Paul Fonteyne arrived in 1986 at the Tepper School of Business from his native Belgium, adept at engineering and math – not yet in English. He mastered the language quickly, along with a new skill set that helped put him on a trajectory to the top as U.S. Country Managing Director, President and CEO of Boehringer Ingelheim (BI) USA Corporation, the U.S. arm of the 12th largest pharmaceutical company in the world.
Participating in the W.L. Mellon speaker series, Fonteyne shared his practical, experience-driven advice with students.
Striving to be as “useful” to the group as possible, Fonteyne began by taking discussion suggestions, prepared to tailor his remarks on-the-spot to the interests of the audience. The students quickly realized his willingness to offer frank, constructive advice and proposed numerous topics, largely related to his leadership abilities and career decisions.
Beginning his presentation, Fonteyne promptly shared his key philosophy for career success.
“What made a difference for me is that I went ‘deep’ in understanding my industry segment right off the bat,” he explained. “I stayed in an organization long enough to get deep roots in the capabilities that were going to make me a good commercial executive. You might be moving all over the world, but you’ve got to have a ‘home’ from a skill perspective, something you’re uniquely good at.”
He went on to advise the students to “pay attention” to those development opportunities that would allow them to “go deep” when evaluating potential employers.
Sharing his passion for the healthcare industry, Fonteyne spoke briefly about BI, a global giant headquartered in Germany with 44,000 employees and over $17B in sales, and of BI USA with 11,000 employees and $7B in sales.
The topic then turned to Fonteyne’s own trajectory and life at the C-level, as well as his counsel on getting there. He reminded the students to use their contact time with senior management to “sponge up the knowledge they have, how they behave and control themselves.”
He also had frank words of warning.
“You’re going to get promoted quickly because you are who you are,” cautioned Fonteyne. “You’re going to get there really fast. But be careful – you’ll have skipped a few steps. It gets a little dangerous if you don’t manage it well. Forget the career part, this is about your life.”
Fonteyne then touched on leadership, a particular item of student interest, pointing out the importance of responding to change.
“In any industry, you’re going to have changes in the environment,” he said. “Can you push your people to change faster? Then you’ll be a little bit ahead of the game. If you decide you can’t push them as far or as fast as the environment dictates, it might be time to retire.”
He then identified the most challenging situations as those that involved altering a fundamental element of the organization, such as repositioning a brand or shrinking a business unit.
In the closing minutes, Fonteyne took additional questions and enumerated three key pieces of career and leadership advice, quipping “The good news about being privately held is that I can be quite transparent.”
On managing multi-business complexity: “If you don’t have the right people in business units feeding you the right understanding and diagnosis, then your job becomes pretty simple - You need someone else.” He bluntly added, “You’ve got to be out there with the teams. The administrative part of the job should be eliminated.”
As CEO, he advised a disciplined focus on four to five goals each year “and for the rest you show up, give a nice speech and hopefully you have the right president for that business unit.” In other words, “Make a choice on those things you go deep with, then the rest is just going to have to happen.”
On effective hiring: “Never hire for the position, always hire for the career and the team. You’ll never find one person that can do everything. You’ll have to assemble a team that has a complete skill base between all of them. He paused, adding, “And then you’re going to have to make them work together. That’s the hard part.”
On job-hopping: “You have to work for a company long enough to have an impact because you’re going to get inside the fabric and the heads of people like me. You’ll learn more from them if they get to know you and work with you, to nurture and develop you.”
Fonteyne made a point of noting how his time at the Tepper School had helped in his climb upward.
“Tepper helped me understand many things,” he said. “The analytical skills you learn here translate into making an impact, whether that’s with a marketing or investment plan or something else. You’re going to know how to cut through the maze of stuff that you’ll have to deal with.”
“I’ll leave you with one message (about school) – that you’ve made the right choice.”
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W.L. Mellon CEO Speaker Series