People & Culture

Reflections on Leadership During Tumultuous Times

Posted By Nancy Simonian, M.D., CEO of Syros

July 6, 2020

By Nancy Simonian, M.D., CEO of Syros

2020 has unfolded in unparalleled ways and it has tested all of us – as individuals, leaders and organizations – in ways that we could not have envisioned at the start of this year. Amidst the upending of the way we work and the uncertainty and outrage swirling around us, I have spent a lot of time thinking about leadership.

Initially, my thinking focused on how we lead in the face of a situation that none of us has ever faced before, where we don’t have the benefit of having learned from past experiences what works and what doesn’t. More recently, my thinking has turned to how we as leaders bring about lasting change in ourselves, our organizations and our society as we confront the inequity, injustice and systemic racism that we have tolerated for far too long.

I believe that now more than ever, strong leadership comes down to three key principles: Lead with empathy; harness the collective power of your team; and make time to reflect.

Lead with empathy

Our people are under significant personal strain. COVID-19 changed our lives abruptly and dramatically, inside and outside work. People may be balancing work and children with no childcare; they may have sick family members; or may be struggling with loneliness. Now, add in the sorrow, outrage and disgust over the senseless killings of George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arberry and so many other Black Americans.

We are all grieving, and we need to meet our employees where they are with empathy and compassion. We need to extend our support and put the well-being of our people first. We need to let them know that we are here to support them and it is ok to feel whatever they are feeling – because we are struggling with many of the same feelings and challenges.

Which leads me to my next point.

Harness the collective power of your team

Our strength comes from the power of our whole team. Each of us will need help in different ways at different times. We stay strong as individuals and as a team by supporting each other. I am awed by the ways in which our team has stepped up and stepped in to help each other to continue to advance our mission of developing medicines for patients in need. While we as individuals have had dramatic changes in our lives, our team as a whole has come together to overcome significant business challenges from the pandemic.

As we tackle the unforeseen challenges created by the pandemic as well as the seemingly intractable ones created by hundreds of years of discrimination, we also need bring to bear the full power of our team, tapping into their diverse perspectives, backgrounds and experiences, their cross-functional expertise, the reach of their relationships both within and outside of the company, and expanding opportunities for people across the company to lead. We need the richness of ideas that diversity in all its forms brings.

The first line of our Core Values is: “We are one team, strengthened by our diversity.”

In early 2019, we established our Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI) committee with the recognition that we needed a focused and sustained effort to increase diversity, ensure equity and cultivate an inclusive culture. The DEI committee consists of women and men, black, brown and white, gay and straight, from different functions and different backgrounds, all of whom are committed to bringing about change at and outside of Syros.

When the pandemic first hit, we applied similar principles, creating the COVID-19 Task Force to address challenges that we couldn’t have predicted and that fell beyond of the purview of existing functions and cross-functional teams. We consciously selected team members to represent different expertise, experience, backgrounds, and personal situations to think through how to keep people safe, support their well-being, optimize work-from-home conditions, keep us connected, and develop contingency plans for when and how to bring people back to the office.

Make time to reflect

One common theme that keeps coming up for me through all of this is reflection. It comes up in various ways: reflecting on what we are going through as individuals, a company and a society; reflecting on what we do, how we do it and what we can learn from the challenges we face; reflecting on what is working, what isn’t working, what we should keep doing and what we need to do differently. Without reflection, there is no innovation, no change, no moving forward.

In the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd, it is clear that we have let discomfort stand in the way of truly reflecting on the injustices and disparities that exist. Many of us have been empathetic to social, criminal and economic injustice, but the truth that has been laid bare is that most of us have not done enough. To be anti-racist, we must do more than feel, we must be relentless in speaking out and acting, and we must be vigilant for the ways in which the biases that are ingrained in our society has imprinted on ourselves so we can unlearn them.

I am proud of Syros’ commitment to diversity, the work we have done to build an inclusive culture, our involvement in programs to increase opportunities for students of color, and our drug discovery efforts in sickle cell disease, a disease that was long neglected because it largely affects African Americans. I have been committed to diversity throughout my career, but in reflecting in recent weeks on my own actions, much of my focus has been on increasing the representation of women in leadership positions because that was what I knew and understood. I am not satisfied that I have done enough as an individual or as a leader of our company to increase racial diversity or address the healthcare disparities that affect communities of color and have been yet again called into focus by the current pandemic.

We need to reimagine what can be, question our assumptions, try new things and then reflect on what worked and what didn’t work and adapt. If we can do that now and going forward, I believe we will emerge the stronger for it, as individuals, as a company and as a society.