Tales of the ‘Accidental CEO’: Eli Lilly’s Lechleiter

When he began his career as a senior organic chemist in 1979, John Lechleiter had a passion for science -- chemistry was his first love -- and a desire to work in the lab for the rest of his life.

But a chance opportunity at a management position turned the Eli Lilly (NYSE:LLY) chief’s plans on their head.

“I like to say one thing led to another,” Lechleiter said. “I’d really only been with Lilly for a few years and I liked what I was doing in the lab and liked working with my colleagues, but I had an opportunity to move into what was research management. It was a tough decision.”

It was a decision that would change the young scientist's life and his entire career trajectory with the pharmaceutical company. A change he never predicted.

Dreams of a Young Bench Scientist

Lechleiter graduated from Xavier University with a degree in chemistry in 1975, but decided to head back to the classroom for a graduate degree after a summer internship inspired him to pursue a career not in academia, but in the pharmaceutical industry.

“I had a couple of good high school science teachers and good professors at Xavier who inspired me,” he said. “But what turned things was a summer internship between my junior and senior years in college doing lab-based chemistry research. I got really turned on by it and got excited about that work.”

At that point he decided to pursue natural products chemistry, an opportunity to come up with new ways to make molecules in nature. That’s when Lechleiter said a professor who was also a research manager at Procter and Gamble (NYSE:PG) encouraged him to pick the best school for his graduate degree in organic chemistry. He chose Harvard.

“I joined Lilly right after I defended my PhD on a Friday and started work on a Monday,” he said. “No kidding.”

What attracted the young chemist to Lily in the beginning is what’s kept him there all of his more than 30 year career: The culture.

“I felt (the excitement) in the science and the R&D and every aspect of the company,” he said. “I liked the people, I felt connected to them from the very first time we met: They were friendly, open, honest, team players. And people who were just interested in their work and passionate about what they did. I have 34 years of experience now and I look back and say those initial impressions were right. I made the right choice.”

For a man whose passion for science and chemistry is essentially engrained in his DNA, it was a difficult decision to make the transition from scientist to manager. And Lechleiter notes it was one he didn’t take lightly.

“In a sense, there was no return,” he said. “But right after I made the move, I knew it was the right thing. You began to see what kind of an impact and influence you can have on others and how you get work done through others. So it was immediately satisfying.”

Lechleiter moved through the ranks at Lilly before landing the top spot in 2008.

“When I joined here, I had no aspirations to do anything other than science. And I joined as a scientist. I’m the accidential CEO – this is where I landed through opportunities once I came to Lilly,” he said.

Ground Floor to Corner Office

Lechleiter credits the work he did at the grassroots level for making him a better CEO at Lilly. He said coming from the bottom, up gives any executive in his position a better idea of how the company functions and how basic necessities work.

“I have a feel for that unwritten culture that every company has. And that makes me a better CEO – along with understanding of R&D. While I can’t claim to be current on the science, I can understand it, and it gives me perspective on our pipeline, our portfolio of future products,” he said.

And though happy with his decision to pursue a more management-focused position at Lilly, Lechleiter notes It’s always a good day when he can make it back to the lab and poke around at what the pharma company has up its sleeves.

“I get to see people in the labs and I always overstay my welcome,” he said. “I come out an hour and a half later, and I always come away very excited. It’s hard not to be (that way) with what’s going on in our labs.”

The Lilly chief said it was the science that sparked his enthusiasm to join Lilly and it’s what’s kept him there for more than three decades.

“I think we’re as well positioned as any company to be able to make a difference in this disease’s state, but it requires persistence and thoughtful risk taking,” he said. “Yet, when I look around at the profound need for a medicine that can slow down the disease prognosis and make an impact, I think there’s nothing more important.”

Lessons from the Top

Science and chemistry: Two things Lechleiter has spent his entire career devoted to after being inspired by teachers and professors.  That’s why at Lilly, Lechleiter has devoted part of his time to encouraging young people to pursue an education in the industry.

“We’d like to see more kids choose to pursue those kinds of careers, including women and minority group members who don’t always have the same opportunity to practice science and experience how fun it can be."

And for other young people looking to follow him in a similar career path, Lechleiter offers some words of wisdom: Always be guided by the data.

“Many times over the years we’ve guessed or hoped or imagined a particular molecule would be successful through the pipeline, and we’ve been surprised on the upside and the downside,” he said. “We like to move quickly, but the most important thing is to be patient, resolute, and be guided by the data.”

Most importantly, though, Lechleiter said it’s up to the nation’s next generations to improve upon the foundation and discoveries made by the generations before them.

He said likely, people will look back on the 21st century and it will be known as the biomedical century – one of iPads, chemistry, and physics. And one, he noted, in which we’ll live healthier, more productive lives. And that’s why he encourages young men and women with a love of science looking for their place in society to consider a start at the grsassroots level.

“When I came out of grad school, there weren’t many biotech startups, that whole industry was just getting rolling,” he said. “Bio companies have diminished and biotechs have emerged. So there are a lot of neat opportunities at the grassroots level in large established companies where you can make a difference, not just in the lab, but in marketing, manufacturing, and research.”