How to Build a Successful Company Culture in Biotech

Company culture can be essential to the success of a biotech company. Sabine Dandiguian, Managing Partner at the life sciences VC firm Jeito Capital, shares her experience building a thriving company culture in the life sciences.

Company culture is “something very special” that borders on collective intelligence, says Sabine Dandiguian. There are some basics to follow when building it. But there is also a sometimes elusive soft-skills component, which is strongly influenced by the personality of the leader and is as much an art to create as it is a science. It has to do with balancing hard work and strict roles and responsibilities with a capacity to listen and to care, but it goes beyond that.

Dandiguian’s long experience as a life sciences business leader across different cultures, having worked in France, the Middle East, Turkey, and Algeria. She has coached numerous companies, from startups to large successful life science firms. In over two decades with Johnson and Johnson, her previous employer, she oversaw Janssen France reaching $1B in revenue, a first for any non-US subsidiary. She is now Managing Partner at Jeito Capital, a life sciences investment firm based in Paris that launched last year

How does leadership shape company culture in your view? 

I’ve reflected a lot on company culture, because at the end of the day, that’s something very special that you create and use to attract and retain the right people. I think it’s quite dependent on the leader. Someone who is super selfish can have a good track record for a while, but will fail at a certain point if that person is not connected with the others on the team. 

It happened to me. I took the lead of a team in a crisis situation at J&J, where we really had to turn it around. At the beginning I chose the team around me and created a culture of speed, everyone thinking in the same direction, super aligned. But I realized after six months that we were missing part of the world. We didn’t see things happening on the market. We were all aligned, but all the same. So I started to realize that people who think differently are very valuable; inclusion is something so important. I really engaged with building a culture of ‘let’s stay focused on the objective, and at the same time, let’s keep our ears open to listen.’ 

When you build the team, for instance, you have to be very careful to build some diversity of thought. When you say ‘well, I like to have only people thinking like me, then I go fast and then we are all aligned,’ then you just lose the complexity of the world outside. So it’s not enough to say, ‘I will hire diverse people’; put in place mechanisms that make the organization become inclusive. 

I think the leaders of tomorrow should be able to create this culture of what I call collective intelligence, something in the way of doing and in the way of thinking, very unique to a company that is very demanding but also caring, where everyone works together with everyone.

Do different companies working with different types of technology or business models require different approaches to company culture? 

Probably when you are in a crisis mode you need to have a more directive behavior as a leader because you need to make moves very quickly. Obviously there is a cultural dimension as well. What I see really as a difference is the personality of the leader. The leader should reflect on how they would like to work and create a company culture in which he or she is comfortable. There is a loneliness when you are a leader, so create around you the right team who is able to challenge you to listen. Again, there is a time for discussion and that should be very open for diverse opinions, and then there is a time for decisions. And the decision is taken by one person.

Now the company culture will allow you to attract the right people and retain them as well. That’s why I say, for instance, that if you want to retain the young generation, you should understand their way of life. For instance, the young generation are very keen to have some work-life balance, so you have to pay attention to all these dynamics.  

What are the first steps that a scientist who wants to build a startup should take to build a successful company culture? 

First, you have to know yourself well. What are your drivers? For instance, are you an introvert or an extrovert? I am an extrovert person, meaning that when I face a difficulty I need to reach out to people to make up my mind. When you have difficulties in your life, how do you face that? What drives your energy? Are you an early bird? Are you rebuilding your energy alone with music? What are your strengths and what are your weaknesses? 

Talk about and think about your company as if you are describing a person. What kind of personality do you want to create? Think about what you would like others to say about the company you are building, in terms of attributes. What are you? Are you vibrant, demanding, ambitious, young, with a lot of energy? For instance, people describing me always say that I have a lot of energy. I hate very slow paced things so  I always create a very energizing culture, because that’s that’s part of my real drivers. Then think about your behavior: how should you behave to be an example. 

Think also about how others would describe you. Then you can make a survey. At J&J, every two years they had a credo survey, a long anonymous survey where people were evaluating their leader. So I had a very clear description of my strengths and weaknesses from my team, which is a must. 

Treat the others as you would like to be treated. Listen. Sometimes, when you are super driven and invested emotionally in your own project, you do not listen anymore. That’s when you need to listen to others and to the market. 

How is your approach to building a company culture at Jeito Capital?

What we really want to achieve is collective intelligence, and to capitalize on it to bring to our portfolio companies a maximum of expertise in a coordinated way. We do not like selfish behaviors. We need to have a leader, but that leader can reach out to a lot of expertise inside Jeito. That’s exactly the multidisciplinary approach you have in the hospitals. Collective intelligence without losing the pace and the ability to take quick decisions when needed is something we value a lot.

The other thing is that we are very demanding over the quality of science and the quality of due diligence we do before making a decision, and at the same time caring: caring for patients, caring for the companies, caring for the entrepreneurs, caring for the team. We are paying a lot of attention to our entrepreneurs. We know it’s difficult to build a startup, we understand the situation in which they are and when difficult times come, we are alongside them.  

You have international experience working in the Middle East, Europe, and beyond. How do you approach cultural differences in building a company culture?

We are really considering the difference between Europe and the US. There are also significant differences between Russia and the Middle East. In Russia, company culture is super tough. You don’t smile. You need to be severe when you are inside the company. There is an attitude of you are not there to laugh and you are not respected if you smile too much; you look weak. 

When you’re in the Middle East, it’s super hierarchical. The key element is loyalty to the company. For instance, before my time at Jeito we were reviewing high-potential young talent and they were presenting to me pretty old people. I said people 50 years or older cannot be high-potential and they said they valued their loyalty. 

There you promote someone who will be respected because of his gray hair. You have to take that into account, because if you don’t you create barriers and misunderstanding. For them it was the first time ever that their boss was a woman. It took me six months to a year to establish my authority. I respected their culture and I understood it was difficult for them. As the leader of a global group, you need to make people converge and build a culture as well as common objectives. 

Pay attention to cultural differences. And don’t forget that English, even for someone speaking it very well, is not always your colleague’s mother language. Start slowly and observe — it takes a little bit of time to build the right relationships. 

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