This is a real problem for the pharma industry

I’m sorry I’ve become too used to working in the pharma industry, where calendars fill up with unnecessary meetings when an email would do fine. As a consultant, I’m used to having a LOT of meetings to review research findings and actionable insights, but the industry’s culture is one of its most significant weaknesses. This is an edited email I received from someone I met in Cambridge. Amy has an MBA from MIT with a minor in pre-med. It shows an industry in deep trouble.

Rich, it’s been a while since we talked, but I wanted to connect on what’s been going on with my career.

I’ve decided to leave my current position without another job offer. When I joined them, they were a small biotech company with a drug in Phase II trials. I was the 38th employee, not counting R&D people, and it was a great work environment. My days in the office were not filled up with meetings, I had a private office (cube with a sliding door), and my manager was very much hands-off.

Many of the decisions were made via talking to other people in my group (HCP marketing), and when we did have a meeting, it was often no more than four people. They used Macs as their computers, and although we were on the North side of Cambridge, it was still a great location.

After our drug moved to Phase III, we started to ramp up hiring, and the headcount quickly went to 74 people. I would say that almost all the people who were hired came from big pharma companies like Pfizer, GSK, Lilly, and Amgen. We provided a competitive compensation package with an annual bonus based on the company’s stock price. Unfortunately, with the influx of people from big pharma came the big pharma culture.

As fall quickly approached and I passed my first anniversary, I noticed the changes that had taken place. My calendar now had meetings from 8 am to 6 pm, leaving me very little time to do my job. The manager I reported to was a VP; she was an excellent mentor and cared about me. My direct report was changed to a Director who came from big pharma. He immediately wanted weekly one-on-one meetings and got angry because I didn’t consult him on a small change to our website targeted at HCPs.

Walking back to my apartment at 7 pm, I realized I was putting in many more hours in the office. I’m not afraid of the work, but the meetings I was stuck in were decisions that could and should have been made by key people, not committee meetings.

The last straw was a meeting to discuss the healthcare agency we had used for almost three years. In my opinion, they were excellent. They integrated with us well, were based in Boston, and often did many things without billing us. Despite all this, a new employee from J&J decided she wanted to work with an agency they used at her old company even though their proposal was considerably more than the current agency we were using. When a group email announced the new agency, I tried to find out what had happened and found fellow employees who didn’t want to speak up because they “were new to the company.”

The next day I typed my resignation email and sent it to my manager with a copy to HR. When I saw the receipts that the emails had been read, I packed up my personal belongings and left. The only person I heard from was the VP who hired me. She wanted to know what had happened, and I told her bluntly that our “do it” culture had been replaced with a “do it after having a lot of meetings and changing your input.”

We met that night at a local brewpub, and I told her what I had seen as we started to grow. She, too, said that she was often booked into meetings all day which was a massive issue as she commuted into the office from the burbs. Then she told me she was leaving because her boss, a new home, was focused on only one thing: the stock price. She said decisions were being made on how they would affect the stock, not our strategy.

You’re probably aware that because of some bad decisions, the drug, and the company’s future, had issues in Phase III because of revised protocols. Shortly afterward, the CFO and CMO resigned, laying off people. It’s too bad because this is a drug that could have been a blockbuster and helped a lot of people.

I’ve already had three job offers since I left, but I’m cautious about my next job. One of the things I ask my potential new manager is to take a quick look at their calendar. Seeing a lot of green, blocked-out space signals me that it’s not a culture I want to be part of.

I still remember the day you came to speak to us at school. You told us that the pharma industry was big business and focused more on trade than patients. You were right, but I’m still going to try and find a job where O can learn, grow and make a difference.