Building Tomorrow’s Biopharma Workforce

July 16, 2015
William Looney

Pharmaceutical Executive, Pharmaceutical Executive-07-01-2015, Volume 35, Issue 7

In a knowledge industry like biopharma, people are the intangible asset that marks the difference between a status quo or standout performance. Pharm Exec recently convened a panel of industry team leaders and HR specialists at St. Joseph’s University Haub School of Business to parse out some useful best practices in three key areas: talent recruitment and retention; skills training; and workforce diversity.

In a knowledge industry like biopharma, people are the intangible asset that marks the difference between a status quo or standout performance. Pharm Exec recently convened a panel of industry team leaders and HR specialists at St. Joseph’s University Haub School of Business to parse out some useful best practices in three key areas: talent recruitment and retention; skills training; and workforce diversity.

Bill Looney: The pharmaceutical industry is a knowledge industry. Knowledge is a function of human capital-the cumulative measure of native intelligence, learned skills, environmental awareness, and pooled effort that lead to improvements in the human condition. It follows that attracting a deep, diverse pool of in-house talent should stand as a top strategic goal for today’s biopharmaceutical enterprise-but is it? What is the current “state of the art” in promoting a productive, engaged and high-quality pharma workforce? Are we there yet, or is this just an aspiration?

Lionel Phillips, Inside Edge Consulting: Recruiting, motivating, and retaining a strong management team is the most critical function of a leader today. It should be the first thing in mind when a leader sets objectives for the business. In pharma, the best way to build that momentum is by keeping your eye on the patient perspective. Conveying the message that we exist to make patients well is a powerful “force multiplier,” one that transcends our own individual agendas. It brings focus and acts as a moral compass to drive results.

When hiring people, I pay less attention to the standard resume background than I do to intangibles like attitude and perspective. I’ve offered jobs to people with no

direct exposure to biopharmaceuticals. I know people with impressive credentials in corporate finance who were able to transition to community-based service organizations dedicated to making people healthier. The lesson I bring is that, in this industry, the surest guide to making the right hire is whether a candidate really cares about patients. The patient is fundamental to understanding how our medicines are developed, marketed and used in the real world clinical setting. Being patient-centric also avoids the tendency of big organizations to turn inward, to be bureaucratic and inflexible. These are not the characteristics of an innovative pharmaceutical company capable of attracting the next generation of talent.   

Looney:  Companies talk about connecting to patients, but is affinity to the patient really considered in the recruitment and talent development practices of today’s pharma HR function?

Phillips: It is acknowledged as a factor. But it needs to be better prioritized. When discussing stakeholders, the fallback position of the “C-suite” is to cite the interests of the shareholder as paramount. I’d phrase it differently: when patients come first, profits tend to follow, which means the shareholder wins, too. There is also a strategic shift in customer attitudes favoring drug marketing that is less abstract and more hands on. The primacy of social media today puts a premium on authenticity and transparency, which requires a pharmaceutical company to build on the human connections available through the patient population. This can also serve as a formidable recruiting tool. Millennials are not only active users of social media, they are now the largest US population cohort, surpassing the boomer generation. Surveys show that millennials rate reputation and social responsibility very highly among attributes of a potential employer. A strong patient focus can be very useful in attracting the best among the next generation of industry leaders.   

Looney: Embracing the patient has to be framed in the larger context of embracing diversity. I don’t define this purely in ethnic, racial, or gender terms but also in recognizing that drug companies now must present themselves as an integral part of  healthcare. I’d like to ask Kay Brady how the hospital sector is approaching its own distinctive relationship with the patient.  

Kay Brady, Lancaster General Health: Our mission is to serve an extensive network of patients in Lancaster and the surrounding communities of central Pennsylvania. This community is highly diverse in almost every measure. From an organizational standpoint, we took a first step seven years ago in hiring a vice president for diversity programs. Our first initiative was an in-house training program to foster cultural competencies among the work force. Our initial review was that while this training increased awareness, we still needed to understand more about the drivers that would lead to more inclusive behaviors. So we refocused on understanding how a broader perspective of inclusion could take us beyond the traditional definitions of diversity.   

