Know When to Bail

November 1, 2002
Stephen Williams, PhD

Stephen Williams, PhD, is senior vice-president, of Bench International, an executive search firm specializing in the pharma and biotech industries.

,
Denise DeMan

Denise DeMan is the CEO and founder of Bench International, an executive search firm specializing in the pharma and biotech industries. .

Pharmaceutical Executive

Pharmaceutical Executive, Pharmaceutical Executive-11-01-2002,

Employees in the pharma industry, who once expected lifetime employment, now find themselves facing some of the same dilemmas, including job insecurity and declining stock values, as those in beleaguered industries such as defense and finance. The pharma industry has seen more than its fair share of mergers and acquisitions, and employees increasingly question whether they have a future within their company. Those who make the hiring decisions for large pharma companies say such doubts are reasonable in the current climate and that an honest self-assessment of a variety of factors, including faith in management, opportunity for growth, and job

Employees in the pharma industry, who once expected lifetime employment, now find themselves facing some of the same dilemmas, including job insecurity and declining stock values, as those in beleaguered industries such as defense and finance. The pharma industry has seen more than its fair share of mergers and acquisitions, and employees increasingly question whether they have a future within their company. Those who make the hiring decisions for large pharma companies say such doubts are reasonable in the current climate and that an honest self-assessment of a variety of factors, including faith in management, opportunity for growth, and job satisfaction, is always in order. So, knowing when to gracefully exit and when to gut it out has been added to the list of essential skills.

This article provides advice from three industry executives who have faced such a decision and who have developed the necessary skills to make the right choice.

"If people do not have the opportunity to grow in their current organizations, it's quite fair to look outside," says Dr. Jean-Jacques Garaud, global head of clinical research and development for Novartis AG. "It is important to push oneself out of the comfort zone. I'm not trying to promote job hopping, but there can be a lot of virtue in moving at the right time."

Other industry executives agree that a substantial amount of personal growth occurs whenever a person moves to a new organization. Changing companies expands a person's network, increasing the number of people who are familiar with one's skill set.

"It makes you perform at the top of your game again," says Sheri Staak, vice-president of business management for the arthritis franchise at Pharmacia. "It allows you to have another potentially different challenging opportunity to stretch yourself."

But most people don't seek change unless it is forced upon them. So what are the signs that it is time to depart?

One senior executive, who prefers to remain anonymous, says it depends whether the impetus to leave is trouble brewing within the company or being "personally uncomfortable or unhappy." If the company's future is in doubt, he says, employees should consider what is important to them. Someone who values staying with one company for a long time, for instance, should try to identify bigger companies with stable financial situations. But, he points out, troubled companies are typically more willing to use innovative approaches and leaders. That desperation can create phenomenal job opportunities.

The need to leave can strike at any moment, not just during turbulent times or during a merger or acquisition. When deciding what action to take, employees should pay attention to the personal warning signs.

Watch the Signs

Pharmacia's Staak says there are five signals that indicate when it's time to start searching for a new position:

  • Do you no longer enjoy working with the manager or feel there is nothing to learn from him or her? Has the manager lost faith in the employee?

  • Are you enthusiastic about going to work in the morning?

  • Are you having cultural or philosophical difficulties with the management's approach to the company?

  • Do you enjoy your colleagues?

  • Do you deserve a bigger compensation package?

Answering yes to one of those questions will probably not motivate someone to leave. But an affirmative answer to two or more of them should prompt an employee to take action.

Staak says she's been fortunate to have never answered yes to any of those questions. She's been with Pharmacia for 19 years, although she is quick to point out that Pharmacia hasn't been the same company for that entire time. Her first job after graduating with a degree in marketing was as a sales representative for Upjohn, which later merged with Pharmacia to become Pharmacia & Upjohn. When that company merged with Searle, it became Pharmacia. And earlier this summer, Pfizer announced plans to acquire Pharmacia.

"I feel like I've worked for three different companies," she says. "I thrive on change."

The ability to stay and work for a "different company" without actually leaving has kept Staak on the fast track at Pharmacia. Her goals have included becoming a sales leader and a vice-president before she turned 40. She reached both those positions within the designated time.

When Staak sets her goals, she closely examines each opportunity to determine what she would be likely to learn and how it would enhance her existing skill set, giving special attention to changes in scope of, and increases in, responsibility.

Novartis' Garaud adds that situations like Staak's are ideal. "As long as someone can have, in the same company, different jobs and challenges and move from one place to another, the individual doesn't have to leave," he says, because satisfaction will come from taking on different roles and responsibilities. "But if that doesn't happen, it's important to ask why."

Sometimes, Garaud points out, it's beneficial for an employee to make a lateral move to another company because that may provide a chance to learn a new way to do the same thing. It can also be a self-esteem booster, because a hiring manager must see some potential in a candidate to offer a job to him or her.

