The Extraordinary Scientific Leader


Is there such a thing as an extraordinary scientific leader?

In our work with senior executives transitioning between careers or increasing their effectiveness in role, we are often asked: “What makes an extraordinary scientific leader?” This question almost asks whether it is even possible for someone with a scientific background to be a leader. We firmly believe that it is possible, although there are a few adjustments of approach that need to be made to achieve scientific leadership success.

In this paper we first address some of the trends and challenges affecting the healthcare, pharma and life sciences sectors which make up a substantial portion of all scientific sectors. We then go on to look at the characteristics of an extraordinary scientific leader. All of our observations are based on our experiences in our marketplace and of working with clients in these scientific sectors.

Blurring the boundaries

The first trend we see is an increased blurring of boundaries among the healthcare, pharma and life sciences sectors as they become part of an ecosystem centred around patient care and customer service. Through our clients’ eyes, we see a world where a patient will increasingly be diagnosed, monitored and treated using remote, technology-enabled medical devices and drugs. We also see business, retail and institutional customers demanding a more holistic, seamless approach combining different medical-related sectors to provide value-adding, cost-effective and long-lasting business and welfare solutions.

Following on from this trend, we see an increasing number of roles demanding an ability to create and implement a multi-sector strategy and then lead and manage a diverse group of people through it. As the skills required in each sector are different, there are several possible approaches open to an aspiring scientific leader, all of which we have seen in our clients:

  1. Put in place a carefully planned career strategy in early career to enable an aspiring leader to acquire the requisite skills through a series of roles in each sector. The challenge here is to acquire sufficient depth of sector and technical knowledge and experience along the way to command the respect and credibility of peers. An associated challenge is to find sufficient crossover points between each sector to enable a successful transition between one sector and another

  2. Surround him/herself with people who have the breadth of skills to enable their leader to look across sectors and see how they fit with each other into an overall ecosystem centred around a patient or customer. The challenge here is for the scientific leader to develop an ability to work with multi-disciplinary teams. This may be unfamiliar territory for someone who has risen through the ranks with a narrow but deep focus on a particular discipline, working in a small team with people of similar background and outlook on life.

  3. A number of our scientific leader clients are also introverts who feel the need to examine evidence exhaustively before reaching a conclusion. Tough non-binary decision making within a defined timeframe may feel unnatural for them. Some of the people we see are not natural “people” people either, and may find it difficult to get the best out of more extrovert and intuitive members of different functions in a multi-disciplinary team

  4. Construct joint ventures with other sectors to synthesise the benefits of a multi-sectoral approach. Managing joint ventures requires considerable skill to ensure that all interests are aligned, particularly over the long periods of research, development and production times which characterize the pharma and life sciences sectors. Here, stakeholder management and communication are particularly important for the scientific leader, as well as the art of compromise and managing ambiguity that can arise within some joint ventures.

A number of our leaders with science, technology, engineering and mathematical backgrounds have a natural tendency toward perfection and single-mindedness to build a technically excellent but commercially sub-optimal solution. For them, the management of joint venture partners who have different definitions of excellence and commerciality can be an acquired skill, as can the ability to compromise without materially affecting the quality and effectiveness of the overall solution.

Disruption from the digital world

The second overall trend we see is an increasingly central role of the digital world across the value chain of the healthcare, pharma and life sciences sectors. This world is not only bringing these sectors closer together; it is also accelerating and compressing their value chains. Against this background, not only do our scientific leaders need to master fast developing best practice around gathering, analysing and applying data and its conclusions. They then need to harness these data-enabled digital conclusions to implement their strategies, embracing machine learning and artificial intelligence. When addressing the value chains within their existing businesses, they also need to learn how to use disruptive digital business models to target existing and new business more effectively, reduce costs and increase speed to market of new products and services, as well as create more value out of R&D.

Disruption from new entrants

A third trend we observe in the healthcare, pharma and life sciences sectors is that they are increasingly attractive to other sectors. For example, a number of big tech companies and financial institutions have established healthcare business units and are increasingly investing in wellbeing programmes, new applications and innovative financial products. Scientific leaders must familiarise themselves with how these organisations in different sectors operate, their long-term strategies and cultures. This is an opportunity for individuals, as these new entrants are looking for scientific leaders to spearhead new ventures. But it is also a challenge for Boards, to retain their sought-after scientific leaders.

Scientific sectors disrupted by academia and government

The evolving interplay between pharma, healthcare and life sciences on the one hand and academia and government on the other is leading to further disruption of these sectors. A number of our scientific leaders find that their relationships are changing with an academic world where they may have started their career. Other leaders who have previously worked in government funded institutions such as the NHS may see these organizations differently from the vantage point of their senior commercial role. Academia and government are fundamentally different worlds from the corporate world, with different cultures and stakeholders. They may also have varying degrees of influence on the organisation which the scientific leader is running.

So what makes an extraordinary scientific leader?

Given the trends and challenges discussed above, what makes an extraordinary scientific leader? Getting the skills and experience necessary to navigate the disruption of the scientific environment seems a tall order. Whilst acknowledging these challenges, we disagree. It can be done. There is a set of key skills which a scientific leader can perfect to become truly extraordinary:

  1. Complete familiarity with a project-based approach and the management to do with it. Healthcare, pharma and life sciences involve long project cycles, varying types and intensities of activity, large capital spend and a broad range of resources

  1. Relentless focus on the people agenda. While experiments and engineering drive science, it is the people behind them who make things happen. For many scientific leaders it may seem counterintuitive to focus on people rather than process, research and development and it takes time and practice to work on this

  2. Mastery of non-scientific leadership styles. For example, working with a group of advisers to raise finance, or the running of a major sales and marketing campaign require leadership styles that are as different from each other as they are from a leadership style that is appropriate for a purely scientific organization

  3. Fluency in the scientific language. The best scientific leaders may not have a scientific background at all and will have to learn to communicate with their scientific peers in language familiar to them that engenders trust, respect and inclusion. Even those who do have a scientific background cannot have covered the entire scientific spectrum and must be fluent in several scientific languages

  4. Sense of purpose. The scientific leader really must believe that the combined forces of healthcare, pharma and life sciences can benefit society, so that a sense of purpose shines through everything the leader does. Authenticity is a powerful leadership and marketing tool

  5. Communicative strategy. A well-developed, pro-active strategy to communicate with a wide range of stakeholders (ultimately the general public – patients, business and retail customers) is essential.This may seem unnatural or unnecessary to a scientific leader. Communicating with too narrow a group of stakeholders is detrimental to business development and governance, and deprives the scientific leader of the broader support necessary to drive the organization forward.

  6. Inclusion and mentoring. In the narrowest sense, if scientific knowledge stops with the leader, his or her legacy is imperilled. In the wider organization, inclusion and mentoring translates into capturing and maintaining institutional knowledge, succession planning and sustaining high-performing and multi-disciplinary teams

In conclusion, we believe that there is nothing really extraordinary about an extraordinary scientific leader. Many of the skills that this type of leader must acquire are not specific to the scientific environment but are transferable from other sectors, functions and disciplines. It is perhaps the perception of the particular worlds which the scientific leader serves (the medical world, the greater good of society) that is different. Yet these worlds are increasingly commercial and multi-faceted, as must be the case with an extraordinary scientific leader

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