Biotech HR Community Comes Together to Strengthen Networks Amid Regional Growth

Biotech HR Community Comes Together to Strengthen Networks Amid Regional Growth

“Networking for Success” How a strong network can Help your HR Business Challenges: Recap of Q1 HRBA Membership Meeting

March 27, 2019

“Networking for Success” was the title of the presentation at the HR Bioscience Alliance (HRBA) March quarterly meeting hosted at Viela Bio.  This is an important topic for HRBA members given the state of the rapidly expanding market in the Biohealth Capital Region and the important role that HR plays in the successful growth of these companies.

The HRBA is a volunteer-run membership organization made up of in-house HR professionals, consultants, contractors and vendors that support and service the life sciences community.   For more than 20 years the organization has been a go-to resource to foster learning and development, provide input and feedback on industry practices, and to network and build valuable relationships with peers.

The HRBA meets quarterly to discuss important topics that are impacting HR in the biotech industry.  The goal of this quarter’s meeting was to help HRBA members to better utilize their networks during this challenging time of business growth in the biotech industry.  Many companies are experiencing substantial expansion for the first time, and the HRBA is becoming an increasingly important resource to those members.

Networking for Success’ Panelists

The ‘Networking for Success’ program featured presentations by Kate Surdez, Head of HR at Viela Bio, and Jessica Keliher, Head of People & Culture at Leadiant Biosciences. Surdez and Keliher both shared the stories of how their HR careers began and evolved into the roles they hold today. They each presented a business case for how they were able to successfully use their HR network to during times of growth or change at their companies.

Kate Surdez & the Viela Bio Business Case: Biotech Startup 

Kate Surdez started her career in sales and training integration before she eventually moved into HR with Pearson Education in New Jersey. She came to MD in 2005 as HR Business Partner for a young and rapidly growing biotech company, Medimmune. From there she moved on to Fugro, a Geo-data company, for a short time before she was recruited back to join MedImmune’s growing Operations team.  It was there that she became part of a world class HR organization and excelled her career to become global HR Director. When the opportunity presented itself in March 2018, Surdez joined Viela Bio as the fifth person in the company and the only person in HR.

Joining Viela as a start up meant she would need to quickly build out the HR functions, including compensation, benefits, and payroll on top of the HR strategy for growth.

“Using my network allowed me to prioritize and execute,” shared Surdez.

Kate Surdez

The network at work:

It was during the first days of Viela that Kate reconnected with the HRBA through long-standing Steering Committee member, Al Lichtenstein of HR Results.  With a vetted group of vendors, and a wide range of HR experience among members, many of whom have been through their own startups, the HRBA was the right network to be a part of.

Lichtenstein was immediately able to recommend Michele Stein, also on the HRBA Steering Committee, of Gallagher Benefits who does benefits across the board. It turns out that they also built the insurance program for MedImmune when it started so there was also an element of trust in them.  Lichtenstein also recommended Payroll Network to help with payroll.  Surdez, who had never done payroll, needed someone who would put in the time to walk her step-by-step through the process of what she needed to know to be credible and compliant in a short time. It turned out that Payroll Network was owned by a family friend, Charlie Wolf, so it was an easy first call.

To scale up, Viela Bio would need strong temp and contract partners along the way, she inlisted support from Dara Rappaport of Aerotek, who previosuly had parnterned with Kate on scale up activities in 2009 at Medimmune’s Frederick manufacturing site. Dara and Kate were able to quickly create the safety net for staffing and temp needs to support growth.  Surdez brought in Kunal Chadha of Nimbus Search Partners to help her understand organizational sizing and the local leadership market and to be a sounding board to check in with from time to time. 

After years at AstraZeneca and being internally focused, Surdez needed to switch her mindset and start thinking externally. As a small, new company they needed to make sure they could recruit people from the local community. “Having someone to help you think through what you look like from the outside and creating the right employer brand is a critical part of that,” Surdez shared.

After meeting again through the HRBA, Chris Frew with Workforce Genetics came in and helped in building out communication strategies, thinking about local community engagement, and developing the Viela employer brand. 

Surdez was able to bring in all of the knowledge and resources she needed for Viela Bio’s launch and growth. “The important thing to remember is that you have to trust who you know and who you can find when you need it,” shared Surdez. “Your network allows you to choose services that are vetted and well known.”

