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Chosen extracts with Patrice Zagame

From "Pharma minds" podcast by Nathalie Lahitte.



Patrice Zagame, an accomplished international medical executive at Novartis, Sanofi, Baxalta, and Ipsen, now CEO of Eolias Health. A charismatic leader with a passion for challenges and humility. He shared insights on career, leadership, and embracing vulnerability. Inspirational!


So, you've experienced many... complex situations throughout your career, I assume. What would you describe as the most challenging moment for you?


Throughout my career, I've faced many complex situations. When asked about the most challenging moment, I can mention today, the difficulty of undertaking entrepreneurship with personal stakes. Aside from that, some missions were tough to win. In hindsight, it would have been beneficial to have a crystal ball to avoid engagements I couldn't win. My appetite for personal challenges led me to take on battles that weren't necessarily good for my career.


One anecdote stands out—after years of working internationally and being well-regarded within my organization, I was appointed as a leader of a French subsidiary. Managing in France proved intricate due to union dynamics, regulatory complexities, and the highly sophisticated talent pool, armed with strong critical thinking skills. Navigating the task of transforming the organization, achieving faster growth amid annual price drops of 150 million, and gaining market share while implementing sales force reductions posed significant challenges. These missions appeared irreconcilable, and I found myself at a crossroads of conflicting objectives.


In retrospect, taking on unwinnable battles is a tricky aspect of career management. One cannot always foresee the outcomes in advance, but with more contemplation and reflection, some battles might be avoidable. However, in my case, I sometimes failed to think deeply before plunging into challenges.


Currently, I'm facing a difficult moment in entrepreneurship, which underscores the importance of strategic decision-making. Reflecting on my experiences, I see the significance of carefully evaluating the feasibility and potential outcomes of missions to ensure career progression aligns with personal aspirations. Making conscious choices can help avoid unnecessary hurdles and optimize career growth.


Having been extensively international, it means you relocated your family each time. How did you manage this aspect of personal balance?


I have had extensive international experiences, which meant relocating my family each time. Managing this personal balance wasn't easy, and my family's support was crucial, though it had its consequences on their psychology. Children from expatriate and multicultural backgrounds have both advantages and disadvantages. These decisions were thoroughly discussed, as they were significant and impactful.


Regarding work-life balance, it is achievable, but I'm not entirely certain I mastered it. Today's generation faces challenges, with some prioritizing personal aspects over their careers. During my time, HR insisted on international mobility for career advancement, limiting talented individuals, particularly women, who couldn't or didn't want to move. However, career management and professional development don't necessarily align.


Working internationally provided me valuable experiences and growth, even if it wasn't a part of career advancement. Communicating effectively in foreign languages required developing unique neuropsychological skills. I jokingly mentioned reading people's body language upon my return to France, honed from working with different cultures for 15 to 20 years. This sensitivity to non-verbal cues made me a better manager back in France.


Career growth doesn't necessarily mean reaching a specific position like being a CEO of a subsidiary. It's about developing the right skills and knowledge for specific contexts. Today's requirements have shifted towards more strategic, scientific, and acquisition-oriented skills, different from the past's mass leadership roles.


Can you perhaps tell us about this new initiative, the project of a young retiree who is taking on the biggest challenge of his life?


Absolutely, that's right. Throughout my career, I have always been attentive to what the English say, and I quite like the phrase "Walk the talk." So, it means to practice what you preach. Since I've often preached to others, unfortunately, too much, telling them to do this, do that, and advocating for entrepreneurship within the organization, promoting autonomy and the glamor of being an entrepreneur.

Now, here I am, and I have the opportunity to walk the talk and see if I have what it takes. I wanted to test myself because I've always been fascinated by entrepreneurs. So, now I'm testing myself, and it's very enjoyable, stimulating, a significant challenge, and it involves a lot of financial commitment. It's undoubtedly risky, and of course, it would be more logical to...

To relax on the beach in Brazil.

Exactly, but I believe that having such challenges, these projects, is the spice of life. So, I'm going for it.


Before moving on to a more personal second part, I would like to know if there are two decisive choices you have made in your life?


Firstly, opting for the pharmaceutical industry over a hospital setting, which brought me a sense of energy and diverse experiences. Secondly, choosing to work in foreign countries, starting from Latin America, despite the uncertainties. This decision led to various opportunities and career growth, eventually landing me in Brazil.


Regarding missed opportunities, I mention two pivotal ones. First, not transitioning into the rapidly growing oncology sector, which later became crucial for many companies. Second, not actively pursuing a move to the United States, possibly influenced by pride and organizational conservatism. Organizations tend to retain reliable performers, which can hinder timely career transitions.


I highlight the importance of recognizing when to make significant changes, as five years in the wrong position can make a difference. Organizations have their models and formats, and it's essential to take control of one's career to align with personal goals. Making errors or choices with potential consequences is part of life, and it's inspiring to understand that everyone faces such situations. These choices, whether perceived as mistakes or not, can ultimately lead to the right path for personal growth and fulfillment.


In this more personal part, I'd like to explore and understand the pressure that a manager like you, with significant responsibilities, constantly situated between local teams and upper management, has faced.


I acknowledge the deeply personal nature of this topic, recognizing that each individual's experience is unique and heavily influenced by personal involvement and mission alignment. I explain that the level of commitment to work and the sense of responsibility towards collective goals greatly impact how I handle the pressure.


The discussion touches upon the challenges of striking a balance between the well-being of the teams under my leadership and the economic imperatives set by the organizations I work for. I allude to the fact that working in the healthcare sector can intensify these challenges, as people in these positions often find it difficult to detach from their roles and take time for themselves.


The conversation continues with the interviewer asking about the sense of responsibility I feel towards others. I point out that many individuals may not experience this responsibility to the same extent. However, in the healthcare industry, the emotional toll can be profound due to the nature of service to others.


I emphasize that organizational experiences vary greatly, largely influenced by one's personality and how they perceive their responsibility towards others. At times, this sense of responsibility may clash with the choices made by the organizations, driven by economic considerations and demands from shareholders. The relentless pursuit of perpetual profit growth, especially in an ever-expanding healthcare market, adds further tension to the already delicate balancing act for managers.


Reflecting on my own experiences, I reveal that I once faced a significant burnout during my career. Despite leading a team that dramatically improved France's market position, we struggled to meet the aggressive growth targets set by the organization. Eventually, the incongruity between our achievements and the seemingly unrealistic expectations took a toll on me.


I admit that I didn't see the burnout coming, often trying to hide it in the hope of keeping up with the challenges. I liken the situation to a frog in boiling water, slowly adapting to unfavorable circumstances until it's too late.


To overcome this burnout, I chose a radical approach: leaving my job and seeking refuge in Latin America. I found that distancing myself from the previous context and embracing new challenges was liberating. I emphasize the importance of maintaining good mental health and suggest utilizing mechanisms like meditation, psychology, and therapy to foster perspective and detachment in high-pressure situations.


I conclude with the message that it's crucial for individuals to recognize when they are in an untenable situation and take steps to leave, despite potential difficulties or fears of the unknown. The uncertainty of the future is a natural aspect of life, and embracing it with enthusiasm and faith can lead to transformative experiences.


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