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Steering a life science company

Promotions and hefty raises do not create leaders. While some people always want to sit in the driver’s seat, leadership – effective leadership – is a learned skill.

Too often executives, including those in the life science industry, have relied on worn templates for supervisors, such as keeping “hands off” everyone, or taking an authoritarian approach of “My way or the highway.” Now companies and employees are changing and a new generation of employees is looking for a different kind of supervisor.

“The prevailing view of leaders has been that they should be omnipotent and have all the answers in the universe,” jokes consultant Pär Skoglund Finquist of 359 Leadership.

Every situation and every person is unique, so you need to change. You cannot run on autopilot.”

That perspective has evolved. Leaders today are viewed more as guides or generalists, he explains. “Every situation and every person is unique, so you need to change. You cannot run on autopilot.”

 

Pär Skoglund Finquist, 359 Leadership. Photo: Sara Arnald

 

“In a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world that is increasingly looking for leadership that is collaborative, adaptable, team-centric and transformational, we as women have much to bring to the table,” notes Sarah Lidé, Deputy CEO of Medicon Village Innovation and one of the three founders of VILDA, a Swedish network for female CEOs in the life science industry.

For her part, drawing on experience working in the Nordics as well as the U.S., Asia and Europe, she has developed an appreciation for “thought diversity” in leadership, an approach she wants to share through VILDA.

“This [thought diversity] of course includes the diversity that gender brings but is also much more than that – it comes from recognizing that various cultures, backgrounds and personalities all play a part in shaping the perspectives and approaches that we adopt as leaders,” she says.

Switch gears and don’t overdose

Developing leadership skills is like learning to drive a car, believes Pär Skoglund Finquist. “You change between the different gears, the different capabilities,” he explains. “You need to shift seamlessly or smoothly and choose the right gear. There are different situations and different people. When you meet different people, you need to learn the skills so well that they get integrated, and that’s a major pitfall with all the development initiatives; they are not used in daily work. People forget and they do not practice enough, and reflection is not used enough.”

To support leaders with the integration part of leadership, Finquist and his business partner Niklas Eriksson wrote the book “The Leaders Gearbox – Start to Switch Gears in Your Leadership,” which is available in Swedish. Among other things they point out that workplaces today are not only more diverse in terms of gender and ethnicities, but also in terms of age. Younger workers often don’t respond well to authoritarian leadership styles and will leave if they don’t feel valued.

“Supervisors who say they are hands-off when it comes to their employees have abandoned their leadership roles,” says Pär Skoglund Finquist. “You need to be present as a leader.”

He also advocates for situational-based leadership, adjusting the approach to the circumstances. “Don’t overuse one tool too much,” he advises, comparing it to overdosing on medication. “Don’t coach too much when you should be directing people. Don’t let people just be when you need to be present. You need to go back and forth – you cannot just delegate and step out. Even if you have a very senior person, if that person is new to a task, even that person needs some guidance.”

We are pretty good at having rituals about starting teams, but how do we end them?”

Working in teams is very popular in Swedish companies now, but that can be overdone as well, continues Finquist.

“It’s super-efficient to decide when do we need to be a team and when do we not need to be a team? If we need to be a team, we need to have startup meetings to prepare and decide on team rules and perhaps have wine together or dinner together, but that shouldn’t be the case all the time. Leaders also need to know when a team’s work is done. We are pretty good at having rituals about starting teams, but how do we end them?” he states.

Running – A metaphor for leadership

Pär Skoglund Finquist brings his own industry expertise to his consulting. He is a pharmacist who spent 20 years in different roles in the industry and he spent 10 of these within leadership development before striking out on his own.

“I work with some of the big life science companies in Sweden, a little bit internationally as well, and with some small biotech startups,” he says. “I also work with totally different businesses.”

A passion for running has also shaped Finquist’s leadership coaching style.

“I’ve used a metaphor for leadership as running together with people,” he explains. “Sometimes you need to run in front of the group to choose the direction, if people don’t know how to do things or don’t know the way. It can be more efficient to change position and run shoulder to shoulder and support the group with the right rhythm. Sometimes leadership is like running a few meters behind, observing how the group effectively, freely and flexibly chooses its own path towards the common goal.”

 

Sarah Lidé, Deputy CEO, Medicon Village Innovation and co-founder of VILDA, a Swedish network for female CEOs in the life science industry, and Pär Skoglund Finquist, Consultant and founder of 359 Leadership (Photo: Sara Arnald).

 

A trusted space and support network

Sarah Lidé and VILDA co-founders Anna Törner and Cecilia Bröms-Thell envisioned a network of female life science executives where they could connect, share experiences in a trusted space and support each other in their respective leadership journeys. Since launching in December 2022, membership has grown to 100.

During networking meetings, “fireside chats” with female CEOs have allowed them to share honestly about their leadership journey, including all the successes, challenges, and tough decisions they made along the way, describes Lidé.

Women executives and rising leaders in the life sciences have said that the group is just what they needed, she continues. “One female CEO shared that when she was invited to similar CEO networks, they tended to be comprised primarily of men, and it was hard to break into those established networks, so VILDA was like a breath of fresh air to her,” Lidé says. “Others who have reached out to us have shared that, despite their strong credentials and competences, they have for various reasons felt hesitant to take that extra step to become CEOs – but a network like VILDA gives them courage to do so because they know they have a trusted space and support network.”

When we promote positive female role models in leadership, we can appreciate that even there, there is no ‘one size fits all’ for female leadership, but that strong and competent leadership can take different forms – and we need those differences to make a difference.”

To increase the understanding of the needs of female leaders, this year the VILDA founders are traveling to different regions of Sweden to meet with different female life science executives. VILDA recently was also joined in the arena by Women in Life Science Denmark (WiLD), which has similar goals and the two groups have been sharing information.

“When we promote positive female role models in leadership, we can appreciate that even there, there is no ‘one size fits all’ for female leadership, but that strong and competent leadership can take different forms – and we need those differences to make a difference,” says Sarah Lidé.

Networks like VILDA and WiLD are key to moving the needle – not just by developing members professionally and strengthening networks, but by also showcasing examples of women in leadership positions, continues Lidé.

“This has two outcomes. It shows that there is a strong pool of competent female leaders who can step into board or CEO positions, widening the recruitment pool, and it also serves to empower up-and-coming leaders,” she says.

 

Sarah Lidé, Cecilia Bröms-Thell and Anna Törner – the VILDA founders.

 

Challenges and self-awareness

Among the challenges of working with life science companies are that they are filled with highly educated people who think that because they are experts in their fields, they know how to lead and are reluctant to ask for help, notes Pär Skoglund Finquist.

Another issue involves changing the conversations between companies and customers.

“About 20 years ago companies mostly delivered monologues to clients,” he says. “Now interactions have evolved into dialogues and sometimes even co-creation, to allow for discussions about common challenges between companies and customers.”

Part of becoming a more creative leader is understanding and refining one’s own leadership style, which involves developing self-awareness. Pär Skoglund Finquist therefor encourages new leaders to build their leadership style, establish their perspective on leadership and be able to say, “This is the leadership I want to stand for. If you work with yourself and self-awareness, the creativity will come.”

Featured illustration: iStock

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