Eric Celidonio, May 26, 2017 Recruiting

Tips for Interviewers in Biotechnology Companies

do as I say not as I do

Biopharmastart-ups have noble aspirations to cure all that ails the world and they have in many instances.  Advances in drugs and vaccines  are a big reason why we are living longer and are able to lead more active and productive lives.  

Many biotechs and pharmaceuticals however have systematic cultural & values issues that are far from apparent when reading their well-groomed press releases and perusing their flashy websites.  Many of these illustrious, high-flying organizations are perpetuating ‘mistruths’.

Their claims of  a  virtuous, meritorious, transparent and science based approach are often misleading or untrue. Careful observation will reveal some serious rifts,cultural divides and outright lies.

Interviewers beware- here are some clues :

  • No one is willing to talk about why previous employees have left the company
  • The interview feels like an interrogation and no one thanks you for coming in
  • No one at the company seems to be smiling or making eye contact
  • You were left waiting with no apology or there were hasty last minute cancellations
  • The leaders have elaborate offices while everyone else is in micro cubicles
  • You weren’t offered parking or expense reimbursement
  • The interviewer focused on your weaknesses and lack of experience

Read between the lines and observe the body language of your interviewers. It may reveal a much different picture than the values wordplay on  wall in the lobby next to the phony  best employer award plaques. Most of the time interviewers won’t be forthcoming so you have to pay special attention to visual cues and behaviors. Employer rating sites like glassdoor are hard to trust and tend to attract fringe reviews, good and bad.

The problem can start with  executives  that don’t ‘live’ the values they espouse because they feel that they are above them. This can create a downward cultural spiral as cynical employees observe the disconnect. Worse yet, they may emulate and spread this negative behavior until it spirals into the general population.  

Biotech Interviewing tips for getting the right applicant

          beware biotech interviewers

Let me first differentiate culture from values. Culture can be defined as is the personality of a company, that which defines the environment where employees work. Corporate values can be defined as operating philosophies or principles that guide an organization’s internal conduct as well as its relationship with its customers, partners, and shareholders.  The two are closely intertwined.

For sure, Biopharma can’t be completely singled out for it’s empty corporate values and cultural insincerity. Most every biotech or pharmaceutical industry has its share of guilty companies but biotech is a special case and I’ll explain why as you read on.

To be fair,  there are many well managed, promising  biotechs  run  by executives who care and adhere to respectable values while building healthy robust cultures. The typical biopharma values list has good intentions of trying to conjure a zen like, harmonious environment. The kind where people magically work as a team and have each other’s back in order to find a cure for a particular disease area. it’s ok to dream because without a dream none of these technologies would be possible. However, I for one think that people would be more appreciative of  honest statements about a current culture vs a phony, contrived or even aspired one. Just  admit that you are incomplete and that you need help- that there are gaps but opportunities.  Be real. Be sincere.

integrity word cloud

an illusion at many places

Confess that you intend  to monetize your technology/ drug/vaccine. Don’t partake in the charade of a selfless, philanthropic institution just to to attract talent. Employees will resent it when they discover the truth . It’s ok to be for profit and in this business with less than 10% of drug programs succeeding to commercialization, there has to be a  prospect of high profitability or few would partake.  


Fact is, for many pre-commercial biotechs the corporate values may feel good but they are disingenuous. Too often a fluffy word salad used as a ruse to entice high-potential people.  The issue  is, that  once this hi-po person has landed s/he quickly realizes the truth and has buyer’s remorse .  This partially explains the high turnover rate of biotechs. Of course the volatility of proof of concept and fact that you need you need a mountain a cash to succeed are major factors as well.

culture problems of biotech and pharmaceutical companies can be avoided

quitting a start-up biotech

There are  other  high-beta industries that churn and burn people as well. High-tech is similar in this respect.  Biotech is probably more exaggerated though  because of its stark stages and regulatory hurdles. These companies often grow in ways that management hadn’t anticipated or expected. Example: most ‘platform technology’ biotech companies  re-brand themselves  as  ‘drug companies or Pharmas’  as they show progress clinically. 

Drug Development companies in turn may quickly  change therapeutic focus after a clinical failure or competition. They get bought by bigger companies and their brand and values will change yet again. Point is, these companies can change  into very different entities at these inflective junctions and it can all happen in a very compressed period  of time of a couple years..

The talent base of course  changes too. A pre-clinical discovery company (research folks ) will rotate out early talent in its clinical stage  (Development, Medical and Regulatory folks). Then  it will refocus dramatically as it approaches commercialization(Sales & Marketing folks). The skills needed will change rapidly. The personality types will change too and many of the individuals who seeded the company,  (the ones who probably created the values) will be long gone by the time you get into the clinic let alone the commercial stage.

So how did all this values nonsense get started anyway?

It seems to have gained popularity after the  Jim Collins and Jerry Porras business classic Built to Last, was published in 1994.  This book offers evidence that the “best” companies follow a set of principles or core values,  and that created a sort of cultish blueprint that every company feels compelled to now follow.  To quote Patrick Lencioni in the July 2002  Harvard Business Review: The values fad swept through corporate America like chicken pox through a kindergarten class. Today,

This article references "Built to Last" by Jim Collins and Jerry Porras

Are small biotech companies built to last?

80% of the Fortune 100 tout their values publicly—values that too often stand for nothing but a desire to be au courant or, worse still, politically correct.

Organizations  follow the lead and behavior of their CEO, and this establishes a company’s culture. This culture is perpetuated,  for better or worse by corporate values that either ring hollow and or are eschewed or mean something and are adhered to.  Because of the the industry’s expansion, it’s been harder to find top, experienced  leaders who possess the special qualities of  leadership , integrity and sincerity along with the experience and competence necessary  to lead biotech start-ups.

In the end, culture can be a moot point for biotechs because of the very business of drug development. You can have a wonderful culture and values but if your drug flunks a Phase IIb there won’t be a buyer just because of that fantastic culture. Just the same, things can unravel quickly. Even if a company has clinical success but keeps bleeding talent because of a shitty culture. Truly, culture does matter and values if used correctly this can drive organizational success or hasten  systemic failure.

Say what you mean and mean what you say. It’s ok if your culture needs work just admit that it’s evolving and you’re building toward it. Don’t use hollow words if they aren’t true just because you think they will resonate and catch on. They won’t if your leadership doesn’t embody and adhere to them.

CEOs: Don’t commit yourself to a carved-in-stone value system that is likely to change.The nature of the product life-cycle in this business is not simple. It isn’t realistic to pretend that you’ve summed up all the  outcomes, values and competencies before you begun the  journey. Start by acting with integrity and sincerity and  realistically describing who is  currently on the team,and where you need help.  It’s ok to be honest your employees will appreciate you for it.

values of biotech and pharmaceutical companies

say it like you mean it


Disclosures/post scripts

*1) Differentiating: biotech(nology) and pharmaceutical (biopharma) companies both produce medicine.Biotechnology companies’ medicines have a biological basis, and pharmaceutical companies’ medicines have a chemical basis. Biotechnology companies use live organisms or their products, such as bacteria or enzymes, to manufacture their drugs.  In my use of the word I am referring to any Pre-commercial Biotech or pharma company.

2) Recruiting has its own set of corporate values but we aren’t developing drugs.