This blog was written by Rene Russo, CEO of Xilio Therapeutics, as part of the From The Trenches feature of LifeSciVC.
A lifetime ago, in May 2020, I had the honor of writing my first “From the Trenches” blog. I highlighted our long-range planning (LRP) approach at Xilio Therapeutics reframed as Leaders Require Purpose. I shared our belief that aligning our long and mid-range planning efforts to our vision and values would guide us through the ups and downs of developing innovative oncology treatments for the patients we serve. I posited that having this shared understanding would help us be more proactive vs. reactive. I ended that blog with the “stay tuned” teaser that we were continuing that process remotely and would be conducting our entire company offsite virtually.
Although I could use this entire blog entry to share the learnings from that LRP virtual offsite, including an incredibly moving fireside Zoom chat with a cancer patient or the details of innovative pre-recorded functional leader presentations (now part of our onboarding program), I will not do that today (email me firstname.lastname@example.org if you are interested). I would much rather share real “from the trenches” experiences of our team leading through the pandemic.
Lately, we are all reading unending high-level summaries of how the industry, the VCs, the healthcare systems, and the country is dealing with the pandemic. In my observation, we haven’t heard enough from the functional leaders who make the day-to-day decisions to keep our companies running and ensure our innovative medicines get to the patients who need them.
Since we have this vision and values organizing principle at Xilio, I wondered how it worked when we were faced with an unprecedented challenge of moving out of Lab Central into our new site in Waltham while ensuring our systems didn’t fail, our people felt connected, and our programs did not stall due to ongoing issues with a worldwide shutdown? In my opinion, THIS was the evidence-based assessment of whether the vision and values in our long-range planning effort would or would not make the difference.
To gather this insight, I asked The NemetzGroup to conduct a short survey and focus group with “from the trenches” leaders from our R&D, Finance, Business Ops, and Administrative team. We asked them five questions:
- What was the most significant leadership challenge of the pandemic?
- What was the north star that guided you?
- What was the best and lasting contribution from this time?
- What was the unique challenge in your function?
- What pandemic changes will continue as a new way of operating?
The insights we gathered from this inquiry have been instrumental in guiding many internal conversations. I encourage all of you to conduct a similar exercise, especially as we face the on-going disruption of work and life in the months ahead.
In our case, here is what we learned:
Not surprisingly, the number one pandemic leadership challenge experienced by the entire group was the impact on communication. The specifics ranged from losing the spontaneity of hallway conversations, to using new technologies, to managing the balance between home and work – now that there was literally no distinction.
Without prompting, we learned that what enabled the leaders to lead through all of the confusion and uncertainty effectively was the company’s vision and values. As one leader said, “I think there could have been other bigger challenges, but we were in a good place from a culture, values, and relationships perspective, and by keeping those in mind, they did not in themselves become the main challenges… If the mission were something more modest or less urgent than transforming the lives of cancer patients, the team’s desire to overcome the challenges might not have been as high.” In addition, our shared value around transparency allowed the leaders to openly share their challenges with their teams, making members feel more comfortable sharing their own obstacles and finding solutions.
In addition to the time spent defining and living the vision and values, the leaders noted that the pre-pandemic time invested in building their functional plans proved extremely prescient. Roles and responsibilities were clearly defined, as were the key initiatives and objectives. These plans, aligned with the visions and values, allowed the teams to stay focused on the highest priority work while making the necessary adaptations for physical restrictions.
From a day-to-day perspective, the leaders and their teams adopted new ways of working, some of which have made a significant impact and will endure beyond the pandemic, specifically:
- Adopting new meeting management processes: The team developed an approach to meeting management that gave employees permission to decide whether they would attend a meeting based on their expected contribution and conflicting priorities outside of work. Employees noted personal time blocks on their company calendars so their colleagues could respect their boundaries, and it became possible to step away during the day without guilt. Another meeting management process that became essential was shared commitment to the inclusion of agendas with meeting invites, and minutes or presentations consistently sent post-meetings. Team members who couldn’t attend were responsible for follow-up; thereby, demonstrating their commitment to their peers and taking ownership of their responsibilities.
- By allowing employees to own the decision around meeting attendance, leaders reduced unnecessary stress for employees who required flexibility.
- Flexibility and frequency in communication methods: By consistently holding weekly meetings via Zoom and varying the modes of communication to fit and flex with people’s preference and availability, the company was able to find a new rhythm that kept the team connected and the information flowing between people and teams, despite variability in peoples’ work schedules. Early on, leaders recognized that this hurdle could be overcome by scheduling short 1:1 Zoom meetings, twice a week with team members and weekly/bi-weekly with other group members. These discussions kept teams abreast of work progress, provided a connection point, and kept the focus on vital tasks, thereby maintaining efficiency by reducing redundancies.
