Valuing Diversity

April 1, 2008

Pharmaceutical Executive

Volume 0, Issue 0

Veteran salesperson Reggie Smith of Genentech makes the case for sales force diversity

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.

Reggie Smith

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.

Do sales managers get information about the business case for diversity?

I think typically not. In the United States right now, one-third of the citizens are people of color. I just read that of the 50 biggest cities in the United States, 19 have a majority of people of color. More and more people of color are going to universities. Still, it hasn't translated to the point where sales managers see a real dire need to go out and hire this educated, diverse workforce.

People really want to hire the best team. Unfortunately, if you're dealing with a fear of difference, a tendency to hire only from particular schools, an overemphasis on territory fit, or a lack of commitment to diversity, then the "best" team starts looking like a very similar team rather than a team that could really be vibrant, different, and extremely successful.

What are the benefits you're seeing from this approach?

In Genentech, when we launched the Raptiva (efalizumab) franchise, the senior management team hired a very diverse, skilled management team. It was probably the best I've ever heard of within the industry, at least within biotech. Out of the original nine managers, four were people of color, as was our director of sales. That was really unusual, and we did a really good job coming out in the extremely tough, competitive psoriasis marketplace. One rep, who was white, told me once that he's seen firsthand the value of having a diverse team.

When I speak of diversity as it relates to my team at Genentech, I don't just mean different ethnic backgrounds. I also mean different skills sets and mind-sets. Some of us have such different approaches to the job. Early on, one of the senior managers mentioned to me that my team was like a band of misfits in that regard. But they've been a very, very successful band of misfits. We've been Team of the Year. We've led in prescriptions three out of four years. In any category that measures success, we've always been in the top-two or -three teams. And we've been extremely consistent.

What should managers do in order to increase diversity in their sales teams?

Hire for traits and behaviors, more than for professional experience. The famous football coach Barry Switzer used to say, "You can't coach speed." What that means to me is, I can't coach the traits and behaviors, like the hunger, drive, passion, and persistence—but I can try to hire those. And after six months, the experience will be there as well.

Hiring managers need to realize that the Asian, African-American, and Hispanic populations are growing here in the United States. Diversity is not going away. At this point, the train has left the station. That's why I strongly suggest you diversify the areas where you recruit. Make sure your recruiting sources are giving you diverse talent as well. But don't hire someone only because he or she is a diverse candidate. That's something I would never do or advocate. It's not that you'll necessarily hire the people they bring you, but diverse people should be in the mix.

Personally, I've found it beneficial to assess and value candidates with tougher, nontraditional upbringings. Consider someone who might have had a lot of responsibility in raising his or her brothers and sisters. Think about someone who had to do a lot of work around the house before he or she went to school in the morning. The reason I value these types of experiences in candidates as I'm building my team is that these folks often show an unusually high level of adaptability relative to other workers.

I'm not saying that people who came from stable backgrounds are not great employees and can't make great salespeople. That's not the case at all. But what I am saying is that when you're in a highly competitive, tough market in an industry or company going through a lot of changes, you need people with extra flexibility, resilience, and determination. Those qualities go a long way and make a huge difference. Some of the very best reps I know have that type of background. I think that's something to consider as you're getting to know people in the interviewing process.

Industry Insider Reggie Smith is a division sales manager at Genentech, where he has worked for 10 years. He is a graduate of the University of Texas at Arlington. Prior to joining Genentech, Smith worked in sales at Lederle Laboratories. He spent four years as an active member of the US Army and one year in the National Guard.