By Jane Chin, Ph. D.
There is a gaping industry blind spot regarding sourcing executive talent. It comes from the assumption that a scientifically or clinically brilliant individual should naturally possess comparable leadership abilities. While brilliant scientists may indeed come with leadership potential, these abilities are often dormant and require developmental diligence.
The manifestation of this blind spot is most pervasive at the field-based medical science liaison (MSL) level popular with pharmaceutical and big biotechnology companies, where entire teams are staffed with doctorate-degree holders who act as field-extensions of the company’s medical affairs function. Companies assumed that hiring scientists and physicians meant these individuals would naturally garner the credibility of scientists and physicians in the medical communities and that these medical science professionals would come equipped with the necessary interpersonal skills to effectively liaise between the medical communities and the companies they represent.
This blind spot also is found upstream where high-level R&D executives may be plucked from world-renowned thought leaders in academia. These thought leaders are appointed to run large-scale discovery and development programs. For many such individuals, this transition is a significant departure from their academic leadership environment and may require a longer acclimation period than companies are willing to acknowledge. Scott C. Stromatt, M.D., senior VP and chief medical officer at Trubion Pharmaceuticals, said, “Scientific skills have to be developed over time as do managerial skills. The ability to diagnose and treat disease takes years of study and practice, and the same applies to running a department and managing people.”
Issues inherent in running an academic group are often very different from issues emerging from the need for efficient innovation in the life sciences industry, as observed by John Hood, Ph.D., chief scientific officer at Wintherix, LLC. Companies are engaged in a juggling act of delivering new therapies to market before their current products face patent expiry. “Government grants typically focus on posing innovative questions to test underlying biological mechanisms, whereas pharmaceutical focus is to address unmet clinical needs quickly and efficiently by making innovative therapeutics and testing them in patients,” said Hood. “The hurdles faced at pharma in terms of manufacturing, safety, capital risk, and market needs are unique and require a totally different mindset compared to even the most brilliant academician with the largest laboratory of postdocs.” Hood noted that academic scientists may work in an environment where being territorial about their ideas and narrowing their project scope are conducive to succeed. Failing to guard ideas before thorough evaluation in academia exposes researchers to the risk of rival scientists winning the race to publication and securing grants. Hypotheses of large scope projects are tougher to thoroughly evaluate prior to publication or within a defined postdoctoral tenure.
Rather than improving over time, this blind spot may continue to grow because of the changing trends in life sciences staffing practices. Edward F. McNiff, Ph.D., senior VP of pharmaceutical development at Agennix USA Inc., saw a shift from the incremental career growth that used to be the norm in industry, where industry-naive scientists acquired management skills through merit-based awards of increasing responsibilities and promotion. “These individuals would first manage one or two technicians, then a small group, then a department,” said McNiff. Today, there is a demand for what recruiters tout as “high potential” candidates who are then rapidly promoted into upper echelon ranks without the opportunities or the time necessary to acquire management skills. “Many people forget that they don’t teach management skills in most Ph.D. or M.D. programs,” said McNiff.
Bozena Korczak, Ph.D., vice president of drug development at PolyMedix, agrees. When the strengths and weaknesses of scientist managers have been identified, opportunities to use those strengths in a new area of responsibility are then presented. Korczak gives an example of a medicinal chemist who synthesizes compounds in the discovery group and was given the opportunity to oversee large scale manufacturing or product development. “This responsibility adds a different dimension to their current position,” said Korczak. It would require management skills to help with the interaction with manufacturers, the ability to set up project timelines and execute tasks in a timely fashion, and learning about the regulatory time frame for preclinical- and clinical-stage projects. At the same time, the knowledge gained during chemical synthesis of the molecule on the small scale provides continuity to a project and is essential in process development. As part of this new managerial role, the scientist manager would go to workshops and meetings and join professional networks.
INTERPERSONAL SKILLS DEVELOPMENT
Peer-based reviews (360-degree reviews) may increase awareness of interpersonal skills in scientist managers. Said Stromatt, “The 360-degree review by colleagues, peers, supervisors, and direct reports is often an eye-opening exercise that helps scientifically accomplished individuals see the impact of their [management style] in an organization.” Recognition of individual management styles allows life science leaders to customize their approaches to facilitate optimal contributions from their direct reports. An example is eliciting opinions from a diverse group in a corporate meeting. “Some individuals react well to ad hoc topics and can readily voice their opinions and are not afraid to do that in a group. Others may need time to collect their thoughts [i.e. getting data] before reacting to an issue,” said McNiff. “Thus, before closing a discussion topic where everyone might not have voiced their opinion, it is often good to make a statement such as, ‘if anyone has any further thoughts on this subject, please get back to me in the next hour or so,’ which allows the contemplators to contribute after the ad hoc discussion took place.”
The dimensions of interpersonal skills development that McNiff feels strongly about are the ones often taken for granted by new executives: the day-to-day interactions, as well as role modeling. McNiff sees a concerning trend of scientist executives displacing interpersonal, day-to-day interactions with email exchanges. “I always make a point of requiring face-to-face meetings and, in fact, have a rule that we never work with people whom we haven’t met in person,” explains McNiff. He adds that whenever he receives an email from a colleague in the next office, he gets up and goes to that person’s office to engage in the discussion. McNiff believes that the ease of emailing should not become an excuse for walking down the hall, and the impersonal nature of emails may in fact incite statements people would never otherwise say in person.
