Coulter Partners DEI: Views from leadership series - Ankit Mahadevia

In the latest instalment of its Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Leadership series, Coulter Partners spoke to Ankit Mahadevia, MD, Founder and Chair of Spero Therapeutics, and author of Quiet Leader, Loud Results. Ankit talks about the value of cultural diversity, authenticity and trust, drawing on his sixteen years of experience creating and leading life science companies.


Coulter Partners: Please share your personal journey.

Ankit Mahadevia: I'm the child of immigrants to the US – my parents came to Illinois from India in the 1970s – and I grew up in a town where there weren't a lot of folks that looked like me. Throughout my life and certainly my parents’ life, part of my commitment to diversity has been about trying to straddle multiple cultures and trying to assimilate one culture to the other. Now as an entrepreneur, when you think about new fields, every field is a new culture and a new language, and it’s been helpful having previously made such adaptations in the past. Pretty early on, I developed an interest in life sciences and in how the human body works, how people get sick, and how to make them better. Seeing how my uncle, a physician, did his work began a real exploration for me. I was committed to becoming a doctor. I chose a university program that guaranteed my admission to medical school. The course also allowed me to explore different fields including health policy, which got me very excited about how to help people on a broad scale.

My first job out of university was with the investigative arm of the US Congress … and there weren’t a lot of folks who looked like me in the policy world – even now – and so again, there were a lot of opportunities to really figure out how to bridge gaps and assimilate. From there I went into management consulting and then into my medical training at Johns Hopkins. Patient care was the reason I went to medical school, but I also wanted to see the broader world, so I spent some time during my training undertaking a variety of activities, including stops at Genentech, McKinsey, and working on a startup company based on a discovery from Hopkins.

I was on the precipice of thinking about more advanced medical training when I met the folks at Atlas Venture in Boston and had the opportunity to explore how to form companies and learn about venture capital.

And that began what has now been a 16-year journey in creating companies, either as a member of the Atlas team or as an entrepreneur. I've been involved in forming nine companies and all of them have gone on to raise venture capital, partner with large pharma or go public, and many of them have put programs into the clinic. I’m lucky enough that a drug developed by one of those companies has been approved, with hopefully more on the way.

CP: What specific experiences motivated you to champion the agenda for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) and how do you feel this impacts successful business outcomes?

Ankit: Looking back on my experience either leading or creating companies, like Spero Therapeutics which I took public in 2017 and where I am currently Chair, I think being someone who didn't look like or sound like other people, who had a name that was difficult to pronounce and who straddled multiple languages was all very helpful. It highlighted the importance of being mindful of the impact of different ways of thinking and speaking about the world and the importance of bringing everyone along when you're building a team and working together.

To me, diversity certainly means cultural diversity, which I have lived. It also means diversity of thought and diversity of how you process the world, and how you approach problems and other people. Classically whether you're an introvert or an extrovert, how you engage people really impacts the way you access everything, think about problems, the way you're creative, and even the way that you enjoy your downtime.

It was interesting for me to explore that as a node of how to become a better leader. Ultimately that's what – along with thirty other people who identify as more on the introverted side – led to my writing the book ‘Quiet Leader, Loud Results’ which explores that aspect of neurodiversity and how individuals who are wired differently can access leadership, even though, classically, leaders seem to come from one personality type.

Popular culture conceives a specific, extroverted phenotype of those that can lead and add value, but the data that is out there suggests that this popular conception just simply isn’t true. In fact, in certain studies, individuals that tend to be on the more introverted side tend to have longer-lasting positive effects in terms of the credibility they have with their board, and their ability to create and deliver results.

It's human nature for people to surround themselves with individuals who think and look like them, but I think it's starting to change now. So much of what we bring to the table isn't what you always choose to project on the surface. It’s important to build systems in an organisation which look past those first impressions and get deeper into what candidates can bring to the table.

