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The Talent Trap


Talent is one of the major challenges we face as managers or leaders in the biotech and pharma industries. A recent study from Randstad suggested that over 50 percent of our talent is actively looking for employment elsewhere and that more than 65 percent would be likely to accept a new job offer (1). The reasons for this can vary from compensation issues to professional advancement to relationships with coworkers and supervisors. The cost of attrition can be counted not only in economic terms, but also as a loss in productivity; recruiting and training activities may take weeks or even months, depending on the role. As managers in a highly competitive industry, achieving stability in our organizations is important for future success. Two big questions need to be addressed. First, what makes an organization highly attractive for talented individuals? And second, what makes those individuals want to stay?

Numerous metrics regarding salary and compensation levels are published annually, and most companies ensure that they are at least competitive at the first level of talent engagement. In this article, I’ll leave the obvious element of money aside to instead focus on the environmental attributes that contribute to a healthy, engaging and vibrant workplace that is attractive to both new and existing talent. After all, there’s more to our working lives than money…

The right fit

Growth and attrition are the typical reasons that set us off down the path to find new talent, and there are at least three factors to consider in the hiring process. We need to understand what the candidate will bring to our existing talent pool, whether or not they can perform the role adequately, and how they will “fit in” with the existing team or even strengthen the group culture.

In the pharma industry, we place a premium on high technical capability, believing it will transform our teams and give us a competitive advantage. How many times, however, have we targeted a candidate based on expertise alone, only to find that our new superstar didn’t contribute or fit into the organization in the way we’d hoped? “All too often,” is a common answer. But many of us have also instinctively prevented disaster by holding back on a hire because we felt they did not fit. As unscientific and unquantifiable a feeling as this is, it is this powerful recognition of the non-technical attributes of potential hires that can make or break your team.

Technical capability is often a normalizing factor, in that the candidates applying for your position should all have the credentials to perform the tasks you need based on their CV alone. A PhD and 10 years of industrial experience may get you to the negotiation table, but it’s a small part of the equation and needs to be balanced against their less tangible attributes. Technical expertise can be built or acquired; personal traits can only be coached. I believe that the emphasis we place on a candidate’s technical capability and experience, and the balance between this and the ability to personally invest themselves in a new organization, is in fact the defining factor when it comes to successfully building – and retaining – your dream team.

Put someone in the right place and then empower, challenge and trust them.
The right environment

Hiring the right person is only the start. As I stated at the beginning, the next big question is: how do you keep them? When you have a great team, your priority should be to keep it intact. Compensation is not always the key factor. A pay rise wouldn’t tempt most people to stay in a job with poor career development and poor colleague or supervisor relationships. In contrast, a highly engaged and motivated person, with room to grow in a collegiate and supportive environment of like-minded friends is unlikely to leave all that for a few extra dollars. Extreme non-equity in compensation will be a destabilizing factor, of course, but if this is normalized, the key elements of success lie in the working environment. A common mistake that many leaders and managers make is to assume that this environment is generated by their team while absconding themselves from responsibility. In fact, it starts and ends with you. To help, I offer five straightforward considerations to create the right environment:

1. Accept that you are not the smartest person in the room

And if you think you are, then don’t feel the need to remind everyone. It is important to acknowledge that everyone needs to feel as if they are part of the solution when you are building your team. The best leaders recognize that there are facets of their organization in which they are not the expert, and their hiring strategy reflects the need to fill these gaps with motivated and empowered individuals. Put someone in the right place and then empower, challenge and trust them – I’ve seen people flourish in a way that is almost unimaginable.

2. Expect mistakes

Mistakes will be made, of course, so you should expect them, but view them as part of the continuum of learning and experience. A manager whose first instinct is to blame and punish people when they make a mistake will stifle creativity. An environment where mistakes are managed as learning events can alleviate the fear of failure and transform risk-averse conservatism to risk-based advancement. Having the trust of leadership can instill self-confidence and motivate an individual to feel truly invested in the team.

3. Know your team

I can almost guarantee that there is talent and capability embedded within your organization that you don’t know about. Many of us have abilities and expertise that we don’t harness in our daily roles, or that were a footnote in our role-targeted resumes. When transforming an organization, give opportunities to those who are currently invested in your company’s success wherever possible, rather than recruiting externally. It is always a pleasant surprise to find out that someone in your organization is a six-sigma black belt just as you are planning to force-fit a process improvement initiative to an unsuspecting research scientist. In many companies, employees with diverse talent end up leaving because they feel unrecognized; often unintentionally overlooked through a lack of awareness.

4. Create lateral opportunities

Many of us see the logical progression of our career as a vertical ascendance. More often than we want to believe, lateral progression can be as fulfilling and even more rewarding. Expanding a role laterally can allow someone to step outside the boundaries of their current experience and build their skillset, develop a more integrated and inclusive viewpoint of their organization, and allow them to engage intellectually in a new environment with new people. In the scientific and technical fields, many do not want the extra managerial burden that comes through the acquisition of a higher title, but want to expand their experience through new and challenging opportunities. Those opportunities do not need to be vertical, and it is a common yet fatal mistake to “elevate” technical staff to a higher role that makes them lose their identity – there is no quicker way to lose a hardcore scientist than to make them a manager.

5. Remove obstacles quickly

One of the most damaging elements to the morale of a high-performing team is a toxic element left unchecked, for example, a poorly performing or obstructive individual. In many cases, the group itself can resolve the problem, but if the issue is unresolved and management fails to react, it can be a death sentence for team cohesion. When your team does not believe you have the capability or intention to remove obstacles, your credibility as their leader is lost, and they will find another leader that they trust and respect.

Parting on good terms

It is inevitable that attrition, like death and taxes, will exist at some level. You will lose key talent, for family, health, geographic or other reasons, but what they take away with them will be as important as what they have left behind. The experiences, opinions and perceptions of departing staff can have a huge impact on the reputation of both you and your organization, and will impact your ability to attract new talent. If someone has to leave an organization then we should plan that they leave with more than they started with, and that our team has had a positive influence on them both professionally and personally. The pharma community is well connected and it reflects well on you if the talent acquired from you is of a high caliber.

Developing a positive working culture of inclusion, empowerment and recognition undoubtedly comes at a high price; it’s an all-consuming effort and it may take months or years for you to fully realize the benefits. Difficult decisions and candid discussions will be daily events, and your time investment will be considerable. But the rewards do outweigh the effort. It is worth remembering that friends do things for friends that others will not, and any organization that has a culture of celebrating each other’s success will be a difficult place to leave. A team with this culture can only win, and nobody wants to leave a winning team.

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  1. Randstad, “2014 Randstad Workplace Trends Report”, July 15, 2014.
About the Author
George Scott

George Scott has spent the last 20 years moving between academic, contract research and biotechnology organizations, and feels fortunate to have experienced many different sides to the scientific discipline. Whether in academia or industry, he believes that the right team is the most important factor for success. “What is really clear to me is that it is very difficult to make transformational change as a solo artist in our industry, but I truly believe that with the right people, you can create a team that can do absolutely anything.” Currently, George oversees the bioanalytical organization within inVentiv Health Clinical.

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