Valuing Diversity

Apr 01, 2008

Reggie Smith
Diversity was one of the big business buzzwords of the early nineties, but many major industries have a long way to go toward achieving the lofty goals set out in those days. Pharma is no exception. True, women and employees of color have more of a presence in middle management than ever before. But though noticeable progress has been made, white men still hold the vast majority of executive positions.

Enter Reggie Smith. A veteran division sales manager at Genentech, Smith has a wealth of experience in the ever-changing, ever-evolving pharmaceutical industry. As the manager of a nine-member sales team, Smith is well versed in training, hiring, motivation, and staff development, not to mention sales goals and project management. As an African-American sales pro, Smith brings a particularly personal perspective to a discussion of diversity within the industry, an issue he sees as enveloping ethnicity, race, upbringing, and socioeconomic background.

Pharmaceutical Executive asked Smith to share some of his accumulated wisdom on the topic and to offer advice that would ring true for brand-new hiring managers and industry veterans alike.

Over the past several years, have you seen a change in the amount of diversity in the pharmaceutical industry and in pharma sales, in particular?

The short answer is yes, but it depends on what category you're talking about. For example, I've definitely seen more and more women hired by pharma companies. In the seventies, the stereotype of the sales representative was a man with a loud laugh and a big personality, the kind of person who'd slap doctors on the back. In the eighties, more women started to creep into the industry, and then it exploded in the nineties with the advent of larger sales forces. And so I think the pharmaceutical industry could be one of the model industries from a gender-diversity standpoint.

But, like many other industries, pharma has been lagging behind in terms of its ethnic diversity. Since I've been in the industry, it has gotten better, particularly in the Big Pharma arena. I think it has room to improve in the biotech arena. And from what I've seen, it still has a long, long way to go in the medical device arena.

Why do you think that's so?

I think there are a few different issues that are at work. First, there's a fear of difference. As humans, we like and are more comfortable around those who are very similar to us. But that shouldn't mean that a candidate must have the same background as the hiring manager in order to succeed in the interview process. Still, if a hiring manager hasn't spent much time around people with backgrounds different from his or hers, he or she might be hesitant to consider those candidates. He or she may have preconceived ideas that aren't necessarily accurate.

Second, there's a dated hiring paradigm of looking at candidates only from certain schools. Sometimes companies get in the habit of only recruiting at a particular school in their geographic region. And if most of the student body consists of people from a particular background, that really limits the diversity of the potential new hires.

Third, sometimes we overemphasize the idea of "territory fit." This might sound a bit controversial, but it's something that I think we have to look at. Instead of just making assumptions about how a particular rep would fit with a particular sales territory, we should really look at the individual and at how adaptable he or she is in forming relationships. When I was turned down for a job once, I got wind of the fact that there was a perception that I wouldn't do well in a rural territory. There was a belief that it would be an issue for me to cover this particular part of east Texas. Well, the irony of it all is that when I finally did get hired (after being turned down twice), a third of my territory was that area out in east Texas, and I did very well there.

Now, when I had that job, there was a problem that popped up with an individual with whom I had to deal professionally. And from my perspective, it seemed like a race issue. But being the type of person I was, I adapted to that situation, and we moved along famously. And in fact, the person with whom I had that issue ended up helping me big time in beating my competition.

Fourth, sometimes hiring managers have a lack of commitment to cultivating diversity. They feel there is no real or perceived value in why we should be doing this. They might be confusing diversity with affirmative action. Affirmative action is more reactive, but diversity is more proactive. From a business standpoint, there is a strong argument to be made for diversifying your sales force.

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