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5 Tips on How to Preserve (and Even Improve) Culture Amidst Great Change

Posted by Lauren Kendall on October 10, 2019
Originally published on LinkedIn by Dave Melville (CEO & Founder, The Bowdoin Group).

In BioPharma and Life Sciences, change happens in the blink of an eye.

You get FDA approval for your drug and your team doubles within months.  You get acquired and your startup becomes part of a large corporation.  You undergo a reorganization and you have to completely restructure your team.

Regardless of the event, leading BioPharma and Life Sciences companies have mastered how to navigate through that change.  In this industry, competition is fierce for top talent, and your best leaders, scientists, and team members can be lured away by competitors.  Companies that maintain positive, healthy, and innovative cultures amidst change lead the pack in hiring and growth. 

Recently, I spoke to several HR leaders whose companies have undergone tremendous change.  One, for instance, has grown the size of her team 40% annually, while another transitioned an entire executive team within a year—and yet retention and employee satisfaction numbers are still off the charts.

Here are our collective tips on how to maintain and build culture through (good and bad) transformations:

  1. Create structures around listening – Every single one of the HR leaders I spoke to said that listening is a huge part of how their cultures stay positive. All of these leaders have developed systems that encourage listening, and they use their learnings to inform HR strategy.

“We have seven people alone in internal communications managing employee events, town halls, intranet, corporate messaging, and employee engagement,” says Susan Miele, CHRO of Foundation Medicine, who joined the company shortly after its acquisition by Roche Pharmaceuticals.  After only two years, she’s the longest-standing member of her executive team.  “We have a culture of continuous listening. That’s been critically important in ensuring new leaders can live and breathe what’s important to our people.”

Miele is always trying new things to keep that listening culture alive and well.  She says, “In a recent employee survey, we asked each employee to list two to three people they trust the most in the company.  We’ve since boiled that list down to 12 influencers who we’ll enlist to be the shepherds of our culture and change story.”

  1. Be as transparent as you can – In times of change, everyone thinks that leadership knows all the answers, but that’s not always the case. Keeping the organization abreast of why things are changing, what milestones to expect, and most importantly, what it means for employees is still critical—even when you don’t have the full story.

“We put a QBR in place for the executive team to give employees a health check on how we’re doing against our mission and our goals,” says Tania Zieja, CFO at Halloran Consulting Group (who also leads their HR function).  “It opens the door for questions, and it gives us an opportunity to hear about their concerns.  We share what we can, and honestly, it’s not always what employees want to hear, but they appreciate the honesty and the access to senior leaders.”

  1. Create a culture committee – Recruiting employees to be the eyes and ears (and voice) of your company’s culture can be a great solution for companies undergoing significant change.

Zieja created a culture committee that meets every other month.  Over 10 percent of the 100 employees sit on the culture committee, and two to three of them share the minutes with the executive team.  She said, “It’s helpful because I want to hear employees’ perspective. For example, we vetted our new PTO policy through them. When we ended up rolling it out, they stood up for the firm and highlighted why the changes would be good for their colleagues and peers.”

“When you’re going through change, the culture will never be exactly what it used to be.  Some people are on board with that and others aren’t,” says Regina Detore Paglia, SVP of HR at Dicerna Therapeutics.  “We just brought on our first Chief Commercial Officer.  Our culture committee has helped us learn just how daunting commercialization is for research and clinical people. That allowed us to tread more carefully and be more mindful of their needs throughout the process.”

  1. Nail your core values (and hire against them) – Today, every HR leader knows the importance of developing a company’s core values. They’ve become more of a building block than a differentiator for HR teams, although some forget just how important it is to use these values during the hiring process.

“Think and act differently. That’s what we live by,” says Marcus Tgettis, VP of Talent at Sage Therapeutics.  At its core, Sage is challenging a deeply engrained stigma around mental health, and according to Tgettis, that requires mental flexibility.  “The ‘think and act differently’ mindset is our north star during interviews as we’ve scaled from 150 employees to 700+ in 18 months, 350 of which are remote.”

  1. Get onboarding right – If you’re growing quickly, you’ll want to get your onboarding process down to a science. Many of these HR leaders have either revamped or refreshed onboarding recently.

After growing over 400% in 19 months, Tgettis says, “We needed to nail onboarding.  We developed a process that includes three tiers over the course of several months—corporate, department, and manager. That way it’s not all lumped together and new hires aren’t drinking from the fire hose.”

Zieja said that onboarding lasts two weeks at Halloran, and she ensures that people meet formally with the various people they will interact with at the firm.

Miele says, “We’ve revitalized onboarding so that it’s in sync with our patient journey, and so that we’re reinforcing and communicating to employees what’s important at Foundation Medicine.”

Paglia said it best, so I’ll leave you with her thoughts.  The challenge facing HR leaders during times of transformation is “figuring out how [change] is going to impact employees. It’s our job as HR leaders to make change comfortable for them and keep their concerns and priorities top of mind.”