Many employees of biotech and pharmaceutical companies feel as if they live in a world of constant calamity. Something has gone wrong with the latest experiment . . . the relationship with the boss continues to go downhill . . . there are talks of company layoffs . . .
Is there something unique about careers in these sectors? Or could this almost-universal crisis management problem be a natural part of the progression of a career? In my opinion, it's a little of each.
A Natural Crisis Time
Dr. Steven Mento, chief executive officer of Conatus Pharmaceuticals, a biotech based in San Diego, spoke afew years ago about his career at the annual California State University CSUPERB meeting in San Jose. This is a fellow who is known for his success; I was pleased to hear himopenly discuss those periods of time when he was stuck in a crisis himself.
"After my postdoctoral period, I went on to a super-postdoc called a Research Associate Professor, working solely on soft money. Getting out of this crisis took a lot of soul-searching at that time, as well as advice from a mentor who told me that I ought to give serious consideration to an industry job, which he referred to as 'the dark side.'" As Dr. Mento discussed his early career, he made certain the audience knew that his academia-to-industry transition wasn't an easy one. He went through a tremendous crisis and came out the other side, years later, as a biotech CEO.
I had a transition-crisis as well when I first joined industry. When I graduated, the job market was lousy and the country was just coming out of a recession. I remember being quite angry that I had gone through a lengthy education - in my case, only four years - and that my effort didn't seem to be paying off. I felt angry at the world because I had to take a low-level job in order to pay my bills. The "promised" gold at the end of the rainbow never appeared. Even my father expressed disappointment that I appeared to be floundering when I had been trained for a very specific kind of work.
I eventually got past that chokepoint. Soon I found myself using what I had been taught in college. Although it wasn't what I had originally intended to do with my life, it felt good to be past the crisis and onto a career. Sometimes crisis situations just naturally go away with time.
Both Dr. Mento and I found out, however, that career crises are very real, and no matter what you do to keep them out of your life, they pop back up on regular occasion.
Crises Are Inevitable
John Tarrant, coauthor (along with Auren Uris) of the excellent book Career Stages told me in an interview a decade ago, "Success doesn't lie in the avoidance of the crisis, but in the management and understanding of the crisis." After listening to Dr. Mento's career narrative, I recalled that conversation with Mr. Tarrant. I immediately headed to my library, where I revisited a couple of other classic texts on the same subject.
Career Stages, along with Daniel Levinson's Seasons of a Man's Life and Gail Sheehy's landmark Passages, have taught me that there are certain categories of crises that we will all see in our lifetime. It is my hope that readers will see that they are not alone in experiencing many of these same down times in their careers.
The Five Categories of Worklife Crises
The Crisis of Change: Change is all around us, in both our work and personal lives. And where else can you find the pace of change exceeding that of science? As a result of the pace of change in our business, employers need people with a high degree of "adjustment ability."
It had been the worst year of her life. As Susan looked back upon the reasons for this, it seemed that most of her uneasiness was the result of the difference in culture between her previous university post and the biotech company she was now a part of. What a struggle it had been to adapt - to shift emphasis from building her own status and reputation in the academic world to becoming a part of a project team. She recalled her belief that just doing good science would lead her to success. Now, it appeared that she was struggling for survival in a completely foreign environment filled with deadlines and goalposts.
The Crisis of the Spirit: Have you ever felt that your self-image is deteriorating right in front of you? Perhaps you've spent a few years working for a boss who did her best to tear you down piece by piece, or your partner in life has stopped supporting your career choice. Regardless of the cause, a crisis of the inner spirit means you will earn very little satisfaction from your work.
As Ramesh drove home that night, he thought about what would happen to his company's project now that the last 15 months had gone down the drain. He appeared visibly shaken when he walked in the door, unable to get that conversation with his boss out of his mind. The fellow was right . . . he had let down his colleagues.
His wife suggested that he sit down and update his CV, in order to apply for positions in other companies. Ramesh began listing his strengths and accomplishments, but he soon put down the pen and paper and walked away. How could he be such a hypocrite? To list skills and abilities such as these would mean that he had the capacity to solve problems like the one he had been working on for over a year.
The Crisis of Competition: Do you ever feel that your job takes place in an arena, with your boss and management sitting in the spectator's seats? For some people, this competition can be just the stimulation they need to get in early to work. For others, this scenario brings with it a lifelong string of crises.
Walt couldn't believe what he had just heard. After more than five years of working for his boss, the Director had just selected another scientist to accompany him on the upcoming trip to Europe. Walt was by far the most senior person in the laboratory, and very qualified to represent their capabilities to this Swedish company and prospective collaborator. And yet, the boss had chosen a new employee, which absolutely infuriated him. There was no reason for it at all; this scientist hadn't been contributing much since he'd started, and there was no apparent reason for this slap in the face.
The Crisis of Failure or Success: What happens in a competition? Someone wins and someone loses and regardless of which side you are on, there are potential crises. Failure has obvious repercussions throughout your work and personal life. Success has the potential to create its own crisis through an entirely different, and much more subtle, process.
When Meili first heard the news about the manager job, she took her family out to the best restaurant in town, and with a significantly larger paycheck, she could afford it. Now, thinking about that night a year later, she wondered if they should have been celebrating at all. Sure, it was a great job title and a career in biotech management, but she missed the science so very much. She used to love her weekly lunches with the other scientists and the camaraderie in the laboratory. As she stared at the budget report on the screen in front of her, she thought about what a turn for the worse that her career had taken since she had been promoted.
The Crisis of Decision: Which way do you go when you reach a fork in the road? Behind each of your career decisions lies the potential for a serious crisis. And the higher you climb on the ladder, the harder you fall if you make the wrong decision. Here's an example from someone who spent the last decade building a business, and now must decide on how to close that chapter of his life.
Dr. Smith felt the pressure once again behind his eyes - another headache coming on. This decision process would surely kill him, he thought, as he readied himself for another board meeting on the subject of the possible acquisition of their technology by a pharmaceutical company. When he had founded the company eight years ago, the only decision he had to make was whether to stay in the lab until 10 p.m. or midnight. The decision he had to make today would affect the livelihood of more than 60 people who counted on him to earn a living for their families. The pharmaceutical company didn't want them, just the patents.
Crisis periods come regularly for all of us, and they can shadow our success just as easily as our failures. Perhaps it helps to realize that this same crisis has likely happened to nearly everyone at one time or another.
David G. Jensen is Managing Director of Kincannon & Reed Executive Search (www.krsearch.com), a leading retained search firm in the biosciences. You can reach Dave at (928) 274-2266 or via email@example.com.