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Moving Scientists from the Lab to the Executive Suite


Pharmaceutical Executive

This op-ed discusses the varying skills that business leaders should look at in scientists when thinking about talent for the lab and the executive suite.

Good leaders recognize that getting the most out of any team requires understanding the strengths and weaknesses of each individual and building organizational structures that place responsibility in the hands of those best equipped to handle it. That type of human calculation can be particularly challenging in pharmaceuticals and life sciences generally, where scientific achievement and insight will be central to the company’s identity, but where effective business and organizational structures are crucial to its success.

A brilliant scientist, for example, might have a stellar track record in the lab, but be ill-equipped to lead others. Another might be an innovative theoretical thinker, yet tend to chase interesting but impractical ideas down rabbit holes. Still others might be technically skillful, but find it challenging to see the big picture and how their work advances a larger project or an entire enterprise.

At some point in every company, senior management needs to look at a group of people with varying skill sets and consider their futures. Who among the group can be groomed for future advancement? Could someone who is running a lab today become a future head of R&D for the entire company? Could someone who is already leading a group someday be a candidate for the company’s C-Suite? How can the company provide individuals with potential the tools they need to be able to take that next step forward in their careers? What types of business or management training would be most effective?

Executive education programs can take several forms, but at their best, they look at the specific challenges of each company and each employee or group of employees and can shape programs that address those challenges. They try to take people out of their comfort zones with the goal of filling in their gaps, which in many cases can be significant. For example:

As brilliant as they may be, do they have experience managing and mentoring people around them and motivating them toward a goal?

Can they articulate the value of a new product in ways others in the organization-particularly the sales force-can understand and use? 

Do they have enough of an understanding of the pharmaceutical manufacturing process and supply chain to be able to recognize how costly or complicated it actually would be to bring a product to market?

Have they thought at all about the market for the product and what its impact could be on the company’s overall bottom line?

Do they know why a company’s stock price is important? Have they ever heard their CEO on a quarterly shareholders’ call?

Anyone at a senior level of any organization that stresses science and research will probably be able to picture their own employees as they read those questions. And every leader understands that some members of their team will always have limitations, but can still be valuable players in their own way. Consider, however, the long-term value to the organization if even a small number of those employees could fill in their gaps and become future leaders.

Consider the value, even in their current positions, if they had a greater understanding of fundamental business concepts.

Of course, once that need is recognized and the individual candidates identified, a path forward must be created-and that path may be different for different companies and for different categories of employees within each company. At the outset, an educational partner should approach the question from an evidence-based point of view, acting almost as a consultant would, delving into the problems the company needs to solve, the capabilities of the people involved, conducting a root cause analysis, and making recommendations on how to proceed.

This is not a generic process. Perhaps a customized executive education program will be most effective, utilizing world-class subject matter experts from specific disciplines to focus in-depth on limited topics-or to provide a basic understanding of a wide range of areas for a larger group of employees. Perhaps the company has already identified a handful of people it considers potential future leaders, who would benefit from a full executive MBA program that accommodates their existing professional needs, while maintaining a high level of academic rigor.

In any of these situations, programs should accentuate the practical. Students are executives who will want to see immediately the practical implications of what they are learning. They will want to be in a learning environment with other students they consider peers. They will want to work with faculty they respect, who themselves have real world experience and can apply their knowledge to tangible workplace situations. 

A pharmaceutical company is only as strong as its people and cultivating talent from within-especially among those with scientific or technical backgrounds-can have many benefits. Individuals who can bridge the gap between the lab and the executive suite bring an understanding of the company’s core values and culture-as well as personal credibility-that outsiders coming in would have to learn and earn over time. Identifying these future corporate leaders and investing in the tools they need to grow is one of the keys to sustained organizational strength over time.





William T. Valenta, Jr. is Associate Vice Provost for Professional Programs at the University of Pittsburgh and Assistant Dean of MBA and Executive Programs at the University’s Katz Graduate School of Business.


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