Technical vs. Team Leadership in Drug Development

brainstorming-985542_1920Every drug development program is led by some type of the team leader. Such position may have different names in every organization (e.g. asset, team, program, project lead, etc.). The primary accountability of that individual in all pharma organizations is yet similar: to deliver the program to support the R&D strategic goals and direction.

 The required qualifications needed to fulfill this role may be very different from company to company. At one end, we have leaders with advanced scientific degrees (e.g. MD, PhDs). On the other end, a mix of talent with bachelor to master degrees in life science and/or business (e.g. MBA). Team leader responsibilities may include cross-functional management of the strategic, operational teams & budget, collaboration with various stakeholders across the company, reporting to senior management and governance and strategic program/asset management.

There are two objectives of this article:

  • to determine the necessary characteristics of a program team leader in drug development process that seem to be the most critical for the team and program success
  • to define fundamental differences in scope and responsibilities of a development program team leader vs. technical leader (=functional line leader)

Program team leader tends to be assigned based on various considerations, mainly:

  • Seniority counted as total years worked in the pharma industry
  • Previous experience in leading drug development programs
  • Technical expertise, education, publication record
  • Expertise in project, program, budget management
  • Proven operational excellence, innovative thinking with ability to try new things and unconventional solutions
  • Team management expertise (motivation, facilitation, organization)

Team leaders come with different leadership styles and at more or less advanced leadership levels. Different qualifications for that role may be required, depending on the size, criticality/priority, phase (early/late development) and strategic objectives of the program.

I have seen different models across pharma. Usually, candidate eligibility for the program team leader job is determined on an individual basis and with above criteria in mind.

During my career, I have observed team leaders with both, advanced scientific and business backgrounds, who were excelling in their jobs. Yet, some pharmaceutical organizations consider only individuals with advanced degrees and substantial publication record for the program team leadership roles. This is either a result of the specificity of the organizational culture or just a practical solution, as such leader may credibly represent the program to the key opinion leaders and scientific community. However, there is a potential downside of such model. Technical leaders may tend to forget about the team’s needs and get immersed in scientific technicalities. This is of course not a case for everyone but trends in a few pharma companies I am familiar with.

To avoid those pitfalls, it is important to select the team leaders with the right balance of the team management, program, project management, technical skills, and experience.

In the real word, most of the team leaders, depending on their background, have either a tendency to focus too much on technical aspects or the team itself. Being a team leader for the majority of my career, I can admit this is a tough task to balance the two.

In practice, program team leaders lead the cross-functional teams of experts. This means that majority of the technical tasks & responsibilities are “delegated” and not carried by the program team leaders. However, accountability for the program deliverables stays with the team leader.

Comparing to technical leaders, program team leaders often deal with less tangible responsibilities, such as: influencing others & stakeholder management, strategy, ambiguity and risks, business, politics, and governance. Technical leaders, serving as the experts in their field, mainly deal with real tasks and deliverables (mainly, as they also provide managerial support to their sub-teams). There is a variety of short-term and long-terms activities they are responsible for, for which progress and status are usually easy to measure. In comparison, program team leadership does not give too many opportunities for the quickly perceptible successes, due to the different scope of the role. This difference may cause some type of discontent if one is shifting between those two categories of positions. That disparity was the most frustrating for much younger me when I was switching from a technical leader to the team leadership role.

Anyhow, the program team management may be incredibly fulfilling. With time, I started enjoying it profoundly. Seeing all the successes, coming from the collaborative work of many team members and technical leaders is, thus far, my best and most rewarding career experience.

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