What I Know Now

Myrtle S. Potter, a top exec at Genentech, explains how to pare down, focus, and move forward.

Myrtle S. Potter

President of commercial operations and a member of the executive committee at Genentech INC. Potter, 46, runs sales, marketing, development, and managed care for the $3.3 billion biotech company. She joined Genentech in 2000 from Bristol-Myers Squibb, where she headed the U.S. cardiovascular/metabolics business.


When I was little, I wanted to be a ballerina and a race-car driver. I figured I could do both. By the time I got to college, I thought I’d be an attorney. It was during college [at the University of Chicago] that I had a life-changing experience. I had a job in the lab at the university hospital, and I also was a secretary for in-patient neurology and neurosurgery. And I just loved medicine. I loved it. In the summer between junior and senior year, I managed to talk my way into an internship at IBM for [graduate] business-school students and found that I also loved business. Right there I decided that if I got to be on the business side of medicine I would be happy for the rest of my life.

I don’t do a lot of perfunctory things. At other places I worked, we often did things because we were supposed to, not because they needed to be done. Here, we encourage people to understand what’s going to make a difference. If where you’re spending your time is not going to add value to your business, to your employees, or to our patients, we say don’t do it.

I refuse to waste time. I see my time as the most valuable thing I’ve got. I’m a mother with two kids, and every minute of my day is accounted for and tied to something that’s important.

My biggest challenge is tied directly to the company’s biggest challenge. We recently announced some very bold goals. We said we would have five new oncology products or indications by 2010, and the same in immunology. That is the most significant attempt at commercialization this company has ever tried. And we have to do it without changing the culture that makes us unique.

People underestimate how much work it takes to do simple things like getting buildings up fast enough. It’s not complex from a tactical standpoint. But from a strategic standpoint, you only know you have a success when the FDA tells you you have it, yet you can’t wait until you’ve got approval before you put up buildings, parking lots, and manufacturing plants. It’s a challenge.

In hiring people, I’m looking for someone who fundamentally believes in what we’re doing as a company, who loves our patients as much as we do, and who, regardless of the job, can always see themselves putting our patients first. That is the most important thing to me. Second, I’m looking for people with solid scientific acumen, because regardless of where you worked, a base in the sciences is really important for doing well here. Last, I’m looking for people who enjoy a diverse workforce, since 40% of our employees are people of color.


I’ve learned to get a life. It is very easy to work 24 hours a day. And I’ve learned that it is unnecessary, and you can get tremendous help by hiring exceptionally bright people who know how to do the job oftentimes better than you do. I’ve learned to bring more balance into my life, and I am enjoying it. I like it a lot.

Don’t minimize the importance of lateral moves and broad development. I did a number of lateral moves in my career, and not only did it not hurt me, it actually helped tremendously. I feel like I’ve got a good operational grounding in most aspects of our business. At some point in my 25 years of working, I’ve touched very closely or led most of the functions we have here. That’s been exceptionally valuable.

I am not envious of anyone. I don’t have an envious bone in my body. I’m just simply not wired that way. I never have been.