Time to Move

Garaud, who has also worked for Schering-Plough, Rhone-Poulenc Rorer, and Marion Merrel-Dow, says he has always known when it was time to seek a new position. "I had a gut feeling that it was time to go away," the physician recalls. "I am a very loyal person. As long as I'm happy somewhere, I stay." But when he feels that his contributions are undervalued or that he is losing motivation because of events outside of his control, he does a self-assessment.

People become unhappy at work for many reasons, from being at odds with the boss to not fitting in with the corporate culture.

Those contemplating a jump to a new position should spend some time carefully identifying the factors that make them unhappy, says another executive. "And be sure they understand what's missing because they may end up in an alternative situation that's no better than where they are. Once those factors are clarified, there may be an opportunity to move within the same company to something that provides what they're looking for."

According to Staak, the number one reason people leave a company is poor interaction with direct supervisors. If a manager is not someone the employee can respect or learn from, the work environment becomes a difficult place to be. At the same time, if the manager has lost faith in the employee's capabilities, then it will be difficult for that employee to advance.

Garaud agrees that management is the key driver in the employee/employer relationship. "If you're not in sync with your management, you're simply not going to be happy."

Staak reacted calmly to the news of Pfizer's acquisition of Pharmacia. She and her peers agree that the announcement of a merger or acquisition is not necessarily cause for panic.

Surviving a Merger

According to Garaud, the first question to ask when facing a merger or acquisition is: Is it better to dance with the new management team or to wait for the severance package? If the answer is the former, the next thing to determine is whether the employee's current role is redundant in the new organization. If it is, he or she must identify other roles they might have instead, Garaud says. It's wise to start looking outside the company as well to ensure a pick of positions.

He says it's also important to be patient and to pay attention to the methods of new management. Sometimes the panic and insecurity employees feel about being excluded may stem from new management's misunderstanding of the company's processes. Conducting a dispassionate, rational assessment is critical in such situations.

Merger veteran Staak says her experiences have taught her to conduct a thorough examination of the acquiring company. "It takes an almost algorithmic decision making process," she says, but approaching the decision to leave or stay with that kind of dispassionate logic typically results in an answer with which an employee can at least be at peace. It's important to look at the pros and cons, including which positions are available and in what locations.

"It's matching career goals with family goals," Staak adds. But she admits that going through an acquisition is tougher than a merger. A merger, by definition, may provide more opportunities, she says. But the opposite is true of an acquisition.

Usually the acquiring company is looking for assets and those assets are typically products, she says. The acquiring company is making the purchase as part of a growth strategy. "And by definition, if you're going to grow the business, you can't take on the expense of a lot of additional head count, as in employees," Staak said. As a result, there are fewer opportunities for employees.

According to Staak, the industry no longer looks down on employees who have worked at different companies because there are advantages to having a wide range of experience.

Making a Match

But, just as there is a definite process for deciding whether to leave a company, there are also major factors to consider before joining another one, she says. Key questions to ask include:

  • Is it a solid, financially healthy company?

  • Are there opportunities for development?

  • Are there opportunities to build a resume?

  • Is the compensation appropriate for the position and for maintaining the employee's quality of life?

As a hiring manager, Staak focuses on sharing detailed information about the job responsibilities and about Pharmacia's culture to make sure there is a match. Most candidates want to know about the advancement opportunities, she adds, so she makes a point to talk to them about development and the skills and competencies the position will foster.

"I want to make very sure they're competent to do the job I may be hiring them to do and that they will have job satisfaction," she explains.

Asking targeted questions of future employers is crucial to getting the right fit. All companies say they stand for integrity, believe in their people, and value diversity, but candidates need to dig deeper to confirm that the commitment is real.

"Don't ask general questions, but specific behavioral questions that help you understand what the new company is about," says one executive. "I also suggest to people don't look for a next job-look for your next three jobs. So when you go to a new company look farther into the future."

Try to determine how your talents and skills will fit in the long-term plans of the potential employer. Unhappy workers need to make a detailed assessment of their current employer and of themselves. If the current employer isn't committed to long-term career development, and that's important to the employee, then he or she should raise that concern during conversations with other potential employers.

The issue is not whether the employer believes in its people, but what the process is for creating a development plan. Ask about internal training and development as well as external training opportunities. Getting answers to those questions will reveal what the company considers important. It all goes back to being clear about why the employee believes he's unhappy.

Garaud says hiring managers should discuss vision, style, and expectations to provide candidates with the information needed to make a sound decision: "It's critical to spend time with the candidate and to share as much as possible with the individual so that there is no mis-hire."

When determining whether it's time for the graceful exit, pharmaceutical executives should take the time to conduct an honest self-assessment and examine current and future career goals. Those steps can make the difference between making a satisfying career switch or a career mishap.

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