own power to own and be accountable to their decisions, and give them the space to make a mistake, correct it and learn from it.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

When I worked at Eli Lilly, I had a boss and mentor who was always willing to invest in me. She really exemplified the value, power and simplicity that could be created when aligning first on principles — then on decisions. I try and use this approach in almost everything I do. It is simple, but it is powerful. I think too few people think in terms of principles before aligning on solutions.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I believe that living my personal values and fighting for those who can’t always fight for themselves is how I best show up in the world.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

I’d like to see mental health treated on parity with physical health, that someone’s psychiatric disease is treated no differently than any other chronic condition, like heart disease or diabetes. People need to feel safe to admit that they’re struggling and to seek the help they need.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”.

The number of times I’ve heard and repeated this message during my time in the Marine Corps is immeasurable and it encompasses so much. First, if you aren’t pushing yourself, you aren’t learning and growing; 2) If you’re pushing yourself, there will be a significant amount of discomfort and even some pain (both emotionally and physically); and 3) through the trial, you learn and grow the most- even if you don’t recognize it at the time.

Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them :-)

I would love to spend time with George Bush — not because of party affiliation but because of the way he led our nation immediately after 9/11. While I do not agree with all of the decisions he made after that event, I admire how he showed such empathy and resolve in crisis. Even if for only a brief time, he unified us as a nation.

Thank you so much for these amazing insights. This was truly uplifting.




In-depth Interviews with Authorities in Business, Pop Culture, Wellness, Social Impact, and Tech. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

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