We conducted an employee inclusion survey that revealed a surprising conclusion about our priorities. Instead of what we thought would be a preoccupation with the demographics around age, gender, race, etc., the survey identified the biggest problem as a disconnect between what a colleague felt he or she was contributing and its impact on the larger group.  In particular, ideas and proposals perceived to be innovative or different did not always gain traction. Yes, our challenge turned out to be a lack of diversity of thought. 

Bridging this gap has subsequently become a key element of Lancaster’s HR strategy. We developed HR training to help colleagues understand how personal styles at work differ and to navigate effectively in a world where change is a constant. More important, we added annual metrics around retention and talent development as well as including adaptability and emotional intelligence in the talent review process. I see these learned behavior changes as critical because hospitals traditionally operate on the basis of vertical structures that can reinforce “command and control” management. There is also an ingrained analytical mindset in the healthcare business. Being able to look beyond that and incorporate more subjective, qualitative thinking-founded on self-awareness, listening skills, and the willingness to acknowledge different perspectives in group settings-leads, in our view, to better decisions. 

Looney:  It seems this approach fits well with the patient interest as the determinant of organization strategy. 

Brady: Our target is indeed the patient. In contrast to my previous roles in the pharmaceutical industry, where the patient has no direct presence on site, at Lancaster Hospital I have eight floors filled with patients right above my office. We have adjusted our recruitment process to identify specific patient-centric traits in potential employees, like empathy and compassion. In fact, all interviewers have a list of patient-centered competencies that we developed to help everyone across the organization identify the right person and convince them to join us. And it’s not pure altruism at work here: reimbursement under federal programs like Medicare now depends on our patient satisfaction scores.    

Looney:  How important are formal recognition and award programs in recruiting and retaining talent?

Lori Thorell, Worldwide Clinical Trials: It depends. These can either be wildly successful or a total rout, depending on how well such events are executed. Often, peer-to-peer recognition is more meaningful than a hand down from executives in the C-suite. In addition, workers are skeptical of award programs that try to include everyone. The recognition has to be perceived by the group as carrying value.  

Tomorrow’s skills set  

Looney: Before we can recognize talent, we must determine what the industry needs in terms of professional skills and capabilities. Have these changed in the last few years? What is the ideal profile that you look for in filling the talent pool, particularly as the more experienced baby boomers begin retiring? 

Bob Oliver, Otsuka Pharmaceuticals: The industry has undergone a sea change in the last decade. Employment has contracted due to the patent cliff, health reform has transformed the customer base and raised the leverage of payers, and, in a related trend, volume sales are tilting away from high-reward innovation-85% of all medicines prescribed here in the US are now generic. Most important, there is no obvious, universal solution to this disruption in the biopharma business model. This is why Otsuka’s talent planning is now focused on finding people who can manage through ambiguity-that is today’s required skill.  Past performance does not predict future success.

Sheila Mathias, Braeburn Pharmaceuticals: My background is regulatory. I have worked in large pharmaceutical organizations, but my current firm is small-I am one of only 13 employees. What stands out for me is the capacity to be flexible-to adapt to circumstances in this era of so many disruptive innovations in healthcare. In my former roles, I was more of a regulatory strategist, focused on the clinical side. At present, my role requires exposure to nearly everything, from labeling, to contract manufacturing, to market intelligence-the entire gamut of regulatory operations. The conclusion I draw from my varied experience is that, regardless of size, biopharma companies overall are on a downsizing trend. They want people who can shift bandwidth and work with others just to get the work done.

Looney: Are the big pharma players really capable of shifting cultures to create a more versatile work force?

Mathias: It is certainly harder. When I interviewed at Braeburn, the message was “we are recruiting you for regulatory, but you will not be defined by regulatory.” This means they are looking for a skill set that involves a willingness to take prudent risks, to step outside the boundaries of a formal job description. I also think this flexibility is appealing to people from larger companies affected by the competitive restructuring and job losses. This is expanding the career possibilities for those willing to handle the uncertainties in building a start-up company.  

