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Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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July 9, 2008

How's The New Boss Doing?

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Posted by Derek

Here’s a question that came up in a discussion at work the other day: when a new head of research comes in, how long should you give them before judging how they’re doing?

That’s a tough one to answer, I think, because there are a lot of variables. First is the size of the outfit, coupled with the scope of the position. A really big organization is a very, very hard thing to change, no matter how powerful the new person might be. I’m not at all sure how possible it is to change a company’s culture, but I’m pretty sure that it requires major shock therapy to do it. (If any of you have read C. N. Parkinson on what he calls “injelititis”, you’ll know the sort of thing I have in mind).

And different levels of authority affect processes with different timelines. A head of chemistry will be able to show results in less time than a head of research, who will need less time than a head of total R&D, because that person has to wait for the clinical results. As I’ve mentioned before, that seems to me to be one of the biggest challenges in this industry – the way that big changes can take years to work their way through to the results stage. It’s hard to steer intelligently if the front tires respond ten miles after you cut the wheel over hard.

You also have to ask what the new person is being asked to do. Steer the course on something that already seems to be working? Or shake the place up and make things happen (for once)? Expand the workforce, contract it, spend money or save it, stick with the existing therapeutic areas or branch into new ones? The job descriptions on these things are pretty wide-ranging, so the evaluations have to be, too. Without a clear idea of what the new boss is trying to do, it’s impossible to say how well it’s being done. You could wind up giving bozos credit for something that had nothing to do with them, or blame excellent managers for things that were completely out of their abilities to control. (I know, I know, that kind of thing happens all the time, but you don’t have to add to it if you can help it).

So, how long for an evaluation, then? One to three years for head of chemistry, five or six for head of research, up to ten for head of R&D (if they last that long?) I'd be interested in hearing other estimates. . .

Comments (15) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Life in the Drug Labs


1. Still Scared of Dinosaurs on July 9, 2008 9:15 AM writes...

It may take a new head of R&D years to show good results from clinical trials but I would expect them to quickly absorb trials already analyzed. There are a lot of variables at play. Do they let the presenters get their story across or do they push and pull at whatever intrigues them in the moment? Do they ask intelligent questions? Do they subsequently lead a discussion that identifies testable hypotheses that move the program forward? Are they jerks?

This is especially important because a new head of R&D will often be first tasked to pick which programs to kill. This may take years to succeed but you can fail in the course of a couple of meetings.

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2. Petros on July 9, 2008 9:18 AM writes...

Anotehr factor, more so at head of R&D or Clinical resaerch level, than chemistry director, is how quickly/ even whether, a new appointment from academia can get to grips with Pharma R&D's needs.

eg Peter Kim at Merck

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3. milkshake on July 9, 2008 9:26 AM writes...

I have been reading the 'Parkinson's Laws' in translation, in East Bloc. The book had us all in stitches - it was to delightfuly aplicable to "advanced socialism". Later I came to US and the same absurd mechanisms were operational in our start-up company!

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4. CMC guy on July 9, 2008 9:46 AM writes...

If base just on results outcomes from a particular position than the times mentioned make sense. However showing leadership by providing clear direction and motivation can and should be much shorter. Likewise demonstrating how to deal with problems/issues and listen/react to their reports is important. For most I was say it takes only 3-6 months to find out if one is well suited for the new position (and possibility above) or have been reached (above) their level of incompetence.

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5. DCRogers on July 9, 2008 10:07 AM writes...

Most of us have an idea of who among our co-workers at various levels we think are competent, and who are the dead wood or toxic waste. For anyone taking a management position, I grade them by whether they successfully put the former in positions of authority, and sideline the latter. Sadly, the reverse is seen more often, typically combined with the permanent side-effect of the leaving/firing of a good number of the former.

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6. RTW on July 9, 2008 10:43 AM writes...

In terms of practicality, R&D heads, and heads of research, and heads of chemistry life cycle seem to be inversely proportional to the time constraints that Derek appears to think necessary. In the 20 year period I was employed at a single Big Pharma R&D facility I had 3 directors of Chemistry - Good life spans there. 6 maybe more heads of research , and about that same number R&D heads. Turnover in R&D and research heads was fast during the last 6 years. While during the first 15 years I saw only two turnovers in these positions.

Just an observation from one company. Anyone else want to chime in?

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7. Petros on July 9, 2008 11:10 AM writes...

On RTW's point

At the WDF's main site (before Derek's stint) they tended to cycle quite quickly, often becuase they were people who had been earmarked for greater things.

Achievments seemed to have little to do with it.

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8. John Spevacek on July 9, 2008 1:33 PM writes...

"A really big organization is a very, very hard thing to change, no matter how powerful the new person might be."

