Leadership From The Inside Out or Why We Suck At Developing Leaders

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From Brilliant Scientist to Intelligent Leader

Most life science leaders begin their careers as scientists. Often, they are selected as managers on the basis of their scientific expertise, their wise decision making and their clear communication skills. Once they enter a leadership role, the focus of their career changes from scientific accomplishment to facilitating accomplishment in others.

This transition can be challenging because of the strong appeal of science. The palpable pleasure of having the right answer tempts these scientist-leaders to take the floor in meetings. And the security of technical knowledge pulls them back to the science and away from leading people. The most successful leaders grow past this pull by learning the skills of leadership with the same rigor that they learned their scientific skills decades earlier. They consciously focus on conversations that bring out the ideas of others, and resist inserting too many of their own ideas.

The transition involves a shift in mind-set and values as well as in behavior, altering one’s identity from that of scientist to that of a leader. In many ways the two mind-sets (competent scientist and effective leader) are not just different, but actually antithetical.  They require a shift in personal identity from being “the smartest person in the room”, to asking questions that help others to be smart. Effective life sciences leaders value the behind-the-scenes work of leadership, while enabling the scientists they lead to gain the recognition from the new discovery or the great experimental result.

Several skills characterize the effective life sciences leader.

  1. Eliciting wisdom and innovation from others through dialogue. At the core of this skill are conversations in which the leader asks about the scientists’ ideas, and builds on them to enhance their applicability.
  2. Asking questions that help scientists trace the roots of their thinking, enabling them to refine their idea in order to better match it to the challenge at hand.
  3. Reframing the ideas of scientists to best exploit their particular scientific niche or business challenge.

Through these skills, the leader develops the competence of scientists and creates new mind-sets.  These are much more important leadership outcomes than simply managing behaviors!

Making a transition to the skills we’ve described may seem daunting at first.  The good news is that these skills are learnable and the attitudes acquirable through a learning and development process we have been creating over more than 25 years whereby scientists who are leaders of scientists are guided through a shift in their own intrinsic reward systems and their sense of professional identity.  In our process, leaders discover the satisfaction of being a facilitator rather than a doer. As they assume self-authorship of their new role, they observe themselves bringing out the best in others.  In short, our learning model addresses the many and complex facets of scientific leadership, accelerating skills development while assuring a personal comfort level with this new role.

To summarize, the challenge of transitioning from scientific thought leader to a leader of scientists is, without doubt, challenging, in large part because it represents a fundamental shift in mind-set. However, this transition can be reinforced and accelerated through structured learning and coaching activities.

We’re interested in hearing about your own leadership journey and experience with others you’ve known who were similarly engaged.  Consider the following questions (or pose your own) and let us know what you think:

  1. What about this rings true for you?
  2. If you’ve made this transition, how did it happen?  Who and/or what influenced you?
  3. What were the 2-3 most important leadership skills you learned – the ones that really made the difference in you becoming a good leader?
  4. What did you have to let go of to make this transition work?
  5. What is it about becoming a great leader has made the shift worthwhile?
  6. What was most challenging for you in the transition period from “scientist” to “leader”?


Transitioning a Life Science Company to Commercialization

The following are a set of factors frequently impacting Life Science companies in the midst of the transition from an R&D dominated to more Commercially oriented culture.  Not all elements impact all organizations of course.  Nonetheless, a discussion of these topics and their relevance (or not) in your organization can be useful in anticpating and navigating the tricky territory ahead.

Fundemental shift in culture:

  • Academic to Market Focus, or
  • Interesting Science to Relevant Science (my interests vs customer interests), or
  • Research/Discovery to Clinical/Marketing (Redistribution of Management Attention & Resources)

An increased need for:

  • A clearly articulated strategy and an equally clear translation of that strategy into day-to-day priorities
  • A balance between Creativity and Rules:
    • Increased process discipline and controls
    • Increased structure and accountability
    • Generally, becoming more results and milestone oriented
  • Readily recognize expertise gaps and quickly fill them (and listen to the new experts)
  • Stronger integration across critical functions – i.e. Clin Dev à Marketing/ Commercial tends to be a key one.
  • Management of external expectations

Common Traps:

  • Change can drive dysfunctional behavior
  • The perception of gaining or loosing power is easily created
  • The shift in priorities/resources can create turf/territory issues
  • People can retreat to functional/technical domains as a defense mechanism
  • Too much focus on internal organizational dynamics can cause leaders to become disconnected from the external environment
  • Conversly, too much internal turmoil can drive the focus to only the external environment.

