Attributes of a Good Project Leader in an R&D Partnership

Are the best project leaders for partnered projects th same as those with strong established track records of success in internal projects? The answer is, “Yes, but …” as I shall explain in this blog post

There has been much said and written about project leadership in pharmaceutical R&D, including distinctions that some people make between program leaders and project leaders, as well as between project leaders and project managers. I will not attempt to repeat all of this literature, but rather summarize what I have observed over the years in practical situations.

In my experience, excellent pharmaceutical project leaders[1] require eight key characteristics and skills, irrespective of whether they lead projects which are in-house or partnered:

  1. They have broad scientific credibility in the disciplines that are most relevant to their projects. They may or may not be experts in every one of those disciplines, but they can have sensible conversations with functional leads in the core project team.
  2. They understand conceptually how their projects add commercial value to the business, and they know what kinds of activities and findings have the most impact (positive or negative) on this value.
  3. They display a passion for their projects and the benefits they can bring.
  4. They have a strong organizational network that allows them to access additional resources and expertise for their projects when needed, especially when things don’t go according to plan.
  5. They are adept at working with the governance process; they know how to present their issues to senior executives effectively, recognize the broader political and commercial context within which decisions about their projects are being made, and get the right help assigned to their projects when needed.
  6. They can manage adaptively, navigating their projects through their unexpected twists and turns and inevitable ups and downs. This is important for projects at all stages of the biopharma value chain, although the nature of the twists and turns varies. In confirmatory development projects, the goals are very specific (NDA, approval, product launch) and the challenge is to find a different path to the goals when unexpected things happen. When unexpected findings emerge in drug discovery or exploratory clinical development, on the other hand, the project leader has to decide whether to adapt the goals to capture a different benefit or to stick with the original goals but find a different way of getting there.
  7. They are skilled in cross-disciplinary integration. This is also important for projects at all stages of the value chain, but again the nature of the integration varies depending on the type of project. In later-stage projects, it is about coordinating the work of the different functional subteams to ensure that their outputs align with each other and are fed through to anyone who needs them. In earlier-stage projects, interdisciplinary problem solving—getting people from different disciplines to solve problems at their discipline boundaries—is required.
  8. They are effective at process management, able to coordinate others engaged in multiple streams of activity while ensuring the project adheres to its timelines and resource budgets. This is particularly important for large and logistically complex endeavors, such as confirmatory development projects focused on completing the Phase III clinical trial program, assembling the NDA, and preparing for the ensuing product launch. It is also an important skill in smaller and more compact, earlier-stage projects, although in my view, the need for it is somewhat overemphasized compared to the relative importance of other skills.

The above attributes apply to all projects, whether internal or collaborative. Thus, a good starting point for selecting a collaboration project leader is to identify someone with a strong track record as a leader of in-house projects. Nevertheless, four of these attributes are particularly important for collaborative projects, and so must be prioritized when selecting candidates for an upcoming collaboration.

Firstly, being able to manage adaptively is a critical requirement in many collaborations. Collaborations are likely to see more unanticipated situations and unknown risks. Partners cannot know everything about each other before they start working together, no matter how much effort has been expended thorough the due diligence, and even known partners will have events in the organization out of the partner’s line of sight that will affect the collaboration. When these events arise, the project leader must be able to assess the situation, reconfigure activities, and steer the team accordingly.

Second, the collaboration project leader should be especially strong at cross-disciplinary integration. Guiding the collaboration to success will require facilitating collaborative problem solving with a diverse team and integrating capabilities from both organizations while resolving differences of opinion in a win-win way.

Third, the project leader in a collaboration must have a strong organizational network and be skilled at influencing people across the organization, not just to access resources and expertise but also to generate interest in the project. These attributes can help ensure that the collaboration’s work is well understood and appropriately exploited by the parent organization, and it is also strongly appreciated by the other side in the collaboration, as a one project leader of a major partnership said to me:

“Our collaboration with [Big Pharma X] went extremely well because my counterpart project leader was well connected in her organization, could reach out to additional scientific expertise across X as and when our project needed it, and ensured a level playing field for our project in X’s portfolio review process.”

Fourthly, the project leader needs to work effectively with the collaboration’s governance process. For project leaders from small biotechs who have not previously worked with a large organization, this can be a big learning curve. Project leaders from big pharmas will find that coaching their small biotech counterparts about how governance operates in their organization is a major activity, as the fate of the collaboration can be strongly influenced by decisions in the big pharma committees and decisions forums that are not visible to the small biotech.

In addition, there are three other project leader attributes—not yet mentioned above—that are important specifically in the context of a collaboration. Collaboration project leaders must have an open mindset. They should be open to learning how other organizations think and do things, while being able to challenge the other party when necessary. And they need to be comfortable sharing leadership as they will have a counterpart from the other side. This can be especially challenging for an experienced leader of in-house projects used to calling the shots. This skill improves with practice and the help of experienced mentors. Most importantly, the project leader for a collaboration must role model and coach collaborative working and co-leadership behaviors for the rest of the team.

  1. For large or complex projects, some organizations might split the project leader role across two individuals: one concentrating on scientific leadership, and the other focusing on managing task allocation, follow-up, timelines, and budgets. To keep the exposition simple, we will assume in this discussion that there is only one project leader from each side of the collaboration.  ↩