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Makoto Sugita, MBA Japan 2009

A welcome interview with Dr. Makoto Sugita, Senior Director of the Scientific Affairs Division at Janssen Pharmaceutical K.K. Dr. Sugita recently received his MBA as part of the McGill MBA Japan Program, class of 2009.

The interview was conducted by Philip O’Neill in September 2010.

Q. Can you tell us a little bit about your background?
A. I was born in Japan. My family moved to the United States when I was in high school, where I studied in a small boarding house in Minnesota. I joined Washington University, in St. Louis, as a Pre-med student, but found out that I wasn’t really sure that I wanted to stay in the States during college.

At the same time, my interest in medicine kept me going, and I actually had an interest in economics and mathematics as well. So, I was a Math major, pre-med. At the time of my graduation—in the 1980s—the economy in Japan was growing rapidly, and I found that I could apply to Japanese medical school. And that was, compared to American medical school, less expensive, and the education was very good. I decided to move back to Japan, in 1986, and I did a six-year program, and graduated from Tohoku University medical school in 1993.

I did my residency in surgery, and specialized in general thoracic surgery. I was dealing with lung cancer patients, mainly. During the 1990s, transplantation from brain-dead donors was an important social issue, and this was something that I was interested in. I did my PhD studies in lung injury and graduated from Tohoku University in 1999. After that, I did a three-year research fellowship funded by the Canadian Cystic Fibrosis Foundation; I was in Montréal at the University of Montreal, not at McGill (laughs).

At the time, I became interested in business. I met a businessperson who was from the pharmaceutical industry. He told me about the industry, and what a physician could do in the pharmaceutical business. Meanwhile, I was able to obtain a teaching position in medicine back in Japan, so I did four years in Japan, during which I enjoyed my academic life, and I also taught medical students, and did many surgeries.
But I wanted to contribute more at the macro level. I was quite happy with facing patients everyday, treating them individually, but I wanted to do things more on the macroscopic space. So I looked around for what I could do.

I joined the pharmaceutical industry in 2006, as a clinical physician dealing mainly with Phase 3 studies of clinical development or drug development. I was involved in a few global studies as well as some local studies. After three years, I was able to have a chance to enjoy a situation where the company was trying to establish Medical Affairs.

Many companies are interested in Medical Affairs, their goal being to generate additional scientific information and disseminate it to the external medical community and other stakeholders. This ensures that our medicines are used properly, for the right patients.

Medical Affairs members (Medical Science Liaisons or Medical Liaisons) constantly communicate with the doctors and pharmacists to answer their scientific questions about our products. With the accumulation of new evidence, it is our responsibility to respond to the questions in an appropriate manner, and to provide doctors and pharmacists with the information they need to assist patients.

I worked there as the Medical Affairs Director, then I recently moved to my new company. I do similar things, but the number of products is greater. And we have more products which are interesting, and I am now very excited to work on these new products.

Q. Are these products typically already in the market?
A. In Medical Affairs and Scientific Affairs, we mainly focus on marketed products, but we also collaborate with research and development (R&D) colleagues for clinical development. It is worthwhile to note that we have to be independent from sales and marketing. Our first responsibility is to assist doctors and pharmacists to make the right decisions for patients. We are prohibited from reporting to sales and marketing. As a part of a company, it is not easy to make our responsibilities clear, and that is really the challenging part.

Q. You have a distinguished career in medicine and academia. Why did you choose to study an MBA?
A. In my academic career, I was inspired to do research, and there were pure scientific or medical reasons for that. But for everyday things, I have to use an evidence-based approach. At the same time, I was working with people: patients, doctors, nurses and others. I always thought about how I had to work with them more effectively. This was a very important thing. But nobody taught me how to do it correctly. I could do it, but I wasn’t sure how to.

I thought that MBA studies would help me, even when I was in an academic field. In R&D, it isn’t that difficult, because it is science-driven. But as I was now working with sales and marketing people, I had to understand what they were thinking, what they were saying, how they thought. I could have spent 10 years trying to figure this out. But I wasn’t that young anymore, and I didn’t have that much time to do it. So I thought it was a good idea to study more constructively in an MBA program. But I couldn’t spend two years outside Japan. So I was looking for a program where I could work and study in Japan, but in a global environment.

Q. What are your best memories of the McGill MBA Japan Program?
A. The students were great. They come from different countries, with very different backgrounds, with very different attitudes toward their goals. At the same time, they are very friendly. We had some issues sometimes, but we always tried to work it out, so that was good.

From the studies I did, I remember the course on Strategy. For example: What is the difference between strategy and tactics? Even in the academic/medical setting, we have a patient who comes in, and we find that he or she has a disease that needs to be treated. So we have to think: How will this patient be in two years’ time? What is the goal? What is the best way to achieve the goal? This kind of thing, I learned through experience, but I also learned in a more formal way during my MBA.

I also found Information Systems (IS) interesting.. I never thought I was going to be involved with any IS project, but it turned out that after I graduated, one thing that I did was to lead an IS project in my previous company (laughs). That was something where I could immediately use my learning from the textbook, and it helped me a lot for things such as user involvement: how we set up the group, how we communicated, how we leveraged things through using IT. That was very interesting, and it is one of things that I remember. I enjoyed it very much.

There are two other points: one is cross-cultural management, the kind of thing that we have to deal with, that we have to think about everyday in management, especially these days. We have a very tight cross-functional team. And how we manage that, how we work collaboratively, how we do things effectively, efficiently, these things are very useful. The second is negotiation. It was a very practical course, and at the same time very academic. I actually have said to my colleagues that if they ever have a chance to take a course like negotiation, they should.

Q. Negotiation is something that you need to do all the time. And if you are able to create value, then capture that value, and negotiate everyday. Is that correct?
A. MS: Not just when you are changing jobs. All the time. I think it is very important.

Q. What would you say to anyone who wants to study an MBA in Japan, or is thinking about a future in business?
A. Many people are busy, and they think it would be very difficult to do an MBA, but once you start, somehow, you can do it. Once you are ready to apply, you are determined. Once you are determined, I think, in most cases you will be able to go through the program and finish it. When I was taking the program, I never thought that I would be able to complete it. But somehow, I did. That is how we reach the goal: through strategic thinking, and then using the right tactics. Doing an MBA is a project in itself.

Q. How about the other people you work with at the Johnson and Johnson family of companies; what are their backgrounds?
A. In my department, there are a quite a few withPhDs, and people with R&D backgrounds. Some people have [a background in] marketing, so it is very mixed, [with highly trained and educated people]. The main thing is the very diverse background. It is not easy, but it is very strong as a team. We can leverage diversity in many cases.

One thing I am trying to do is to get better alignment with regional and Asia-Pacific counterparts, as well as global ones. They are well-educated, well-balanced people. I have no problem speaking with them, or communicating with them. But, we have to think [about the medium we use when communicating] with them . . . how many times we send them e-mails, [and so on]. I think the learning from the McGill MBA Japan Program really helped me. Every time I communicate with my counterparts outside Japan, even within Japan, I have to think about communication, so the MBA really helped.