Brady: Lancaster Hospital has a different work force demographic than big pharma. Some 70% of our 7,000 employees are non-exempt, where wages tend to be lower. Nevertheless, even here the skills requirements are significant, especially as we implement the employee health record (EHR). Education and training in the use of this technology has been underway for the last four years. At the start, we were forced to invest heavily in recruiting a strong IT staff, along with the incentives required to retain them. Today, we are at the point where all our employees are comfortable with EHR. We have identified leadership skills for our in-house clinicians as another priority. The physician spends his days in a world framed by short, 15-minute interactions where an assessment is followed by a diagnosis, after which he or she moves on to the next patient. Business and management acumen is not taught in medical schools, which is one reason we are partnering with St. Joseph’s Haub Business School on a customized MBA curriculum for our clinicians. 

Looney:  So the skills curve is definitely increasing? Can you describe your metrics of success?

Brady: Yes. We get 17,000 applications for around 1,500 positions per year. Our basic tool is a “hire to fit” system that matches candidates with a set of essential competencies for each position. It’s basically a profile founded on the historical characteristics of people who were successful in that position. Twenty percent of this evaluation covers emotional intelligence markers like empathy, compassion, and patient focus. It demonstrates how serious we are in creating a mission around the patient. In addition, 40% of our openings are filled internally.  To build the ranks, we launched a high-potentials evaluation track to groom clinicians for management and administrative leadership positions. We can take a nurse and offer him the opportunity for a slot in finance, after which he can move on to IT. The result is an employee more valuable to us than limiting him to a nursing role.   

In regard to metrics, we initiated a program in August 2014 to track our hiring decisions to the 90-day and one-year staff turnover rate. That’s our basic ROI-making the right hiring choices preserves our talent pool and keeps personnel costs down.  

Thorell: The cost of recruiting a new staff member and then training the person in functional skills and adapting to the culture can only be amortized over time-a staffer who leaves in six months or a year is actually a net financial loss to the organization. 

Looney: Biopharmaceuticals has traditionally been seen as an “insider” business. Is the preferred capability set shifting toward the external-is familiarity with adjacent sectors like consumer retail now seen as an asset among potential industry hires? 

Phillips: The imperative today is to differentiate your products by offering superior value.  You have to stand out and that in turn requires the capacity to move away from old ways of thinking. Recruiting talent from different backgrounds adds an element of internal tension that can result in a better decision.

Thorell:  Given my background in clinical research operations, I have always looked at pharmaceuticals as a service industry.  When we hire people, we take technical competence as a given, or a set of skills that can be taught or transferred.

The real stand out, intangible factor is cultural fit. Will the candidate aptly reflect the values the company is seeking to project?  Someone from a different sector background may actually present those values better than a veteran who has been doing the same thing in pharma for years.   I was at a large CRO for 17 years, but just recently decided to make a change,  moving to a company one-tenth its size:  my new employer, Worldwide Clinical Trials, has 1,400 employees, while my former employer had more than 14,000.  I ended up here because I would have more autonomy and influence in a highly specialized, flexible organization. I now tout these values as my own in representing my new company with clients.

Looney: Other than cultural fit, what are the critical skills that you see emerging in clinical trial operations? I understand there is a growing need to tease out underlying trends that may not always be apparent with a cursory reading of trial data. So how do you recruit for curiosity?    

Thorell: As the volume and complexity of data expands, requirements for positions in clinical trial research are changing at warp speed. Disruptive trends like the adoption of the electronic medical record as well as the breakdown of the traditional patient/physician relationship in favor of informal health providers like Walgreens or CVS mean that the model for clinical trial research must change, too. Technology and big data are going to raise the ante on human interpretive skills-the capacity to make sense of vast, disaggregated flows of information-and curiosity is a flag for that. We need workers who are flexible to change along with the opportunities that technology presents to us. Hence, when we recruit we look for evidence of thinking that comes “out of the box.” 

Buy in from the top?

Looney: We’ve identified why and how pharma must update its criteria for recruiting and retaining management talent. The key question is whether this awareness is actually changing the mindset in the leadership C-suite. Do they get it or is there a problem in executing around the poles of awareness, diversity, and inclusion?

Phillips: The CEOs I speak with through the Get Together Group are acutely aware of talent recruitment issues and the importance of building a more diverse and flexible workforce. If there is a problem, it lies with translating this support into something doable on the ground. 

