Women Of The C-Suite: Dr Aoife Brennan Of Synlogic On The Five Things You Need To Succeed As A Senior Executive
An Interview With Sara Connell
Don’t wait for permission. If you see something that needs to happen, just do it. It’s easier to withhold permission than it is to stop something once it’s gotten started.
As a part of our interview series called “Women Of The C-Suite,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Aoife Brennan.
Aoife Brennan, MB, BCH, BAO, MRCPI, has served as Synlogic’s president and CEO since May 2018, first joining the company as CMO in September 2016. Prior to Synlogic, she spent six years at Biogen, most recently as VP and head of the Rare Disease Innovation Unit, developing programs from preclinical to commercial, and before that she led clinical development at Tolerx, a start-up biotech company focusing on immunotherapy for type 1 diabetes. Dr. Brennan holds a medical degree from Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland, and has completed post-graduate training in internal medicine, endocrinology and metabolism, post-doctoral training in clinical research and metabolism at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, and is a graduate of the Harvard Medical School Scholars in Clinical Science Program.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path to become president and CEO of Synlogic?
I often ask myself the same question! I had a fairly free-range childhood in the small town of Kilkenny, Ireland, and then attended an all-girls Catholic boarding school, where the structure and discipline allowed me to thrive. When I told a guidance counselor I was interested in a career in medicine, she told me that when I got married, a teaching job would allow for a better work-life balance. I learned then that not every adult gives you good advice. Fortunately, I knew myself better than she did, and I left her office with my mind made up. I went to Trinity College in Dublin for my medical degree and graduated at the top of my class. During my post-graduate work at Beth Israel Medical Center in Boston, I was admitted to a NIH training program on translational research, which opened the door to explore a career in biotech. One reason I made the jump from academia to leading a clinical-stage biotech company was the opportunity to have a greater impact on patients worldwide. With its focus on new treatment options for people with unmet medical needs — especially in rare metabolic and immunological diseases, which are a passion of mine — Synlogic was a natural fit. The opportunity to lead a company that has brought a new class of biotherapeutics to the point that we are on track to begin a pivotal Phase 3 study — with a solid pipeline behind it — is incredibly exciting.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
On my third day on the job, we had our first meeting with the FDA. If that meeting had gone badly, I would have had a very short assignment. Luckily, the meeting went smoothly and since then, the FDA has been a great partner in advancing Synlogic’s programs and pipeline. The thing I love about leading a biotech company is that every day is interesting, and I am constantly learning something new.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Halfway through my training as a physician, I moved to a new hospital. On one of my first days there, I scrubbed in to do a procedure and got started. I was under a procedure lamp in a sterile gown — hot and sweaty — and it was a high-pressure situation. Suddenly, this incessant beeping starts, and I realize I’ve left my pager clamped to the waistband of my scrubs. Of course, I couldn’t touch anything that wasn’t perfectly sterile, and the last thing we needed at that moment was a distraction. A senior colleague offered to get my pager from under my gown. At the time I was mortified, but now I’ve been married to him for almost 20 years. And I learned that it is OK to be human at work.
I’m an author and I believe that books have the power to change lives. Do you have a book in your life that impacted you and inspired you to be an effective leader? Can you share a story?
I love to read, so I usually have several books going. From a leadership perspective, I always come back to Deep Survival by Laurence Gonzales. My husband bought it for me, and I initially thought it was an odd choice, since I’m the last person you’ll find doing extreme adventure sports. But I found myself completely absorbed by stories of survival against the odds. Gonzales is a fantastic storyteller, and he boils these stories down into lessons that can be applied to many areas of life. One of the deepest lessons I’ve taken from it is the impact of fear. Fear can be a good thing, but it can also cause us to do things that are counterproductive or to make stupid mistakes. For me, that speaks to the need to create psychological safety and to use humor to break the negative feedback loop that fear can create. When I observe odd behavior, I tend to ask myself, “is there fear here?”
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?
I’ve had help from so many people personally and professionally that it’s difficult to choose just one. My grandmother was one of the earliest influences in my life. She was an amazing woman and had eight children, one of whom had a severe, rare disease. She had a fine intellect but didn’t have the opportunity to pursue a career. I was pretty good at school from an early age, but she was the one who stretched me, giving me books to read and critiquing my handwriting — which never improved. When she died, I had an opportunity to choose a piece of jewelry of hers, and I chose instead one of her kitchen implements, a wooden butter paddle. It’s in my kitchen still, and I think of her each time I use it. To me it represents her fierce pragmatism, her love, and her work ethic.
As you know, the United States is facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
First of all, investing time and effort in diversity is just the right thing to do. It’s long overdue. As it turns out, it’s also good business. Diverse teams are more resilient, make better decisions and have better performance over the long-term. And diverse executive teams are associated with more diverse organizations, both in terms of being more likely to hire talent from all demographics and because employees want to join organizations where diversity, equality and inclusion are valued. The first thing a prospective employee will do is look at the company website and the leadership team and the board. If there is nobody there they can identify with, they will move on.
As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.