And so, to that point, if you're trying to deliver drugs to patients, it is important to make sure that you have all the right people around you. It’s a variable endeavour with a lot beyond your control: you can't always control the science or the macro environment that you're involved with. You can only control what you can, and it requires resilience and creativity. If you only focus on a certain narrow subset of what popular conception tells you are effective individuals, you miss the opportunity for an interaction that's bigger than the sum of the parts. It was important for different roles and different places for us to get past our gut feelings and to really be thoughtful about systems, especially when we were building a large team at Spero.

We have a chapter in the book about how you can systematically get beyond your first impressions and give individuals who maybe don't look or talk like you a chance to really show what they can contribute to drug development.

CP: In the book, you describe yourself as a quiet leader. Can you tell us a bit more about the motivation for writing the book and why you describe yourself like that?

Ankit: Along with having a different name and looking differently, I also felt that personality-wise I was a bit of an outlier as well. Whether in popular Western culture or even in my South Asian culture, where individuals who aren’t participating in “the group” aren't deemed polite, I found myself feeling like I had to conform to a certain set of norms.

When I was at the Wharton School completing my MBA, I was a graduate assistant in leadership, going through different examples of what leaders do. One class was about how to get people excited about a cause, and we were shown a video of Steve Ballmer, the former CEO of Microsoft. He was probably as extroverted as an extrovert can be, sweating, taking off clothing and getting his software developers excited. I turned to my colleague and said: “No amount of whiskey in the world is going to get me to act like this. I guess I'm not a leader”.

During the course of my career, I have found myself having to conform to things that are not what I consider to be the baseline – that’s not to say that I’m always quiet. When the situation requires it, you have to speak up, you have to get people excited – but what I realized over time is that if you don't do it in a way that feels natural to you, inauthenticity shines through. So, the purpose of the book was to collate my own experiences and learnings, and that of my mentors.

As a leader, there are certain things that you have to do to get people to believe in something bigger than themselves, and on the other hand, you have to do it in a way that people believe it's actually you. Chapter by chapter, the book offers practical suggestions and key activities for individuals and leaders who tend to be quieter, and who don't feel natural screaming and foaming at the mouth on stage to get there.

One of the interesting challenges of leadership, especially in science-heavy enterprises where individuals can be more introverted, is that personal interaction in some ways requires energy rather than generating it. So, in a sector that is ultimately very “human”, how do you navigate that? The overarching theme of the book is, number one, to make sure that you know your true center, and accept that you are going to do certain things, but won’t be able to do others, and that it's OK, you can do things differently.

Secondly, it’s to think about engaging that as a system. You have to be thoughtful, systematic, and strategic and use the team around you to be able to do things, including those which you do not enjoy, or which do not come naturally. Sometimes you have got to do it: every JP Morgan, I get myself jacked up and I go and get the work that I need for our missions done, but you can do it in your own way.

CP: Some people look at D&I and feel it’s a systemic challenge. As a serial board director and company founder and also an investor, are there any real and practical examples you have seen work to move the needle? Where have you experienced D, E & I “done well”?

Ankit: I've seen it done well when it's systematic. In the same way, if you are someone who naturally likes smaller groups and not big ones, just simply willing yourself is not going to work. The same applies to an organisation; simply saying, “We’re going to be better at both cultural inclusion and be more accepting of how different people think, talk, act or where they come from" - it won’t work. You have to build it into the system and the book goes through some specifics, down to the very tactics of how you can evaluate future candidates.

One way to do it is to go with your gut and hire who feels right. There is certainly room for that, but the danger is that you tend to hire people who look and sound like you, it’s just human nature. Systematically, however, there are practical things you can do, such as having a group with different ways of running interviews, as well as using references and experiences to really counterbalance first impressions.

