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Rules of the Road: A Collection of Philosophies from Leaders of the Biotechnology Industry

Chances are that you are a skilled technical professional, trained in some highly disciplined field of science or engineering. If you are a regular visitor to this site, you may be realizing that your success in science involves a variety of skills, not all of them technical. I don't mean to diminish the value of your core abilities, but there have been too many examples of brilliant scientists and engineers who have failed to move up the ladder in either academia or industry. I hope you will agree with me that there are some rules of success that don't get disclosed at the university level. I recently sought out the advice of others as to what these rules could be.

Learning From O.P.E.

My columns have always emphasized what I call O.P.E. This term, which stands for Other People's Experiences, has been one of my most often espoused beliefs. As a recruiter, I consider myself a lifelong student of how, why, and what makes people work the way they do. I'm in a good position to learn about the careers of others because as a headhunter I get a chance to meet and talk with successful people; hence, my reliance on O.P.E. for the stories in these columns. It is possible to learn a great deal about what lies on the road in front of you by listening to the experiences of other people.

In this month's column (and I believe we'll have enough material for some future part two), I decided to ask my contacts throughout the industry for confidential advice based upon their own experiences. My question was this: If you could suggest one of the unwritten rules to success in a biotechnology career, what would it be? Over a period of 2 months, I received more than 100 responses to my query. My first pass through these many responses resulted in one of the most popular columns that I've ever written for the print journal, BioPharm. In the note that I sent out by e-mail, I promised that these nuggets of career advice would not be attributed. Let me now thank everyone who was helpful in this effort!

I've placed these "unwritten rules" into several different categories into which they have naturally fallen. As you read these, please note that we would love to have your further thoughts along the same lines--your own "unwritten rules" for our future sequel to this month's column! (Send e-mail to

Your Relationship With the Boss

  • A lot of your personal success will depend upon your boss's reputation. It doesn't matter as much whether she is a "good" boss or a "bad" boss. What matters is whether she's going places. Before taking a new job or moving into a new department, find out as much as you can about your new boss's reputation.

  • Your boss is not your friend. Despite whatever relationship you have developed with him or her over the years, when it comes to certain topic areas, don't seek advice from that person. Those areas include anything that has to do with leaving the fold; for example, another job offer.

  • Have a strong sense of urgency. This is a positive trait that some people carry with them wherever they go, and their boss will always reward them for it. It is the number one aspect of any hire that I make.

  • Do what's right, regardless of the consequences. Have the best interests of your team at heart and you will do well, despite obstacles from management that may come across your path while you are staying your course. Don't spend too much time managing up. Instead, spend the energy trying to figure out the optimal solution.

  • Don't be afraid to take a stand or to speak your mind. In order to move up, you need to be noticed. You need to have the confidence to push bold ideas. Just go for it! If you don't ask for it, you don't get it. And if you don't do something that will make people take notice, then nobody will!

Your Expectations on the Job

  • Expect not to be appreciated. It is so easy to become addicted to praise. Go in with the attitude that you can create your own satisfiers, your own pats on the back. This way, you'll appreciate the few that come from up above even more.

  • Don't expect someone else to develop your career for you. There will be no human resources organizational plan in which your future is mapped out by those in management. Instead, your career will develop in fits and starts. Opportunities will come along to make dramatic moves overnight, and it is equally possible to have long, drawn-out periods of stagnant career growth. Just remember that you are responsible, no one else, for whatever happens to you in either situation.

  • Always be ready to move sideways instead of only aiming up. Your versatility will pay off in the long run, especially in a small company setting.

  • If you are going to work in an entrepreneurial industry like this one, learn to think like an entrepreneur. Whatever you are doing, research included, you are serving clients. You are in the business of generating revenues.

  • You'll need to talk yourself up on occasion. No one else will do it for you. Keep track of your accomplishments and be ready to talk about them at strategic moments. This isn't looked at as egotistical. Instead, it is expected as long as it is at the right time and place.

  • There is no career ladder. The concept of a career ladder came about because of the hierarchical structure of companies in the past. Today's biotech venture is a flat, team-driven organization in which you are promoted only because of your accomplishments and your ability to contribute to the team. If you want a resting spot and a gold watch, go work for a big pharmaceutical company.

  • Be active and visible in the biotech community. Be prepared to make a contribution through avenues such as professional associations, industry conferences, and government committees. Apart from the obvious aspects of exposure and networking, there are real benefits that flow from being a contributor.

Your Relationship With Your Teammates

  • Dilbert is right most of the time. Real teamwork happens rarely and usually comes about because a group of people have found that they can reach their personal goals faster by working with each other. Sadly, a lot of "teamwork" in biotech is pure human resources hogwash.

  • Always admit to your mistakes in a prompt and forthright fashion, especially if they relate to a client or a boss. Never shift the blame. And always be prepared with an effective means of resolving any problems that arise from that mistake.

  • Never make a promise you can't keep, and keep every promise you make.

  • Your chances of succeeding with radical ideas in our organization are directly related to power people's views of you. Great ideas are discarded when offered by talented individuals who do not respect the established ways of doing things around here. Brilliant, arrogant people fail more often than they succeed.

  • Back off the e-mail and voice mail and sit down in your colleague's cubicle every now and then. Isn't it strange that in spite of having the latest high-tech devices available to us, from multiple e-mail addresses to cell phones, from videoconferences to fax machines in hotel rooms, we continue to have communication problems? Isn't it time to focus on the human element and try to look behind the computer screen and really listen to the people we work with?

  • Be politically astute, but don't play politics.

  • Never burn bridges within your lab. This is a small community, and people move around with great frequency. People are mobile and might have something to say about you sometime down the road. If you always treat people as if you will see them again, your opportunities will multiply and your name will stand out in the community.

Supervising and Leading Others

  • Anyone who has raised a child knows that it isn't what you say, it is what you do that really counts. Likewise, managing people is much the same. Managers who do not "walk the talk" simply don't get the respect and the best efforts of their people.

  • Never discuss your peers' shortcomings with those subordinate to you within the lab. Keep those thoughts to yourself, because they have the most unpleasant side effects by the time they work themselves through the organization.

  • Always surround yourself with the highest quality people. As they move up, you move up with them.

  • My rule is play to the strengths of your team members. Too often managers push very hard for their staff to improve every facet of their skill set and ignore the fact that certain extraordinary skills are tremendous assets to the organization. Know what your people excel at, and make opportunities for them to be successful with those skills. You don't have to push them to do everything just right.

Other Nuggets of Advice

  • In the biotech industry, experience is more respected than success. Many experienced managers of failed or weak biotech firms have gone on to higher level jobs based on their experience. Ex-presidents of failed companies or companies that clearly went downhill under their direction get asked to be on boards of directors of other companies, based on their experience. Strange, but true.

  • If you work in the biotech industry, you quickly learn that there is no such thing as a 40-hour workweek. Instead, the job demands as much from you as you are willing to give. In some organizations, how much you are willing to give is driven by management. In others, it is peer pressure. But the average is more like 55 to 60 hours. If you need a life other than work, this is something to consider.

  • My belief is that if you have values that drive your company or your career, you can look at them as a guide when making any decision. Develop them and write them down (or better yet post them on the wall in big letters). Here are five corporate values from our company, a venture capital firm:

    Add massive value.

  • Make and keep commitments to each other.

  • Take ownership.

  • Respect one another.

  • Be positive.

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