By Ankit Mahadevia, CEO of Spero Therapeutics, as part of the From The Trenches feature of LifeSciVC
Biotechnology, especially of late, requires us to prevail over adversity to deliver for patients. Spero, dedicated to new solutions for patients with infections, has been no exception. In May, we undertook a difficult, but necessary restructuring after a regulatory setback to our lead program tebipenem. In the four months since then, we have re-focused our team and strategy, advanced tebipenem to a key regulatory milestone, and closed a transformative partnership with GSK to develop and commercialize tebipenem. The partnership enables us to deliver tebipenem to patients and affords us the resource to advance all our pipeline programs through key clinical inflection points over the coming years.
Our resilience and focus on the mission led to a positive outcome one wouldn’t have expected after a recent pipeline setback in a turbulent market. Naturally, we’ve examined what drove that resilience to sustain it for the next chapter of our story. These drivers include our mindset (see Robert Clark’s post on the topic) and a sound strategy (see my post and also Josh Brumm’s, as well as Risk by Stanley McChrystal).
One driver that had a particularly powerful impact is the construction of our team. Teams that can rise past adversity exhibit diversity of personality and thought, and appreciate those differences enough to find unique approaches to complex problems. What follows are our lessons learned on how to cultivate intellectual diversity: for example, leaving space for introverts, extraverts, and different styles of analyzing issues. Some of these lessons are excerpted from my recent book on personality and leadership: Quiet Leader, Loud Results. (Post Hill Press/Simon and Schuster, 2022).
Why does diversity of thought drive better outcomes?
A mix of personality types on a team yields a better decision-making dynamic. Multiple studies have examined the phenomenon of dominance complementarity, where more balance on a team across personality traits yields better cohesion and results. This phenomenon has practical roots. For example quiet leaders’ tendency to think, then act can have great value. Extraverts’ ability to tip the balance between action and deliberation can influence a team dynamic in a healthy way. In a complex situation, such as managing through adversity, the efficiency, creative problem solving, and cohesion that this dynamic affords best prepare a team to find an optimal solution amidst the noise.
How to ensure diversity of thought in building teams?
As we’ve built our team at Spero, I’ve had to exert conscious energy to avoid hiring folks who experience the world just like me. While, as an introvert, I might enjoy the quiet a team full of quiet leders can bring, a monochromatic team personality is unlikely to drive optimal outcomes for the company. A few things have worked for us:
Collaborative hiring process: A team approach to hiring works best to inoculate ourselves from the very human tendency to prefer those most like you. For example, ensuring that the interview team includes extraverts and introverts can help with a balanced process. Another process point many quiet leaders have mentioned, especially for more senior hires, is the importance of non-interview interactions such as dinners, and (if appropriate) presentations to the interview panel. These maximize the chance that you can see who a candidate really is beyond a structured interview setting where one can rehearse, and get beyond the pull of sameness in choosing one’s teammates.
Power of references: In particular, references have led us away from biases formed through a single (or even a few) interactions. For example, candidates may be on their best behavior, or may be presenting in an introverted way toward which you are inherently biased. For a key VP level position, we had two candidates at Spero, one a quiet leader and one an extravert. I was dead set against the extravert since he seemed to be “too much” relative to the quiet candidate who came across as thoughtful and prepared. I wasn’t sure I was ready for the energy the extravert brought to our interactions. However, with extraverts on the interview panel and with the benefit of references, I began to see the extraverted candidate in a different light. Approaching references as a quiet leader (unsurprisingly) involves listening and observing a lot more than it does directing the reference. In fact, you can learn something about how much they like a candidate from the first correspondence onward:
- How quickly do they get back to me?
- Are they enthusiastic in their correspondence?
- How much do they speak—sometimes references who are trying to tiptoe around a candidate they like but don’t love will over-explain.
How to operate a team with diversity of personality and thought – meeting people where they are
Working with an intellectually diverse group requires tailoring our approaches to each member, and meet them where they are as you look for creative approaches to complex issues.
Message: Extraverts and introverts process the same issues differently; tailoring the message can help ensure all are on the same page. For example, extraverts sometimes need a very direct message about an issue for it to register as a priority, while a similar approach with an introvert would be overkill in its intensity. Further, in the delivery of the message, we leave time for extraverts to process the implications of an issue real time to maximize the likelihood that they can engage on solutions. For introverts, we make sure to leave time for them to process an issue independently before we move on to solutions.
Medium: The formats in which we interact also should vary based on the personality of the team member. Extraverts do best in a live setting, so (despite my introverted tendency) I make a point to drop by live or virtually to discuss a topic or an issue that requires a solution. Quiet leaders often prefer a written format to digest, and also prefer scheduled time over impromptu meetings. For important points, I will employ both a verbal and written approach such that when it is time to make a decision as a group, everyone has incorporated what’s important in the format that best leverages how they create solutions to problems.
Patience with the Process: While you can probably surmise it from the above, exercising strategic patience is a must in leading intellectually diverse teams. This is not always easy; the temptation is to foreclose on what sounds like the most expedient course and forge ahead. This leaves a lot of smart people out of the process. To cultivate an environment where ideas can emerge, leaders need to hold open a space (using tools like the message and the medium) where extraverts and introverts alike can integrate, come back with ideas, and then allow for a round of thoughtful dialogue before arriving at the best possible course of action.
If you facilitate carefully, the process builds trust and buy-in because the entire team has been part of a considered dialogue. And, you can’t fake it — if you’re not deliberate and engaged in multiple streams of discussion as a leader, smart folks will disengage because they’ll feel like they’re not being taken seriously. It’s a tall order, and it’s not entirely traditional, but I have found that to engage the diversity of thought within teams I have worked with, this process works.
Good ideas are hard to find, especially for complex problems where you won’t have all of the information. Team construction makes a huge difference and ensuring you’ve explored every angle can be a sustainable source of resilience and productive outcomes. We certainly need this to deliver on our mission for patients.
My thanks to Jamie Brady for his thoughtful review of this piece, and to all of our contributors to Quiet Leader, Loud Results for inspiring the ideas in the article