Building Tomorrow’s Biopharma Workforce

Pharmaceutical Executive

July 16, 2015

Lionel Phillips, President of Inside Edge Consulting Group, participated in a panel of industry leaders and HR specialists at St. Joseph’s University Haub School of Business, convened by Pharmaceutical Executive. In a knowledge industry like biopharma, people are the intangible asset that marks the difference between a status quo or standout performance. This panel parsed out some useful best practices in three key areas: talent recruitment and retention; skills training; and workforce diversity. The following are some excerpts from an article written by William Looney of Pharmaceutical Executive that appeared in the July 16, 2015 issue (Volume 35, Issue 7).

Bill Looney: The pharmaceutical industry is a knowledge industry. Knowledge is a function of human capital—the cumulative measure of native intelligence, learned skills, environmental awareness, and pooled effort that lead to improvements in the human condition. It follows that attracting a deep, diverse pool of in-house talent should stand as a top strategic goal for today’s biopharmaceutical enterprise—but is it? What is the current “state of the art” in promoting a productive, engaged and high-quality pharma workforce? Are we there yet, or is this just an aspiration?

Lionel Phillips, Inside Edge Consulting: Recruiting, motivating, and retaining a strong management team is the most critical function of a leader today. It should be the first thing in mind when a leader sets objectives for the business. In pharma, the best way to build that momentum is by keeping your eye on the patient perspective. Conveying the message that we exist to make patients well is a powerful “force multiplier,” one that transcends our own individual agendas. It brings focus and acts as a moral compass to drive results.

When hiring people, I pay less attention to the standard resume background than I do to intangibles like attitude and perspective. I’ve offered jobs to people with no direct exposure to biopharmaceuticals. I know people with impressive credentials in corporate finance who were able to transition to community-based service organizations dedicated to making people healthier. The lesson I bring is that, in this industry, the surest guide to making the right hire is whether a candidate really cares about patients. The patient is fundamental to understanding how our medicines are developed, marketed and used in the real world clinical setting. Being patient-centric also avoids the tendency of big organizations to turn inward, to be bureaucratic and inflexible. These are not the characteristics of an innovative pharmaceutical company capable of attracting the next generation of talent.

Looney: Companies talk about connecting to patients, but is affinity to the patient really considered in the recruitment and talent development practices of today’s pharma HR function?

Phillips: It is acknowledged as a factor. But it needs to be better prioritized. When discussing stakeholders, the fallback position of the “C-suite” is to cite the interests of the shareholder as paramount. I’d phrase it differently: when patients come first, profits tend to follow, which means the shareholder wins, too. There is also a strategic shift in customer attitudes favoring drug marketing that is less abstract and more hands on. The primacy of social media today puts a premium on authenticity and transparency, which requires a pharmaceutical company to build on the human connections available through the patient population. This can also serve as a formidable recruiting tool. Millennials are not only active users of social media, they are now the largest US population cohort, surpassing the boomer generation. Surveys show that millennials rate reputation and social responsibility very highly among attributes of a potential employer. A strong patient focus can be very useful in attracting the best among the next generation of industry leaders.

Looney: Is there a predominant culture theme in the biopharma industry today? Can this culture be summarized in a single tag line—participatory, inclusive, innovative, risk-averse, bureaucratic or global?

Phillips: Culture in the pharma industry is most often associated with bureaucracy. It was always built on the idea that the industry is unique: there is a right way to do things in biopharma, and a wrong way. That’s what the culture teaches us. The biotechnology sector is different, and is probably doing the best at building a culture that is not bureaucratic, since these companies are smaller and need to stay nimble. They carry more risk while competing against the resources of the integrated big pharma giants.

Looney: Are there any final messages that bear exploring? What would you say to your CEO on gaps or issues that require his or her direct attention and support?

Phillips: Teams will continue to be central to how the big biopharma companies make decisions and execute around them. Teams are living organisms. One way to perform better is to make every member of a team feel that he or she is outstanding—part of a high-performing group. In addition, teams need an internal sponsor or champion, one who can help run interference when the group encounters various types of bureaucratic delays.

Lionel Phillips
President
hello@insideedgeconsulting.com