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In life sciences, challenges in growing culture

Execs struggle to balance innovation, compliance

Speaking to a roomful of life sciences human resources executives, Peter K. Kim, senior counsel for Pfizer Inc., said his firm recently surveyed employees in an attempt to assess the pharmaceutical giant’s corporate culture. The results, he said, weren’t pleasing.

Speaking to a roomful of life sciences human resources executives, Peter K. Kim, senior counsel for Pfizer Inc., said his firm recently surveyed employees in an attempt to assess the pharmaceutical giant’s corporate culture. The results, he said, weren’t pleasing.

“What we found was an over-arching theme that I think applies to both innovation and compliance, and that was the lack of accountability within our company,” Kim said.

The way that played out at Pfizer, Kim said, was that no one wanted to challenge the status quo. Playing it safe not only hurts innovation, he said, but it also hurts compliance, because compliance often requires people to speak up when they see something wrong.

He said the company is working to reform its corporate culture and incentives to reward workers who take ownership and hold themselves accountable.

Debbie Hart, president of BioNJ, said the corporate culture conversation is one many life sciences HR executives are having today.

“It’s so important to have innovation in this industry, but in the HR arena, you still have to be compliant,” said Hart, whose association sponsored the conference at which Kim spoke earlier this month.

It’s not always an easy balance. Compliance requires following the textbook example, whereas innovation often means rewriting the textbook. In introducing Kim’s panel, Hart quipped that creating a culture of compliance and innovation was “an oxymoron if I’ve ever heard one.”

Mahmoud Mahmoudian, managing director at Alborz BioVentures USA, said the issue of compliance versus innovation can vary depending on which segment of the industry in which one is working.

“The manufacturing setting is very much black and white, (standard operating procedure)-driven, 24/7, you know,” he said. “You live and die by that.”

Discovery scientists, however, can be much more entrepreneurial, he said.

Lisa Uthgenannt, corporate vice president of human resources at the contract research giant Covance Inc., said compliance also can be at odds with other parts of a company’s culture. She said employees sometimes go to heroic lengths to try and please customers, but such heroics can lead to cutting corners. Yet, that behavior was often rewarded as an example of fine customer service. She told the BioNJ panel she’s trying to change that.

“So what we’ve done now, as senior leaders in the business, is to try to recognize the compliant behavior, or recognize those projects which don’t require heroics in order to get them done,” she said.

For human resources professionals, one key way to control corporate culture is by hiring the right kinds of people. Kurt Andrews, vice president for human resources at PTC Therapeutics, a South Plainfield-based biotech firm with about 170 employees, said that’s easier said than done.

“Cultures of small companies tend to be very different from cultures at big companies,” he said. “If anybody had the magic bullet or the magic elixir to figure out who could fit and who doesn’t, I’d love to find them, because you just never know.”

S. Nicole Schaeffer, senior vice president for administration and human resources at Amicus Therapeutics, said companies also have to evolve their cultures over time.

“When we went from private to public, that was a cultural shift,” she said.

Companies also must shift when they move from the discovery and clinical trial phases into the commercialization phase, something that brings with it a whole new set of regulatory concerns. That takes much planning, she said.

“We don’t have the commercial infrastructure yet, but we’ve thought about what it takes,” she said.

Uthgenannt said the onus is on human resources professionals to find ways to merge the conversation about corporate culture with the broader business conversations the company’s leadership team is having.

“The conversation around culture is often very squishy, for lack of a better term, and people don’t know how to have that conversation,” she said. “So it’s incumbent on us to constantly be making the conversation around culture relevant to what’s happening in the business.”

 

E-mail to:  jkaltwasser@njbiz.com
On Twitter:  @JaredKaltwasser

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