One Vision, One Culture, One Team
Agilent CEO Mike McMullen tells us how he’s investing in innovation and why culture is the key to reaching business goals
How do you describe what you do – and analytical science in general – to those unfamiliar with the field?
Highlighting analytical applications tends to start interesting conversations that most people can easily relate to. After all, analytical science touches all of our lives in many ways. I point out that the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat, the drugs we take are all assumed to be safe – and link it back to the science.
Once I’ve introduced them to the hidden world of analytical chemistry, I can switch gears and introduce the role of Agilent, which I describe as a mission driven company. For example, I’ll talk about how we help researchers find new ways to treat disease by providing the underlying tools and technology.
In recent years, we’ve had a big push into the diagnostics arena – heralded by our acquisition of Dako in 2012. Now, we can also highlight the link between a drug that people may have seen on a television commercial and the companion diagnostic that supports its use. Being involved in the fight against cancer connects us to a very real world.
These messages also resonate within the company. We’re all really motivated by the fact that we do make a difference – something that’s said more often than it’s true.
What other motivating stories stand out for you?
One that immediately comes to mind is a compelling story I heard during my first management meeting as CEO back in 2015. As part of the proceedings, we invited a student from the University of California, Berkeley, to speak. She began by telling us how her presence on that day was only made possible by the technologies brought to market by Agilent. An athlete and non-smoker, the woman had been diagnosed with lung cancer. Genetic testing – enabled by our genomics products – revealed a mutation that could be treated by a specific drug. The whole room was completely silent.
Another example: we’ve just built a second facility that produces GMP-grade oligonucleotides for RNA-based therapeutics – a new class of drugs that target rare diseases, with often truly life-changing results. A company called Alnylam produces one such drug, patisiran (Onpattro) – the first small interfering RNA-based therapeutic approved by the FDA – which treats polyneuropathy in a severe and fatal disease called hereditary transthyretin-mediated amyloidosis. We supply Alnylam’s oligonucleotides for patisiran, so we’re now part of another compelling story – but the list goes on and on. I really want my employees to be proud of the company they work for – and it turns out that’s not such a tough job!
As a leader of a company that must innovate to succeed, how do you maintain momentum?
Innovation is in our DNA at Agilent – and that philosophy must extend beyond the R&D community. Yes, we must develop products at the cutting edge for our customers, but we must also be innovative when it comes to how we work with our customers – and how we run internal operations. It’s easy to talk about these things – but do you actually run the business this way?
When I first took on this role in 2015, I discussed profitability goals with the investment community, as you might expect. “Well, Mike,” they said. “Why not just cut your R&D budget in half, and you’ll reach your goals much faster…”
“That would destroy who we are,” I replied. “We are an innovation-driven company.” And that’s why we are willing to invest such a high percentage of our revenue into R&D – over $1 billion in the next three years. We’re also the only company in our space with a long-term basic research effort – Agilent Labs, staffed with world-class scientists developing the technologies of the future.
Innovation really means thinking carefully about the challenges that our customers face – both scientifically and economically. I call it “innovation with purpose."
So how do I keep the vision alive? First, we talk about it. Second, we fund it. And third, we recognize it. For example, we have an annual President’s Award for innovation, with two top prizes – one for the most innovative technology development and the other for a process innovation. A couple of rounds of reviews produces ten teams who present their work at a special fair in Santa Clara. The two winning teams are announced at our version of the Oscars; both teams receive a financial reward, but I think most participants are more interested in the recognition.
What trends are driving innovation within Agilent?
Consider your smartphone – you’re probably less interested in the underlying technology than the experience it enables. When it comes to analytical technology, while yesteryear’s users may have built their own instrumentation, today’s users simply want to ensure that it meets their workflow needs. Our technology is trending towards smaller, faster, easier to use, and better integrated – back to my analogy: everyone now has a far more powerful computer in their pocket than the one I had on my desk when I started at Hewlett-Packard...
Analytical instruments are tools that provide data, which can be turned into information that the user must be able to trust. And the more seamlessly the tool can perform that role, the better, which is why the latest generation of Agilent instruments feature smart capabilities that alert lab managers to the need for preventive maintenance. Today’s users want more actionable information with fewer headaches – and that leads us directly back to my point about innovation with purpose.
The scientists we serve have certain expectations that are set by their interactions in everyday life. How they shop online, search for information, receive customer support, connect with their technology – we must strive to mirror all of these aspects. And this is why we need that broader vision of innovation.
How does Agilent differentiate itself?
Funnily enough, a question oft-asked by investors is, “What’s your sustainable competitive differentiation?” For me, it’s all about the human element. We place a great deal of emphasis on our “One Agilent Culture,” which is all about people truly working together as one team – and trusting each other.