When I think of how to improve workforce diversity, I think of the drug development process and developing a pipeline of diverse talent. In the early phases of drug discovery and development, we can implement programs that expose high school and college graduates from under-represented demographics to the range of opportunities available in the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries. At mid-stage, which is generally Phase 2 clinical trials, we can look at the factors that cause us to lose diverse talent and address them systematically — by, for example, implementing targeted training in management, HR, planning, strategy, financial, and business. And at later stages we can make sure that individuals who have demonstrated their abilities can take on broader enterprise leadership roles through sponsorship and exposure to the networks of individuals who are often the gatekeepers to leadership and board roles. At the executive level, you simply have to make decisions that foster diversity and inclusion.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
One of the critical roles of the CEO is to step back from the day-to-day activities and keep in mind the entire industry landscape. It can be easy to get caught up in key inflection points and forget to focus on the big picture. In the rare disease community, it is especially important to incorporate the perspectives of patients and patient advocates into a long-term business strategy and goals. As an example, Synlogic’s program in phenylketonuria (PKU) achieved proof-of-concept last year and is on track for Phase 3 clinical trial initiation in the second half of this year — so we’re working closely with advocacy groups such as the National PKU Alliance. CEOs keep those sorts of things front-of-mind while also being responsible for integrating teams across different functions. We have to ensure that everyone is aligned and drive company-wide efforts toward a long-term goal. In drug development, this means fostering collaboration among medical, advocacy, regulatory, commercial, legal, marketing, and other roles.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
I think the biggest myth is that you have to be a tall white male extrovert to be a CEO. In my opinion, the only really disqualifying trait for a CEO is lack of courage.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
I have had three children while building my career, and finding quality, reliable childcare was always a struggle. This situation has only deteriorated in the U.S. during the past 10 years, and the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted and exacerbated this problem even further. Like many women, I have experienced and witnessed episodes of bias. Most instances have been unconscious, which shows how established these practices have been in our culture. It is true that women are often not given the benefit of the doubt and must prove their competence over and over again. I have seen men who cannot deliver at a functional or individual level labeled as “more strategic” and given even bigger roles in an organization, and I’ve thought to myself, “that would never happen to a woman.” Women also still experience blatant acts of misogyny in the workplace, which is stunning in 2022.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
I didn’t quite understand how meaningful it would feel to lead this work. Synlogic has proven its ability to identify and target areas of unmet need in rare metabolic diseases. We’re expanding into immunologic and inflammatory diseases including inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and we’re collaborating with partners such as Roche and Ginkgo Bioworks in ways that leverage our complementary expertise to make a real difference. Meeting patients who need new treatment options has been life changing.
Is everyone cut out to be an executive? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?
Well, I mentioned courage, but for me, ultimately, it was curiosity that drove me to accept my first role in the life sciences industry. I think curiosity, persistence, and a desire to be challenged are key traits that make a successful executive in any industry. Senior executive roles, including CEO, also require problem solving and strategic thinking. With each step I took in my career, I was constantly looking ahead to the next challenge. I’ve felt energized and excited every time I entered a new world that I was not previously familiar with. The “fish out of water” experiences can be hard and even uncomfortable, but they led me to where I am today.
What advice would you give to other leaders to help their team to thrive?
As leaders, CEOs and other senior executives are often involved in team discussions across company functions and must make important decisions — often on a daily basis. It’s easy to insert yourself into any issue, but you really have to remember to be part of the solution, not the problem. It’s important to understand when your input in needed as a leader and when it isn’t. In some cases, stepping back can better allow your team to thrive and rise to the occasion.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why?
The first is: Don’t wait for permission. If you see something that needs to happen, just do it. It’s easier to withhold permission than it is to stop something once it’s gotten started.
Another is to take time for self-reflection — and don’t sugarcoat it. A mentor once told me, “be part of the solution” when I was struggling in a difficult work situation. I initially thought it was stupid advice — of course I wanted to be part of the solution! Then I took a step back. I examined my behavior and realized that being self-righteous, complaining about poor performance in a colleague or a particular business outcome made me part of the problem. Taking a hard look at your own lenses and behavior can be a powerful practice.
This relates to the third thing I wish I had known, which is the power of thinking backwards — really being intentional about the outcome you want to achieve. We can often get caught up in emotion or considerations of what is “fair” or “right,” and if we’re not careful, that moves us unwittingly in the opposite direction from the outcome we desire.
Another difficult lesson I had to learn was the relationship between decision-making and implementation effectiveness. I am a closer by nature and put too much emphasis on making the decision and not enough emphasis on bringing the team along. It took some painful mistakes to make me realize the balance that needs to be achieved here.
Finally, I have come to appreciate the benefit of frequent, explicit communication about the mission of an organization or team. At Synlogic, we’re developing treatments for patients with very difficult lives. Reminding ourselves of that is both motivating and humbling, and it helps us do better work. Constantly re-grounding in the purpose we are trying to achieve is absolutely critical.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I am a passionate advocate for better infrastructure for early childhood education. I’m one of the founding members of the Massachusetts Business Coalition for Early Childhood Education, where I have learned so much about the data supporting improvements in this area in our state. It’s an issue at the center of so many things I care about — equal opportunity, workplace diversity, creating a better future for kids — so it’s a no-brainer for me in terms of the human, business, and economic return.
We are very blessed that some very prominent 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
Many names come to mind, but Meryl Streep is at the top of the list. Her achievement as an artist is so extraordinary, and I think she might have a lot of wisdom to share on what it means to combine talent, creativity, and discipline — and to succeed as a woman in a male-dominated industry. And she just seems like she’d be so much fun to talk to!
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.