This blog was written by Rene Russo, CEO of Xilio Therapeutics, as part of the From The Trenches feature of LifeSciVC.
In an environment where senior leaders are tasked with defining agile strategies in uncertain times, there are many perspectives on what to do, how to do it, and who to include. As the world fights to reduce the impact of COVID-19, we face the many immediate leadership concerns as Bruce Booth shared in Strategic Planning During a Pandemic Crisis. There is also the human leadership reality that Samantha Truex shared in Confessions of a Planner. Additionally, we can focus on making the tough decisions as Ankit Mahadevia shared in his summary regarding The Balancing Act: Taking a Systematic Approach to Hard Decisions in Times of Rapid Change. All of these insights are incredibly helpful. In this post, I share the learnings from Xilio leaders and teams, as I describe our application of Long-Range Planning (LRP), reframed as Leaders Require Purpose.
Since my early career at BMS (when it was 50K employees), I’ve been a big believer in the power of a Long-Range Planning process. I know, this sounds “un-fun” as my kids would say, but when done right, it is fun, energizing, and incredibly motivating to our teams. It gives the teams a rare opportunity to go offsite (even if via Zoom) and step away from the day-to-day myopic focus of meeting deadlines (company-directed or otherwise). They put their minds into planning where the organization (group, team, or function) should go over the next 3-5 years and what it will take to get there with a clear line of sight to the patients who are depending on us. It is exhilarating to be part of building a company – the more we can share the experience, the more aligned and successful we will be!
Long-range planning is also one of the best ways to give everyone permission to highlight all of the obstacles in the way – the little and big things, inefficiencies we’ve created, and tools we wish we had in place. (In our first Xilio LRP kickoff, we tackled a list of over 40 obstacles – most unknown to me – that we effectively cleaned up and eliminated within 3-4 weeks. Once we identified them, we gave people the authority to fix them). This transparent acknowledgment of our limitations and the empowerment to address them in immediately actionable ways was very satisfying to all.
I realize that in small biopharma companies, announcing an offsite LRP exercise is often met with groans and eye rolls (yes, that happened at Xilio), but I can honestly say that each time I’ve introduced an LRP initiative, it quickly becomes one of the most enjoyed company events. People look forward to it as it gives them a voice and purpose in shaping the company’s future. With the assistance of The NemetzGroup LLC, we conducted our inaugural LRP process at Xilio last summer/fall, and it was instrumental in our successful development, hiring, and financing progress since. As we begin the process again, I asked a couple of team members for their input on our LRP efforts:
Lin Guey, VP Program & Portfolio Strategy:
“ It has been incredibly helpful for me to participate in the long-range planning process at Xilio. During this process, I have seen the LRP help build and refine the organization from the ground up so that the teams and employees have a sense of ownership and accountability for Xilio’s vision and culture.”
Ugur Eskocak, Director, In Vivo Pharmacology:
“ The process of establishing a Long-Range Plan with input from all employees has helped build stronger relationships and foster Xilio’s team culture positively. Transparent communication of Xilio’s vision through this process helped members of my team to gain a better understanding of how their work supports the bigger picture and therefore increased their commitment. The benefits have especially become apparent in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic as the team continues to find different ways of contributing to this vision.”
The illustration below summarizes our approach with a few critical must-haves:
- Company strategy as defined by vision/mission, values, strategic pillars, and any critical scenarios under consideration – the LRP process is built to deliver on the company strategy, so without that in place, the plan will fall apart.
- Functional planning initiatives where the functional leaders worked with their teams (some brand new to biopharma and all new to the company), to develop the plan for their function to deliver on the corporate vision. The teams defined what excellence was in their function, identified the external trends that might impact their discipline, then created the nuts and bolts capabilities necessary to achieve functional excellence (needs/gaps, processes, tools, governance, etc.). An essential component of this exercise was the opportunity to identify adjacencies and obstacles that impacted each team’s ability to contribute to the company goals. This functional planning also directly leads to their eventual annual budget.
- All-company workshop to share functional plans and the roll-up, which is where the coalescing really happens. The agenda is what you might expect, but the experience is the leaders and teams showcasing the substance and creativity of their function while all (including the leadership team) can see the full view of the entire company. To witness the presentations that the groups share feels like participating in the “unveiling” of a company that everyone appreciates and wants to make a success.
So, Who Benefits from Long-Range Planning, and How?
- Functional leaders by contributing to the team building experience that provides them an opportunity to showcase their teams’ strengths at the individual and team level. This type of planning further establishes a leadership mindset, as Deanna Peterson shared in her Leadership at All Levels
- Internal teams feel grounded in the future of the company, part of the solution, valued, and able to coalesce around the challenges and united efforts to solve problems when they occur. Equally important, this approach to LRP is a development and learning opportunity that many of our employees are not afforded in their careers. I can imagine in many companies, a scientist who has focused their life’s work on assay development rarely has the opportunity to hear about the inner workings of other functions in the company. The LRP process provides that scientist with a deeper understanding of the inner workings of the organization and the people in it.
- Senior leadership, including the CEO, share the enterprise-wide leadership mantle with the entire company, set an example for transparency, and give a voice for real-time career development.
- External stakeholders, including the board, investors, and future talent, see and hear a consistent message regarding the company vision and plans, which gives them confidence in the team – a key factor for support.
- The company culture (although not a “who” in this context) – An inclusive exercise like this allows leaders and teams the opportunity to think big which is a step in defining the type of culture that our companies need to attract and retain the talent that will deliver on our promise to patients.
- The finance team is an obvious beneficiary since, by the time the numbers are applied to all the value-creating initiatives, headcount plans, and infrastructure needs, there is alignment and shared understanding. For the functional leaders, their budgets practically create themselves. What a concept!
Most importantly, when the unexpected happens, which it often does on a small and big scale (and now on the worldwide pandemic scale), the team has a clear, shared plan and can confidently adjust.
Our intent at Xilio is to evolve our long-range plan every six months to excel at communicating and operating in an agile manner and ensure we remain aligned. Our first shared experience began in the summer of 2019. We have just begun the early 2020 LRP refresh, which has provided our teams with a positive and productive way to focus their leadership abilities during this uncertain time in the world. We have added the important lens ensuring leaders build their plans to demonstrate “urgency for patients”. Our company meeting will begin with a patient story. I am convinced that having this type of concrete plan with complete ownership, deep understanding, and buy-in gives employees comfort, confidence, and grounding in a time of crisis. It gives our leaders purpose.
Yes, we are continuing the process remotely on Zoom, and are planning our virtual offsite in June. Stay tuned…