Navigating The Unknown: Practical Thoughts On A Team That Can Rise To The Occasion

Posted September 5th, 2019 by Ankit Mahadevia, in Bioentrepreneurship, Corporate Culture, From The Trenches, Talent

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

One of the joys of building a company is that meeting one’s milestones routinely places us in positions that are new, where past experience may not be a guide.  Our ability to navigate growth is highly dependent on building a team that’s ready to take on increasing complexity.

The stakes are high: get it right and the ability to parallel process and pivot grows exponentially; get it wrong and risk not being able to rise to the occasion when it’s needed most.  In a fast moving environment, it’s also not always practical nor optimal to bring in outside experience to handle new challenges. As such, finding a team that can grow with you is an important skill. Unfortunately, this trait is not well measured quantitatively and does not always show up in someone’s credentials or past experience.

We’re fortunate at Spero to have grown as a team from the raw startup phase to a company with multiple medicines in trials, planning for an NDA should our pivotal trial for our lead program be successful.    None of this could have happened without a team that has grown with us. We share some practical experience on how to build a team with scalability in mind, having learned from some successes and some mistakes along the way.

What are the signs of a scalability?

There is a wealth of great literature (here and here) on the hallmarks of growth and scalability of individuals; we will leave it to these analyses to expand on the hallmarks of growth.

Our working definition is that scalable players play to win instead of playing not to lose. What do we mean by this?

  • Sees and frames action based on the broader mission/context vs. for personal gain
  • Energized by complex challenges vs. paralyzed by them
  • Actively works to learn and improve in unfamiliar areas
  • Failure brings out introspection and problem solving, not distancing and blame
  • Helps others around them formulate the world as above

Less exists on how to apply this systematically in a growing company where we don’t always have time or resource to do detailed assessments. It’s great to spot these traits on a one-off basis, and even better to have built these ideas into one’s hiring system.

Here are some thoughts on building a scalable team systematically.

Have a core philosophy on scalability as a senior team

Inconsistent beliefs about what it takes to grow to the next level across parts of the company is the gift you don’t want that keeps on giving.  It pays to have a proactive conversation as a senior team. The risk of not doing so is heterogeneity across functions and mixed signals to the team about what attributes offer the highest probability of growth within the organization. Questions include:

  • Which positions require what ceiling in terms of scalability – some functions may look to be more complex over time than others depending on the specifics of your strategy
  • What are common attributes across functions that we look for, and what are attributes specific to a particular discipline?
  • How do we reward and develop scalable teammates across the organization?

Apply this philosophy systematically to the hiring and onboarding process

One of the tasks we have as a rapidly growing company is to scale our hiring process beyond the “A players hire A players” adage so that we can systematically identify the right traits and values as the pace of hiring accelerates and the time we have for vetting candidates gets compressed.  Along with active attention to what a candidate is qualified to do now, our process seeks to understand how a candidate’s prior experiences and references support their ability to adapt to new opportunities and challenges down the road.  The informal discussions (lunch, dinner, etc.) that we build into each hiring process help tremendously with this review.

Invest in targeted development

While hiring is the most critical component of a systematic approach, it perhaps goes without saying that not everybody shows up with all of the skills needed to take on increased complexity.  Investing in complementing strengths of your teammates where we see increased complexity ahead pays dividends; there is also a philosophical point we make here that these characteristics are developable through experience and teaching (up to a point), and not a fixed trait that either one has or doesn’t.

Carefully curate growth opportunities

We have been able to promote from within as our growth has expanded the breadth of some functions and created the need for new ones.  We have learned through experience that the seeds of scalability need to exist within an individual prior to promotions and evaluated against consistent criteria; placing someone at the next level for any other reason (retention, time at the company, their desires to be promoted) does both the team member and the company a disservice.  Further, we’ve learned to pay as much attention to those not yet promoted as the team member promoted, as each decision is a chance for us to identify together how we can plan for their future growth.

Nobody’s perfect: Realize and act early

Identifying scalable players is an inexact science.  Our biggest mistakes have come when we have delayed acting on a mismatch between breadth of role and the person in it, either through feedback, coaching, or finding a different role for an individual inside or outside the company.    We systematically talk about these topics as a senior management team at a regular interval to ensure that we proactively raise any issues and work together to address them.

Biotech is a team sport, and to navigate twists and turns of developing medicines requires a special set of attributes. Some structure, planning, and intention can help ensure that a team is equipped for the long run.

Ankit Mahadevia

Serial biotech entrepreneur and executive
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