Brady: If this is part of a CEO’s own agenda, and the resources are adequate, then the organization will likely move forward. The big danger is having good ideas get lost in translation. There is not always the discipline to have deeper conversations around capabilities. You require this to build a true leadership program that focuses on institutionalizing these capabilities throughout the organization.   

All the talk about finding and keeping talent is occurring at a time when the basic license to operate for a healthcare supplier like Lancaster General is undergoing a major transformation. We face what banking and pharmaceuticals faced 10 years ago. The number of healthcare delivery networks in place five years from now will be fewer than what we have today. Scale is going to change everything. We need different capabilities. Our CEO recognizes that. While practicing physicians will continue to dominate our talent base, the way we train and motivate them is changing.  

Talent networking

Looney:  What do we mean by talent retention?  Is this a dynamic process, where we expect that the supply of talent will ebb and flow depending on circumstances?

Brady: Talent retention is not a mandate to keep everyone. Our discussion so far indicates a consensus that organizations benefit where there is a periodic restocking of human capital. There is healthy turnover and not so healthy turnover. Like everything else, strategies around keeping good people are changing. The common practice for years was to identify and differentiate the best talent and give them exposure to a variety of challenges, after which most will opt to stay with the company. Today, numerous studies favor a different approach, based on the premise that the relationship between a high value employee and his manager is a more reliable indicator of whether someone will stick around or not. If you don’t get along with your manager, you aren’t going to stay with us. Hence, our efforts have switched to helping to drive that critical reporting relationship in a mutually positive direction. We are training our managers today in the virtues of being a strong team leader.  It’s about how to lead, not how to manage. There is a subtle but important difference.

Thorell: We need to be cautious about the label “high potential.” Just because someone is performing at a superior level in their current position does not guarantee he or she will excel in the next position. You can be a very productive salesperson but overcompensate in managing others who may not be as good at the art of selling as you were. 

Looney: Work in biopharma today is organized around teams-the era of the individual “star” is over. How does HR promote team-based behaviors?

Brady: The first thing we do is make a conscious effort to help staff our teams with the best and most appropriate people. I am regularly approached by cross-functional team leaders for access to our talent management system to match assignments with competencies. Our list of high potentials is also made available. The second item is using MBA programs like our relationship with St. Joseph’s to train our people in “soft” management capabilities like influencing, coaching, negotiation workshops, and war games. HR also runs an open enrollment aspiring leadership program to help colleagues determine whether that track might be for them. 

Tucker: One little noticed aspect of team effort is the modest degree of control a leader or a group has in executing around the project. Collaboration can lead to inertia if the responsible contributing functions and capabilities are not clearly defined. A matrix structure overcomes that by channeling resources across the full organization. You encounter less uncertainty about what is required to get the job done, so I think the matrix is an important element in empowering a team.

Culture counts

Looney: Is there a predominant culture theme in the biopharma industry today?  Can this culture be summarized in a single tag line-participatory, inclusive, innovative, risk-averse, bureaucratic or global?

Phillips: Culture in the pharma industry is most often associated with bureaucracy. It was always built on the idea that the industry is unique: there is a right way to do things in biopharma, and a wrong way. That’s what the culture teaches us. The biotechnology sector is different, and is probably doing the best at building a culture that is not bureaucratic, since these companies are smaller and need to stay nimble. They carry more risk while competing against the resources of the integrated big pharma giants.  

Tucker:  Culture is important because it provides a rationale for differentiating the firm in a crowded marketplace. It’s a shorthand way of defining how the company operates in a global context-and what the values are that get people of different gender or race or nationality into the workplace every day. Let’s not forget that a strong internal culture can be a significant recruiting tool. The best job candidates are going to evaluate the company culture in terms of whether it is a good fit for them. They want a culture that will allow them not to survive, but to thrive.

Talent ROI

Looney: I’d like to ask Kay Brady what happens when she presents her talent development and leadership programs to the C suite for op plan/budget approvals? Must you document a specific ROI?

Brady: I get the occasional push back on ROI, but our CEO is the champion of Lancaster General’s talent and leadership initiatives. He has a clear understanding of the power of our people as a driver of financial and shareholder performance. As individual success stories have proliferated, and as our succession planning reaches down through three layers of talent, buy-in from the top has only increased.  

