MLA logo white

Leading Through a Global Pandemic

Featured Articles - Issue 6

Leading Through a Global Pandemic

When Brett Pletcher joined Gilead Sciences over 15 years ago, he saw a challenge worth accepting. Now as the head of legal and corporate affairs, he is faced with the greatest challenge of his career to date: a global pandemic.

What has kept you at Gilead for 15 years?

The mission.

If you look at Gilead and the diseases that we treat, there are more people who suffer from them outside the developed world then are inside the developed world—by multiples. So when you have lifesaving drugs and you can get them out into the world, you feel a responsibility to focus on access as much as possible.

Our leadership has been very focused on that. We’ve gone from having 60,000 patients taking our HIV drugs in 2005 to approximately 14 million people taking them in the developing world today, which is amazing. For people living with HIV, having access to antiviral medicines is the difference between life and death. Communities thrive when you’re not losing people, when you’re keeping moms and dads around.

As part of our work, we often hear from the people who take our medicines. They share stories of their lives and what their disease was like before and after taking one of our drugs. And when you hear that, you’re just inspired to keep going. It’s amazing to be in a company where you can help like that. Even now, with remdesivir, we’re not fully understanding it yet, but it looks like a drug that is going to make it possible for people to get back to their lives and feel more confident that if they get COVID-19, they have a better shot of beating it. That’s motivating.

Before Gilead you were at Gunderson Dettmer. How did your law firm experience prepare you to become a GC?

My law firm experience was fantastic. I learned so much. I joined Gunderson Dettmer when the firm was started. At the time, the firm was understaffed, and so as a junior associate, I was right in the middle of negotiating deals that at other firms I would have had to be much more senior to do. These companies had no money because they were literally in someone’s garage and being funded by venture capitalists, so I got to do everything from a legal perspective. I wasn’t just a private equity guy, or I wasn’t just licensing. I was going to their board meetings; I was advising the board, the CEO, senior management. I was doing their day-to-day work from a legal perspective until they brought somebody in to help them. So, I just had a very, very broad view of things that go on in a company. As general counsel, that’s why it’s called general counsel—we have to be generalists and be able to tackle anything. I feel like the firm really gave me a great foundation.

What made you just go in-house in 2005?

I had just made partner at the end of 2004, and I had been talking to recruiters for a long time because I didn’t think I was going to stay in a law firm forever. At some point, I felt I was just going to be doing the same thing over and over again and I wanted to be closer to the business. I didn’t know exactly what I wanted, but I sensed I would probably go be general counsel for one of the very small companies that Gunderson represented or that our venture capital clients were investing in.

A recruiter called me one day and said, “Hey, you want to come to Gilead?” My first question was, “What’s Gilead?” So, I did a bunch of research. Gilead wanted me to come and set up the company’s transactional practice. At the time, Gilead had just launched a major breakthrough in HIV treatment and the stock and cash balance were rising. That’s the fuel that runs deals, and for a deals guy, which is what I was at Gunderson, this sounded like a great company that was going to do a lot of interesting things.

In your time at Gilead, the company and the legal department have grown exponentially. How has your role evolved over time?

It’s changed a lot. I came in to do a very narrow job. I didn’t have governance and SEC reporting—the typical stuff corporate guys have. But by the time I took the general counsel role in 2009, I had taken on all the corporate work—governance, stockholders, SEC reporting, etc.

My boss at the time, who had been general counsel, took on a broader business role, but the legal team remained under him. Then, over time, I moved to report directly to the CEO. Then the company got bigger. We have many more people in many more places. And our legal work got more complicated. For example, when I took the job, we didn’t have any IP litigation. Now we have significant litigation.

Late last year, I took on the government affairs and public affairs organizations in addition to legal. So, my role on the leadership team has expanded because my role itself has expanded. I’m not just looking at legal; I’m now looking at how we position the company and protect the company’s brand, and how we make sure policymakers understand what we’re doing. This has been incredibly important through the remdesivir development process.

When you’re building your team, are there particular qualities and characteristics you’re looking for in the people on your legal team?

