Be a better mentor, says Baxalta's Leonardi

Every February when the Healthcare Businesswomen's Association names its Honorable Mentor, the honoree falls all over himself to proclaim the simple joys of mentorship. You get to learn about others! You get to learn about yourself! You get to help people! By helping them!

Too often left undiscussed is that a powerful business case can be made for more frequent and focused mentorship. The upper echelons of pharma leadership remain overwhelmingly white and male, which would be undesirable even if companies focused their efforts exclusively on white dudes. Since they don't, the homogeneity of the upper-­exec ranks likely impairs the industry's efforts to connect with the entire spectrum of patients.

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Jacopo Leonardi, the HBA's 2016 Honorable Mentor, gets this. To that end, he believes that few pharma mentoring programs go far enough. “What we need is championship and sponsorship,” he says. “If we want to transform healthcare and become a catalyst for inclusiveness and diversity, we need people who are willing to put themselves on the line. We need people to say, ‘Hey, I'm staking my reputation on you. I've got your back. Go out there on that ledge and be bold.'”

Leonardi, EVP and president, immunology, at Baxalta, isn't just regurgitating the usual mentorship groupthink. Over the course of a distinguished career that recently entered its third decade, Leonardi has actively sought out mentoring opportunities — both on the receiving and delivering ends — at every juncture. In fact, his mentorship mind-set predates his professional life.

“I always wanted to help people. I tended to be the kid who, if somebody was getting bullied, took care of the bullies,” he recalls. “At the same time, I was always looking for people I could learn from.”

Leonardi has been fortunate that he has managed to forge relationships with like-minded individuals. During his career-making turn at Lilly, he was mentored by company veterans Dan

Hasler and Denice Torres. Torres ultimately recruited Leonardi over to Johnson & Johnson, where he added Christi Shaw — who lead U.S. operations for Novartis until April — to his list of prized mentors and confidants. “Torres knew every person's hot button. She pushed me out of my comfort zone,” he says. “From her I learned how to create space for other leaders.”

This, it should go without saying, is a skill every would-be company or team head should have in his or her leadership tool kit.

Yet Leonardi remains surprised that the conveyance of such fundamental tenets of leadership falls outside the purview of many mentoring arrangements.

“You can tell when somebody's mentor­ing because they've been told they have to, or because they think it's the ‘right thing' to do,” he continues. “If you're not all-in, [the person you mentor or the person mentoring you] will sniff it right out.”

What are the elements that constitute “all-in” in the context of a professional mentoring relationship? To begin, a regular schedule (Leonardi sets aside Friday afternoons). An ability to deny the natural inclination to speak instead of listen. The desire to help people suss out what makes them feel joyful and fulfilled.

“Companies that create a culture where people can be themselves are the ones that get the most out of them,” Leonardi explains. “When people feel connected and appreciated, they become inspired. Mentoring helps foster that connectedness. It's good for business.”

See also: Torres: Career challenges prepared her to take reins at McNeil

It's good for the mentor's sense of personal satisfaction as well. Leonardi, a parent of three girls and a boy, extends his belief in mentorship beyond Baxalta's walls. He coaches basketball and baseball, volunteers for CASA, and counsels students at Chicago's Christ the King Jesuit College Preparatory School. While he appreciates the HBA acknowledgment, one senses that for him it's merely a small reward atop a far larger one.

“When I told my daughters about this award — and please keep in mind that they are teenagers — they asked things like, ‘Will I be able to skip school for the ceremony?' and ‘Will there be dessert?' But they realize how important [mentoring] is to me and how important it can be to their careers, eventually. Mentorship is a wonderful gift.”