A life science recruiter's blog on placing R&D professionals.

Blog/A Life Science Recruiter's Book Reviews

A Life Science Recruiter’s Book Review: “What got you Here, Won’t Get You There”

As an executive recruiter who specializes in finding executives for life science companies, I found the book, “What Got You Here, Won’t get You There: How Successful People Become Even More Successful!” by Marshall Goldsmith with Mark Reiter, to be very informative and a useful resource for me to help pinpoint successful candidates for my biopharma searches. While reading, I wrote so many notes and quotes that I could fill a whole post just on these alone. It was a self-help and management book chockfull of information that anyone could easily do on his or her own. And any manager at any level can learn much from this book.

Marshall Goldsmith is an executive coach for large corporations, including an executive at a major pharmaceutical company (which of course peaked my interest). The author describes how he got into the business of executive coaching and the book is “aimed at anyone who wants to get better- at work, at home, or any other venue”. He says,“despite your demonstrable success and laudable self- esteem, you might not be as good as you think you are; that all of us have corners in our behavioral makeup that are messy; and that these messy corners can be pinpointed and tidied up.”

Mr. Goldsmith starts out by telling us that in order to change for the better we must recognize our flaws and that even the very successful have some flaws: “These flaws are not skills, or smarts. They are Challenges in interpersonal behavior, often leadership behavior. “He lists twenty such flaws such as not listening, making excuses, speaking when angry, withholding information, playing favorites and negativity. He gives many examples of successful executives he has coached that display some of these flaws and how he got them to recognize and overcome them.

He talks more specifically of a leader of a pharmaceutical company that he helped. He said he observed a meeting where junior scientists were presenting their research to top leaders at the company. These leaders kept saying things like “next slide” because they had no patience. They were all extremely smart with PhDs and MDs from Harvard and MIT. They all thought they knew it all. But this was a time when there weren’t many career choices for underling scientists except perhaps just another big pharma to move to. But when biotech became hot and when talented scientists were walking out the door because there were so many options where they were listened to and allowed to wear blue jeans, never mind get very rich with stock options, the top brass at the pharma knew they had to mend their ways by truly listening to the junior scientists and not showing impatience. “When someone makes a suggestion or gives ideas, you’re either going to learn more or learn nothing. But you’re not going to learn less. Hearing people out does not make you dumber. So thank them for trying to help.”

The author tells about how he gets feedback from the people who surround the person he his helping. Usually there are about 15 people, including bosses, peers, direct reports, and family. They must agree to 4 commitments (tell the truth, don’t be mean etc.). Obviously a person without an expensive executive coach can’t do this very easily. Therefore the author suggests you get solicited feedback from colleagues by asking the question: “How can I do better?” This makes change possible because it “1. Solicits advice rather than criticism 2. Is directed towards the future rather than obsesses with negative past 3. Is couched in a way that suggests you will act on it; that in fact you are trying to do better.”

After getting feedback, a person knows what needs to be changed. The next step is to apologize to those around you, usually your employees, but sometimes your friends and family too. The author thinks apologizing is the most important aspect in the process for “without an apology there is no recognition that mistakes have been made, there is no emotional contract between you and the people you care about.” He suggests the best way to apologize is to simply say, “ I’m sorry. I will try to do better in the future” and nothing more.

Mr. Goldsmith devotes a whole chapter to listening, which I think is worth the entire book. He states: “80 percent of our success in learning from other people is based upon how well we listen….Good listeners are not passive, but highly active….Good listeners think before they speak and they listen with respect.”  After listening, ask yourself “ is a reply worth it? Will it add value? Will it hurt the person?” Executive recruiters are by nature good listeners as we spend all day interviewing candidates. But there is much to mull over and learn in this chapter in order to be a better listener.

The author also has chapters on thanking, follow up and feed forward. As to feed forward the author suggests people ask several people how they think the particular change can be accomplished; listen to ideas and then just say thank you. You will get a lot of good ideas; everyone likes to help and people will think you are serious about wanting to change because you asked for help or ideas. This is not past orientated, but future orientated. So no grudges will surface.

After 20 years of executive recruiting for life science companies, one section of the book, which rang true to me, was about free agents. These “hot shots” or fast rising stars can move at a second’s notice to any firm they wish and they know it. They don’t stay at a company because of money. A good boss has to recognize what the wishes are of these free agents and grant them or risk losing the person to another firm. I once placed a “hot shot” at a big pharma who came from a visionary biotech. He had ideas about helping mankind through better drug discovery and knew exactly what he wanted to do. But even though he was paid a lot of money it was clear he wasn’t going to get what he needed at the big pharma. They expected obedience and a slow move up the corporate ladder. He didn’t stay longer than a respectable amount of time before he moved to another company. It has been fun to watch his career progression since. He is now in the “C Suite” of a rising biotech startup.

Last Mr. Goldsmith writes that even some people are beyond help: “Stop trying to coach people who shouldn’t be coached” and “some people are unsalvageable.” He goes on to say the boss should stop trying to help those who don’t think they have a problem. Also “stop trying to change people who should not be in their job” and  “Stop trying to help people who think everyone else is the problem.”

In summary, I liked the book “What Got You Here, Won’t get You There: How Successful People Become Even More Successful!” Honestly, some of these self-help books are hard for me to finish. I feel punished and say to myself, “ok, read just one chapter today to increase my knowledge base. Just one”. But this was an easy read because the author had helpful ideas, explained himself well, and offered many examples. If you read the book, let me know what you think in the comments below.