Exclusive: Johnson & Johnson’s Angela Coble on averting a virus crisis

“When we got into this our MD said I need you to park your tech hat and focus on getting our people and business through this.” - Angela Coble, director of business technology, Johnson & Johnson.

angela coble
Johnson & Johnson

In an interview last year with CIO Australia, Johnson & Johnson (J&J) director of business technology, Angela Coble, said the biggest lesson she learned in the past six years is that "a CIO is no different to any other leadership role in an organisation".

Now three months into the global COVID-19 pandemic, the statement seems almost self-effacing.

As the head of tech in A/NZ for one of the world’s biggest pharmaceutical and medical devices companies, the crisis that demanded Coble quickly adopt a “pragmatic command and control” strategy for managing the situation.

“When we got into this our MD [Susan Martin] said I need you to park your tech hat and focus on getting our people and business through this,” she tells CIO, working remotely from her home in the Hunter Valley, 90 minutes north of Sydney.

On Monday March 16, Coble attended a meeting with Martin and other senior executives with J&J.

“The next day we had everyone working from home,” she says.

All up some 1,500 staff had gone from operating in their office environments to being up and running communicating and accessing essential data and systems remotely.

For Coble, the job took more than being an effective CIO. Ultimately, the task demanded that she draw on all of her experiences and skills garnered within and outside of the profession.

For instance, she’d previously earned her stripes at the coalface of business continuity planning (BCP) for a large Australian organisation, and therefore understood the discipline and commitment required to keep things running in times of crisis.

Experiences in sales and marketing, and more broadly in managing large teams also held her in good stead, helping her bring everyone at J&J along on the immediate exodus to teleworking.

Blood rising

Already well down the digital transformation road before COVID-19, the healthcare giant has managed the transition with minimal pain and suffering. And by extension, the company feels confident it also served the interests of its many consumer and healthcare sector customers managing the acute challenges around supply and demand of products and solutions to combat the virus.

“At the end of day it’s all patient-centred no matter what anyone’s (at J&J) doing,” Coble says.

But the experience has led her to reflect on the challenges she faced over the past four years getting senior management – and staff – on board making the technical and cultural changes in transition to a digitally-led business.

Just like with the crisis itself, it meant she had to be more than just a good CIO: she needed to be a good manager.

“As a CIO you have role to lay as a technologist [and you have a] role to play in any plan.”

“As a leader there’s a discipline to it.”

“Most organisations need transformative leaders; someone strong and quick.”

One experience stands out in particular.

Key to Coble’s digital strategy was getting J&J comfortable working in the cloud, not only for the cost and management benefits that would accrue to her and her team, but to introduce a greater level of flexibility; a move which seems especially prescient now with COVID-19.

Back in 2018, she “forced” 450 staff to work in the cloud for a full four months.

Suffice to say, she wasn’t popular.

“I was on the receiving end of visceral’ reactions; I could see blood rising,” she tells CIO.

“It was a good test, but if I’m not pushing them and making them uncomfortable then I’m not doing my job.”

And regardless of whether she’s managing technology, sales or marketing, or as has been the case the past two months, a company-wide business continuity strategy, it all comes down to leadership and having people accept difficult truths and decisions.

“It’s my characteristics and strengths as a leader that have helped me help J&J get through this."

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