Looney:  In a broader sense, how have talent programs adapted to a shrinking work force in biopharmaceuticals? More than 200,000 high paying jobs in the US industry have disappeared since the great recession of  2008-2009. Have talent programs come to be perceived as a frill?

Brady: Several things have happened. First, the purpose of any talent retention or development program can no longer be vertical-to push people up the ladder. Frankly, there are no longer enough slots to reward talent with promotions. The focus must be instead on encouraging people to consider horizontal moves that expand their skill set and offer opportunities to work with colleagues from different backgrounds. The second change is that no one assumes that high potentials will stay with us for a lifetime. We aren’t going to keep people forever-that’s a given in today’s shifting workforce. Finally, work/life balance is becoming the dominant factor in keeping employees productive and happy. Our data shows that when work and life is not in balance, people start looking for options elsewhere.

Tucker: The shift is really around defining success as a goal. Career advancement is no longer a linear process. Success cannot be measured through the title or job description of your next position. It is all about incorporating different experiences, moving into new geographies and finding new skills. Those skills may-or may not-lead to a more senior position. Instead, it’s about the journey. Both the employer and the employee must be transparent about that and to manage expectations. People have to be encouraged to see that a role as “executor” is just as vital and important to the company’s future as that of the strategist.   

Diversity – making it meaningful

Looney: What about programs to promote greater diversity in employment? Is diversity valued more in large biopharma companies than in smaller firms?

Tucker: I have witnessed firsthand many initiatives to promote workplace

diversity. We tend to address the issue in the same way as other strategic challenges: we identify what needs to be done, create a plan and convene a team to execute around a specific target.  Experience suggests that is not a sustainable approach. There is too much attention to achieving a number.  The real driver of change is how well we relate diversity programs to the bottom line. Making that connection between diversity and commercial results-with data-based metrics to confirm it-is the only way to change behavior. I also believe that diversity initiatives must be integrated within a larger program geared to building and retaining talent. Diversity is not a side bar activity. 

Success factors

Looney: Are there any final messages that bear exploring? What would you say to your CEO on gaps or issues that require his or her direct attention and support?

Brady: There is a tendency in HR to set multiple goals-trying to do too much. HR has to be clear and focused on what it intends to achieve through the planning cycle. For Lancaster General, that is identifying and building the capabilities of our workforce in a manner that advances our overall business strategy. How does what we do fit with the organization’s strategy? Be clear and don’t be hesitant to say “no” when an idea just doesn’t fit. 

Tucker: That clarity also has to be ingrained within the performance evaluation process.    

Phillips: Teams will continue to be central to how the big biopharma companies make decisions and execute around them. Teams are living organisms. One way to perform better is to make every member of a team feel that he or she is outstanding-part of a high-performing group. In addition, teams need an internal sponsor or champion, one who can help run interference when the group encounters various types of bureaucratic delays.

Mathias:  A clear purpose and specific deliverables is still the overriding determinant of a successful team. But a sponsor is still important, particularly if that person has the clout to ensure the team will not get lost in the organization chart. It is especially needed when the team is seeking to do something that is innovative or disruptive.

Tucker: The message that resonates the most to me is moving from diversity as an organization objective to diversity as a business imperative. Hiring and retaining a work force around the commitment to diversity as an end result is not just an exercise to move up the rankings in competition with other company HR departments. We must show that those companies who are most diverse are also companies with a superior ROI, expressed through business results that outpace the competition.

Oliver: There is no shortage of talent in the biopharma field.  What will determine commercial success is how well a company develops that talent.  You have to invest in your people, not only with the financial resources and incentives they need to thrive but in fostering a cultural attitude around continuous learning.  Keeping people on the cutting edge, exposing them to new ideas and “stretch” goals, with an appropriate tolerance for failure, is more important than in-house skills training.  This latter is the traditional way, but in a business world that no longer has any clear boundaries between the right and wrong path, you have to give allowance to learn in uncommon ways.  That can include tapping into best practices in other, adjacent industries beyond pharmaceuticals.

William Looney is Pharm Exec's Editor-in-Chief. He can be reached at wlooney@advanstar.com