Dr Andreas Konieczny on leading with authenticity
Interview by Isabel O'Brien
Dr Andreas Konieczny, Vice President and Head of Medical Affairs Europe, ImmunoGen, talks to GOLD about moving from big pharma to biotech, his passion for oncology and lessons in leadership
As ImmunoGen’s newly appointed Vice President and Head of Medical Affairs Europe, Dr Andreas Konieczny is beginning a new chapter in his pharmaceutical career.
After about 20 years in the pharma industry and most recently three years at GSK leading the oncology portfolio in Europe, he says he is looking forward to joining a “thriving biotech”, describing it as “the logical next step” in his career.
A trained physician, Konieczny decided to join the industry because he wanted to make a greater difference to the lives of cancer patients by contributing to R&D and providing access to innovative molecules. Nevertheless, the emotional and physical investment by practising treatment teams is something he continues to have a deep respect for.
When not at work, Andreas can be found exploring the great outdoors where he lives in Zug, Switzerland and beyond. “I ride pretty much anything with two wheels and no engine,” he says. Not only is this his favourite way to unwind, but it keeps him focused on his professional passion.
What led you to leave your role at GSK to take up your current role at the biotech, ImmunoGen?
When you look at my career so far, you will notice that I’ve been going forth and back between larger and smaller organisations for most of the time. I’m not motivated by a typical career track in one organisation: I’m more innovation and impact driven. For me, it is key that a company has a promising asset and pipeline that will deliver for patients and the organisation. There are good examples of where large organisations are successful at R&D, but most of the time it is the biotechs that deliver the breakthrough innovations. So, for me, it is not a big change. It is just a natural next step to where something meaningful and impactful is happening in oncology.
ImmunoGen focuses on antibody-drug conjugates (ADCs). Why is there so much excitement about ADCs in the oncology community?
The first generation of antibody-drug conjugates came about roughly 10 years ago, and they have proven successful and have made a big difference. However, when you rewind to that time, we thought there would be biologics and biosimilars, but there was also another class that we thought of: ‘biobetters’. This is a slightly forgotten term now, but that is a pretty good description of what we see today with the second generation of ADCs.
The current technology is an improvement on what we had before because we have better linker stability, where necessary, which leads to a better efficacy and safety profile. At the same time, we have increased the ability to attach more payload molecules to the antibody. But the magic is that we also understand the biology, the rate of internalisation and the drug to antibody ratio in context of the disease.
With antibody-drug conjugates, you gain the possibility of what is basically a ‘smart chemotherapy’. And as conventional chemotherapy is phased out in many treatment scenarios, ADCs could replace it as the future backbone [of treatment]. The added benefit of ADCs is the combinability with other treatment approaches and mechanisms.
What are the key things that medical teams need to do to ensure that ADCs make it from bench to bedside?
Firstly, it’s a targeted therapy, so these require a companion diagnostic to be implemented in pathologies and available to oncologists. Then pathologists need to be trained to consistently identify the right patients to access an ADC therapeutic, and with the new in vitro diagnostic medical devices regulation, this is now a less straightforward task. The first few companies and diagnostic partners are currently undertaking this new EMA process, and there’s a lot of learning for all stakeholders, the industry and the labs alike.
With antibody-drug conjugates, you gain the possibility of what is basically a ‘smart chemotherapy’
Secondly, ADCs may have particular side effects depending on the choice of payload toxin. So, education and support for treatment teams on safe use, along with the transfer of knowledge about their management, are key to ensuring a consistent patient experience and optimal response. For example, several ADCs have shown expected side effects affecting the cornea of the eye, and this is a good example of how two groups of doctors who probably haven’t had much contact with each other need to collaborate. Oncologists need to partner with ophthalmologists and other eyecare professionals and vice-versa. That’s where medical affairs can play a critical role: helping to build those bridges.
As a leader, how do you create a high-performing team that has autonomy while being aligned with the company's goals and vision?
This is a particularly relevant question when building new teams or adapting to a new organisation. You have to assess: What does this organisation need? And how do you make sure you have the right people, both within your own team and across functions?
In medical affairs, naturally most people have a scientific background, so they are always curious and interested in learning new things. This often goes hand in hand with a high-level of self motivation, which is what I look for. It’s vital that each team member understands why they do what they do, as it’s much easier to keep teams motivated when they understand how their role and work contributes to progress.
Nevertheless, research-minded people often have a strong sense for detail and other strengths that you may want to balance in a team. And I firmly believe that diverse teams are stronger. However, this does come with work for the manager. It is the opposite of delegating; you need to actively role model and manage such a team. For example, you may need to encourage the introverts to speak up in team meetings. But I also look for extroverts who can be the first to open doors and be more bullish in conversations.
However, once such a team has been formed and trust has been built, you will be able to tackle any business challenge with ease. Trust building is often not seen enough as a critical component, and that is what I try to give attention to.
What do you think defines a modern leader, and how does this differ from traditional leadership styles?
We often talk about Baby Boomers, Gen Xers and Millennials when describing consumer attitudes, leadership styles and priorities in life. While it is always unfair to generalise, patterns can be observed and, more often than not, the Boomer generation brings a top-down mentality to running organisations. That model has worked extremely well and still works extremely well, so I wouldn't say there's anything wrong with that approach.
However, it’s also important to think about yourself as a person: who you are, what you enjoy, what drives you and to find an organisation that works for you and you work well for. Younger workers are definitely asking those questions. And while we do not yet have many young senior leaders, it is important for middle management to strike a balance between a more hierarchical and inclusive approach for the young professionals.
When I think specifically about the pharmaceutical industry and how best to support innovation, we need rigour in our processes to move quickly and ethically. But we also need to combine experience with agility to generate new ideas and adapt to the ever-changing environment. Both scientifically and from a statistical and regulatory perspective. If innovation is a business objective, a more creative and open-minded organisational archetype makes perfect sense.
Can you share a learning experience from your career so far that has influenced your approach to team building and leadership?
At the beginning of my career, I was able to observe many different leaders. The autocrat, the motivator, the chaotic and all in between. It’s interesting to try to analyse why a person behaves in a certain way, and what it triggers in others. Is it good? Is it bad? Is it helpful? This could include encounters with very senior, bullish individuals that you have to face head on. This can be intimidating as a young professional early in your career, but even if a behaviour is not in your comfort zone, you need to be able to deal with it in a positive way. It will broaden your leadership repertoire down the road and make you more effective in that moment as well. So, as a first step, observation is a good coach.
Find the most effective way to lead that is true to yourself
A second step is to understand who you are as a person. I have a more adaptive leadership style that has evolved over time, but it is important to not become someone you’re not. You need to find the most effective way to lead that is true to yourself – no matter what all those business books try to sell you. This is not to say that it is not necessary to cover the basics when learning leadership tools, it absolutely is, but I believe in growing over time, learning from your mistakes and adapting to the organisation and the people that you choose to work with. You will be most successful when everything is in sync.