Creating a corporate culture of ‘work worth doing’

By David Spellmeyer, Ph.D.

“Far and away the best prize that life has to offer is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.” —Theodore Roosevelt, 1903

While working as a principal scientist at the biotechnology company Chiron in the 1990s, our team published and presented at a furious rate on our inventive combinatorial chemistry methods. It was a highly competitive field, and we had to conceive, reduce to practice, and file patents on our intellectual property (IP) before anyone else did. Patent writing was, as you’d expect, a frenzied process. It was also tedious, painstaking work, and it took a certain kind of skill to crank through so many patent applications in such a short period of time. One day, while reviewing yet another patent application, I asked our IP attorney Grant Green how he could possibly do what he did. Grant looked at me with a mischievous grin and said, “It’s fun!” He says his wife, also an attorney, shares a similar view. “She says it’s like writing science term papers for life,” he says. (And yes, she means that in a good way.)

At that very moment, I realized two very important things. First was how grateful I was that someone, anyone, loved to write patent applications as a vocation. Second, I understood that it is vital for managers to hire people who bring passion to the difficult tasks that need to get done for a business to be successful. Not just anyone will do.

For these reasons, Roosevelt’s famous quote about “the best prize” really resonates with me. (You can read the whole speech here.) Most obviously, it applies directly to each of us as we search out meaningful work in our unique way. Finding that chance to do the work we love really is a prize when it happens, and it may happen more than once.

Many of us will change roles, companies, and responsibilities during our career. With each change, our own “fit” for a role will also change. We are each responsible to evaluate that fit daily and make changes when needed. This is particularly true with early stage entrepreneurs who launch a company, only to find their new role to be an unhappy one. In those instances, making a change can be positive for all concerned. Conversely, not making a change can be a burden.

More broadly, Roosevelt’s quote challenges entrepreneurs to be leaders who create work environments where all employees can realize their own passion as the company moves from early concept to a thriving business. However, creating a culture in which leaders are encouraged to fill roles with people who are thrilled to do the work is difficult. Leading and managing a corporate culture requires having the people skills to manage, lead, hire, and fire—skills that most founders don’t have when they launch a company. Let’s face it: Our schools and universities focus on science, not soft skills. We are taught task orientation to meet short-term scientific goals.

That’s unfortunate, because corporate culture is created whether we manage it or not. Culture establishes itself very early and is incredibly difficult to change. Business management expert Joseph Picken, in a 2017 article, describes eight hurdles that a founding team must address to move a company from startup through transition, and finally to sufficient scale to compete in the marketplace. Notably, four of the eight are about culture and leadership. These include setting a direction and maintaining focus; building an organization and management team; developing effective processes and infrastructures; and developing an appropriate culture. Fail at any one of these, and the odds of success drop dramatically.

Fortunately, life science entrepreneurs have many resources today for creating a strong culture. Business author Patrick Lencioni provides such a resource in his book “The Advantage.” He explains that the first and perhaps most critical step is building a cohesive leadership team, or “a small group of people who are collectively responsible for achieving a common objective for their organization.” That team must build trust, master conflict (and there is always conflict), commit to one another and the common objective, be accountable to one another, and focus on results. It sounds simple, but it is quite difficult because each member of the team must commit to the process.

When it comes to financing a startup, the importance of team simply can’t be understated. It’s well established that venture capital firms generally invest in teams first and science second. They also generally judge success or failure based on the team, not the technology or product. In the end, every company must invest in crafting and maintaining a culture that ensures people have the chance to do work worth doing.

One final thing: Treating each other well pays off, too. Over the course of a long career, we often encounter our colleagues in multiple roles, each of us seeking important work. It is a real pleasure to be working with that patent attorney again. Grant still seems to be happy writing term papers for life. What a joy!

David Spellmeyer, Ph.D., is a biotechnology executive with 25 years of broad experience in the life sciences industry. He is an executive-in-residence at ShangPharma Innovation. Read full bio

Notes and References

† Grant always attributes the origination of the quote to his wife.

Gompers, Paul, William Gornall, Steven N. Kaplan, and Ilya A. Strebulaev. 2016. How Do Venture Capitalists Make Decisions? NBER Working Paper Series, no. w22587. Cambridge, Mass: National Bureau of Economic Research.

Lencioni, Patrick. 2012. The Advantage: Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else in Business. 1st ed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Picken, Joseph C. 2017. “From Founder to CEO: An Entrepreneur’s Roadmap.” Business Horizons 60 (1): 7–14.

Roosevelt, Theodore. 1903. “Address to the New York State Agricultural Association, Syracuse, NY.” September 7, 1903.