Oh, but I've seen it done. At a former employer (they are a Minnesota-based Mining and Manufacturing company that shall remain unnamed), the board brought in a new CEO from that was not chosen for the number 1 spot at another company (it was some Generic Electric company). The new CEO converted all 54 division GM's, the dozens of executive VP's to Six Sigma in a few months, and all the remaining managers in a few more months. It was unreal the speed at which this occured - almost like a religious conversion God strikes you with a lightning bolt or speaks from a burning bush. It can be done. In this case, it was clear to all that this guy had the full support of the board and there was no stopping him.

Oh yeah, this is a pharma blog. Well, there was a pharma aspect to this as well. Besides all the Six Sigma programs, there were headcuts and hiring freezes in all the divisions except one - pharmaceuticals. The CEO saw all the big blockbuster drugs out there and wanted one too. Cut ahead about 5 years. The pharma division was sold off to FOUR, yes FOUR! other companies. It was so good that there was plenty to go around!

Back to the off topic subject: At the same time, the stock had gone nowhere so the CEO went off to "pilot" another Boring company which now has endless delays in the introduction of their new dreamy headliner product and they are even losing US military contracts to overseas competitors.

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9. Cellbio on July 9, 2008 3:41 PM writes...

In reality the judging of performance stars on day 1, but here is my estimate of timeframe: end of first year to third year for all titles. The criterion would be the environment created by these folks, not the outcome in terms of number of clinical candidates or success in trials. These hard measures line up most everyone for failure in our industry. I personally think the creation of a vital research culture is key. I witnessed a wholesale change of management as pharma execs came over to our biotech. Boy were we stupid, we didn't have process and governance and we weren't trying to kill our projects. Two years later, we had a stiffled research environment with all power in higher ups with very little intitative from below. Poor report card at the 2-3 year window. Roll forward another 3 years and the company is well trained at meeting internal marks of progress as mapped out by project managers, but the science culture is much less vibrant and it shows in the pipeline. There is a band of brothers who sit on governance committees and kill everything. Sad story, knowable early, if only people paid attention to the day-to-day functioning rather than the self-created "metrics" of interim success.

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10. Anon on July 9, 2008 7:06 PM writes...

I recently had a ring-side seat to the eight-year tenure of a President of Research at a BigPharma firm. He was a marvelous speaker, energetic, personable and smart. After my first exposure to him I was convinced he would be a great leader, and guide us to a promised land of milk and money. Not so. While the PowerPoint presentations stayed fantastic, and Wall Street ate up the hype, nothing new came out of the pipeline (internally dubbed hypeline). His last year's compensation was $8M. It took his troops about four years to realize he was "not a very good Wizard", and four more for the Board to act. Cellbio is right on in his criticism of "metrics". We bled for years while the metrics showed constant improvement. We actually had a slide praising the fact we we spent the lowest amount of dollars in the industry on each report of an adverse event!!! If you have too many AEs just "metric" your success as low cost per event. Priceless.

Your ideal Head of Research should be smart as hell with a hint of stage-fright.

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11. SRC on July 9, 2008 8:48 PM writes...

My colleagues and I used to use a pons asinorum: how the person viewed management fads. Anyone who plumped for TQM, re-engineering, Six Sigma, whatever would prompt knowing looks between us that said, "Another guy who needs to keep a low profile around Thanksgiving."

It never fails.

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12. DrSnowboard on July 10, 2008 4:56 AM writes...

Depends if the new boss = new structure or new metrics.
Even Nature dwelling on the 'costs' of restructuring

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13. Don B. on July 10, 2008 9:09 AM writes...

I understood that at Warner Lambert the head of R&D changed once or twice a year until they purchased Parke Davis at a fire sale price.

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14. RTW on July 10, 2008 12:35 PM writes...

Don - The purchase of PD by WL was a VERY long time ago by today's standards. PD became the over riding Pharma part of the organization with WL R&D in pharma moving to Ann Arbor. Morse Plans NJ was where OTC and some of Development stayed.

I joined PD long after that merger and during the time I was at WL/PD there was only two R&D heads that I remember in the 16 years before the Pfizer takeover. The first I remember was not thought all that well of down below but the second was well respected inside the industry as a whole. And I have to admit seemed to make good scientific decisions.

Research, and Development division heads also seemed to be pretty stable at this time, as where the heads of the various disciplines including Chemistry. One head of chemistry retired after a long career with the company - all of you will probably recognize is name as being associated with the "Topless Tree" is QSAR.

The second was his successor that was later promoted to head of research at the site then later was in the running after the takeover as head of all R&D, and the last (the first person to synthesize Lipitor) had the unfortunate occurrence of the site being closed to deal with.

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15. RTW on July 10, 2008 12:39 PM writes...

Oops sorry for the double post.

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