Posted by admin 30.11.18

The Biotech Start Up and Strategic Teaming

Start-ups are a precarious venture, at best.

I think the term “extreme uncertainty” is a good descriptor.

This viewpoint comes as a business owner and as a leadership coach, and having spent decades “in the trenches” in leadership roles at 3 Fortune 500 companies and at several start-ups. 

I have seen and experienced everything ranging from grant-funded projects drying up to large scale layoffs in seemingly stable environments.  This has all been invaluable in my consulting practice and helping leaders and their teams EMBRACE stressful situations to drive performance AND in ways that eliminate burnout.

A differentiator in biotech start-ups is the day in and day out uncertainty that is unrelenting.  There is no safe harbor until the next round of funding is secured, and the cycle begins anew.  Think roller-coaster.

There is a mystique that surrounds the start-up, especially for scientists wanting to “get back to the science” and away from the daily grind and challenge of managing others.  While some thrive in leading teams, that has not been my experience in coaching others, as their primary motivator.

In start ups, the mindset requires something different, especially at senior levels.  Leaders in start-ups are always on the hunt to bring inspirational ideas to fruition and to secure the next round of funding.  Questions about capital appetites, capital-sparing or money for deal, exit strategies, sell or hold, and the right leaders at the right stage, are on-going questions.

In biotech, at least in the US, there is greater expectations for management change relative to the organizational stage (i.e., early, commercialization, operational, or expansion stages).  Compare this to a European start-up, many founders may keep with the company no matter the stage.

It is this last point on strategic teaming where I see opportunity.  If the management team isn’t “in sync” with everything from goals to how conflict is managed, there are going to be issues that make the road bumpy, and can undermine success.  There is also a risk to focus too much on becoming insular in day to day management, rather than bringing in support early.

So, when it comes to strategic teaming, where do you start?

It my opinion, it all starts with the leadership team and getting the culture right, early in the the organization’s evolution, despite being pushed and pulled in various and critical ways like research and licensing partners.

I offer three suggestions to accelerate your impact so you can execute with purpose.

1. Think like a builder, act like an owner. Great structures, whether technology or an organization, are built on a solid foundation.  This is about getting the right people with the right skill sets of entrepreneurs and executives on board.  It is about setting goals early, often, and revisiting them as circumstances change, and not with any one group, but across the team.  A builder creates a solid corporate foundation.  Everything from business development and thereafter commercialization – this all helps accelerate R&D product development.

An owner mindset knows that to go fast requires a mindful approach.  

The second half of this equation is ensuring that executives are talking with one another, encouraging innovation and prudent risk-taking, collaborating, negotiating timeframes, and not only with one another, but with the Board.

Board members step in and start running the company when weak management exists.  The result of an underperforming team is a cycle that is hard to break, with management one way and the Board another, and where chaos ensues.  An owner mindset knows that to go fast requires a mindful approach.  

2. Invest in the executive team, early and often.  Strategic teaming is just that, strategic.  There is a risk for start-ups in that the management team won’t be there for the long haul.  The all-hands on deck, day in and day out running of the business can be overwhelming, and so there is a risk buying into the fallacy of limited time and resources to build the team.

Here are 3 actions that the exec team can do early-on to invest in the team and to position for success

  1.  Identify strengths.  There are tools like StrengthsFinder to help recognize and leverage unique individual and collective strengths.  Hidden strengths can be your greatest and unknown asset and is an accelerator when it comes to performance.

2.  Use a simple diagnostic tool to baseline team collaboration like the Tuckman team tool; this is a great way to remain objective and recognize sabotaging behaviors-you want to identify gaps and close them quickly.

3.  Define, or at least, recognize the complexity of roles, and how team members support one another.  There is power in using other’s expertise in creative ways, to build trust and collaborate.

Leaders and teams who engage in these practices earnestly are better positioned for success.   I like to say that a leader is a learner regardless if they are the founder or if they have several decades behind them.

Founders and execs in start-ups thrive in change situations.  They combine scientific expertise with a high tolerance for risk and are adept at communicating with diverse stakeholders.

3. Adapt and pivot.  Founders and execs in start-ups thrive in change situations.  They combine scientific expertise with a high tolerance for risk and are adept at communicating with diverse stakeholders.  They embody the entrepreneurial “gene” that leaders at established company’s sometimes lack.  Because of this it is critical to position the executive team for success.  These leaders know the importance of putting in place corporate infrastructure early-which can always be scaled as complexity increases.  Hiring practices are well thought out along with the necessary behaviors to thrive now and in the future.  This is also true in terms of having performance expectations and measures in place, and at least a simple framework to focus personal development and career growth, even if your long-term plan is to move to another start-up.

The Gallup organization cites that managers account for 70% variance of employee’s engagement at work

As the organization expands into the commercialization and operational stages, often marked by greater than 50 employees, with products in clinical trials, business strategies are increasingly important.  Organizational structure may be relatively straight-forward early on, yet the expectations of how information is shared with employees, for example, requires greater sophistication.

Coaching and motivating others and setting expectations and managing performance are necessary for success.  The Gallup organization cites that managers account for 70% variance of employee’s engagement at work – this is based on 12 key questions that link powerfully to business outcomes such as if the employee knows what is expected of them and if they think their opinion matters.

To sum up, biotech founders, and early stage companies, more generally, are better positioned for success if they think like a builder and act like owners, if they invest in the executive team early and often, and adapt and pivot as they grow.  While they may or may not be there for the long-haul, the culture and infrastructure they create has lasting impact.  Many of the unspoken norms created early on become part of the company’s DNA, long after the leader’s departure.  The key is to move through the evolutionary stages thoughtfully and strategically, despite the 50/50 odds, at best.  This approach will not only help the organization succeed, but it will create a lasting legacy that others can look up to.