Up Close and Personal: The Naji Gehchan Story – On a mission to improve life

Chief Marketing Officer & Business Unit Director – France, Benelux & NWA at Lilly and Company, Naji Gehchan reveals his passion for improving health.



From the moment I met Naji Gehchan, I loved his positive energy. Later when I learned of his path that developed that energy, I appreciated it even more. Naji has never shared this story, until now. Read how a childhood avoiding bombs, the Red Cross and a chance internship created the man he is today. He is living a mission to improve as many lives as possible – both inside and outside his organization.
 
 
A few years ago, Naji was sitting in a workshop at Disney University in Orlando. As an icebreaker, the facilitator asked each participant for their first childhood memories. One after another, people talked of Mickey Mouse and superheroes. As Naji’s turn approached, he realized what an outlier he was. He decided to keep it light and fall in line. So, he too shared a childhood character. But his first memory was really about war. Born in Lebanon, Beirut during the civil war, Naji remembers moving around to avoid bombings, seeing his parents’ house destroyed and then rebuilding everything. 
 
“It was a lovely childhood,” Naji reflected sincerely. “Excuse me?” I asked. He went on to explain that his parents instilled in him and his sister the joy of living; even in the toughest days. “We experienced joy daily and had the attitude that every day was a bonus,” he explained.  “Overall,” he said, “I have really positive memories. You see, as a child you take what you get from your parents,” he explained. He was surrounded by people who loved him and that made him feel safe. And this set him up to appreciate the importance of trust… and love at home and at work, where you need to feel safe too.
 
As a little boy, Naji watched the wonderful Red Cross volunteers come every day to help his grandfather who was burned during the war. In Lebanon, the Red Cross does all healthcare outside of the hospital since they have no paramedics. He had always wanted to join the Red Cross They were the helpers through his childhood, and he wanted to be a helper too. It was a natural choice for him to pursue Medicine in school.
 
The first few years of medical school were disappointing for Naji. It was just memorizing, and he didn’t feel close to helping at all. He decided to join the Red Cross in second year. Naji wanted to be on the rescue team. After 60 hours of training he received a certificate to be a rescuer, but he had no idea about the lessons yet to come. It was the ultimate school of leadership. 
 
Volunteering for the Red Cross is a moral engagement. You are immediately surrounded by people you would never have met but with whom you have a common bond. You all have a single purpose and common values to help people. Everyone took their commitment seriously, he said. It taught him so much about commitment and banning together around a purpose. Naji compares this to his work today where he strives to feel the bond within the teams working together on the noble goals of ensuring patients receive the treatments they need.
 
Naji stayed in the Red Cross for seven years. The other volunteers became his trust circle, his friends and family, literally, since he ended up marrying one of his fellow volunteers! They lived from emergency to emergency from “usual” health issues and car accidents to terrorism and bombings from war. 
 
He recalls a particularly pivotal day that impacts him still today. He was 24 years old and in charge of a team of volunteers. In Naji’s words….
 
 “I remember that day, in the Red Cross ambulance, screeching toward a terrorist bombing site in Beirut... We were the first rescue team on the scene. I had just a couple of seconds to make the decision for myself and my team.... do we risk our lives to save others?  We went full steam ahead and spent the next 6 hours finding and saving survivors. 
 
When I reflect back, that was a defining moment. My life has been dedicated since then to serving patients and leading teams and organizations toward the noble purpose of making life better. After medical school, my humanitarian experiences and business school, I am proud today, to be leading teams in pharma, working daily to ensure medical innovations and discoveries reach the millions of patients who need them.”
 
From medical school and Red Cross in Lebanon to his move to France to pursue his business degree in healthcare management and marketing, helping patient was always his continuous storyline. 
 
There are seven big lessons he took from his childhood, adolescence and young adulthood in a war-torn country that he brings to his leadership today. In Naji’s words:
 
1) Resilience – sometimes things are tough, and it is how it is. We need to turn the page and rebuild. The faster we figure out how to take the positive from terrible story, the better. Everything can be rebuilt. When I was 9 years old, the war was over, we started rebuilding. Then war hit again when I was in Med school. My resolve was even stronger to help and rebuild. And the amazing piece? We always build better then before! 
 
2) Imagination – It is essential to have an environment where you can really imagine. Every time you think you can’t, just imagine…. For example, “Imagine there is no more patients suffering of psoriasis in the world”, now what do we need to get there? What if we’re crazy enough to imagine a world without psoriasis? 
 
3) Safety – we need to be able to say, “I don’t know”. Many times, organizations assume that people know what they need to know – but often they don’t. No one feels safe enough to say, “I just don’t know”. This is a big problem. Safe environments are critical to provide for people to speak up and ask for help. 
 
