Published April 20, 2004
Volume 12, Number 4

Dr. Heiner Dreismann Finds the Keys to Life - and Understanding - in his Career at Roche

By Jay Hipps

“A good farmer is one who feels Mother Nature, who feels some dimension of complexity,” recalls Dr. Heiner Dreismann of his youth in rural Germany. “They know what the weather will be, they make accurate predictions about what the harvest will be. I was always amazed at that. I never reached that level of intuition but there were some role models that I saw early in my life, people who really worked in a complex situation and mastered it.”

Dr. Heiner DreismannEarly experiences can set a tone for what is to come and so it is that many of the lessons Dr. Dreismann learned there are ones that have carried through with him to this day. Mastering a complex situation to achieve practical results, as the farmers he recalls endeavored to do, is one of the strongest themes in his life and career.

“You need to face reality very soon in your life if you work on a farm, help the farmers with the harvest and so on,” he says. “My parents were not farmers but my ancestors used to be farmers. It’s a good selection mechanism to be a pretty practical person.”

The knowledge that observation could enhance the understanding of the world gave Dr. Dreismann a direction for his academic studies as well.

“I was always fascinated by biology,” he says. “It’s the complexity of life that fascinates – to understand as much as humans can understand complexity, to do what we can do and to use this to our advantage.”

After earning a Ph.D. in molecular biology at the University of M¸nster in Germany, he did post-doctoral research on microbial genetics in Paris. His first job in industry was with a company that specialized in creating strains of enzymes for the production of bread, leather, and perfumes. Roche then approached him and he moved to Switzerland to begin his employment with the company. His time at Roche, where he has worked in such disparate fields as manufacturing, research, and marketing, has rewarded him with a wealth of experience that he carries into his current role as president and CEO of Roche Molecular Systems, the fastest growing business area of the 18,000-person Roche Diagnostics.

Despite the diversity of experiences in his career, however, his goal has remained remarkably constant: to observe the complexity of the world as a way of reaching an understanding and to use that knowledge in practical ways to benefit people.

This approach meshes perfectly with that of his company. On the scientific front, he illustrates this point by talking about the ability of Roche’s assays to determine not only the presence but the quantity of a given virus in a human body. Here, a tool which allows a greater level of observation also creates new avenues for action.

“We can detect one single virus,” he says. “Never in the history of mankind could you analyze one single molecule, one single virus. We introduced eight years ago the HIV Monitor, which was the first assay in the world that could quantify the AIDS virus in the bloodstream. You could see how many viruses are in the bloodstream, and that’s extremely important information.”

Why is it important? To start with, it means that doctors can more accurately gauge the dosage of medicine needed to achieve a desired effect. This technology can also speed the development of new drugs as it allows for an immediate, objective means of measuring the impact of a drug on a given virus.

“The entire development of HIV drugs would not have been possible without this kind of diagnostic assay,” he adds. “It’s a wonderful success story.”

In fact, this heightened ability to observe is creating a revolution in medicine. Dr. Dreismann notes proudly that Roche will soon launch an assay for human papilloma virus (HPV), some strains of which are known to cause cervical cancer.

“If you would test all women at the age of 30 or 35, we could avoid 98 percent of all cervical cancer cases that are occurring. It’s a relatively inexpensive test –  a few dollars, like a pregnancy test.”

Roche assays, he adds, are also being developed for breast cancer, osteoporosis, and other complex diseases. While these discoveries represent achievements for his company, they are goals he shares at a profound level.

“It’s not just a regular job. It’s a good business to be in but more importantly, it’s the right place to be because you can change and improve a significant part of medicine. We will all benefit from this a couple of years from now. That motivates me a lot.”

Dr. Dreismann’s ability to observe also comes into play in his management style. He is faced with a situation at Roche that is becoming more common as the business world grows more international, with people from other countries and cultures working together on a daily basis. While he admits that this can cause problems, he finds that these differences, if managed properly, can create an environment rife with new ideas.

“(Coming from a) different culture doesn’t mean a different nationality necessarily,” he explains. “It’s just a different background, a different way of thinking, a different set of orthodoxies and taboos. Every culture, every profession, has different rules here and if you mix them, blend them, this is what creates value for your company… This is the ingredient for growth. Growth by definition is something that happens in unknown territory. You have to pioneer new things every time and the best help you can get with that is good ideas, so you can examine them and test them.”

Managing this cauldron of new ideas is a challenge that few have mastered but Dr. Dreismann has already identified several important guidelines. Observations must be connected to create understanding and when this process is to occur in a group, communication is all-important.

“Authentic and credible communication is key. Humans can do a much better job if they respect each other and really listen to each other and respect different cultures.”

This means that Dr. Dreismann encourages face-to-face meetings when possible. He encourages his managers to avoid using e-mail when possible, noting with a smile that “the e-mail terror is everywhere,” and points out the rewards of two-way communication.

“You only find (understanding) if you talk to someone, if you answer his question, if you have patience… but you are rewarded by this because you learn and you master this dimension of complexity much better.”

There is one secret he has that makes all this work, that keeps the different languages and cultures at Roche from turning the company into Hacienda’s own Tower of Babel. That secret is simple but is yet to reach the many business school curricula: Hire people who are good listeners.

“If you just have the ability to listen, you are an international person. This goes across all boundaries and all cultures. This is a skill set that we try to bring into the company, a personality trait that you have or don’t have. The rest is experience and you can get exposed to this.”

Just like his company, Dr. Dreismann pursues discovery, the mastery of a complex situation so that one might achieve a desired result. His discovery is that the process of achieving this level of proficiency has a common formula, whether it is being applied in the development of a new product or a new management technique. Observation leads to understanding; understanding gives the capacity for action; further observation of those actions brings mastery.

It all begins with watching – and listening.


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