Times change. Industries – surely including biopharma – need to change with them. So, too, the executives leading companies through those transformations?
Well, perhaps not so much.
When I asked John Webber, President, GForce Life Sciences, what he thought about the need for a different type of leader in this modern era, he instead spoke of consistent behaviors.
“The traits I consider most important for the C-Suite in the biopharma industry are those that have been around for a long time,” he replies. “It’s just that some leaders exhibit and stay true to them through changing times, and others do not.”
The first of those traits? Listen up.
Leading The Leadership List
If Webber had to pick (I insisted) the top trait that today’s biopharma and service-provider companies need in their senior leaders, he’d start with, “Be a good listener.”
Did I hear him correctly?
According to Webber, the skill of listening is even more important than in the past. Active listening allows leaders within changing macro and micro environments to learn about and monitor both those milieus, from his team and other colleagues, other professionals, customers and markets, suppliers, and so on.
“Listening,” says Webber, “helps executives continue to learn more about your business. When you know more about your business and it’s environment, you make better decisions, strategically and tactically.”
The flip side of good listening is being a good communicator. “This doesn’t mean CEOs give good speeches,” explains Webber, despite the fact that there is an increasing emphasis on this public-presentation side of our biopharma leaders.
“This is all about clarity,” he continues. Make known what your goals are, and why. “Cascade this to the teams responsible for delivering these goals. Keep them updated related to attainment of the goals. If people don’t know what the bigger picture is, they see their role simply as a job to do. If people feel they are contributing to something bigger, they’ll offer more ideas, and the company will get better performance.”
Webber’s third, related trait is likeability coupled with fairness. Leaders do in fact need to be likable, again perhaps more than ever in this era when employees seem to have less patience for even a brilliant CEO who also happens to be overbearing or unapproachable.
“No one wants to work for a tyrant,” says Webber. Teams respect their manager if they feel he or she is fair – holds them accountable when necessary, but not in a demeaning way. “Colleagues want to work harder for leadership if they know they have their backs, will treat them fairly, and are approachable. Motivation by fear doesn’t work in the long run. It’s a candidate’s market, and people will choose to leave,” Webber sums up.
A Hiring Mistake
I ask Webber what mistakes bio/pharma companies make when hiring executives.
“Unlike stocks and mutual funds, past performance is a predictor of future results!” he says. He rues the fact that when hiring, too often the “reference box” is perfunctorily checked off. Companies may feel they’ve done adequate investigating of careers, but Webber says pursuing references carefully is as important as any other part of the interview process.
He warns that executive-level candidates are on their best behavior in interviews, and often are good at “managing up” in those settings. But Webber wants a clearer picture of how prospective hires treat others. “Leadership roles are such critical hires. If you end up poisoning the waters with a bad choice, you may not know it until members of their team are long gone.”
So even though deeper reference checks can be particularly difficult for executives, “Getting that completely unfiltered reference is very powerful,” says Webber. “If you like a candidate enough to consider moving forward, then do your due diligence.”
As an example, Webber relates an experience with a biotech that needed to hire a new CEO. “First we found out from the process why the previous person was no longer there: His style was not received well, people began tuning him out, and he became an ineffective leader.” With that in mind, as candidates were being interviewed to replace him, Webber says one was most impressive.
“She said all the right things,” recalls Webber. “But we slowed the process down, and spoke directly to her references. One shared a story that helped us realize the candidate would in fact not be a fit with our client. We ended up saving time, and reputation. Had we not weighted those references just as heavily as experience and profile, the wrong hire could have been made”
Leaders At Drug Sponsors And CDMOs
Webber offers some specific advice to Outsourced Pharma readers when recruiting for your leadership roles today.
First, it’s important to go back to the concept of emotional intelligence (EQ) versus intelligence (IQ). Organizations should place an emphasis on the ability to build relationships, and on the ability for “empathetic communication to engage a company from top to bottom.”
“We know most of our clients have the IQ piece,” says Webber. “That’s a permission to play – what gets them in the candidate door. But it’s the EQ that propels the candidate to the top. Biopharma companies should look to the EQ piece as the differentiator for their leaders.”
Webber recalls working with a biotech looking for a leader to “take them to the next level, in terms of growth and market expansion.”
The first line of thinking was to find a former or current CEO who had ‘been there and done that’: Just press ‘repeat’ on their previous experiences. Instead, Webber’s organization presented a candidate with more recent – and relevant – experience in sales and market expansion, but who hadn’t yet led an entire organization. The CEO candidate herself was excited to take on the challenge, and learn new things while charting the company on a path to success.
According to Webber, often clients are too rigid to realize they can hire someone with a good background yet some gaps in his or her resume – but who exudes the right culture fit. “Good candidates want to learn as well. If they exhibit a strong ‘figure it out factor,’ it’s key.”
Webber says all of the discussion above also applies to service-providers, but in addition, he mentions the fact that CDMOs must focus intently on servicing their clients with “top notch performance and communication.”
“It’s very competitive in the outsourced market, and price is important, but not the only piece,” says Webber. “It’s a huge difference if a drug developer can trust their providers. The CMO/CDMO leadership must be able to provide clarity to their biopharma clients as well. This builds that trust – in good times and bad times. If this attitude is spread throughout the organization, clients will have that positive customer experience. These are the type of leaders service providers must focus on bringing into their organizations.”
Listen up; communicate out; EQ and IQ.
Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss … was supposed to be.