How to Juggle Priorities as a CMO ft. Hootan Khatami

Every guest on the Emerging Biotech Leader builds on the insights from our previous contributors while also adding their own unique best practices, analogies and experience.

In that spirit, for Episode 16, we’re grateful to have Hootan Khatami, Senior Vice President of Medical at SSI driving the conversation forward on CMOs, (Chief Medical Officers), by sharing his reality on what the CMO role is and what it entails.

One of Hootan’s key lines is that being a CMO is like walking a tightrope in a pair of high heels. But here’s why knowing that now is encouraging vs discouraging: you’ll be better prepared to handle the role and truly understand the stakes and requirements that come along with it. This is a role of utmost importance to a biotech since it serves as the face of the company.

How CMOs can be resourceful

How to cut through the noise and become decisive and selective

How “I don’t know” is very normal–CMOs aren’t supposed to have every single answer

Why emotional intelligence, grit and active listening are crucial skills to utilize

This episode is a quick listen with no shortage of helpful discussion. Read and follow along for a few key takeaways.

On Filling The Gaps

As we heard in Episode 15 of the Emerging Biotech Leader, CMOs interface across so many contacts: the board, KOLs, patient advocacy groups as well as their CEO. Adding to that, the CMO also oversees study design and the science behind a therapeutic or treatment.

“The toughest role of the CMO is to fill the gaps as one person,” Hootan shared. “There is a lot of complexity and it can be a lonely road if you don’t have a real thought partner to help you narrow down the options, solve puzzles and help you execute.”

As a new CMO, stay optimistic that constraints will uncover new ways for you to do more with less. And your newfound resourcefulness will become an in-demand skill regardless of future funding and headcount by helping you build an agile approach to problem-solving.

Why An Open Mind is Key

Ramin, Kim and Hootan acknowledge that it’s impossible for a CMO or any new biotech leader to have the exact answer for every question and challenge. Why? Regulatory alone is changing at a fast pace, not to mention the unique situations brought on by current funding pendulums, rapid digital advancements and the economy.

“You always have the option to get close to and gain advice from advocacy groups, and other organizations that can help you out. There are also consultant firms out there who have “been there, done that” and have worked with many different clients who can provide good advice as well. I think overall, you kind of have to keep an open mind and be open to getting advice, knowing and feeling comfortable with what you know and understanding that there’s a lot that you don’t know.”

Here’s how Hootan advises that you prioritize: be selective on where you put your energy and focus. There’s the scientific knowledge responsibility of the CMO then the other task of boiling down the data. “It’s normal to say, ‘this is what I know, this is what I don’t know.’ Break things into smaller pieces of the puzzle.”

As Kim hears each of these characteristics and traits, she brings up the topic of learning agility and grit.

“Be willing, on the grit side, to do the work! It’s doing the work of learning, it’s doing the work of translating it. It’s doing the work of connecting all of these critical pieces within the business internally, as well as bridging to the external community, whether it’s the board, investors, KOLs patients, but also bridging to your commercial colleagues and bridging to your other R&D colleagues, the CSO marketing and other functions internally.”

In response, Hootan weighs in that EQ is another critical skill. Active listening and self-awareness will help you take in the information that you receive, then analyze what you will do with that information and better explain yourself.

“Use active listening to narrow the questions on what is clear and what is gray.”

Ramin specifies as well, “You have to make sure that your voice is heard and your perspective is there for discussion, whether it’s with internal folks or externally.”

Continued Thoughts On Organizational Structure

As a piggyback on Episode 15, Kim is curious about Hootan’s thoughts on organizational structure. From his POV, here’s what works and doesn’t work for the CMO reporting relationship. We hope you love his answer as much as we did.

”There’s no such thing as optimal. There’s different paths for different organizations, for different reasons and different stages. Instead of quicksand, it’s slow sand. It’s hard to predict what’s going to change when. What is ideal is a modular or evolving support structure with key points that are constant.”

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