CEOs onPeople - In Conversation With Gregory Lucier, Chairman of the Board and Chief Executive Officer, NuVasive

February 22, 2016 Lee Hecht Harrison

Gregory Lucier is an established strategic thought leader and business executive in the Life Sciences, Medical Device, and Healthcare Technology sectors. In this candid interview, Mr. Lucier shares his unique perspective on how to build a team that’s capable of taking a company to the next level.

Lee Hecht Harrison: When you are new to an organization, how much time do you spend assessing the culture and leadership capacity?

Gregory Lucier: The way I run organizations is typically in 90-day plans. As an example, here at NuVasive, I laid out a 90-day plan to assimilate into the organization, familiarize myself with the leaders, and fully understand the mechanics of what was taking place. I laid out a series of meetings that essentially were interviews with a broad swath of the management – top, middle, and lower management – a broad swath of customers, a broad swath of the shareholders, and then any other constituents that didn’t fall in those other categories. This allows me to build an image of the framework of the company: where it’s strong, where it’s not, and most importantly, what needs to happen next.

LHH: Is 90 days a rapid response, based on the way other organizations do this?

GL: I would say 90 days is a medium-paced assimilation into an organization. Now, that said, it all depends on the situation. If the company is hemorrhaging money, if it’s under assault, or it has other pressing issues, that 90 days is way too long. That wasn’t the case here and it wasn’t the case in my former life either. But I’m involved in many venture firms and private equity takeovers where we move much faster than 90 days. But even in those situations, the work doesn’t change. It’s just condensed.

LHH: When you meet with people, what positive or negative signs are you looking for?

GL: I’m trying to understand their priorities; what are they working on? I’m trying to understand their progress; are they actually executing? And then I’m trying to learn about the person, because they’re new to me. Now, staying on the management side, as I said at the beginning what I’m trying to do is build a framework for the place. Is it functioning the right way or is everyone just doing their own thing with no coordination? Or is it well synchronized and we just need to tweak here and there to improve execution.

LHH: Do you try to create a whole new culture, or are you looking to improve the existing culture of an organization you have just joined?

GL: Let’s use NuVasive as an example. It has an amazingly unique culture. Purple everywhere, cheetahs are the mascot, practical joking going on — a lot of interesting things about the culture. For me, any organization that I want to be part of, the people have to reflect a certain set of characteristics. Ultimately, what I’m trying to create is a culture that respects the past, but embodies certain characteristics that I believe are required to be competitive in the future. I’m trying to do this without crushing the former and imposing the latter. In the case of NuVasive, I’ve been very respectful of the past. I’ve been a participant now in the practical joking. But now through my actions, my questions, how I behave in meetings, people are starting to see the characteristics I believe they need to be successful in a new culture that is being created right before their eyes.

LHH: What are the core characteristics that you want to instill in a new organization?

GL: The first one is a bit of a euphemism. Jack Welch at GE used to say back in the day that the most important thing you look for in a person is self-confidence. Not arrogance, self-confidence. Because if they’re not self-confident then the filter by which they receive all input is always getting completely warped. So I’m looking to see if a person possesses self-confidence.

The second thing I’m looking for is: do they have a game plan for what they do? Are they thinking ‘step one, step two, step three’ or are they just reacting to events and responding on the fly. I want to know if someone has that ability to control his or her destiny.

And then the last one I’m looking for is the ability to be a good comrade, a good debater, a good friend. All of that has to work in a very circular way. If you’re not self-confident, you rely heavily on playing politics. And that makes it hard to be a good colleague, a good comrade.

LHH: When you come into a new organization, how often do you find complete dysfunction and what do you do about it?

GL: That’s very unique to every situation, but I would say the wisdom I’ve picked up over the years is that even if an organization is completely dysfunctional, you have to be very cautious about removing everybody because it can inadvertently stop the company from functioning. Having temperance on the pace of change is super important. It is the mistake you always read in the newspapers: a new CEO is fired after only two years because the leader was actually too strong and moved too fast on change.

LHH: Can you share an example of when you came in and saw some fairly big problems? What was your approach?

