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Business & Regulation Profession, Business Practice

A Good Culture Keeps Good People

It’s not enough for a biotech company to have great technology, an experienced management team, and deep pockets. If that were true, our sector wouldn’t have an 85–95 percent failure rate. In this challenging and hyper-competitive industry – and especially at a time when the industry is reeling from a major market downturn – the only true differentiator is innovation: finding creative solutions to important problems by betting against the current consensus and being right. And to do that, you need the right people.

Consistent innovation is a product of teamwork and a supportive environment. Good teams can be directed to difficult projects and produce successful outcomes, but promising projects will die in the hands of poor teams. It’s also not enough that companies hire on performance; they must also establish a supportive, collaborative culture in which a team can perform, adapt, and innovate as technology and ideas evolve.

Keep your people

The recent market spike through 2020, fueled by investor interest in innovation related to the COVID-19 pandemic, created fierce competition for technical and executive talent and led to rampant salary and title inflation. Despite the most recent market downturn, a lot of that capital is still in the system. Talented employees with depreciating stock options that were assigned during the market’s peak may be tempted to jump ship to a high-priority program that has already passed a belt-tightening review at another company.

Right now, companies cannot afford to lose their best employees, so a conscious focus on culture is an important investment. Although it’s important to pay competitive salaries, there will always be another company that can afford to pay more, so any candidate recruited solely on compensation is just as likely to leave based on compensation. Culture, by contrast, is unique to each company. A culture that empowers employees and supports their development will have value beyond money for many innovative, growth-minded individuals. Culture doesn’t just help retain great employees; it allows companies to get the most out of their people and fosters the motivation that drives creative thinking and problem-solving.

When deciding whom to interview at STRM.BIO we set a very high bar for technical skill, but the final hire is always based on cultural fit. We seek talented individuals who can nucleate strong teams around critical problems. This approach to recruitment requires more time and consumes more bandwidth, but I think it also promotes retention by ensuring that employees and the company culture are matched.

We are not alone in putting culture at the center of our approach to recruitment and retention practices. Recently, the Chief HR Officer for AVROBIO, Georgette Verdin, discussed their process of investing additional time in employee development to continually “re-recruit” their talent – applying the tools and strategies of external recruiting to your top employees to keep them engaged and motivated (1) 

ImmunoGen’s SVP and Head of HR, Audrey Bergan, emphasized the importance of trust and transparency in achieving their high retention rate, saying, “There will be times you ask your employees to believe in you, and they won’t follow you if you pretend to have all the answers (2).”

Achieving trust and transparency is easier said than done. It requires accountability and clear communication across the entire company, and how these values are implemented and enforced is a product of the culture a company invests in developing. For example, it can help to give employees the right to understand and challenge the rationale for organizational decisions. At my company, we hold monthly all-staff meetings in which updates are provided and senior staff held accountable. Everyone is encouraged to speak and we deal directly with “elephant in the room” topics. This can be jarring, but it forces a level of transparency and communication that keeps the team aligned and focused on what matters most.

During difficult times, it can feel tempting to focus on finding ways to cut costs and to push harder and faster on technical milestones. But difficult times don’t last forever; in fact, the signs are good that the industry will rebound soon (3). When the market recovers, the current talent scarcity, and retention problems will only get worse as companies accelerate hiring tactics. My experience tells me that the best talent will be looking for fulfilling, purposeful work in a culture that supports their personal growth. A failure to invest in this crucial aspect of leadership while navigating the current challenging landscape could leave many companies with a significant talent gap on the other side.

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  1. Conquering Biopharma’s Post-Pandemic Recruitment Challenge: Alex Keown, BioSpace, September 16, 2021. 
  2. Amid Waves of Biotech Layoffs, ADC Developers like ImmunoGen are Thriving: Hannah Chudleigh, BioSpace, May 9, 2022.
  3. ‘Some biotech firms will not survive’: Layoffs, closures, and mergers expected as part of an industry ‘correction’: Ryan Cross, Boston Globe, April 19, 2022.
About the Author
Jonathan Thon

Founder, and CEO of STRM.BIO

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