By Lynn Johnson Langer
Many biopharmaceutical organizations are founded by smart academic scientists who recognize the commercial potential of their scientific discoveries. Often, these scientists are charismatic and enthusiastic, but as the organization grows and becomes increasingly complex, these traits are not enough to move beyond early-stage success. Experience and research show that coalition building and delegation are needed to move out of the start-up phase. Leaders need to surround themselves with a variety of trusted experts who are empowered to make decisions and who know they have the confidence and support of the leader. While the ability to delegate and to create guiding coalitions are not the only requirements for moving beyond the start-up phase, they tend to be two of the most critical.
My research and experience in biopharmaceutical organization development show how difficult it can be to grow an organization at any phase. But, it is possible by establishing a guiding coalition that has a singular, broad understanding of where the company is going and how it is expected to get there. Successful companies have grown by starting with a core group that understands the urgent need for change and comes to agreement on where the organization needs to be in the next three to five years. Typically, this core group, or the guiding coalition, can help move others in the company to a new phase of growth. The actions and words of individual coalition members help build the trust that is necessary to successfully lead the change needed for growth. With a guiding coalition, employees see their leaders as speaking with one voice and begin to internalize the mission and vision. Failure to speak with one voice causes employees to waste time and become confused about the company’s direction.
The coalition should include experts in key functional areas and often the CFO, a legal/regulatory expert, marketing, operations, and other key leaders. Along with the primary leader, the coalition can hash out the appropriate strategy to move ahead. Coalition members should be put in charge of what they do best because part of their job will now be not to just implement the plan, but to spread the plan objectives and encourage others to participate.
Things don’t, however, always work as planned. Sometimes, while organizational change appears to be progressing, employees who are not in favor of the change will work behind the scenes to undermine progress. Members of the coalition can help create momentum and also help increase communication about the urgency and need for the change and how the changes are to happen. Plan for and communicate small wins, so that these successes are seen by all. The reputation and trust of the leadership will begin to grow throughout the organization — this is critical, and will result in more buy-in for the changes.
The first job of the organization’s leadership is to set the strategy; this also involves supporting the efforts of the followers. Senior leaders need to allow other group leaders to determine how their groups will accomplish the goals necessary to carry out this new strategy. Communication needs to be ramped up between groups so efforts are not duplicated and professionals within the organization are empowered to lead change within their own areas of expertise. Delegation is critical and needs to be done within a relatively short period. With increased responsibility, employees will begin to take more ownership of their work. New ideas and processes will be created and carried out. The guiding coalition needs to keep the momentum going by continuously communicating the vision and emphasizing the importance of everyone’s role in achieving the vision.
Changing the corporate culture of early-stage companies is critical to ensure growth and lasting, positive change. With a consistent message coming from the top leaders, employees at all levels will start to internalize new ways, and the culture will become one of positive growth. With a core guiding coalition and a primary leader willing to trust and delegate, companies can successfully grow out of the early start-up phase to the next levels of growth.
Lynn Johnson Langer, Ph.D., MBA, is president emeritus of Women In Bio and the director of enterprise and regulatory affairs programs in the Center for Biotechnology Education at Johns Hopkins University, where she teaches graduate courses in biotechnology leadership and management. She is on the board of directors of TEDCO, the Maryland Technology Development Corporation.