This blog was written by Deanna Petersen, CBO of AVROBIO, as part of the From The Trenches feature of LifeSciVC
Biotech is an industry that calls for leaders. It requires people who are willing to take risks, conquer new science, and have endurance for the many years it takes to develop a new medicine. In addition, professionals who thrive in biotech have the know-how, confidence and guts to tackle business goals that are covered in uncertainty and complexity. These are ‘hard core’ leadership traits, and they are highly valued in biotech companies at all levels of job responsibilities.
In my many years working in biotech, I have seen professionals at all levels and in all functions use their leadership abilities to open doors to new career opportunities and rise in their organizations. I’ve also come to appreciate colleagues and collaborators in my current and past work life who display leadership. They are among the most rewarding people to work with for the productivity they bring, as well as the gratifying and enjoyable work environment they foster.
So, with this blog, I have reflected on the leadership skills that I have found contribute to highly successful biotech professionals who are inspiring teams and influencing their company’s ability to achieve important goals. I hope to distill these leadership concepts into bite-size, actionable ideas so that you can strengthen your leadership talents and find new ways to be seen as a leader by the people around you.
Aiming for the TOP
The biotech industry has a large percentage of high achievers – people who are aiming to be a part of top achievements, for themselves, for their companies and for patients who need new medicines. I will use the word “TOP” for the three key areas I highlight about leadership: T is for Team focused. O is for Open minded. And P is for Perseverance.
Behind each of these words are strong traits that I have observed in leaders at all levels in biotech – including my bosses, people who have worked for me, team members in other departments, people working with BD collaborators, and my many colleagues in other companies. Leaders have common personality traits:
- They are team focused at their core, with humility and respect for others.
- They are open minded to change course and solve problems, with consideration that doesn’t provoke outrage or cynicism.
- They have a spirit of perseverance and don’t back down from the challenges that come with drug development, creating a culture of learning from failures, continuously improving, and striving for the company’s vision.
I’ll use these three categories to highlight my top 10 key leadership principles that are effective in biotech. While everyone has their own unique formula for success, let me offer a list of key principles as a way to shape your individual approach.
- Leadership is a behavior of empowering others. A large percentage of people who work in biotech come from scientific backgrounds and have stellar academic credentials. If you take a moment to step back, it’s amazing to think how many highly talented people are among us in biotech. This typical biotech profile brings together professionals who tend to be deeply knowledgeable and have analytical mindsets, which often translates into highly-tuned skills for organizing and controlling details. While a discipline for details and analysis in undoubtedly a valuable professional asset, it can be a liability if it stands in the way of letting go to trust and engage with others on a team. After all, leaders have a deep searing belief in the people around them and find ways to inspire them to take on challenges. Effective leaders distribute responsibility and empower people to use their greatest potential. Any individual who is leading and growing in biotech should reach out to other team members to share ideas and propose solutions to broader team and company goals.
- Engage in open information exchange. The pace and structure of business activities in biotech require everyone to share knowledge more freely and quickly with colleagues than you may be used to. In larger companies, keeping information on a ‘need to know’ basis may make sense; in biotech, start with the assumption that all partners in the process would benefit from shared knowledge. The open exchange of information is key to creating a rewarding culture in biotech, and I’ve heard it said that culture can be more important than science. The progress with science can slow down – or even fail – without a healthy and vibrant culture.
- Leaders are learners. Many aspects of biotech jobs cannot be learned in a textbook and, indeed, the scientific and commercial landscapes for drug development are dynamic and evolving. People who exhibit leadership skills in biotech are open to constantly learning from the information and people around them. This learning mentality can be a rewarding part of working in biotech, and it can also get you recognized as a great asset by those in your company.
- Understand and align with your company’s priorities. Biotech companies generally have a razor-sharp focus on their priorities, so that they can successfully move through stages of growth and development. Professionals at any level in a biotech can be viewed as leaders when they are strong contributors to the company’s nearer-term priorities. Leaders find a way to be a part of helping to achieve priority goals. They are proactive about offering ideas or seek ways to get onto teams that are working on high profile projects, and when they get on those teams they also motivate other team members to continue making progress. The bottom line is that leaders get involved in things that really matter for helping the company move the needle on progress.
- Be a part of finding multiple paths for new ideas. Collaboration is the life-blood of innovation. Find ways to engage better with others, including improved listening and relationship-building strategies. Listening is an important asset for generating ideas that will make a big difference, and effective leaders often listen more and talk less. Groups almost always out-think individuals, even when the individual in question is brilliant. Effective collaboration can build stronger paths than relying on individual contributors. Find a way to be part of the collaboration process.1
- Identify problems, and also bring solutions. Now, I’ll touch on a leadership concept that’s not unique to biotech, but it’s something that a boss of mine said years ago and I’ve used it as a mantra ever since: “Don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions.” You won’t find leaders getting stuck in the mode of identifying problems, complaining, and laying blame. People with a leadership mindset bring ideas for a path forward, new ideas, and ways to navigate into the future.
- Be prepared to fail and succeed. Failure is part of the fabric of biotech. We’re in an industry where more than 85% of our drug ideas fail to make it from Phase 1 to a product. I’ve heard it said that failure is the path to success, and I think this captures that point that failure is part of the journey in biotech. So, leaders in biotech are prepared to face obstacles with confidence and determination. Leaders at any level or function in a biotech company are able to overcome adversity. They are the people who lift up the other members of their team during challenging times, and offer solutions and ideas in the face of challenging times.
- Reflect and improve. Leaders step back to reflect on big events of successes and failures, and they even rethink the status quo and everyday work processes. And then, leaders capture their thoughts so that they can make note of the ideas as a pivot point for making change and improvement. While capturing ideas is a hallmark of leaders, there are an unlimited number of ways that the capturing can happen. It can be your journal, notes in a daily calendar, discussions in a regular team meeting, or any other way imaginable – I sleep with a note pad and pen on my nightstand. In practicing this leadership skill, what’s important is that you have a systematic way to take note of how things operate, and use it as a springboard for improvement and change.2
- Keep the vision and values front and center. The vision and values of a biotech are the foundation for the long haul. At any time in a business cycle, leaders have the ability to act and communicate in ways that focus on the company’s vision, and this can motivate other team members in their work and initiatives. During challenging times, embracing your company’s vision can help to keep things on course. Your actions and decisions will have staying power if they are based on the company’s vision and values.
- Project confidence, along with approachability. Above all, one of the traits that team members look for in a leader is confidence. Just feeling confident on the inside is not enough, you must also communicate that confidence to others. But, it should be the right sort of confidence. Research shows that projecting confidence nonverbally inspires others – far more than expressing that confidence verbally. Think about how you come across to others, and work to develop a confident nonverbal presentation of yourself – in a way that is approachable, not overbearing. According to Beth Rogers at Point Taken Consulting, you can learn the skills to ensure that you are seen as confident so that that others listen more to your guidance and you broaden your sphere of influence.3
Let me reinforce my starting premise: biotech is an industry that calls for and values leadership skills. This creates a wide open territory with fertile ground for career development in biotech. I hope these reflections on leadership help you capitalize on your opportunities along your path in biotech.
1 Forbes, New Study Finds that Collaboration Drives Workplace Performance, June 22, 2017.
2 Psychology Today, Capturing Creativity, June 9, 2016.
3 Harvard Business Review, Research: When Overconfidence Is an Asset, and When It’s a Liability, December 11, 2018.