Heads Up to the Senior Team:

  • Communication – be clear about and actively communicate the strategic direction, rationale and near term priorities.
  • Maintain awareness and manage the “dualistic” role of the Senior Manager:
    • Functional Manager – keeping the day-to-day of their individual piece of the pie moving forward and delivering on their functional prioirities.
    • General Manager – hold the “big picture” strategic perspetive.  Understanding  and valueing the interdependence of the functions.
  • Act without functional Ego and drive this behavior down into the org’n.
  • Grant competence/knowledge/expertise to others in their own functional area.  Maintain (soft) functional boundaries.
  • Act as a single body, unwavering support of all decisions especially as relates to shifting resources, focus and attention to areas as/when needed.
  • Be models of discipline, accountability and execution.
  • Learn to behave more like a Leader and less like a Scientist: scientists are advocates of their own best thinking; Leaders are advocates of other’s best thinking.
  • Maintain focus and effectively allocate attention across an increasingly complex business – e.g. planning and managing multiple programs/projects in multiple stages of development.

Choosing to Lead: Reacting or Creating

The world is changing.  For some it’s a sudden shift in the tectonic plates, for others it’s a discomforting rumble.  While “change” has always been a fact of life, today’s change  feels different: There is more than the usual uncertainty about where this will all end up.

As leaders, how we respond and the model we are to those around us during these dynamic times will determine whether we create the change or the change creates us.  We have a choice.

The popular mantra of the day, “it is what it is”, will lead us down the path of change that creates us.  The implied assumption of our powerlessness guarantees our response will be a Reactive one.  In this scenario, we see our best shot at stability, safety and security in a threatening world coming from the adoption of one or more of the following strategies:

  • Hyper Control – a death grip on anything within reach, an almost obsessive need to manage every conceivable variable, personally;
  • Active Denial – passive or aggressive discounting of any view of reality other than ones’ own, dealing with differences by attacking or distancing oneself;
  • Passive Compliance – acquiescence to circumstances, not rocking the boat or otherwise asserting oneself in ways that might challenge the status quo.

I’ve described these strategies in stark terms.  In practice they play out more subtly.  In the moment they feel like an appropriate, even justifiable, response given the perceived threat posed by the current environment.  The problem is that all of these strategies – while creating an illusion of stability, safety and security – will serve to dig the current hole deeper and ensure the outcome we least desire.

As leaders we need to recognize when these Reactive patterns are kicking in and discipline ourselves to choose a different, more courageous response.  I know the choice seems obvious.  The problem is the tug of the Reactive response is strong because it feels safe.  The illusion of comfort and security it creates is seductive.

In times like these, we need a new mindset, something akin to: “It is what we make it” – a full on bear hug embrace of the notion that we can and must be the creator of change.  Doing so requires a much more powerful and Creative stance in response to the current environment.

Moving to this Creative response requires a conscious and deliberate choice.  That choice is enabled by a combination of honest personal reflection and candid dialogue with others.

Here are 10 questions that will drive you and those around you into the Creative space.  Questions 1-4 are useful to spark Creative dialogue with others about the organization’s response to the current environment.  Questions 5-10 will help to compel more personal reflection.  They ask you to consider your own responses and what you need to do in order to better model leadership likely to create the change.   To neglect or marginalize these considerations is to put you and your organization at risk of becoming victims of the Reactive.  As you read both sets of questions, pay attention to what others occur to you:

  1. Looking Back: 12 months ago – what was the business landscape? How were we responding to our market, our internal needs?
  2. Present State: Today – what has changed about the landscape? What facts can we cite that accurately describe the impact of those changes? What decisions have we made (or not made) because of the current uncertainty? Are there decisions that we need to re-examine?
  3. Looking Ahead: In the future – what might be the implications of the current environment for our future business model/strategy? What changes do we need to consider across the entirety of our organizational system?
  4. Building Capacity:  While paying close attention to our short-term needs, how can we also take advantage of this time to build long-term capacity?
  5. Presence: How am I personally finding ways to maintain some semblance of balance in my life and encouraging others to do the same? How am I a source of calm and reason for those around me?
  6. Integrity: What does my own internal value set (my Best Self) say is the right thing to be doing and am I listening to it or not?
  7. Vision & Purpose: How am I focused on what’s best for the broader organization, even when it may mean sacrifice for me or my part of the company?
  8. Courage & Authenticity: How do I ensure that I muster the courage to talk about the world as I see it and experience it – advocating for my views and perspective – without shutting out or shutting down the possibility of other views or perspectives?
  9. Learning: When/where am I creating the opportunity to actively and openly inquire into the views, perspectives and knowledge of others, suspending my own beliefs long enough to truly understand another and what they see?
  10. Teamwork: How am I actively looking out for other’s best interests, finding common ground for agreement, even when it’s challenging? What do I need to do to ensure people have a sense that we’re in this together, truly caring about and for one another?

Times of extreme change demand that we master the skills implied in these questions.  Answering them and others unique to your organization will enable you to collect the great diversity of data that will be essential to navigating this time.  The result will be your emergence on the other side, stronger and better prepared to take full advantage of the opportunity that does lie ahead – because you created it!