Beyond the CEO: Building An Effective Leadership Team  

Posted March 15th, 2018 by Ankit Mahadevia, in Corporate Culture, From The Trenches, Talent

This blog was written by Ankit Mahadevia, CEO of Spero Therapeutics and Atlas Advisor, as part of the From The Trenches feature of LifeSciVC.


The biotech twittersphere recently engaged in very thoughtful debate (resulting in a great piece by @lifescivc) about age, training, and other qualities that link a CEO to an organization’s success. It’s a critical topic, but in my opinion only one dimension of the conversation since nobody can develop drugs alone.

My view, formed from leading later stage and early organizations and observing several in the boardroom, is that the best measure of CEO leadership is the team he or she recruits and how they work together.  Truly great organizations should and will become more complex than any one individual’s ability to dig into it all. As such, the team and culture that a CEO builds to manage this complexity now and for the future are exponentially more important than anything a CEO actually contributes to the work of drug development (don’t tell my Comp Committee!).

We spent some time in a prior post about the early work of building a team from the seed stage.  Now, with a few more years, three clinical trials, and an IPO under our belt, we share some thoughts on how we’ve scaled our team with the scaling complexity of the company.  I appreciate the commentary of several colleagues (see great posts by @JebKeiper and @biotech1969 for example about talent and team building) and our team at Spero in writing this.

Running the enterprise as a senior team: lessons learned

At Spero our team comes to the table with complementary, deep experience; the team has collectively filed 7 NDAs, run 16 clinical trials, launched 4 drugs on the market, and taken two companies public. I’m unabashedly proud of them, and even more proud of how we work together. A few lessons learned as we’ve built the group at Spero and at other companies:

  • Team Remit: When we get together, we focus as a group on enterprise level In other words, we focus on issues that require us to get beyond our functional expertise and see the business as one complex, integrated system (for example, prioritization amongst pipeline programs). It is a continuous process to avoid the trap of padding the agenda with simpler, actionable decisions (for example choosing a particular vendor for drug product) vs true enterprise level ones. This also allows our teammates leading functions to own more decisions, as we expect them to take on increasingly more complex decisions as they grow their careers.
  • Size: We are a major subscriber to the rule of 7 (or preferably fewer): a good body of scholarship suggests complex decisions are best taken in groups smaller than seven (see here for example). We are choosy about inclusion on the senior team simply because each add has an outsized impact on efficiency. A colleague of mine at another company inherited a senior team of 15 people, and often found he had to tackle the true enterprise level decisions in a “meeting before the meeting” to make headway..
  • Skills: Membership on the senior team tends to amplify that individual’s function as a driver in strategic decisions, so we tend to focus on disciplines that are a) most relevant to the current and upcoming stages of the company (for example, Legal may not make sense for a seed stage startup) and b) are the most critical inputs to enterprise level decisions (clinical for example).  We have found the skill mix of the team matters greatly as it shapes the trajectory of our decisions; for example our decision to have senior commercial expertise on board very early has paid dividends for us in picking the right programs for the portfolio.
  • Phenotype: We strive for every team member to be an A player; the senior team is no exception. Our opinion is that there are three components of an A senior team member
    • Deep experience in the discipline in question – since a biotech typically won’t have multiple senior experts in the same function, this individual has to be the expert or be able to find them.
    • Comfort with complexity, ambiguity & uncertainty – many of the decisions we tackle will not have a perfect answer or perfect data to guide them and this needs to not be an existential crisis.
    • A willingness to make decisions collectively – nobody knows everything, and folks that think they do need not apply.

Adapting as the enterprise scales

As a company grows, there’s an opportunity to empower a next level of leaders to begin to debate important questions facing the company as well.   As we approached 30 people in size we instituted a broader Leadership team to complement the senior team, including VPs and key functional leaders.  This is an opportunity to expand the discussion and sharing of enterprise level information, especially to include members of our team closest to the data. Also, it’s an opportunity to build the next generation of leaders at the company to tackle enterprise level issues (which will be necessary as we scale even further).  We tend to choose issues that are less time sensitive given the logistics of getting a larger group together (see above).

Parting thoughts

The CEO job is often referred to as a lonely one, but to us the conception of CEO as a person on an island is a myth if we’ve built the “system” right.  To us, a CEO’s job is to build the systems that sustain organization-wide success over time.  The first, and a critical element of the system is an A+ senior team.  My interaction with the groups we’ve assembled, in service of bringing drugs to patients, are some of my most rewarding experiences in biotech,. Our teams make the job fun; in the end that’s why we come to work every day.

Ankit Mahadevia

Serial biotech entrepreneur and executive
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