- Focus on cutting edge technology: As part of the initial LRP sessions in 2019, the organization recognized the need to adopt leading edge technology and one file sharing system across the organization to streamline communications and manage documents/records. Due to the IT team’s in-depth planning, the organization was uniquely set up with access to the latest technological advances and cloud-based infrastructure, which allowed them to access data from lab instruments remotely and share with employees working from home. By being forward-looking and innovative during the planning process, the IT team identified and implemented the necessary platforms and training, to accommodate an indefinite period of remote working.
- Implementing a systems approach to work that allows for adaptability: Prior to COVID-19, the company had been doing research for each of its programs in-house. However, given the resource constraints imposed by the pandemic, the team needed to open up capacity and decided to outsource a program, which was a significant shift for the team that wants to “do it all.” Having created a playbook for the program as an outcome of the most recent LRP work sessions, the team quickly transitioned the project and exceeded its original timelines. Outsourcing can create significant angst among employees even during “normal times,” but for the company to make this decision during a time when people were so uncertain about their futures could have been disastrous. However, our leadership was confident that by involving the team and clearly communicating the risks and benefits, as well as the link to the vision, the team would embrace the decision to outsource. The decision allowed the team to accelerate the program in the face of a global pandemic.
On top of the daily challenges of getting work done, we had to move our offices and lab from Lab Central in Cambridge to Waltham. The focus on communication and heightened awareness around the need for inclusivity was particularly relevant to managing the move. The move timeline was accelerated to comply with the forced shutdown. The business operations and strategy team took the lead in devising the mitigation strategies associated with the expedited plan. The key word being “expedited.” Since the move had been understood as a key initiative during the LRP process, the basis for what needed to be done during a move existed.
The upheaval to the plan was the timing and environment. For example, the City of Waltham had stopped doing on-site inspections due to the shutdown, definitely not a factor that would have been considered in the original plan, but one that materialized along with the virus. The team was able to get creative with the city (including temporary video inspections) to get the necessary permits to move on time. Another change management application was the business operations team’s ability to make decisions on the fly, knowing they were aligned to the company vision and values. Understanding when action versus analysis was required allowed the group to implement alternative, time-sensitive solutions such as “borrowing the freezers” from their current landlord when the new set they ordered was delayed due to shipping challenges, and then rectifying the situation with the previous landlord upon receipt.
Since all plans are only as good as the people who implement them, and the trust they have in one another, we have acknowledged that relationships are the most important pre-investment. In a crisis, people go the extra mile to help each other because of their relationships. Money can’t buy help when everyone needs the same things or when you’re asking people to go far beyond their comfort zone to help you solve your problem (e.g., senior leaders renting U-Hauls to move company assets). Having already established relationships is the differentiator.
Since the focus of this blog is “From the Trenches,” below are some quotes for our functional leaders that sum up their experiences/learnings:
- The global crisis seemed extraordinary to everyone, which in some ways made the need for change easier to understand.
- By thinking about the overall goal and adhering to scientific rigor, a systems approach can be applied to all projects, regardless of our external pandemic stage.
- By understanding the system and not being over-committed to the conventional processes, we have been able to stay on schedule successfully.
- I firmly believe that the experience gathered during the pandemic has honed my email, video, and teleconference communication skills.
- If you can’t adapt to change, as a leader, you will be ineffective. Employees look to you for guidance and leadership, and that includes how you will react to a changing environment that is out of your control.
- By asking people to be a part of the solution and not the problem, everyone worked together across the functions to help us physically move.
- Daily update meetings took on a more important role in providing a supplemental exchange of info but also providing a showcase of how each individual is contributing the elbow grease necessary to carry out the various duties which must occur to live our vision.
- Because we pre-invested in building and living the values, we could overcome the fear. That trust gave us the ability to flex to a new approach.
- Action is better than over-thinking.
- By maintaining open lines of communication, I actually think the team is stronger having figured out how to work through this difficult time together.
- While COVID19 is a generational event, in biotech there will always be major challenges that are unanticipated and need to be addressed. Keeping a focus on the overall objectives is critical.
As leaders, we rarely have more than one opportunity to demonstrate the confidence in our team, our strategy, and ourselves. We never really know when we will be tested or how we will “show-up.” As CEO, I am so proud of our team at Xilio. Although I know they are incredibly special, I am well aware that there are many exceptional leaders across our industry showing up each and every day – we need this level of leadership now more than ever!