Join a Panel

Question in: Innovation in Biopharmaceuticals

People management in fast paced growing pharmaceutical company: challenges and approaches to overcome obstacles for better performance


R&D divisions of pharma companies are well known for talented scientists. It is important to have the team of innovative scientists to deliver the demand portfolio. Most of the time, the management of technical teams is overlooked due to the perception that the science must be driven by scientists rather than the leaders. The predicted time to develop leadership in technical environment is more than 5 years. People with technical leadership should be more valued in R&D.
Please share your thoughts and vision.

Pharmaceutical Industry
Leadership Development
Management Development
Amit Katiyar
10 months ago

10 answers


I totally agree that leadership specifically, and "soft skills" in general in technical environments is still overlooked and undervalued; having spent the first half of my career in R&D/technical space in the medical device & biotechnology industries, in both corporations and academic research institutions, and the second half in leadership development/ management consulting roles, I have directly observed from both sides of the fence. Many colleagues were mystified when I left a successful career as a scientist to pursue an organizational leadership degree.
An ah-ha moment in my career was when I realized that the most brilliant technical solution I could devise was doomed if I could not enroll the rest of the team, potential sponsors and other stakeholders as active supporters, not just passive observers and resistors. This requires relationship building, laying out a vision that speaks to others, and influencing and leadership skills not learned in the lab or technical training.
While not everyone can or wants to lead in a technical environment, leadership (which I"d distinguish from management, another required set of skills) is required for a technical team to succeed.
Would love to hear other perspectives on this-thanks for opening the dialog!

Nancy Maxfield-Wilson, MS, MA
10 months ago
Great thoughts and good comments! Thanks Nancy. - Amit 10 months ago

As with anything there needs to be a balance. From my experience, the great R&D leaders had both the leadership expertise and scientific expertise. The leadership must be credible and have a understanding of the scientific underpinnings. They also must be able to work within complex, high-matrixed organizations. However, I think the most important characteristic is that they must geniunely have integrity. That means being capable of making the hard, and often time unpopular choices.

Seth Whitelaw
10 months ago
Seth, very well put. To lead a team of scientist, scientific credibilty as well as a good sense of fair play and ability to deligate are prized. - Meg 10 months ago

Great leaders are rarity in any field, be it the government, business, or science. In pharma, the direction of R&D efforts is given by the company's portfolio. I can give an extreme example from my own experience. A scientific leader who directed the development of an immunomodulating protein to its natural neonatal indication was replaced by business leadership by personal that was willing to change the R&D direction to cancer indication. This decision was based entirely on the size of the respective markets. The whole "enterprise" failed subsequently.
In a more general sense, finding a scientist on a top board of a company is unusual, with the main decision makers being business and legal personnel. It would be of merit to integrate R&D leadership into the overall leadership of pharma companies, with direct involvement in charting the strategic direction of the enterprise.

Karel Petrak
10 months ago

Very often you see scientists being promoted to leadership positions due to certain merits in their technical work. However rarely great experts make great leaders. Although a certain competency in the "technical field" of their team is necessary to be able to support their direct reports, many of the required skills for leading a team have not been taught during their education. My recommendation is to add a significant amount of training to fresh leaders particularly if they so far only received a technical education. Leading scientific teams often requires less motivating skills but more expertise in giving directions.

Stefan Schmidt
10 months ago

Agree especially with Nancy and Seth. I've mentioned a few specific soft skills that are key.
While it is true of leadership in general, especially for leaders of team of R&D folks or any other technical experts, Leadership needs to be more through influence and inspiration rather than authority.
Technical expertise, in my opinion, is a prerequisite to lead a bunch of talented R&D folks. But in addition, organisations should invest in grooming leaders and helping them build some of the following key leadership behavioural competencies:
• Customer orientation – Being in touch with both internal and external customers and have good understanding of their unfulfilled needs
• Visioning & inspiring skills – Creating and communicating a compelling future vision for the team, 'story- telling' that to the team and inspiring them esp. given that R&D projects can be long gestation ones and there can be several frustrating moments on the route to success.
• Expert stakeholder management skills – taking the time to build good relationships with key stakeholders and securing their support & commitment for resources and sustaining their excitement even if there are failures along the way.
• Decisiveness –Able to decide dispassionately and in a timely way as to which projects to promote or terminate.

Raju Venkataraman
10 months ago

All this is much less complicated than the duscussion so far would suggest. One just needs to follow simple rules as suggested by the sage I quote below:
" “The challenge of leadership is to be strong, but not rude; be kind, but not weak; be bold, but not bully; be thoughtful, but not lazy; be humble, but not timid; be proud, but not arrogant; have humor, but without folly.” ― Jim Rohn

Karel Petrak
10 months ago
Thanks for the quote here. Each quality here takes a strong effort to develop,therefore, complexity is always there! - Amit 10 months ago

This discussion (technical vs people skills, leadership vs management) is not unique to pharma - it occurs in all industries where smart, highly technical people need to be managed and led to achieve new things.
I agree with lots that has been said already, so I'll just add that there are different styles of leadership, and the 'follow me, born not made, superhero' type is not always best and, in a diverse, fast changing world, getting less so.
In our complex connected world no-one has all the knowledge or all the answers. Everyone is an expert in their own slice of the problem, but the question is how you combine the people and their ideas to deliver things together. The leader's job then is not always to give people direction or vision, but to create the conditions in which direction and delivery happen. Leaders need credibility, but the deep skills of leadership are more about awareness of differences, coaching, facilitating and problem solving with individuals and groups, not giving speeches.

Alan Arnett
8 months ago

Given the importance of innovation to most organizations’ success, and even survival, understanding the skills and attributes required to achieve success in R&D management is critical. At the same time, however, R&D managers are seen as falling short on some people management skills, such as managing conflict and addressing incompetence. Perhaps most critically, R&D managers could benefit by developing their ability to relate to and engage effectively with upper management.

Pietro Carotenuto
6 months ago

I agree with Karel, but even managing is not easy, Yes there are tools, but if the person is not equiped to manage, it will be very difficult. The other issue is that even though you are a leader, especially within R&D/Pharma/Science, there is the other issue of ego issues. Some people are defenitely not fit for the job, but their ego and thus behaviour allows them to stay in that position.
And in a fast growing company, it will be even harder, things changing all the time, people have no clue what they are up against. Transparancy from the upper management is therefore also very important. And it was said before, as a scientist it is a bit difficult to get ahead, as they have no business or legal experience, but should at least have an advisory role to the MT.
But above all, internal communication is key, no matter how well the leader him/herself is. If departments are not communicating, the company is doomed to fail..

Maartje Geraedts
5 months ago

Are we sure that we are talking about leaders, visionaries, and not managers? Managing tools can indeed be learned. Leaders of people are a rare species. If leading equals managing then there should be plenty of MBA-qualified "leaders"...

Karel Petrak
10 months ago
I meant leader not managers. Technical folks with formal management training can serve as a good managers. Leaders are not trained by formal education. - Amit 10 months ago

Have some input?