All companies have great presentations about their amazing core values… But, at Agilent, we live them. When I became CEO, my number one priority was to improve certain aspects of our culture – the aforementioned drive towards collaboration and trust. If we trust one another in the company, it allows us to build trust with our customers. I honestly believe a major reason why Agilent has witnessed a rebirth in terms of growth and performance is because we are working together as one team on behalf of our customers.
The investors may be thinking: “Why is he talking about people and culture?” But clearly, companies are all about people. You joked earlier that “analytical scientists are people, too” – but that fact can get lost. We’re having this conversation at the opening of this wonderful spectroscopy R&D facility on the Harwell Science and Innovation Campus in Oxfordshire, UK – and that’s exciting. But, genuinely, what really makes it stand out for me is the technical capability and the passion of the people that call this place home. The people make the difference.
At the beginning of your career, did you ever envisage becoming the CEO of an analytical giant?
I can’t remember ever looking that far ahead! And, in fact, when I dispense career advice, my first pearl is: “Don’t over manage your career – because you never really know where it will take you.” My second piece of advice: “Always follow the experience and accept opportunities to learn.” I believe it’s good to be naturally curious. When I finished my MBA at The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania in the 1980s, the next step should have been Wall Street. And though I had job offers on the table from investment banks, I recognized that I really didn’t want to enter that world.
I wanted to work for a company with a mission – a company that developed and created a tangible product. At Hewlett-Packard, I knew that my ability to progress was only linked to my willingness to develop myself and take a few personal risks. I entered the company as a financial analyst, so perhaps dreamed of becoming the Chief Financial Officer one day… But as I moved through my career, grasping opportunities to gain experience, I ended up working in Japan as country sales manager for two years – an unforgettable experience… “What’s a finance guy doing in Japan leading a sales team?!”
I learned that I had inherent leadership qualities – for one, I’m a big believer in the power of authentic communication. Next, opportunities opened up first in China and then the USA, where I had the chance to run a product line. “OK - so what’s a finance guy – with sales management experience – doing running a technology business?!” When pushed, I used to say, “Well, I have a secret weapon: a chemist, who also happens to be my wife, so I go home and ask her!” More seriously, I really love technology but, rather than getting lost in the details, I’m passionate about what it can do for our customers.
Over time, I built up a track record of growing businesses and turning businesses around. When we created the new Agilent in 2015, I was asked to become the third CEO. Notably, my predecessors were both R&D engineers. And that links to another piece of advice: “Don’t allow people to put you in a box or tell you what you can’t do.”
When new people join the company, I explain to them that I have been here for 35 years – unusual in itself – but my non-linear path also proves that everyone has the chance to grow and develop – and even become CEO one day. So why would they want to work anywhere else?!
In short, there are four constants throughout my journey: i) always going for experience over promotion (promotion will follow), ii) never compromising my personal values, iii) always being true to myself, iv) never allowing people to trap me with false walls.
What’s your best moment as CEO (so far)?
Easy: when we received the results of one of our leadership surveys – about three years into our journey. Every six months, we ask all 16,000 Agilent employees how we’re doing. We recruit an external consultancy team to analyze the results and compare us with the best out there. Our scores for employee engagement had grown significantly over that relatively short period; apparently, we were “best in class.”
It’s great to make investors happy with rising stock prices, and to see customers reacting more positively to their experience with us. But I am most proud and satisfied by how our employees feel about working at Agilent – because that’s really how we’ve achieved our other goals. There’s plenty of information out there pointing to the fact that companies with highly engaged workforces do well. And it was great to have proof that I wasn’t just being a delusional CEO...
I always tell my team, “The best is yet to come” And the fact that we’re all “in it together” and pointing in the same direction? Well, that gives the words real meaning for everyone – me included.
In July 2014, I was asked by the Agilent board of directors to be the next CEO. And I remember flying home from California to New Jersey, thinking to myself, “Great – I’ve got the job. Now, what am I gonna do?!” It was then that I decided that the transformation of the company needed to begin with the people – with “One Agilent Culture.” And the results of that survey made me realize that it was not only the right move – but respected by the whole team.
Where is Agilent heading?
Whatever our customer’s application needs, we want to provide the leading solutions. Agilent is well known for chromatography, MS and spectroscopy in the lab environment, but we are also investing in new businesses. Back in 2015, we recognized the fast-growing area of cell analysis, and so we’ve built up great new business in this space through a series of strategic acquisitions – most recently, BioTek – a leader in plate-readers and cell imaging systems.
As well as supporting our existing customer base, we will always push to be at the leading edge and follow where the science is headed. The Agilent story is far from over.