My style is to hire people and let them do their thing. I want somebody to whom I can say, “This is your job. Go do it. Tell me how I can help.” And then I largely let that person go. I’m looking for people who are ambitious, creative, self-starting, and willing to make decisions and take risks. People who communicate and who are going to communicate back with me.

Are there mentors who have guided you along the way? Is there anyone in particular you could not have gotten this far in your career without?

There are people who have mentored me along the way, but the person I couldn’t have gotten this far without is my wife. She made it possible for me to do what I’m doing. We’ve divided and conquered responsibilities to make that happen. We got married literally weeks after we graduated from college.

She started law school within two months after we graduated, so I put her through law school and then she put me through law school. She’s been very supportive all the way along, and she has been someone with whom I can bounce around my ideas and thoughts. She has a great legal mind.

In terms of mentors, I’ve had different mentors at different times in my career whom I have looked to for help understanding how to develop and grow. The best mentorship I got in the law firm was from Dan O’Connor. Chris Dillon at Gibson Dunn has also been a mentor to me over the years. Then I’ve had various mentors in-house over the years as well.

How would you describe your leadership style?

My job is to make sure you can do your job. If you’re stuck because there’s a risk decision you need to make and you don’t feel comfortable making it, then you call me. If you’re stuck because somewhere in the system something’s not working and you need me to get that fixed, let me know. If you need resources, let me know. That’s how I view my leadership style. Hiring good people and then making sure that they can get their jobs done.

When you have a senior title, particularly in a company as large as Gilead, it makes you feel distant. People don’t always approach you. So, I spend a lot of time trying to break through that and getting people to know me as a person—the normal guy who does the same things they do. I want them to feel comfortable bringing problems to me, asking me questions and telling me things that I need to know. I want them to understand how I am going to react when they tell me things I may not want to hear.

I don’t want people to tell me what they think I want to hear. I want them to tell me what they think because it’s very easy for senior leaders to only hear what they want to hear and not hear what they need to hear. So, I spend an enormous amount of time trying to get people comfortable, either through lunches or just personal drop-ins.

Have you noticed a change in your leadership style at all with everyone working remotely due to COVID-19?

It’s different. I like to drop in on people and catch up with them in the hallway and chat with them at lunch. You don’t run into people in the hallways over Zoom. So, I miss that.

I feel like I have lost my personal touch and having my arms around how the organization is doing. I have to get that through my leadership team. I have done a couple of meetings where I just check in with people. For example, I set up a meeting with all the administrative assistants just to see how they’re doing. Back when Italy was in the depths of the pandemic, I convened all the people who work as part of my team in Italy and had a chat to see how they were doing. I have been trying to keep the personal touch that you can lose when you can’t fly around to see people and you can’t walk down the hall and run into them.

Do you think working from home is going to become the way of the future for your team?

I was one of the pioneers at Gilead in letting people be flexible and work at home. The rest of the company followed me by a couple of years. I got tired of waiting, so I just started doing it and saying, “OK, if you need to, go ahead and work at home.” In some cases, that was the difference between retaining and losing an employee. It also made some people more productive because they no longer had long commutes. Even before COVID-19, it was working well.

After COVID-19, I think working from home will become much more common. We’ve proven people can do it and remain productive. And we’re going to have a lot more practice doing it. It’s going to be a while before we have herd immunity or a vaccine, so we’re going to be required to stay separated from each other. Having people sitting in open seating plans where you’re sitting pretty close to somebody else isn’t going to work in the near or medium term.

Allowing people to work from home will make it easier for us to recruit and be comfortable having people not live close to the office. It is very difficult to recruit people to the San Francisco Bay Area because it’s so expensive. This COVID-19 experience with people working from home has taught us that we can be much more flexible about where people live. I think you’ll see a lot more of that over time.

And I’m certainly more comfortable since I’ve seen it work. We have people starting now whom we’ve never met in person—people who are living in Boston, where we have no one else, and it’s working fine.


How are you keeping morale up with your team right now?

We’re trying to communicate openly. We have Yammer internally, so we’ll ask something like who’s got the cutest pet or who’s got the nicest desk setup—just different things. We’ve been talking about having a jack-o-lantern carving contest in October. We used to have a baking contest—it’s a highly competitive baking contest—but we can’t this year, so we’re moving from baking skills to artistic skills. Things that are visual just to try to have little indications of personalities and talents or to put some friendly competition into something.