One example in the book recalls a situation when we were interviewing someone for an Investor Relations position. I found one of the candidates was overtly extroverted but rather than dismiss them out of hand, we continued them through the process, meeting with other members of the team whose opinions I trusted. He really knocked it out of the park with them. References were excellent and we ended up hiring them. It turned out to be the right call, but had we not built it into a system, I might have done just what felt right and hired someone who thought just like me. So, the hiring tactics and the permissions you give your team as a leader to really accept other points of view become very important. The work of getting drugs to patients and helping sick people is a multivariate exercise, it’s never straightforward and the more experiences you have to draw from as a collective unit, the better. Often when you're growing an enterprise, the limiting factor is finding people who fit your culture and your mission and have the right skills to succeed, and the narrower you look, the longer that takes and the harder it is. So, it's critical to growth to find the right individuals but also to think through how you grow in the most 3-dimensional way.

CP: Why is it imperative that younger biotechs think as strategically as the larger players about the impacts of a diverse senior leadership team and the creating the correct culture?

Ankit: Hiring when you're a small team is a pretty consuming exercise, but even if you're a small biotech, you can still be thoughtful about the system. I always encourage growing companies to think about it as a system, to be thoughtful about who's going to interact with whom, and how to find the information you need to make thoughtful decisions about who's coming on board.

Especially for the earliest stage, a lot of company founders think that they have to do everything alone, but they really don’t. When hiring for a small team for example, use your advisors, your board, your trusted colleagues, to try to find as many views on candidates that you can. Those hires will have a disproportionate impact on your culture. At any level, the wrong hire can be disruptive, but in a ten-person company that's 10% of your workforce, which is massively disruptive. It really does pay to be deliberate and thoughtful upfront.

The other advice I give is that permission to include diversity of opinion in the concept of cohesion really can only come from the senior leadership, both the leader of the growing enterprise and the board. If a boardroom is not tolerating other points of view, it's hard for a CEO to convey that it's the culture of the company. Board culture and management culture have to be aligned and I think that leaders have to provide that permission to allow different points of view. As a leader, I can't tell you how many times my team has convinced me to do something in opposition to my initial hypothesis, and they ended up being right. If you leave the space for it, then you can have a better outcome.

CP: Do you have any final thoughts that you would like to share on your most fascinating experiences?

Ankit: After writing the book I had the chance to speak with a number of groups within large pharmaceutical organisations and small biotechs. I had very thoughtful discussions about how people can stand out and lead in ways that are authentic to them. What's interesting is that sometimes it's really one simple thing that people tend to need to really get out there to try to build organisations: it's the permission to believe that someone like them can lead, even if the role models of effective leaders don't look or think like them.

Sometimes, for the scientists in the room, it's looking at the data and noting that the popular culture consensus is not part of the story: some of the largest and fastest-growing organisations are led by introverts. The Microsoft, the Meta, the Berkshire Hathaway are all led by quintessential classic introverts who are able to lead, be effective, and grow. One of the things that we can all do together is to just provide that permission to each other that we can go beyond that narrow, maybe a little bit dated, consensus of what a leader should look like.

What I've learned through experience is that it's a big thing for people to follow you into a risky endeavour. They're giving up their time, in many cases they're tying their livelihood to you. What often gets people to cross that threshold is believing in something bigger than themselves, believing in the mission, and believing you are authentically connected to them in that mission. If they don't sense that you believe in yourself, it's really hard for them to take the leap and make the many sacrifices that they ultimately have to, in order to deliver.



Ankit Mahadevia is an entrepreneur, speaker, and author. Ankit Mahadevia, MD, is a co-founder and Chair of Spero Therapeutics, where he previously served as CEO. Prior to Spero, he was a Venture Partner at Atlas Venture. He has co-founded nine therapeutic companies, including Nimbus Therapeutics, Arteaus Therapeutics (acquired by Lilly), and Translate Bio (acquired by Sanofi). Ankit served as CEO for several of these, including Rodin Therapeutics (acquired by Alkermes). Prior to Atlas, he worked at Arcion Therapeutics, Genentech, Vanda Pharmaceuticals, McKinsey & Company, and Monitor Group. His career began in health care policy, with roles at the U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, and the Government Accountability Office.

More within