Guest Column | June 11, 2024

Biotech Restructuring: Leading Through Ambiguity

By Denise Mueller, Chief Business Officer, Affimed

Denise Mueller_USE THIS ONE
Denise Mueller

The world of work is more uncertain than ever – and the biotechnology sector is no exception, especially as we see ongoing fluctuations in the market and shifting preferences among investors and potential business development partners.

Our industry is still slowly coming back from an industrywide plummeting of the IPO market in 2021. While we’re seeing recovery in some areas like the autoimmune space, emerging organizations in biotech now face a much tougher path – not to mention facing tougher questions around platform technology and product differentiation.

More than ever, we need to consider measured growth strategies to help ensure that investments lead to the generation of meaningful and robust data sets that can enable strong returns, but also secure future investment.

Today, employees increasingly find themselves bracing for restructuring of their organizations and all the uncertainty that can result, regardless of whether they are part of “Big Pharma” or a small biotech company. Hardly a day goes by that goes without an article about another big shake-up, biotech startups rolling up the carpet, or companies in our sector taking less than ideal paths toward ensuring financial survival.

I’ve seen more than my share of restructuring over the course of my career. I know firsthand how unsettling it can be to suddenly report to a new manager, find yourself assigned to a new team, or find out your position is targeted for re-organization. The stress of uncertainty can have a corrosive effect on your organization. Ambiguity can breed fear, anxiety, and, at times, a bit of paranoia. 

This can impact all levels of the organization, as employees are left wondering if others “know more” or asking, “when will this end?”  If we aren’t careful and thoughtful about the emotional impact of uncertainty, organizations can grind to a halt.

But what about the opportunity uncertainty creates? I know this is likely not the natural place for our minds to go, given the strength of the “fight or flight” response when we face fear. Obviously, one’s risk tolerance depends highly on their disposition, their career stage, and the needs of their family. But if you can teach yourself and learn from others how to embrace some higher degree of risk, you’ll find that some leaders and organizations can offer unique situational opportunities for innovation, growth, knowledge, and skill building.

Leadership Opportunities In Times Of Uncertainty

My advice to professionals in our field is that now, more than ever, focus on the critical ingredient to success:

Invest in your people first. For the leaders of most organizations, the need for greater focus means a greater focus on how to attract, retain, and develop talent when anxiety runs high amongst employees. The organizations that emphasize development and create learning or experiential opportunity in the context of restructuring will be the ones that benefit. Giving our people a unique experience created by a re-organization will undoubtedly lead to new skills and make employees better, stronger, and more confident.             

As a leader, this is a win-only situation. There’s no downside – and how often does that happen? You have either developed someone who will be better for your organization, or you have added to their skill and experience set, which will only serve them well as they pursue opportunities elsewhere.

Let’s be candid; we can’t always predict when layoffs and force reductions may take place. But what we can control is continuing to invest in our people, so they are positioned to succeed. Times of uncertainty give people the chance to learn from direct experience how to become “fungible, resilient, and readily able to adapt to new situations. 

Be candid about challenges. Those serving in leadership roles can’t instantly assume the benefit of respect from their people – in a time of declining trust, that respect must be earned almost daily. We’ve all fine-tuned our ability to spot disingenuous communications and have less tolerance than ever for platitudes and empty promises. If you want to really land a positive impression with your team, be candid and up-front about the challenges you face. 

Consider those times when you have created opportunities for people to “step up” and demonstrate leadership; restructuring is one such opportunity. It’s a chance for your leadership team to work with you through the uncertainty.      

Increase the frequency of communication and reinforce the concept of “candor and receptivity.” You want to hear what’s on their mind and let them know it’s okay to have some degree of negative thoughts.

Volunteer as much information as you can and make sure your direct reports and managers are empowered to speak freely and share information as well. Create opportunities to sit and have casual check-ins with your broader organization, not just your direct reports.

Put yourself in their shoes. I think back to the first time I went through a major re-organization. It was at a time when my personal life was very unstable. I was surrounded by uncertainty; survival was my only drive. It was not a fun experience. While my leadership communicated the business rationale behind the restructuring and status as to whether my role would be impacted, they failed to give me a platform to ask questions. And they failed to provide me with the opportunity to stand up and communicate that, even if my role is impacted, I wanted to ensure the success of the move forward organization.

While you will never be able to eliminate the emotions employees feel during times of uncertainty, you can try to reduce the level and pervasiveness of these emotions through authenticity and honesty. 

Lead With Empathy

Most of us have become accustomed to switching roles, teams, and organizations throughout our careers. The days of expecting a long career at one organization are largely over for most of us. Nonetheless, we all want these transitions to take place on our terms, and it can be unsettling to have external events like restructuring change our carefully constructed career plans. As leaders and managers, we should have empathy for the challenges and uncertainty our teams are facing – and commit to doing all we can to lead with that same focus on empathy.

About The Author:

Denise Mueller is a global biotech and pharmaceutical executive with nearly 25 years of success creating value for shareholders, stakeholders, and patients. Denise is currently the Chief Business Officer at Affimed.