Jeff Winton, SVP, Chief Communications Officer, Astellas Pharma US

Everything in our business is about “changing tomorrow.” In healthcare our goal is to extend and help save people’s lives. My colleagues and I are in this business because we want to do something good for society.

August 2015

Astellas’ tagline is "changing tomorrow.” How does “changing tomorrow” apply to your role as a CCO?

Everything in our business is about “changing tomorrow.” In healthcare our goal is to extend and help save people’s lives. My colleagues and I are in this business because we want to do something good for society. We’re a diverse and talented team of communicators who have genuine pride for what we do. Everyone needs health care. People need important medicines to manage disease and improve health. The pharma industry has been maligned, but it’s up to us make the public understand that what we do matters: innovation in healthcare matters, and we have the opportunity to impact people’s lives positively. We truly believe it’s a noble profession and we are all proud to be a part of it.

In a corporation, you have to learn from the past, but we are always trying to plan for tomorrow. The only constant is change, but you also always have to remember the past and where you came from. Some companies forget that. Our company is still young, and I’m very proud of what we’ve been able to do in just 10 years.

How much of a learning curve did you face when you joined the pharma industry?

I have a bit of a science background from my undergraduate education, but I had to learn human health. I picked it up quickly because when you work in healthcare you are surrounded by a lot of smart people. By association, you learn a lot on the job, and my colleagues are more than willing to teach me new things. At the end of the day, however, I’m still a communicator.

Which of your life experiences had the greatest impact on the leader you are today?

I’m originally from upstate New York, and I attribute a great deal of my success to growing up on a dairy farm. It’s the best leadership training I could have received. I learned the value of hard work, harmony with nature, community, honesty, and trust. People who have grown up on farms are a special group of people.

My best mentor was my father who was never in communications. He was born during the Depression, and his father was diagnosed with polio. He had planned to go to college, but he sacrificed that to stay home and take care of the farm. Here was a man who never had the opportunity to receive higher education, and he was an incredibly insightful person and the best businessman I’ve ever met.

My dad died of heart attack at a young age. Both of my grandmothers died of colorectal cancer, also at a young age.  I’ve found that many people get into the healthcare industry because of a loss of a loved one.  Like me, they’ve decided to dedicate their lives to helping people enjoy their grandmothers longer or see someone’s father live.

Why did you go back to school and study world religion?

I’ve always been fascinated with religion. I grew up in a faith-focused family, so religion and faith are the underpinnings of how I treat and lead people. I believe in the golden rule and a lot of theological principles, and I believe those teachings have made me a better leader of people.

I have learned how to be  with people when they’re going through a difficult time. Many of us try to leave whatever happened at home, but the fact remains, we are people. If you have a bad experience at home, regardless how hard you try, it can crop up at work. One of my colleagues was sitting in tears one day after she lost her dog suddenly. We had a long chat and I mostly listened.

Studying religion teaches you how to listen and be with someone whether it’s a moment of happiness or sadness. That’s what communications is all about. If you don’t take the time to listen, you won’t ever get the message right.

What leadership principles are most important to you?

I find the Arthur Page Society’s Page Principles a great guide for how all of us communicators conduct business, and they are harmonious with my leadership values at Astellas. Here are three that resonate most for me.

Tell the truth: Transparency is imperative when you work in the pharma industry. When you ask people to put something in their body that you’ve created there absolutely has to be a level of trust there. We are now using social media to increase transparency and to tell our story. We recently conducted market research and the results showed that people see Astellas as being an honest and sincere company. I am very proud of the trust we’ve been able to build in our short history.

Realize a company’s true character is expressed by its people: I always try to hire people better than me, a person who will one day become CCO and take my job. I hire people who have different and better skills than I do. I tend to be self-aware, something I feel is an important trait for leaders. I have many shortcomings, which is why I hire the best talent that I can. It’s not easy for a lot of people to admit they have faults, especially early in their career. You don’t want to come across as not having confidence, but we should also not be afraid to admit when we don’t know something.

Listen to the customer: Our customers are patients, physicians, health care professionals, patient advocacy groups, the media, health insurance providers, government officials and policymakers, among others. We listen to our customers because otherwise we’ll be in the lab making a medicine that no one cares about or needs. My first job was working in patient advocacy with patients living with HIV and AIDs when the pandemic was in its early days and people didn’t know a lot about it. This experience taught me the value of listening in healthcare communication. People I was working with back in the ’80s, who were living with AIDs, are still alive today thanks to the efforts of the pharma industry. We learn a lot from our customers because they know the disease better than we do.

What does “Let Go and Lead” mean to you?

Trust people, let people do their job, be there when they need you. Don’t micromanage. A leader provides support and then gets out of the way and lets people do their job. This skill comes over time – I never used to be that person. Moving from the manager mentality to the leader mentality comes with time. Once you start to think like a leader, you are able to do other things, like work on strategy for the company. Because I trust my people, I can now work with senior management to determine the future of the company rather than worrying about small details.

That’s a big difference between a leader and a manager.  A manager wants the job done. A leader learns, listens, and meets people where they are. A leader never stops learning, and he or she comes to work every day excited to learn new things. I think the day learning stops being exciting is the day a leader knows it’s time to move on.


Interview By Megan Cauley & India Mayer

Fast Facts

Cornell University, Agriculture
Astellas Pharma US Employees
Approximately 3,000
Total Astellas Employees Worldwide
Astellas Corporate Recognition Awards
• Human Rights Campaign’s 2015 Corporate Equality Index Best Places to Work
• One of America’s Best Employers in 2015 by Forbes Magazine
• Listed on Newsweek’s 2015 Green Rankings

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