Our experience, however, has found many success stories among HR leaders who have made this shift from big to small. In fact, the “right fit” for a job often has little to do with the leaders’ background — even when it’s in big pharma — but rather is about their leadership attributes and the skills they have picked up along the way.
With this in mind, we spoke with several HR leaders who had made the move from big pharma to biotech HR leadership, for their unique insights into the success factors, challenges and learnings as they had made the shifts in their career. This article looks at four key success factors.
Have an honest discussion about goals and expectations
For many small biotech companies, the HR leadership position will either be entirely new — perhaps breaking off from work overseen by another executive (such as the general counsel) — or it will be supplanting an existing but more junior position. The company’s goals are also important. Is this company seeking to grow fast? Is M&A in the future?
Whatever the case, every CHRO job will be different, and a leader’s success will depend greatly on the specific conditions of that company. Kristen Stants, chief people officer at Magenta Therapeutics, said that the CEO should be “crystal clear” about what they need from their HR leader when hiring anyone for that position.
“Every CEO’s expectations are different, in terms of what the CHRO should be doing and how they add value,” Stants said. “What type of CHRO do you want? Why might one be a better fit for you than another?”
Further, in the wake of what has become an extended stretch of pandemic and societal, political upheaval and economic uncertainty, the CHRO, CEO and the leadership team should be united on leading through challenging times, said Juliet Agranoff, SVP, people, at Taiho Oncology. “What is incredibly important is that the CHRO and the CEO are aligned,” she said. “There has to be mutual respect for each other’s role and points of view.”
Have the humility to work “in the weeds”
At a smaller company, the CHRO has to do it all — executing the HR operations, while also playing a key role at the leadership table. The CHRO has to be a strategic leader, one who can participate in some of the most important business conversations in the company: about financing, about investor relations, about clinical trials, about portfolio investment decisions. At the same time, the CHRO at a smaller company will almost certainly have to do some of the day-to-day operational work they wouldn’t have to at a larger firm.
“Smaller companies need to be lean,” said Ernie Meyer, EVP and CHRO at Ultragenyx. “People have to be willing to wear four or five hats. You’ve got to work outside the job description to get the job done.”
Isabel Carmona, CHRO at Rocket Pharmaceuticals, said that a bit of humility could go a long way in this environment.
“It's not that they are against big pharma people,” Carmona said. “They are against the big pharma people coming to biotech, telling them, ‘Now step aside, I'm here and I'm going to tell you how to run the business.’”
Understand that size matters
The idea of “going from big to small” perhaps oversimplifies the different contexts at any fast-growth biotech companies. There is a major difference between managing HR at a company with 50 people and one with 100, or between one with 100 and another with 200. The smaller the company, the more likely that the HR leader will be working alone, whereas with 150 or more employees, that leader may have 3 or 4 people on the team to help execute. Beyond that, the company’s growth plans in terms of employee numbers could mean that the status quo will change quickly.
“Going to a 150-person biotech, while still in the start-up mold, is a fundamentally different job than going to one with 40 people,” said Adam Thomas, chief people officer at Synlogic. “And then there are things that flavor the job. If your 40-person company is growing to 150 in 12 months, then your job is going to be quickly filling positions versus maintaining steady growth.”
A smaller company can, however, give rising HR leaders opportunities they may not otherwise have to have a closer and more intimate understanding of the people and how the company works.
“One aspect I have enjoyed at smaller organizations, that was harder to do in larger ones, was simply spending more of my time talking with our people — walking around and chatting, reaching out to hear what’s on their mind,” said Simon Kelner, CHRO at Ovid Therapeutics. “It was a pleasant reminder for me about how much fun it can be at a smaller company, and an important element of us building the company together.”
Maintain curiosity and a learning mentality
The successful biotech CHROs are naturally curious people, eager to learn about the business and the industry while also willing to get their hands dirty on projects and learn on the job. They are invigorated by working within an industry marked by amazing science and innovation.
“What I was looking for in a job was to be the right hand of the CEO,” said Eric Fink, CHRO at Silence Therapeutics. “My goal was not about just building an HR function, but about helping to build a great company.”
The biotech market remains in flux in 2022, with fewer IPOs coupled with a rise in M&A, which is resulting in small biotech companies being consumed by big pharma. But until that possible transaction comes, CEOs will need the right partner and confidante to help them navigate organizational talent needs — someone with the right skills and expertise to be a key player in the company’s future.