James M. Cornelius was hired as interim chief executive of Bristol-Myers Squibb in 2006 and expected to stay three months. Years later, he is still there, leading the pharmaceutical company as chairman and CEO through the toughest economic times in decades and managing to beat Wall Street’s expectations in the process.
We talked recently with Cornelius about leadership, as part of our series of conversations with chief executives. We asked the CEOs, representing a broad range of industries, not only what they did to pull their companies through the Great Recession but also what they are planning to do in the recovery period.
Cornelius has been a leader in the health care industry for many years. He spent 28 years at Eli Lilly and Company, rising to chief financial officer and board member before becoming chairman of Guidant, a medical devices company and Lilly spinoff, for five years. He retired in 2000 but was pulled back into service in 2005 when Boston Scientific and Johnson & Johnson were battling for control of Guidant. After Cornelius negotiated Guidant’s sale to Boston Scientific in 2006, he retired again.
But then Bristol-Myers Squibb came knocking, following the abrupt resignation of its CEO. Cornelius, then a member of the board, was asked to step into the chief executive’s job. At the time, the company was under the supervision of a court-appointed monitor in order to avoid prosecution for manipulating earnings. It was also facing the expiration of its patent on Plavix, its blockbuster blood-thinning drug.
In his conversation with Grant Freeland, a senior partner and managing director of The Boston Consulting Group, Cornelius describes how he has grappled with leadership issues over the course of his long and successful career.
Cornelius is not one to chase the latest leadership fads and fashions. He believes that leadership qualities are enduring, but that strategy in uncertain times is not. Bristol-Myers Squibb has fundamentally reshaped its strategy during his tenure. Excerpts from the discussion follow.