A portrait photo of Steve Cutler, CEO of ICON plc.

“I encourage people to collaborate and, in many cases, compromise.”

Dr Steve Cutler | CEO of ICON plc


"I encourage people to collaborate and, in many cases, compromise," says Dr Steve Cutler, CEO of ICON plc. "You rarely get everything you want."

Cutler has a pragmatic and unobtrusive view of leadership, one where the role of the CEO is to "hire the best people possible and let them do their thing". But as the business world faces into a "choppy year", as Cutler puts it, he is acutely aware that many people will look to him for guidance on the way.

"In times of volatility, you need a steady hand and a calm influence at the top," he says. "Things are neither as bad nor as good as they seem. It's always somewhere in the middle, so the CEO needs to paint a realistic but optimistic picture of where the organisation is headed."


A photo of the side of a modern building, looking upwards towards a bright sky with some clouds.

“If you want to grow your business in a sustainable manner, you can't do it through M&A alone.”

— Dr Steve Cutler


Merging wisely

In addition to managing the inevitable challenges that will come in the year ahead, ICON plc recently completed its $12 billion acquisition of PRA Health Sciences and Cutler is in the process of integrating PRA's 19,000 employees with ICON plc. However, Cutler is keen to stress that this is more merger than acquisition.

"We didn't simply stick the two organisations together," he says. "We've been considered in terms of which areas we brought together and which areas we kept separate." And according to Cutler, the key to making the right calls is the objectivity of the CEO. "My job is to take a step back and look at it objectively," he adds.

"ICON plc is a strong organisation, but we're not perfect in every respect. And PRA brings a lot of capability and expertise to the table. Our end goal is to choose the best of both organisations and bring our people together on the journey, so that they understand the exciting opportunities available in the new, combined company."



Strategic tools

For the CEO of a notably acquisitive company, Cutler has a nuanced view of the role of M&A in growth strategy. "M&A is a tool. It's a strategic means of filling specific gaps or holes," he says. "But it doesn't replace strong organic growth."

This chimes with the findings of PwC's 25th Annual Global CEO Survey, which found that most Irish CEOs (74%) will seek organic growth in the year ahead while 38% plan to pursue M&A activity and 42% expect to form a new strategic alliance or joint venture.

"If you want to grow your business in a sustainable manner, you can't do it through M&A alone," Cutler adds. "You need to have a good foundational organic growth base. And as you strategically add organisations through M&A, you supercharge that."

That said, Cutler warns against the 'buyer knows best' philosophy, which can often afflict M&As and diminish their effectiveness. "There's always a tendency for the acquiring company to see themselves as the best organisation, and for the acquired company to be bringing a few elements to the table," he says. "But you need to recognise that you're buying them for a reason, and they are better than you in many areas. Recognising those strengths and making sure they don't get lost in the integration is critical."


A photo of two men and one woman discussing something while looking at a tablet device.

“Don't be afraid to over-communicate. You need to say things five or ten times before people hear and absorb it.”

— Dr Steve Cutler


People magnets

In M&A and beyond, one of the biggest challenges facing CEOs is talent management. There has been much written about 'The Great Resignation' throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, but Cutler has a simple philosophy to mitigate its impact on organisations.

"You have to work hard to retain your key people, and not just at the executive level," he says. "I call them 'people magnets'. They are probably at middle management level in your organisation and people like to work for them. They act as a beacon, and you need to find out who these people are and work with them to communicate the opportunities."

Once you do that, you then need to engage. "Make sure these people understand your company's vision, strategy, culture and values, and that they have the opportunity to fulfil their professional goals. And don't be afraid to over-communicate. You need to say things five or ten times before people hear and absorb it."



Evolving optimism

At the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Cutler worried about the prospects for ICON's business. Two years later, the company has doubled in size and has played a leading role in bringing the Pfizer BioNTech vaccine to market – the largest clinical trial ever conducted.

Although the future remains uncertain, he now has a more optimistic outlook. "The short term will be a challenge, there's no doubt about that. We have a war in Europe, we will see interest rates increase, supply chains are being disrupted, stock markets will be volatile, and there will continue to be challenges in the macroeconomic environment," he says.

At a company level, however, Cutler now knows that his "people can pivot on a dime" and his focus is on bringing his people together with a shared sense of purpose. He is also certain that the pharmaceutical industry has huge potential, provided it can build on the technological gains made during the pandemic.

"Regulators in the pharmaceutical industry are naturally quite conservative, and understandably so," he says. "But our mission is to bring our customer's drugs and devices to market quickly and safely. It is possible that the industry could revert to the traditional type of trial, but I am hopeful that we can take a step forward and embrace change. This will allow us to decentralise our trial strategy and monitor patients using wearables, for example, which will allow for more diversity in clinical trials.

"If we can do that, we will save more lives and improve people's quality of life more quickly."


Ger McDonough

Ciarán Kelly

Partner, PwC Ireland

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Ciarán Kelly

Risk & Regulation Leader, PwC Ireland (Republic of)

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