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 ‘Our headquarters is on Zoom.’ A CEO explains how to build a business without borders

At biotech company BeiGene, no single geographic location is “in charge,” and science drives decision-making.

 ‘Our headquarters is on Zoom.’ A CEO explains how to build a business without borders
[Source illustration: pressureUA/iStock]

The global nature of the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent economic fallout has exposed the corporate world’s vulnerabilities—from supply chain weaknesses to shortcomings in companies’ ability to sustain remote work.

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As the CEO of a global biotech company, I observed firsthand how traditional corporate structures slowed the healthcare industry’s ability to meet the needs of the diverse and global population.

The traditional hub-and-spoke model of most global companies, which revolves around a physical headquarters, evolved out of necessity—good, timely decisions require clear real time communication.  Teamwork requires trust.  Certainly, in the past, this was best achieved in person.

Yet this structure (as all do) had limitations.  It often resulted in a corporate monoculture making decisions that perpetuate a limited world view. This created tensions with regional affiliates and it also often limited understanding of unique cultural or local needs. It required senior executives to relocate to the headquarters for a period of time or perpetuity.

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This was most apparent in the public health sphere, where our global pandemic response was tested as we struggled to coordinate across geographies using remote technology to get timely information and access to vaccines.

When Dr. Xiaodong Wang and I founded BeiGene in 2010, we shared a vision to embrace the world broadly in our efforts to develop innovative medicines and to try to bring these innovations more broadly to the world. We believed that there was a better structure and made four core decisions to try to avoid the problems of the hub-and-spoke model.

We believe BeiGene’s experience and cultural model offers an interesting counterpoint to 100 years of management science—but one that reflects the advancement of workplace technology and the global nature of disease and science. While we continue to learn and evolve, our structure enabled our business to continue to move quickly during the pandemic. At a time when many of life sciences companies were adapting to a virtual workplace, we continued to make progress expanding our manufacturing footprint in the US and conducting clinical trial programs across 40 countries in 5 continents to ensure our medicines could reach patients far and wide across continents. We hope leaders from across industries can find inspiration from our efforts to create a business without borders.

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Create a level playing field where no country-based team is in charge.

Leaders at any level can be in any location and are, in fact, spread around the world from Beijing, Shanghai, and the San Francisco Bay Area to Cambridge and Basel, among other places. Our leaders were dispersed long before the pandemic, so we were able to continue making decisions rapidly, while other organizations were adapting. We have worked hard to shape a culture defined by mutual understanding of and respect for each other’s strengths and differences. This extends across all 23 offices we have today on five continents.

To make this work, we leverage workplace collaboration technology.  In fact, for years prior to the pandemic, we were known as the company saying that its headquarters was on Zoom—to which most outsiders responded, “what is Zoom?”.  We also travel to be together—in non-pandemic times, at least—but we make a conscious effort to rotate this around geographies.

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Building understanding and trust across borders

Respect for all cultures and perspectives is important. We make the effort to listen to, understand and benefit from a diverse set of perspectives and ideas. This understanding has been essential to building trust with local clinical trial investigators and bringing new sites into the global ecosystem with participants representing a range of ethnic, gender, economic and environmental characteristics. This approach takes more effort but pays great dividends in the long run.

We ask that discussions around conflicts remain around specific issues, not generalizations, people, functions, or geographies.

For example, the clinical development program that led to the United States FDA approval of BeiGene’s BTK inhibitor, Brukinsa, was originated in Australia and New Zealand, and relied also on data from 27 countries including substantial enrollment in China, Poland, Spain and Italy.  The design of the program was shaped materially by ideas from clinicians in Australia, UK, Germany, China and France.  Today, Brukinsa is approved in several indications and in markets including Brazil, Canada, Chile, China, Israel, Singapore, the UAE and the U.S and has shown efficacy and safety advantages over other treatments.

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Make decisions based on facts, data, science and logic–not hierarchy, region, function, or person

In our experience, recruiting and supporting the best people, regardless of where they live, significantly drives innovation, as well as job satisfaction and performance. We have zero tolerance for stereotypes. As in our scientific pursuits, facts and logic form the foundation of our team-building strategy, which empowers colleagues to collaborate across geographies.

Hire based on talent, not location

I believe a truly exceptional person within the right culture with the latest collaboration tools will far outperform a geographically adjacent average talent.

A recent example of this teamwork across geographies is our clinical operations organization, which embraced the challenge of an accelerated timeline for interim analysis of a global trial comparing Brukinsa to another drug in this class. With new processes to maximize use of time across time zones, colleagues handed off work across continents, enabling continuous analysis of a tremendous amount of data and achieving completion weeks ahead of schedule.

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These commitments that we made to a decentralized headquarters, collaboration tools, and a global culture have allowed BeiGene to grow in 10 years to more than 8,200 employees and to initiate more than 100 clinical trials in over 40 geographies – including some regions that have long been outsiders in an outdated drug development system.

We recognize that implementing a model like this is challenging. It is not for everyone.  It will not be the best structure in many situations.  But what drives BeiGene forward is our shared mission to fight the terrible villain of cancer who recognizes no borders.  Since cancer doesn’t recognize borders – neither should we.

We believe that today, a decentralized model is possible, and preferable to a central command and control center model for understanding, and effectively addressing, the healthcare needs of a diverse global population.

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John V. Oyler is cofounder, chairman and CEO of BeiGene, a global biotechnology company.

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