Leadership 2022: Zymeworks CEO Ken Galbraith isn’t afraid to make the tough calls

After taking over the biotech company, Galbraith laid off half of the company's senior staff.

Ken Galbraith_Zymeworks

Credit: Zymeworks

After taking over the biotech company, Galbraith laid off half of the company’s senior staff

This year, we focus on those who have taken on new roles at the top of an organization recently, and quiz them about the changing landscape of leadership.

Ken Galbraith may not want “replacing scientific founders” to be his niche, but it kind of is. Having served on the board of 19-year-old biotech company Zymeworks until 2016, he was familiar enough with the company’s environment and people to be picked to replace CEO Ali Tehrani this January. The appointment marked Galbraith’s third time stepping in during a critical time to take the reins from a scientific founder.

“I think those scientific founders would agree—and I think Ali from Zymeworks also agrees—that they had stayed too long for their capabilities in the company’s growth and probably wish they had left a little sooner,” says Galbraith.

The UBC alum, who studied business, grew up in Vancouver wanting to be a chemist. “I just wasn’t very good at it,” he says with a laugh.

After graduation, Galbraith got a CPA designation and landed his first finance job at Vancouver-based QLT, one of Canada’s first biotech companies. He has since dedicated some 35 years to the industry: “If I can’t be a scientist, I can at least try and help scientists turn their ideas into real products that can get to market.”

Zymeworks—which moved its headquarters to Delaware in October but is maintaining Vancouver as its operational base—is in the business of developing and deploying cancer biotherapeutics. And its CEO is carrying advice he got from the late businessman, financier and philanthropist Milton Wong.

“He said: Eventually you’ll realize there are things that will make you feel more complete as a person in leading companies, and those tend to be things that aren’t financial and aren’t in the limelight. People at later stages want to do good, and that means focusing on getting products to patients.”

But the business of doing good comes at a price. Days after stepping in, Galbraith laid off half of the company’s senior staff and revealed plans to reduce the 455-person team by 25 percent, saying that the organization had grown “too big, too fast.”

January began with a bang. In the face of inflation, rising interest rates and a downturn in the stock markets, announcing layoffs would be a hard start for any new CEO. But Galbraith’s experience having worked with some 50 global players in biotech—most recently British investment firm Syncona, where Galbraith had also replaced a scientific founder as CEO—had prepared him to call it when it’s time. “We did that as fairly, as quickly and as accurately as we could to get to the size I thought we should have, which is around 300 employees,” he maintains.

Galbraith considers the composition of Zymeworks until then, which included many external hires, to have been less than desirable: “It didn’t allow people who were inside Zymeworks to have room to grow and develop and operate.” That doesn’t mean he hasn’t hired new people since he took over (he has), but he wanted a more appropriate ratio of new and old faces.

Galbraith claims to have drawn inspiration from a number of diverse pioneers since his youth—including some in sports. He remembers admiring Bobby Orr’s work ethic, how the hockey star would “rather have an assist than a goal,” and he applies the same principles in his own work. As a result, his definition of growth isn’t always quantifiable.

“I sat with my 19-person management team in Seattle in August. Of those 19 people, only five were senior management when I started. So, I’ve got 14 new leaders sitting at my table somewhere in the organization, but not in the leadership function. That was ‘scale’ for me,” Galbraith explains.

Zymeworks is going through a metamorphosis as it expands beyond Europe into Asia. Part of building a stable of leaders from scratch is to refresh how the company thinks, so a lot of Galbraith’s new hires are people with global experience in the biotech industry who can support operations beyond Vancouver and Seattle.

At the end of the day, Galbraith says, the culture is up to those who do the work, from the COO right down to the new lab technician. But perseverance and bravery are important qualities to have, because the journey from invention to FDA approval is long and risky.

As Galbraith puts it: “You take the risks hoping that you’ve picked the right drug and developed it in the right way to get it to patients.”

Q&A with Ken Galbraith

Who are your role models today?

My parents.

How do you handle criticism? 

Not very well, but I listen.

Are you a risk-taker or risk-averse?


What book or movie had the biggest influence on you?

A 1983 magazine article from Maclean‘s describing monoclonal antibodies as “magic bullets.”

What is the most important skill for a leader to have?

Listening carefully.