Jessica Keliher and the Leadiant Business Case: Massive amounts of rapid change

Jessica Keliher started her HR career in the manufacturing industry in upstate New York. She relocated to Rochester, NY to pursue her master’s degree and joined Klein Steel, a blue-collar, three shift environment, that provided her an opportunity for a tremendous amount of learning.  This was the role that showed her what was possible in the world of HR, and she became passionate about culture development in organizations.  After moving to Maryland she joined a small biotech company, Novavax, and got her first exposure to the biotech industry. Looking for more growth opportunity, she discovered Leadiant (Sigma-Tau at the time), where she has been ever since.

Keliher had been at Leadiant for three years and had seen a lot of changes, but nothing compared to what she would soon experience in the summer of 2015.  Just after taking her SPHR exam, Keliher received a call from the then head of HR informing her that she was resigning and would be gone in a week. Following her former Manager’s departure, Keliher was reporting the CEO of the company for only about a week when she was pulled into a conference room and told that the CEO was leaving the organization as well.  The very next week the new CEO was introduced. So, within three weeks time Keliher’s entire reporting structure had radically changed.

“I didn’t know what it was going to mean, for me and the organization, but I felt it could be a good opportunity for all of us,” shared Keliher.

After such a drastic change in a short period of time, the first objectives for the new CEO were to understand what the make-up of the organization and then develop the game plan on how to get where they wanted to go. The company was about 60 people at that time and they conducted a robust exercise to evaluate how the employees were working, feeling and what they needed. After this exercise and a few rounds of reorganization, the objective then switched to- “What do we want to create for ourselves here?”

The network at work:

Jessica Keliher

Keliher saw an opportunity to drive change and make a difference. She didn’t have a lot of direction but she couldn’t give up and knew she had to reach outside of the organization and into her network.

Keliher also knew Al Lichetensein from the HRBA and from his time at Novavax.  Keliher leaned on Lichtenstein’s expertise in HR operations to prepare a three-year talent strategy which was delivered as an executive summary to the board. It was well received.

The next step for the CEO was to do 360’s with the entire senior staff. Lichtenstein recommended another person within the HRBA committee – Lori Ermi of the The Ermi Group.  After doing the 360’s she brought in the Group Coaching Program which has turned into a transformational program for the organization. During this period of change in the company, Keliher also brought in Karen Snyder of Concordia Consulting, another HRBA referral, who helped with employee engagement survey’s, focus group development and knowing how to close the gap on the stated outcomes. 

The new programs were working great and the results were showing.

During this same period, one of their executives was in an unfortunate situation and needed a good coach.  Karen Snyder introduced Jessica to Alan Dobzinski of Accountability Experts. Alan worked with the executive for six months and there was a huge transformation. As a result, Alan has stayed involved for senior leadership retreats and they have adopted his system called, “Accountability with Care” which has now become the platform by which they are revamping their entire talent management and performance management processes in the organization. “I never pretend to have all of the answers and can always learn something from those I have worked with in the past,” shares Keliher. Everything they are doing at Leadiant is new to the organization and new to Keliher. Her advice; “Get to know who the experts are, and reach out to them to build a relationship before you need them,” shared Keliher. “The HRBA network has been a great vehicle to help me reach all of our organizations’ goals.”

Tips for Networking for Success

These two examples showed how HR leaders can utilize their networks to learn and get the resources they need during challenging times of growth or change in an organization.  In each situation, Jessica and Kate both took personal risk to take the path that they chose, recognizing that it could possibly not work out.  But they were driven by their own personal conviction and they knew there were resources in their networks to help them.

Here are some tips from HRBA members to network for success:

  1. Reconnect with the HRBA – it’s a group of trusted relationships. It doesn’t matter if you have been gone for a few years or if you’ve never been to a meeting. There is never a bad time to get involved.
  2. Be open to what people are recommending. You don’t always have to use the idea, but listen and don’t be closed off from the start.
  3. You don’t need to always be able to give something to ask for help.
  4. You’re not an expert, we are all just trying to figure out the next thing.
  5. Learn and develop yourself – know what you know, and know what you don’t know.
  6. Join Boards – both charity and professional.
  7. Lock your calendar twice a month for networking opportunities.
  8. Utilize the knowledge your vendors have. One HRBA vendor shared, “It’s not about what business can you throw my way, it’s about helping. Being viewed as responsive and trusted is what is important.”

We in the HRBA hope that you take Tip #1 seriously and reconnect with us to see first hand how your network can be a powerful driver of success in your career, and for your company.

Co-Written by:

Chris Frew
CEO, Workforce Genetics
Communications Chair, HRBA

Kathryn Flood
Practice Lead, Aerotek Scientific
Secretary, HRBA

This Post Has One Comment

  1. This is a wonderful article and I’m glad to be a part of the HRBA networking group and a part of Jessica Keliher’s team at Leadiant. You can never stop learning…

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