By Mahesh Karande
Technology startups, whether in biotech, tech, AI, or some other field, share many fundamental characteristics. Certainly, one of their greatest challenges is that, by definition, they have no established structure or culture and no institutional memory for operational processes. However, this challenge also can be viewed as a positive, since a company that is a tabula rasa means that its founders can shape its vision, culture, structure, and operational processes. But that’s a major task that demands the attention and commitment of all a company’s leaders. Ultimately, it comes down to leadership. Entrepreneurs and leaders who can create and implement the needed foundational cultural elements are the ones who find success.
FINDING THE RIGHT TEAM
The smaller number of employees typically found in a startup makes hiring decisions really critical, since everyone on the team will carry broader responsibility. This translates into a greater impact on the company itself and other employees than is true in siloed, large companies. A startup’s employees also need to have high learning agility and be flexible enough to work across the company with everyone else and deliver results while being comfortable with change. How can the entrepreneur screen potential hires for these qualities?
One way to identify potential employees with these qualities is to analyze how the individual traits and characteristics that make employees successful within a large company will translate into success at a startup. In the pharmaceutical and biotech industry, for example, individuals who have worked for a multinational Big Pharma often have worked within very structured, well-articulated processes that engender a level of discipline and structural conformity. Startups can benefit from these skills, and while, in theory, everyone from Big Pharma could transition to a smaller startup, in practice many who find comfort within the structures of large companies struggle to adapt to a startup environment.
Here is where learning agility plays a significant role. How flexible individuals are in terms of their ability to think critically, navigate the organization, adapt to change, be results-oriented, and work well with people are key traits that an entrepreneur leader should look for. This character trait — learning agility — can sometimes be inferred from how well individuals have done at a large company, especially by separating themselves from the groups of people who are happy working in their silos.
Another valuable characteristic of a potential hire may be determined from examining how well-rounded their experiences have been in a large company. Startups benefit from flexible employees who have had varied experiences, both in life and in their previous employment. While specialized skills can be developed in the siloed environment of a Big Pharma, working in different parts of the organization — or the world — for example, engenders a different and more well-rounded perspective. Working across cultures around the world also generates humility in one’s approach. When one works in fast-paced markets or in smaller or emerging markets, roles automatically come with broader remits. Furthermore, lack of resources and thinner talent pools due to competition enable entrepreneurially minded people to take on more and develop a much broader skillset early on. Such individuals will have been obliged to develop innovative ways of working, which is an invaluable perspective in a startup as it faces many unexpected challenges in its progress.
"Entrepreneurs and leaders who can create and implement the needed foundational cultural elements are the ones who find success."
These are the skills I look for when bringing in talent from a large organization to a small one: having experience with different job types, different cultural sensibilities by potentially living in different countries, and working in different aspects of business itself. That said, there is high value in considering what knowledge base potential employees from large companies may bring, since the size and scale of operations at Big Pharma provide the background and expertise required for a startup to perform well. Much as an athlete will practice a maneuver over and over, Big Pharma requires so much repetition of processes that successful individuals gain a phenomenal understanding of ways of working that can be valuable to a small biotech. Bringing this foundational knowledge into a small company, combined with the ability to adapt to change, is what helps entrepreneurial organizations find success.
The most successful individuals are those who can translate and tailor their prior experiences to the varied tasks at hand in a startup, and that’s what I try and gauge when building a team.
A CASE IN POINT: MY PERSONAL EXPERIENCE
In my case, I have been very fortunate. Beginning my career at McKinsey & Company and then at the bottom of the Novartis pyramid, I learned the fundamentals of business and pharmaceutical marketing. Later, I was able to transition to corporate development, strategy, and business development. In 2010, I moved to Switzerland through Novartis and was based there for some time. I traveled extensively, gaining the perspective that comes with experiencing different cultures, looking at different business models, and working with different healthcare and government systems and pricing models. As my responsibilities evolved, I was fortunate to have had those experiences that gave me a flexible worldview, as I was tasked with leading Novartis’ teams across Egypt and throughout Africa. My experiences in leading Novartis organizations through the 2013 political coup and ensuing crisis in Egypt, the 2014 Ebola outbreak in Africa, and the oil-related economic collapse of 2015 in Africa have helped shape me as a person and my approach to leadership, managing tough situations, crises, etc. These roles threw me into situations that had no “playbook” and forced me to innovate to find solutions to business, and frankly, existential problems, and shepherd the business and my teams to success.
I look back at these experiences, as an American of Indian descent, having lived in Switzerland, Egypt, and Africa in addition to the U.S. and India, who has traveled to and worked with over 70 countries across Asia-Pacific, Middle East, Europe, and Africa, with gratitude, as this background is invaluable to me as I now lead Omega Therapeutics.
THE VALUE OF AN ORGANICALLY INTEGRATED, FUNCTIONAL TEAM
As an entrepreneurial leader you are responsible for articulating the new company’s vision, priorities, and corporate culture. This direction and those expectations need to be embraced by your team. That team will ultimately be responsible for organically creating the underlying culture for your company.
How can you inspire your employees to embrace and live the culture you want? How can you all collectively achieve your company’s goals?
You need to rally the company around the overarching ethos; what you stand for, your belief system, and the mission and vision for the company. Set those expectations, and have your employees believe them. This goes far beyond crafting some mission statement. You need to develop and emulate the actual ethos — the real, defined values that you stand for and that you expect everybody in your organization to stand for.
In general, people come to a company because they want to create something that they value. At Omega Therapeutics, we sat down and came up with a blueprint of what our values should be and which behaviors exemplified those values, all based on our ethos: “Ambitious, yet Humble.” We also asked our entire team which characteristics they believed represented our ethos best. We then created a collaborative roadmap to ultimately define our set of values and behaviors. Now we truly know what Omega stands for.
When you have successfully assembled a team with the right backgrounds and experiences, your path forward will be dictated by how effectively you can translate the concepts of your ethos into tangible things that people can follow. It is a nuanced and complex process, but well worth the effort.
MAHESH KARANDE is president and CEO of Omega Therapeutics, where his experience running major businesses within a multinational pharmaceutical company is shaping his biotech startup’s growth.