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Astellas' Chief Strategy Officer Meets Challenges of New Role, And New Diagnosis

Analysis  |  By Robin Robinson  
   March 22, 2024

Adam Pearson’s life experiences and a recent diagnosis of a rare disease give him a unique perspective to guide the pharma company’s strategy

Adam Pearson, chief strategy officer at Astellas Pharma, has been working in pharma for 20 years, almost all at the Tokyo-based company.

Coming from a consulting background, he says he was eager to work inside the industry for which he had been consulting because he was intrigued by the challenges of a commercial business that is highly scientific and highly regulated.

"It struck me as a fascinating combination of different factors and piqued my interest in learning how to make that business successful," Pearson says.

Pearson began on the operational side of pharma, but recently moved to the global chief strategy position. About four years ago, Pearson had taken the role of head of corporate strategy and in April 2023 took the reins as chief strategy officer.

"I had built my career on the operational side, owning the P&L for different geographies," he says. "But I couldn't turn down this opportunity. I am glad to return [to strategy] to be able to steer the bigger questions and the bigger picture of the whole organization."

Dealing with a rare disease

In the past couple of years Pearson has faced several challenges, including being diagnosed with AL amyloidosis as he took on his new leadership role at Astellas. He says the diagnosis, which he calls one of the most impactful experiences of his life, has transformed both his personal and professional perspective.

Adam Pearson, chief strategy officer at Astellas Pharma. Photo courtesy Astellas Pharma.

Pearson says his illness was discovered early, and with continual treatments it is currently under control.

"I'm still under treatment," he says. "But that process, that experience, has helped me to reflect and understand much better what it means to be a patient."

Pearson has brought his new perspective to his leadership role at Astellas and to his team. He says he is much more aware of how pharmaceutical companies can support patients and incorporate an understanding of their perspectives.

"It's certainly changed my point of view," he says. "My unique experience as a patient has informed my leadership perspective. This has allowed me to relate to patients on a more personal level and reflect on how the actions we take in support of our drugs are perceived by patients.”

“I understand the gratitude patients feel from receiving treatment, as well as the challenges they face while trying to find the best treatment options, coping with side effects, and facing the uncertainties of the disease," he adds.

With a new R&D focus comes new challenges and a reorganization

About the same time he was managing his health issues, Astellas shifted its business model and created a new leadership team to manage the transition. He was promoted to chief strategy officer, at the same time that Naoki Okamura became the CEO and other executives took over new roles.  

"There has been lots of change and it's been very interesting," Pearson says. "Working with a  new leadership team has been an important time of reflection on how Astellas is doing and what comes next. We made a large acquisition last year with Iveric Bio and that's also been a major part of what I've been involved in."

Astellas' R&D strategy, called the Focus Area Approach, consists of three components: Biologies with high disease relevance, versatile modalities/technologies, and diseases with high unmet medical needs.

"We're trying to evolve our R&D operating model," Pearson says. "We are met with having to make difficult choices around how to allocate our resources and there are tough decisions to make. We are facing new unknown challenges in development that we never faced before with small molecules or antibodies."

One of those challenges has been determining how to maintain a high level of investment in R&D while working on other promising areas.

"One of the challenges that's certainly at the heart of it is: how can we make the best [of] these investments?” he says. “How do we get our R&D engine working better and better?"

The leadership team has reorganized R&D in one way by giving more empowerment to teams and allowing more agile decision-making at the team level. This creates a more fast-paced environment.

Another priority was to ensure that the new leadership team works together to create a clear focus for the organization. As a result, Astellas established three enterprise priorities for the company.

"Broadly speaking, the priorities are maximizing the potential of our products to reach as many patients as possible,” Pearson says. “It's around raising our sights and improving our capabilities in R&D, really driving products faster through the pipeline, and third, it's around responsible management of our margins and costs and transforming the business so that we become more sustainable in the long term.”

"It is very exciting,” he adds. “It gives us all the fuel to take on the challenges for products that show that they can make a difference to patients. For example, we've had some dramatic results from PadCev, a treatment for bladder cancer, which in combination with Keytruda has shown to double the lifespan compared to the standard of care for patients with bladder cancer."

Leadership skills needed for leading a global transition

Leading through a company-wide transition takes an accurate and realistic assessment of the situation and a deep understanding of one’s team members, all while creating a new model for the organization. Pearson believes this requires trust in one’s employees, a deep understanding across cultures, and clear communication.

"I think my role as chief strategy officer requires me to be able to articulate as clearly as possible where we are trying to go as a business," he says. "We need to articulate clearly what the challenges are and the choices that we need to make to get us to our goal."

Pearson says he is all too happy to empower his teams to work autonomously and is not interested in micromanaging. His first step to building a solid team is to hire the right people for the job, and then give them the freedom to do it.

"I put trust in them and provide them with a combination of support and coaching and challenges, but I also allow them to get on with their job," he says. "I love watching this growth  happening in my team, when team members feel confident and empowered to own their responsibilities and make their own choices around them. My job is to be a sounding board mostly, and sometimes to challenge them a bit, and certainly to try to make sure that they understand how they operate in the full organizational context.”

“The ideal situation is when they're owning the plan,” he adds. “They all know their job well and do it better than I can and I'm there to empower and support them in that."

While it is difficult coordinating with people across so many countries and cultures, Pearson has had plenty of practice. Astellas' center of gravity is in Japan, but it has a large presence in the US, Europe, and other parts of the world. Pearson says this makes arranging meetings quite a challenge from a time zone perspective.

"It's difficult getting everybody on the same call," he says.

But more important than meeting times is the many cultural differences that must be accounted for and understood. The cultural differences across Astellas might be a bit broader than in a typical global company.

"Leaders need to invest more time to understand what is behind the way someone is acting and behaving because what is going on in their heads may not be what your instinct tells you,” he says. "It might be something quite different in fact."

Pearson has the experience to manage a global company, having lived in nine countries. He was born in Australia and spent much of his childhood in the UK.

"We moved around a lot and sometimes we lived abroad, sometimes we lived in the states," he says. "I lived in Greece when I was at university. I worked a bit in France, and I studied in the US. While at Astellas I have been based in five different countries; at one of my positions, I had responsibility over 10 countries. And I now live in Japan."

Pearson and his wife are settling into Japan and enjoying the many aspects of its culture, including learning the language.

"We are doing a lot of exploring and hiking and just trying to get to know the country and stay active," he says.

While it would be easy to visit other parts of Asia, Pearson says there is more than enough to explore just in Japan.

"It's really a fascinating country, and it's a privilege to live somewhere internationally," he says.

Robin Robinson is a contributing writer for HealthLeaders. 


A 20-year industry veteran, Adam Pearson has had to change his focus to take on a new role at Astellas.

A rare disease diagnosis has brought a new perspective to his leadership role.

An Australian native, has lived in nine countries, making him uniquely prepared to guide a global company.

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