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7 Questions with David J Whelan
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7 Questions with David J Whelan
Name: David J. Whelan
Current title: Chief Executive Officer
Current organisation: BioscienceLA
David J. Whelan serves as Chief Executive Officer of BioscienceLA, the catalyst for life sciences and health innovation in the greater LA area, with a mission to accelerate the growth of funding, space, and talent, as well as messaging and awareness-building. Having spent 20 years in Los Angeles, he is passionate about leading the growth of a vibrant ecosystem that will create new opportunities for all stakeholders.
Dave was an integral part of the creation of New York Genome Center, where he served as Senior Vice President, Business Development & Chief Strategy Officer. Recent engagements include incubating a digital health and media start-up, steering a multi-year strategic and financial plan for a leading synthetic biology organization, launching a cancer diagnostic spinoff from a leading hospital, and developing a market assessment and strategic plan for an innovative integrative healthcare research institute. Dave has spent many years as a start-up advisor, mentor, and judge with organizations like Larta Institute, Cedars-Sinai Accelerator, and Women Founders Network.
He holds an MBA with Honors from the UCLA Anderson School and a BS in Symbolic Systems from Stanford University, and he remains very involved in alumni activities with both schools. He also studied at London Business School and Carnegie Mellon University.
1. What have you found most challenging as a CEO or executive of a large enterprise?
Staying connected to distributed team members, in a meaningful way, can be a challenge. This has been even more important over the past year of COVID-19 lockdowns, where getting in front of people in person has been nearly impossible. As the leader of a regional/industry organization, this challenge has been magnified by the need to connect leaders, early career team members, academics, entrepreneurs, investors, and other community members across a range of organizations. I find myself reaching out to new and old contacts to stay connected and find new ways to collaborate as we rebuild our relationships and industries,
2. How did you become a CEO or executive of a large enterprise? Can you please briefly tell the story?
I am a technologist turned businessman turned healthcare leader – building businesses and inspiring entrepreneurs at the intersection of technology, health, and wellness. I spent my early career in San Francisco, primarily as a retained executive search consultant building management teams for large and small enterprises.
In 2000, I moved to Los Angeles to get my MBA at UCLA Anderson School. That led me to a strategy and consulting career, in fitness and nutrition, aerospace, and technology. Ten years ago, I embarked on a three-year cross-country commute to launch New York Genome Center, where I served as Senior Vice President, Business Development & Chief Strategy Officer and collaborated on development of the business plan, fundraising of $115 million, and operational launch.
That role pulled me squarely into the aforementioned intersection of technology, health, and wellness, where I worked on a variety of engagements with small start-ups, larger organizations, and even larger innovation ecosystems. Last year, just as LA was shutting down with COVID-19, I was named the first permanent CEO of BioscienceLA, taking over this two-year-old initiative that was seeded by LA County and has backing from Amgen, PhRMA, Richard Lundquist, Richard Merkin, City of Hope, and Cedars-Sinai, among others. The vision is to be the catalyst for life sciences and health innovation in the greater LA area, accelerating the growth of funding, space, and talent, as well as messaging and awareness-building.
3. How do you structure your work days from waking up to going to sleep?
Having gone from a consulting life with frequent cross-country travel throughout the 2010s, to a virtual CEO role of BioscienceLA just as COVID-19 safer at home orders were enacted, I am not even sure what is normal anymore! For the moment, I am not missing air travel or an LA commute, so perhaps the new normal is a good thing.
Having worked with East Coast clients and collaborators for years, I tend to get up early for phone calls, Zooms, and emails. That gives me a chance to get in some work before I spend some time with my wife and two kids, Evan (10) and Gabrielle (6). I enjoy chatting with them and causing trouble before their school day begins. I’ve already had the first of several coffees, usually with an energy bar.
In the old days, I would be jumping in the car for a long commute, complete with NPR, CNN, and/or podcasts, but today I slip back into the home office for meetings with my team, meetings with partners, and focused time to crank through strategy and execution. I use tools like Calendly to streamline booking meetings with me, and I balance that with “heads down” time on the calendar that is safe from Calendly and my team. To create an office-like environment, sometimes the team and I get on an unstructured Zoom where we can work together but separately, with the ability to bounce ideas or share a screen when needed. Somewhere in there, I will whip up an assortment of kale, fruit, almond milk, protein powder, and secret ingredients for a lunchtime smoothie.
Before or after dinner, depending on timing, I make sure to get on the Peloton. That has been a daily habit for a long time, and even if I don’t ride the bike, I do something to close my three Apple Watch rings. Working from home has helped give me the flexibility to make that happen, including trying to replace one Zoom a day with a simple phone call, so I can take a quick walk at the same time.
Dinner with the family has been a silver lining of pandemic. I will miss that when I am commuting again. After dinner, workout, and perhaps some reading or TV with the wife or family (we just binged “Stranger Things” and cannot wait for season 4), I try to get to sleep by 10pm, so I can do it again the next day.
4. What's the most recent significant leadership lesson you've learned?
Over the past year, I have learned to lead “from the middle,” as I helm a regional organization where I am leading my team, guiding the community (including leaders of multiple organizations), and managing a world-class board of directors. This takes leadership, communications, and inspiration to an entirely new level. Every day is a new challenge but also a new opportunity to improve.
5. What's one book that has had a profound impact on your leadership so far? Can you please briefly tell the story of how that book impacted your leadership?
While I return to many books often (“The Five Dysfunctions of a Team” comes to mind), one book that I admire for its simplicity and power is “The Checklist Manifesto.” Having worked in both the aerospace and healthcare industries, I have always enjoyed how these come together in this book.
While I find that the simple prescription for how to get things right makes this book a must-read, I love its ability to impact strategic planning, meeting management, project management, and nearly every business process. I often share this book with new team members, as a way to get them thinking about the balance of creativity and process – not to mention the fact that so many collaborators are physicians who regard Atul Gawande as a hero.
6. How do you build leadership capacity in a large enterprise?
Building leadership capacity in an organization is not unlike building innovation capacity in an ecosystem, which is a good thing, since I am faced with both of these challenges in my role as CEO of BioscienceLA. In both cases, I strive to follow a few simple rules of thumb:
- Invest in teams and outside organizations to thrive in their areas of expertise, which will grow the capacity for the enterprise or the region.
- Delegate where possible, to help these investments deliver early returns.
- Communicate to inspire, in a way that serves as an example for those around me, both inside and outside of the organization.
- Recognize that the results of the team are greater than the results of the leader.
- Always recruit the best.
7. What is one meaningful story that comes to mind from your time as a CEO or executive of a large enterprise so far?
I am fortunate that my first business mentor was a world-class executive search consultant. Conrad Prusak taught me many things (I still use the mantra of “search never sleeps,” even when I am not talking about recruiting), but most of all he taught me how to listen. Ask questions to elicit those answers, sure. Weigh in with your thoughts when appropriate, of course. But, most of all, be an active, empathetic, and thoughtful listener.
That approach to business has served me well over the years, especially as I have continued to lead larger teams and organizations, and very much so in my current role leading a community of multiple organizations.
If you find me sitting quietly in a meeting or on a Zoom, I am likely listening. And I look forward to sharing my thoughts with you, when the time is right.