In addition to returning the “personal” to interpersonal skills, McNiff believes in “shadowing the leader,” which puts the burden of exemplary behaviors on scientist managers themselves. “If executives consistently run poor, unorganized meetings, then it would be hard to expect their managers to do it differently,” he explained. In addition to displaying leadership behavior for others to emulate, McNiff suggests scientist managers use teachable moments during meetings to establish rules of engagement, like not letting people interrupt or talk over their colleagues and making sure that team members are prepared for the meeting by sharing an agenda prior to the meeting.
A difference in mindset that underlies succeeding in academia versus succeeding in industry may handicap scientists early in their training. A collaborative and open stance may be viewed as dangerous to academic scientists whose competitive advantage in winning funding may rest on safeguarding ideas rather than sharing them with colleagues. Furthermore, scientists must contain their projects narrowly enough to balance the evaluation of their hypotheses with the termination of their postdoctoral term. “However rational that mindset seems in academia, being guarded and incremental is a recipe for disaster in industry,” said Hood, who suggested that one of the first steps in transitioning scientists into management positions is to widen their scope of collaboration and train them to focus on the overriding goal of bringing transformative therapeutics to the market. This requires scientist managers to become more open in communicating with their peers and to differentiate between studies that are on the critical path versus studies that are interesting but not immediately necessary.
Yet the accepted mindset for academic success such as safeguarding ideas to preserve competitive advantage may itself warrant scrutiny. In 2007, molecular biologist Carl J. Neumann published a viewpoint on the type of environment that fostered scientific creativity at a large research institute where he worked (EMBL in Heidelberg, Germany). He interviewed the institution’s scientific leaders (who were engaged in diverse research topics) to determine what work culture encourages scientific creativity. His research yielded three qualities cited as necessary in a good scientist: rigorous intellect, ability to get the job done, and the ability to have creative ideas. Of these, the ability to have creative ideas generated an interesting observation: that creative innovation depended on making unexpected connections. Further examination of what conditions would be fertile for such connections showed a need for a highly developed culture of interaction, collegial exchange, and mutual inspiration. It is not a stretch to conclude that a research setting truly optimized for innovative scientific exchange may yield scientists who are receptive for the collaborative environment of industry.
ENABLING STRATEGIC ALIGNMENT — WHERE INNOVATION MEETS COMMERCIALIZATION
In addition to scientist managers acclimating to the human resource component when transitioning to industry, the application of their subject matter expertise requires alignment. High performing scientist managers in life sciences companies are also excellent strategists who understand where their science fits strategically within the organization. Stromatt finds that there are often very interesting academic questions that scientist managers can ask that may in fact become distractions to the development and regulatory approval of a product: “It is important to be able to segregate primary questions [regulatory approval] from secondary questions [academic],” said Stromatt. Like Stromatt, Korczak sees good life science strategists as high quality scientists who tame scientific curiosity for the sake of getting product to market. “As scientists, we strive for perfection in the understating of the therapeutic target, dissecting mechanism of action at the molecular level or improvements in chemical structures,” said Korczak. ”Every experiment that sheds light on one aspect of the research presents other challenges and opens new opportunities for further exploration.” Thus, Korczak encourages scientists to plan experiments with application in mind: How would the results benefit the preclinical or clinical development of a compound? What are potential challenges that may come from manufacturing sites and clinical sites scaling up the production and usage of the potential product?
Hood agrees. “Many times, government grants and large companies focus on the biggest diseases rather than the biggest unmet needs,” he said. “One of the key issues in industry is to identify unmet clinical needs; industry scientists and managers must be disciplined not to waste time straying into the areas where there is no overlap between intellectual curiosity and clinical need.” Hood says scientist managers who transition from academia to industry must confront the free-market demands of making therapies available to the market that patients and doctors want and need badly enough to pay for. “That is the ultimate challenge, rather than quests for deeper biological understanding,” said Hood. This is one of the reasons why Korczak is a strong believer of coaching company employees on the overall project strategy and helping them understand the decision-making process. “Scientists are naturally curious people, and letting them in on the strategic vision for the company is very beneficial for their motivation and engagement,” said Korczak.
McNiff sees communication as a prerequisite for cultivating scientific alignment with corporate strategy and, again, puts the onus on the leaders for coaching their scientist managers. “Scientists cannot relate their work to the overall business strategy if they never know what is going on in the company,” said McNiff, who believes that executives must communicate with their scientist managers. “Group and department meetings are vehicles for letting people know the overall strategy of the company and making sure everyone knows what the role of the department is in meeting the goals of the company.” These venues would also be telling of the corporate direction, as resource commitments are made in these meetings. “If the company has a goal to develop a small molecule kinase inhibitor for the treatment of cancer and has not made a commitment to biologics, then it would not make any sense for a scientist to be working on a monoclonal antibody, even if it were hitting the appropriate target,” explained McNiff. Corporate communication should flow downward, so that scientist managers have the key information they need to move in the right direction.
MOVING FROM DEBATE TO DEVELOPMENT
The debate of who would make a better life science company chief — the scientists or the business executives — may continue for as long as there are CEOs bred from science and business. Yet, the undeniable reality is that innovators are often founders and originators of life sciences companies.
To be effective leaders, though, these innovators must have traits such as strong interpersonal skills and the ability for strategic thinking. That’s why it is urgent that we examine how we can cultivate these necessary traits for current generations of scientists who are appointed to the helms of life sciences companies, as well as those innovators who found new life sciences companies.