4) Trust - To build trust is a continuous journey. In the Red Cross, we felt so protected because we blindly trusted each other, we trusted our organization and the communities we served – and it was mutual trust. We need to build that trust in our work environment. It should be theoretically so much easier here than at the Red Cross where I was leading them into something that could kill them! But still, people in our organizations don’t always trust that their leaders or their teammates have their back. I always knew my Red Cross teammates would come and save me and they knew the same of me. I want that kind of trust in my pharma teams. 
 
5) Teamwork – The trust I talked about creates the essential teamwork the patients need us to have. We all have different backgrounds and different roles, but together we are serving patients – one common goal. The more we team together, the better we can serve patients. 
 
6) Feedback - It was the small but consistent things we did in the Red Cross that led to improvements. We never left the ambulance without debriefing. We always learned from what went well and what didn’t – both individually and collectively. We created this safe physical place to share feedback. It was often emotional. We fought and understood each other’s view. We built our strength as a team. Now, in business we have so many disclaimers but we’re all on the same team – we want to help people get better. We need to focus on this. Trust is again critical to this. People need to genuinely believe and trust in you and be open to giving and receiving feedback so we can all improve. 
 
7) Love and care - If you don’t genuinely care for each other, what is there? Our current world is in desperate need of love, hope and integrity. Our organizations too. I want to bring loving and caring into our culture. Last year it was my #1 priority to spread love in the organization. I said it to the exec team and to my team and they looked at me like I was crazy. But it started to spread. Now many people talk about it and it is funny to see the number of heart and smile emojis shared in the organization…  We all need to feel that we are cared for.
 
What do you love most about working in pharma?
When asked what he loves most about his work now, Naji answered simply, “I am serving patients”. He said he tries hard to help his people feel the pride he feels. He feels very proud that, with his team and cross-functional teams, they have the conviction to change things. They launched two products faster than anticipated with this obsession of getting those innovations to patients who need it. Those medicines have changed thousands of patients lives. In the clinical data they could see it was dramatically improving lives “and the team stood up to the challenge” and got it in patients hands faster then ever in France. “Today, when you hear stories of patients who saw their lives changed because of the teamwork done to get our drugs into their hands, it is just so moving… it is why we wake up every single morning!” he said,”. 
 
How do you spread your commitment to patients?
I asked him how he spreads his amazing patient focus. He explained that in every single meeting, he always starts with patients; how many patients they are impacting and what feedback they are getting. Even in his KPIs, he looks at how many patients they helped. “Every single time I go back to this purpose. I always end meetings with this question ‘Would a patient really care?’,” he explained. “If the answer is no, don’t put your energy into it. If it is yes, put your energy there. Let this be your decision tree,” he advised.
 
Why did you join pharma?
“I went to medical school and business school so I could impact more people. In Business school, I had some discussions with NGOs where they wanted me to go back to war zones. I didn’t want to. I wanted to have an even bigger impact.”
 
At the time, he did not know about pharma but as a physician he did not have a positive image of pharma. That all changed when, from Business school, he had an internship at J&J. This is where he discovered the real pharma. “I loved it,” he said. “I saw that I could have impact on thousands and millions of lives – bringing something so valuable to society and community,” he added. 
 
He chose Lilly because of their values. He loved how they develop people and their strong ethics. He felt the people had the same values as his. And he loved their history eradicating polio, developing insulin and the great marketing they had. He decided to try it, on a short-term contract in clinical research, medical affairs, then leading a launch in medical. That was 10 years ago. He then wanted to move to commercial as he believed he could impact more lives there, both inside and outside the organization. He became the Business until Head of Cardiology and now is the Chief Marketing Officer and BioMedicines Business Unit Head. 
 
What does the future hold?
His personal vision is to impact more and more people. “My future will take me to wherever I can impact more people. I want to impact healthcare in the communities I serve, I belong to or I come from. Whether it’s a molecule, or anything to improve their care, their health knowledge like the start-up we cofounded for the MENA region, I will always be looking for where I can have the biggest impact to improve patient care.”
 
Final words of wisdom
Says Naji, “Live your why - whatever it is - strive for it, spread love along the way – life is too short and so unpredictable to spend one more second doing something you are not passionate about and ready to die for – literally.”
 
Thank you Naji for sharing your incredible journey. How lucky for us in pharma and for us as patients around the globe that your path brought you to pharma where you are indeed helping others – as you set out to do as that small boy in war-torn Lebanon. We are all so very grateful. 
 
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To hear more of Naji’s thoughts and what he’s doing at Lilly, enjoy this video interview. In it, he shares wisdom around:
1) The critical piece to engage our people and our customers.
2) How he helps his people be patient focused instead of product focused.
3) Making bonus and remuneration of sales people more effective. 
 
 

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