GL: I try to ensure everyone gets the benefit of the doubt. In that 90-day plan, you’re interviewing everybody, you’re building a mental framework of who they are, who they’re not. Importantly, you’re also then putting a template in place of how the company’s going to function. You’re putting in place operating mechanisms, a rhythm to how often you’re going to interact on certain topics. And that allows you to start to see people behave relative to the work they’re charged with and relative to their colleagues. I like to go through a couple of cycles on that before I ultimately have to make a decision on people. That said, if you have a bad actor in the equation, you’ve got to move faster than that. I reserve the power always to remove somebody, and at this stage in my career I am not in any way hesitant to do so. I just want to make sure that I'm not making a mistake, so I’m going to reserve judgment until I’m ready.

LHH: Have you ever made a decision about someone and then found out later that it was a mistake?

GL: Most people, when you ask them to identify their biggest mistake, they say, “Oh, I didn’t fire Johnny fast enough.” That was not my mistake. If anything, I tended to move too fast on decisions to cut someone loose. When I became the CEO of a very big business in GE at thirty-five, I learned not to suffer any fools. So after moving to new companies, the mistake I made was to move too fast to get rid of some people. Now, at age 51, I have the wisdom gained through years of making decisions to wait and make sure I’m getting rid of the right people.

LHH: Have there been instances where you look back and say if I had it to do over again, I would have saved that person?

GL: Absolutely. When I left General Electric Company at age thirty-nine, I took over a biotech company out here (California). I was schooled in the heyday of GE to remove the twenty percent and run a super high-performance organization. It was a very Darwinian approach, and I took that to the biotech community of San Diego, into a decent-sized organization, and I was quickly seen as Attila the Hun. I was brutal. This organization was soft, it was a petting zoo, and I put the GE model on it and about 18 months later I had complete dysfunction. I had removed the wrong people and messed the culture up. Now I’m at the ripe old age of forty-one and I’m like, ‘what did I just do?’ It really was for me an awakening to better understand that it’s hard to figure out how fast you can implement change. Before making changes, be very sure you fully understand the informal networks that exist in a company. Once you fully understood those networks, then you can take action. And there’s one other important caveat. Every single company should have its own culture but as I said earlier, even though it can have its own unique culture, the characteristics of the people, no matter what, should ultimately be the same: self-confidence, control your destiny, and be a good comrade. And that can exist in a purple and cheetah place like NuVasive or a very cerebral, scientific place like Life Technologies.

LHH: At some companies, you took over for an iconic founder. Is that an influence that you have to take into account when you’re assessing people and forging a new culture?

GL: It is. You heard my story of Invitrogen (forerunner to Life Technologies). I would say I didn’t quite do it right there. I think at NuVasive I’ve done it absolutely right.

At Invitrogen, people loved (founder) Lyle Turner, but I don't think they actually thought he was a good businessman per se. When I came in, I realized he had created some dysfunction in the organization. And so being the guy with GE training I went in fast to clean what I thought needed fixing, and in the process I didn’t fully pay homage to all the good that Lyle had created. My approach wasn’t punitive, nor did I want to be disrespectful, but in hindsight, I realize I just didn’t pay homage to Lyle’s legacy.

At NuVasive with (founder) Alex Lukianov, we had a transition at the CEO level that was not planned in advance. NuVasive is tremendous—game-changing technology, strong reputation in the spine market and a unique and compelling culture.  But when I took on the CEO role, I quickly realized that, along with the leadership team, I needed to move fast to put new processes and systems in place to fundamentally improve our execution and continue our growth trajectory. This time around, however, I have paid homage to Alex, the greatness he’s done, while getting people to look to the future. I want to be respectful of the past, but then point the organization forward. It was a great learning experience for me to have done it wrong once and now done it right.

LHH: You’ve also played a role in several organizations as a member of the board of directors. Does the board have a role to play in helping move an organization forward in terms of its leadership?

GL: I think the board has a huge role to play. At Life Tech I had a very good board. I had a couple really good board members, individuals who had built companies and had been through a lot of trial and tribulation. They acted as very good mentors along the way. Not bosses, but mentors. My own view is that I make a pretty good board member because I’ve lived it as a CEO and because I’m also very cognizant of the difference between a CEO and a director.

The best advice you ever got from a board member, believe it or not, it was at Life Tech. I had come up on my 10-year anniversary as a CEO, which is a very long time in today’s very fast-moving environment. And one of my board members said, “You know, Greg, I always had a rule of thumb in my own career that when I got to year 10, it was time to probably start thinking about going. You’ve done everything you’re going to do, you’re struggling to keep yourself fresh, and it’s time to do some other transition for yourself.” It was great advice. And having good board members that have that perspective on when it’s time to go or on other matters is a blessing.





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