Running Rehab: Managing Talent In A Pandemic

Posted April 27th, 2020 by Andrea DiMella, in From The Trenches, Talent

This blog was written by Andrea DiMella, VP and Head of Talent at Atlas Venture, as part of the From The Trenches feature of LifeSciVC.

What a difference a little time makes.

When Bruce originally encouraged me to be a contributor to From The Trenches, life was “the way it used to be.” And as Atlas’ Head of Talent, I mused about writing on topics related to Executive Search, Leadership, and Venture in general. But in what feels like a blink of an eye, the world feels (and is) incredibly different. With the COVID-19 pandemic impacting our lives and consciousness, now may not be time to discuss topics that seem far from important.

However, this may be just the time to do just that. While so much about life now is “not normal”, we are facing unknowns and hardships unlike we have ever seen before. As a result, we need innovation and progress more than ever. Innovation so we can discover and develop new therapeutics, create new vaccines, and advance our ability to change the course of disease. Progress so we can turn the page and get beyond this current pandemic state. For these reasons alone, the call for new leaders, new teams, and new biotech companies is all the more pressing

As a result, new searches must get underway and talent decisions must still occur. And we are seeing just that across Atlas’ seeds and portfolio as well as the broader venture ecosystem. Recent discussions with my peer Heads of Talent at TRV, Flagship, TCG, A16z and published white papers from Search (example here), have confirmed the same trend: it’s still a war for talent. New and growing companies need to hire C-suite and executive talent, and external talent is still seeking where best to “hang their professional hat”.

But how can this happen in our mostly virtual, physically distant, work-from-home reality? How are VCs,  Boards, CEOs and executives making talent decisions in the absence of dimensional, cross functional, in-person meetings? What can Heads of Talent and Search Partners do to keep the process moving forward, assisting all parties on assessing fit, and navigating these uncharted territories?

I don’t know about you, but when I’m faced with navigating uncharted territory or hard times, I look for parallels and past events where I’ve had key learnings. Fortunately (well, maybe not that fortunate), I’ve had a recent experience that helped me do just that.

What is your Parallel?

Like my fellow ‘From the Trenches’ blogger, Jeb Keiper, I too have been sidelined from my running regimen due to an injury and surgery. In fact, it’s been 6 mos, 9 days, 4 hrs since my last run… but who’s counting. Not only have I had to navigate a “new normal” of not running (ask anyone who knows me well, I run to keep myself in check), I’ve also had to “reconstruct” my approach to healing. Through months of disciplined rehabilitation (and tempered impatience), I’ve focused on the details: flexibility, mobility, proprioception, balance, and strength. From the toes of my foot to the tilt of my hips, form and function have been my new marathon. Needless-to-say, none of this feels like running.

So, what’s your Rehab Plan?

As the saying goes, “Before physical therapy I was very unstable”. And it’s true, you should see me in a yoga class. Coinciding with the healing process, Physical Therapy is designed to rehabilitate that which is injured and to increase strength and stability.

Looking through this anecdotal lens, our current Search and Talent environment amidst this COVID-19 crisis needs strength and stability more than ever. With the pandemic compromising our Talent and People decision-making “muscles” on both sides of the table, a “rehab plan” gives us a framework to follow in this new reality.  And taking some simple steps, similar to those taken in response to big changes in the body, may help us respond, reshape, and rethink all things Talent in ways that allow us to keep moving forward and get closer to “health”.

Here are the basic rehab phases translated into People and Behavior “exercises” – Follow at your own pace:

  1. Phase I: Inactive Phase — Don’t misunderstand this phase because of its name. The Inactive Phase’s primary objective is to control pain, reduce swelling and prevent further injury. It’s a time for rest and getting the brain around what’s ahead. Today it’s particularly tricky today to with sheltering in place, children at home, and everyday life turned upside down, so finding moments to just Be will take considerable effort. The skill of resting and just being is an active kind of inactive, and essential in the healing process. I know I scrambled during the first few weeks post-surgery and did the same when adjusting to the pandemic’s work-from-home reality. In both cases, the negative results outweighed the positives, and I taxed my system when I needed recuperative energy most. So, don’t do what I did. Try to be inactive in little ways – use mental crutches and emotional icepacks as needed. For more convincing by other writers, read this, or this, or lastly this.
  2. Phase II: Active Phase — Post-rest, this phase is designed to build back your range of motion (ROM) through gentle, targeted, and supported movement. It’s a part of rehab that can spark anxiety as getting ROM is not always a pain-free process. But still, it’s the time to start picking your head up and remembering “how do I do this thing”. Look around, get your bearings, and reconnect with who’s doing what and what catches your eye. Even better, tap into a “PT buddy” or two. On the venture side, that buddy could be your investment team, Heads of Talent, search partners. On the Talent side, that could be your mentors, trusted colleagues, or whomever has been your professional champion and helps you calibrate your impressions of something new. On whatever side of the table you sit, trusted networks help clarify what we are looking for, what we need, and let us test drive decisions through thoughtful discussion.
  3. Phase III: Resistive Phase— This is likely the most important rehab phase, but easy to dismiss. Heightened discipline is required here to progress in strength, endurance, proprioception and coordination. This is the phase that sharpens the ability to perceive one’s own position in space and to balance. So, get out there and get a sense of alternative options, make that virtual call, meet that new executive. Balance that with looking at your current team, your current context and leaning in to what works and what doesn’t. Do all of this while resisting the urge to rush. Resist the urge to jump, resist the urge to push, resist the urge to make quick decisions. Sense, resist, and balance through patience, purpose, and thoroughness.
  4. Phase IV: Aggressive Phase – This is the almost-there phase – exciting in its whole-body fitness potential, and inching towards full power and endurance. This is the phase where the quality of the exercise must be emphasized. It’s also this phase where there’s new strength where they may not have been before. Use that no matter what side of this Talent relationship you’re on. For Talent, this is where you put strength in your discussions, narrow in and identify what matters, push out the noise and isolate the priorities, read the room (or zoom) and pull out what sticks. Ask your questions. Ask them again. How does the VC work, what’s the culture of the syndicate, where’s the biggest challenge, and what (or who) are the obstacles you’ll face? On the venture and new company side, dig deep with your lead candidate, ask for more time, get creative around the how. Hold a virtual talk, take a virtual walk, sit 6 feet apart on a park bench and have that meeting, do that little extra you haven’t done before. Does the executive rise to the occasion, show curiosity, have passion, lean in, learn more? And for all parties, please, do your referencing!
  5. Phase V: Functional Phase – This is the phase where you take all your hard work, strength, agility, and move into game speed. You’ve done your homework. You’ve “diligenced”, zoomed breakfasts, lunch, and dinners, compared and contrasted, referenced, and reflected. This is where you return to play. You are ready and you can now decide.

“Plan your work and work your plan” ~Napoleon Hill

So, do you have your own “PT” plan for making Talent decisions and appointing your next C-suite executive? Do you feel “rehabbed” and ready for your next big role? In truth, it can be a long road back to full “agility, training and activity”. Case in point: I’m not yet running. But progress does happen. Every session, exercise, and effort turns inches into steps, steps into hops, and hops into runs. The same will be true for all of us around Talent. Progress will come as we strengthen and extend our trusted networks, build up our core and “assessment” muscles, and enhance the quality of our interactions. “Returning to sport” will follow. Full activity will ensue, executives will accept C-suite offers, and new companies will hire CEOs.

Now, back to running. Since I’ve just tackled my first ‘From The Trenches’ blog, Marathon #4 may be next. Who wants to run with me? … At a distance, of course.


This entry was posted in From The Trenches, Talent and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.