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Sumitomo Pharma CEO Myrtle Potter Focuses On Leading By Example

Analysis  |  By Robin Robinson  
   December 22, 2023

Be brave enough to know what you don't know and to learn things you haven't learned before, she says

As president and CEO of Sumitomo Pharma America (SMPA), Myrtle Potter sets a high level of work performance for herself and her team members. And she doesn't apologize for it.

"I set really high standards as a leader and I demand a lot, but at the same time, I'm also a nurturer," she says. "I think my employees would be disappointed in me if I didn't expect great things from them. I believe they can deliver great things.”

“My job is to make sure the organization can deliver against its objectives, and to ensure it is prepared to do that," she adds.

Setting high standards of performance for your employees doesn't mean you aren't a caring boss, Potter says. There are many layers to running an organization, and an important one is being responsible for the growth and development of your employees.

Leaders must drive the strategy plan, the implementation, the follow-up, and meeting the financial goals. At the same time there's a responsibility to the health and well-being of the employees.

Potter says her ability to build strong, diverse teams is the key to her success.

"The secret to my success is I think strategically about team building, about leadership development, and the selection of leaders who I choose to have on my team," she says. "I make it a point not to hire people who are just like me, because I believe that different points of view are essential for the advancement of innovation and for the best problem solving."

Myrtle Potter, president and CEO of Sumitomo Pharma America. Photo courtesy SMPA. 

Potter grew up in a small southwest town in a family of eight. She credits learning how to share a bathroom with five other siblings for her team-building skills. Rather than being a hindrance to her sizable aspirations, she says her small-town upbringing set her on the path to becoming a strong leader.

"I was raised to be very brave," Potter says. "Fearlessness was instilled in me. Even though I grew up in a small town, where everybody knew each other, my aspiration was to go to the University of Chicago. My parents helped me financially to get there. It took a lot of guts to get on that plane by myself and head off to the big city of Chicago. But I grew up in an environment where I was encouraged to stretch, and I believe this is an important trait for anyone looking to do great things in their career. "

When Potter is mentoring others, she sets up the same encouraging environment that her parents did.

"I advise people to leave their handprint on every job they take. In other words, don't just warm a seat, make a difference," she says. "People will remember you because of the contributions you've made and the difference that you've made in the business."

Potter also encourages others to be brave, as her parents taught her.  

"Be brave enough to know what you don't know and to learn things you haven't learned before. Seek out the education and the support that you need to round out your understanding and your knowledge base."

Establishing a Career Trajectory

At the University of Chicago, Potter took a couple of jobs at the University Hospital. She worked in a lab, as well as on a patient floor for seriously ill patients with dermatological diseases and neurological diseases.

"I was a ward clerk,” she says. “I really loved it because I got to essentially be a part of the medical teams. That was the defining moment that motivated me to be in the biopharmaceutical industry, that and my dad having been a medic in the Army. I was really close to medicine my whole life. And so that was really the impetus for me joining the pharmaceutical industry."

Over the past 30 years Potter has served as vice president at Merck, president at Bristol-Myers Squibb, and chief operating officer and president of commercial operations at Genentech, as well as the Vant Operating Chair at Roivant Pharma. She also ran her own consulting business, Myrtle Potter & Company, for more than 13 years. 

Over this time frame, she says she has honed her leadership skills.

"Today, I understand the power of listening,” she says. “Listening for congruence, listening for alignment, listening for gaps in strategy, listening for times when an organization might feel freer, or they need to be bolstered up, listening for when they feel empowered. Developing others, thinking ten to 12 steps ahead, supporting the organization through the good times, and the tough times. Those are the kinds of things I think about now, versus when I got my very first management job."

Facing the Challenges of a Large Merger

Earlier this year Potter faced a new challenge: The merger of not two companies, but seven. She was instrumental in successfully bringing Sumitovant, Myovant Sciences, Urovant Sciences, Enzyvant Therapeutics, Sumitomo Pharma America Holdings, Sumitomo Pharma Oncology, and Sunovion Pharmaceuticals together to form SMPA

"As you can imagine, that was just a Herculean task," she says. "Combining a couple of companies is challenging, and I have done that before, but we're talking about seven."

Potter led the companies through the challenge, following a strategy that allowed the transitioning employees of all seven companies to choose whether to join the new company. Mergers can be stressful for employees, and she says she tried to give everyone the opportunity to engage in their future role at the new company.

As opposed to just bringing all the employees together and saying, 'This is your new job, now go off and do it,' Potter says she brought people to the organization with a lot of integrity and honor.

"We literally gave every single transitioned employee a new offer letter, a new description of their role, and gave them the choice to say yes or no," Potter says. "It was very empowering to hear people say, 'Yes, I want to be a part of what you and your leaders are building.'"

While that was a huge task accomplished in just a matter of months, it isn't the proudest moment of Potter's career. That was at Genentech, when the biotech held record sales and earnings growth for 19 of 20 consecutive quarters and launched seven novel therapies in just five years.

"When I joined Genentech, we thought we might have two product launches," she says. "We never anticipated that everything would just keep growing the way that it did. I was co-chair of the Product Portfolio Committee, and we created the most valuable drug pipeline in the world at that time. That's something I'm very, very proud of. We really made a big difference for a lot of patients."

Charting the Future of SMPA

Potter is also proud of SMPA's endeavors to deliver needed therapies to patients who live with difficult to manage conditions.

The company’s portfolio includes treatments in psychiatry, neurology, oncology, urology, women's health, and gene therapy for cystic fibrosis. One of SMPA’s most interesting projects is a treatment for children with congenital athymia, an ultra-rare disease characterized by the absence of a functioning thymus. Most congenital athymia babies die within three years, even with supportive care.

The product, Rethymic, was approved by the FDA in November 2021; it’s the only FDA-approved tissue-based treatment for this condition.

"Rethymic greatly improves [the] survival [rate] for these children," Potter says. "There may be only 20-25 of these children diagnosed in the United States a year, but we care greatly about all of them."

Another SMPA objective is to use technology and AI to advance new technologies to transform operations through the acceleration of digital.

"Our industry is changing so much and one of the things that's really exciting is we truly are leveraging technology in a way that other companies just simply aren't doing," Potter says. "When you're thinking about driving innovation and cultivating leaders, you need to think about who is comfortable talking about AI and natural language processing and using it to solve problems."

Sumitomo has built two in-house technology platforms that use the latest generative AI and machine learning tools to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of research to find new targets, clinical trials, and commercialization of new therapies.

“I think my employees would be disappointed in me if I didn't expect great things from them. I believe they can deliver great things.”

Robin Robinson is a contributing writer for HealthLeaders. 


Myrtle Potter sees bravery as a key element to being a strong leader.

While at Genentech, she steered the biotech to record sales and earnings growth for 19 of 20 consecutive quarters and oversaw the launches of seven novel therapies in just five years.

Sumitomo Pharma has been established for more than 125 years, and Potter is working to advance it through a digital transformation in the coming years.

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