Navigating Change: Observations from the Talent side of Professional Change

Posted April 22nd, 2022 by Andrea DiMella, in From The Trenches, Talent

By Andrea DiMella, VP and Head of Talent at Atlas Venture, as part of the From The Trenches feature of LifeSciVC

Like many of you, I’m a consumer of biotech industry news. Multiple times of day I scour BioCentury, STAT, Endpoints, Fierce Biotech and LinkedIn to track the scientific landscape, company events, and people updates. During the height of the pandemic, these information sources fueled my confidence that vaccines were on the horizon and that our industry – biotech, pharma, and venture – was all the more pivotal. The 2020-21 news put a spotlight on the speed of innovation, the acceleration of company creation, and the ever-tightening competition for talent. It felt like an endless positive-loop of progress and hope and served as a fantastic motivation for my role as Talent Head at Atlas Venture. Despite the difficult life changes the pandemic created (quarantining, social distancing, remote work), the biotech industry raced forward with possibility, and the demand for talent created limitless opportunity for upward professional change.

And then came 2022. The pendulum swing of the biotech news cycle felt swift. Articles stressed the tightening public markets, the drop in venture creation, and tougher regulatory scrutiny with exclamation points of company after company restructurings and reductions in force.  By the end of March, Fierce Biotech had a running tally (here) and this very different sense of change was well underway. Sentiment had shifted significantly and the dialogue around change rang alarm bells with pieces like this.

Many are now wondering how biotech professional change and hiring practices will evolve from here. Will competition for talent end? Will title and compensation inflation recalibrate? Will equity surpass cash for what candidates value? All understandable questions during these challenging times.

For many, 2022 is forcing new kinds of biotech professional change and limiting possibilities at the same time. More energy is being channeled towards creating possibilities for those who have been negatively impacted, as well as connecting People leaders to share resources for their organizations. As I approach discussions with leaders, the topic of change is front and center and I find myself pulling learnings through decades of executive search on helpful ways to navigate professional change.

Everyone handles change differently

One thing I have seen time and again, is how reacting to change is different from one person to the next. Additionally, an individual’s specifics – career stage, financial standing, health, and family – all factor into how each of us reacts to change.

One of my more profound learnings about change came from my front row seat while working at Genentech during Genentech’s acquisition and integration into Roche. The changes at that time were complex, intense and absolute. After the initial news about the merger was shared, Genentechers varied in their reactions. Some expressed shock, others concern, many were anxious, and there were also plenty who felt excitement. While waiting for the deal to close, the unknown weighed on many, while others felt a reprieve from “what was”. Debates were common – is this a good thing, what will be different/the same, why did this have to happen, to what will happen to me–shared feelings and experiences were rarely consistent from person to person. Needless-to-say, there wasn’t a singular way the change impacted employees at Genentech.

Since then, I’ve been acutely aware of the need to make room for each person’s unique experience to professional change. Be it someone seeking change, someone being sought out for change, or those forced through change, each experience or professional change is unique.

Give yourself space

In the Genentech example above, time was baked in over the course of a year for the deal to close and subsequent integrations to be underway. Yet , despite having “time”, navigating the change wasn’t easy for all Genentechers. I have learned this same lesson many times over through my years in recruiting and executive search: giving one time and space to process professional change is a necessity. It takes discipline to pause, pace, and process.

Candidates often simplify their professional journeys into straight paths: from here to there, from this point to the next. But professional lives tend to span decades, often rich with complexity, texture, and more regularly now, with change. As any executive search leader, rushing a candidate to a professional decision can spell disaster for a desired acceptance.

Regardless of circumstance – company acquisition, restructuring, or passive candidate recruiting – offering time, patience and understanding for the layered considerations in decisions creates room and allows a candidate to come to a decision with clarity. Patience is hard. Practicing it – with ourselves and each other – takes discipline. Patience is prerequisite to all successful hirings.

Leverage support

With the pandemic, most people to experienced professional life change overnight. Work environments were stripped away, homes turned turned into offices, and office interactions became zoom interfaces. Even lab-based biotech professionals experienced a period of disruption before new ways of working, spatially distant and masked, were identified. Navigating this together helped put a temporal ground underneath professional feet.

Drawing parallels beyond the pandemic, individual professional change also benefits from leveraging others’ experiences, from confidants, mentors, family and friends. Turning to support systems can provide ideas, alternative approaches to decisions, and reflections that are often difficult to come by when in a vacuum of our own thoughts. Whether one is facing a restructuring, a company shut down, or a choice between Company 1versus Company 2, leveraging a support network can make professional change manageable, approachable, and even exciting.

Mindset matters

We all have that colleague who handles adversity with ease, a mentor who reminds who shares that they’ve had tough times too: people who are living examples that mindset sets the backdrop and accompaniment to buoy situations. In discussing professional change with individuals – from individual contributors to CEOs – I have noticed optimistic mindsets common amongst those who navigate change with greater ease. Don’t get me wrong, creating optimistic habits of mind takes effort. But it is energy well-spent.

“You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.” – Marcus Aurelius

Focus on substance

In my discussions with people making professional change – people forced to change, those looking for change, and those wondering if change is ahead – no two conversations are alike. But themes have popped up with people who confront professional change with agility. These “change masters” look at the kind of work making up a new role and determine how it aligns to work they desired. They think through who they want to work with, and how they want to accomplish the work they do and confirm if this falls into the role they are evaluating. Ultimately, these facile change “athletes” focus on the meat of the matter, the role itself.  Rarely do the details (location, title, compensation, etc) complicate their decision. Rather, they are solved for in after thought; like the bow on a wrapped present of the final touch to complete the gift.

Of course, all of this is easier said than done. These guided reminders are as much for me as anyone else. May they help me hold space for the varied experiences of professional change and focus the conversation on what’s possible. As Winston Churchill said “To improve is to change: to be perfect is to change often.”


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