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Diversity and Mentoring at BioPharmas: A C-Suite Q&A with Korn Ferry’s JT Saunders


In this latest Harvard Business School Healthcare Alumni Association Q&A, JT Saunders, Chief Diversity Officer at global consulting firm Korn Ferry, discusses diversity in pharma, as well as what mentors and mentees should be considering in the workplace.

JT Saunders

JT Saunders

Michael Wong: While biopharmas are well represented on DiversityInc’s recent Top 50 companies for diversity1, they are not monopolizing the top-tier rankings like they once did on Fortune’s Most Admired Companies annual surveys2. As not only a search consultant but also Korn Ferry’s Chief Diversity Officer, what can, and should their C-suites be executing in order to elevate their performance?

TJ Saunders: This is a great question. I would encourage C-suite leaders to think about diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) by design, not by default.

Effective and sustainable efforts requires that organizations be intentional about DE&I, in which leaders make decisions based on data and facts, not long-held bias. This mindset requires that C-suite executives look at DE&I through the lens of behavioral inclusion (i.e., inclusive mindsets, skill sets, and relationships) and structural inclusion (i.e., equitable practices, policies, and structures).

It is critical that organizations are intentional about hiring, nurturing, and advancing inclusive leaders who can bring together diverse knowledge, perspectives, and experiences – uniting everyone behind one vision. Then support the right team mindset and behaviors with the correct structure and processes to make change happen.

Moreover, it is important that leaders recognize that people have different needs and headwinds to their advancement, requiring organizations to offer equitable access and opportunities for talent who face unique barriers to their advancement. Differentiated leadership development – that supports underrepresented talent in navigating these obstacles – and executive sponsorship are important tools that organizations can leverage to support and empower talent while addressing strategic business needs. We know many organizations are facing a skills gap and a talent shortage; so, it is critical for organizations to be thinking more strategically about how they identify, retain, engage, and advance all talent.

Wong: For biopharma mentees who are striving to secure mentors who not only serve as coaches but also as advocates behind closed-door promotion sessions, what are your top three recommendations for them?

Saunders: There was a time in my career where I was fixated on getting promoted. I was willing to take on extremely tough assignments, go the extra-mile, and volunteer for additional responsibilities around the office. I wanted leaders to see me. In all honesty, I quickly became frustrated because I was not seeing a lot of progress—and I was tired. I had a sponsor tell me: “JT, what got you here, won’t get you there.” This candid advice was extremely eye-opening for me. I learned that doing more of the same did not necessarily get leaders to see me beyond my current role. While I was proving that I was a really good go-to-performer, it was reinforcing their belief in me for my current role. I realized that I needed to “up my game” and start contributing differently so they could envision in me other roles, including ones that had greater responsibilities. In other words, I needed to spend more time building relationships and taking on assignments – voluntary or otherwise – that allowed me to build new skills, like my capability to influence. Through this journey, there were a few lessons-learned and action steps. I would encourage aspiring leaders to consider the following:

First, ask yourself – who am I professionally? What is your brand, and is it aligned with how others perceive you? If you do not know what it is or what you want it to be, you need to get feedback from the people around you. Perception is reality. How you are perceived by colleagues (i.e., direct manager, step-level leader, peer colleagues, and/or subordinates) will impact your growth and development. In an organization, it is important to be known for something – your expertise, how you partner and engage with others, and the impact that you have on the organization. This perception is something you can influence so do what you can to manage this narrative, or it will be defined by others – without you.

Second, your credentials, skills, and experiences are critical to your success. However, you cannot over index on what you know – even in highly technical environments. From my years in executive search, my candid advice is who you know and who knows you will be important to your long-term success. As you advance, you need the support of others who can provide perspective, insight, and access to information (unwritten rules) that might not be as clear to you – where you sit in the organization.

I raise these two points first because I often find that people will say to me and other leaders “will you be my mentor?” I was raised to believe that if you do not ask for something, then you will not get it, but when it comes to your advancement you need to be more intentional about building an effective brand and relationships that match. By taking these steps, mentors and sponsors will find you. Leaders often take pride in developing future leaders and by taking you under their wings there is an expectation that you will continue to perform and make good with their mentorship/sponsorship.

This is where the rubber meets the road – by leaning into this process, while you will likely gain insights into navigating an organizational culture and your career, it can be challenging when you do not have a broader understanding or appreciation of where the organization is headed and how you fit into the vision.

Don’t limit mentorship or sponsorship – which in my opinion is more important – to an outcome (i.e., promotion). These relationships cannot be treated as transactional. You need to cultivate and nurture these relationships and you will be surprised how they serve you in the long run.

Sponsors often saw something in me that I did not see in myself. Keep lines of communication open with them and I guarantee they will help you uncover opportunities that you did not know about or were open to you.

Finally, be curious, be authentically you, and be open to new possibilities. And remember, your job is not limited to what is written in a job description; but rather it can be a clean sheet of paper where you can leverage your capabilities to create new value for your organization and ultimately you. Relationships are key to your success.

JT Saunders is Chief Diversity Officer at Korn Ferry where he has served in multiple roles in Executive Search and Consulting. Korn Ferry was recognized by Forbes Magazine as America’s best executive recruiting firm (in six of the last seven years that the survey has been run). JT received his Master's degree from New York University and his Bachelor's degree from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

Michael Wong is an emeritus board member of the Harvard Business School Healthcare Alumni Association.


1. https://www.fair360.com/top-50-list/2023/

2. Each year since 1997, in collaboration with Fortune, Korn Ferry identifies the World’s Most Admired Companies and examines how these highly regarded and successful firms stand out among their peers.

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