We’re also thinking about having a food truck come to Gilead so people can come by, get their lunch and drive back home. I can be there to wave and say hello.

How has your role changed during this time?

It’s changed a lot during this time. I recently took on public affairs and government affairs, as I mentioned earlier. When COVID-19 came along, I basically abandoned legal for a few weeks to work on the government and public affairs aspects of remdesivir development.

Just as an example, the world was anticipating remdesivir would work long before we had any clinical data. And if it worked, everyone was going to want it immediately. But we didn’t have very much remdesivir. We weren’t manufacturing it in January. So, how do we communicate to the world that, “Hey guys, even if this works, it’s going to take a while before we have enough to treat everybody.” We didn’t want people to be surprised.

The world has never seen a drug developed in real time, but here we are. People are seeing that sometimes you get studies that tell you a lot, but sometimes they don’t tell you much. Sometimes you have placebos and sometimes you don’t. And people are confused about that. We’re trying to clearly communicate to people about what we’re doing, why we’re doing it and why this makes sense. So that’s very public affairs oriented.

On the government affairs side, you’ve got governments with economies that are shut down. These governments desperately need to find ways and tools to open up. So, we have governments contacting us and wanting to know how they can help in the manufacturing and how they can get their hands on the drug. When you’re in a pandemic you have to move quickly, and various governments don’t always move quickly. So, our legal and government affairs teams are working with governments to allow us to move more quickly than we normally could.

You have been one of the public faces of Gilead throughout this crisis. What has your role been within the media?

We’ve been dividing and conquering on who’s talking about what. Our CEO has been the face of the company in discussing the drug’s approval, when it will be available and how much of it will be available. He’s the one meeting with U.S. government officials, and he has used a series of open letters to help us communicate about our supply and describe our clinical programs.

We’ve had our chief scientific officer speaking about what the clinical trial results mean. I’ve been speaking about how we provide access in the developing world.

The world is afraid that Gilead is going to price this drug at a price where the developing world won’t be able to use it. We have tried to show the world that, yes, we have patents on remdesivir, but you don’t need to break our patents to get access. We’re going to be responsible. We licensed the drug to a number of generic drugmakers so that they can make it and sell it at whatever price they want to in the developing world. This has been a very successful strategy for achieving broad access in the past.

Is there anything that you’ve done previously in your career, with Gilead or the law firm, that prepared you for something like COVID-19?

No, not at all. The only preparation is experience—with a company, with the law and as a leader. Everyone thinks that when you’re a senior leader, you have all the answers. Right now, we’re all figuring it out as we go, so we’re using our experience from other situations and applying it here.

How are you managing your mental health during this time?

The first month was really hard when we all got sent home. It was easy to just roll out of bed, look at your email and get to work. Then you would realize it was nine o’clock at night and you were still working, so you would just move from your chair into your bed. I would hear from a lot of people saying that they couldn’t separate work from home.

For me, I had to get very purposeful about it. I decided I was going to carve out this specific time of the day and go take a walk outside for an hour to just clear my head. Even if I have to do phone calls while I’m doing that, I’m getting out of the house, or I’d work out at home. My goal was to step away for that next hour.

What advice would you give other leaders who are managing through a crisis?

Trust your instincts. Reach out and talk to others about their ideas. Diversity of thought is really important in a crisis situation because no one has been here before and hearing everybody’s ideas is critical.
Don’t get stuck. It might be that you can only see your next step and you can’t see the step after that. You’re going to have to take that step and then see what happens after that. Analysis paralysis isn’t going to solve this situation. So, trust your instincts, take one step at a time and keep an open mind by talking to lots of people about their ideas.

What is the best career advice you’ve ever received?

Be patient. The world will not let you achieve your goals at the pace you want to achieve them. If you walk away from things because opportunities are not coming as quickly as you think they should, you’re always going to be walking away from opportunities because you’re not around long enough to be there when one comes along. So, be patient. Have your goal in mind. Always be working toward your goal, but know that good things will happen if you’re doing the right things, being patient and being purposeful.


Next Article

Find an Article

Filter By Categories

Subscribe Email