In the life sciences sector, where the competition for talent is fierce and the stakes are high, the ability to engage and retain skilled professionals is crucial. Insights from Kate O’Brien, an accomplished HR consultant with a deep background in HR, change management, and organizational effectiveness, paired with perspectives from Adam Kaner, Sr. VP of RPO and Project Management at PharmaLogics Recruiting, provide a comprehensive overview of effective strategies for enhancing employee engagement and retention.

Strategic Hiring as a Cornerstone

The path to sustained employee engagement in life sciences begins with the process of strategic hiring the moment the candidate enters the funnel. O’Brien stresses that understanding a candidate goes beyond a glance at their resume; it’s about discerning their fit within the fabric of the company’s culture and values. 

“Companies that excel in bringing in the right kind of people have a streamlined process where each interviewer knows exactly what to ask, ensuring a rounded picture of the candidate emerges,” O’Brien elaborates. 

This approach mitigates the risk of costly hiring errors by ensuring candidates are evaluated not just on their technical skills but on how well they resonate with the organizational ethos.

Kaner echoes this sentiment, emphasizing the integral role of engagement in team development and retention. “It’s all about retaining your team and developing them. Engagement is critical,” Kaner observes, highlighting the reciprocal relationship between strategic hiring and ongoing employee engagement. 

Engagement from the First Interaction

From the first interaction, potential employees should feel the company’s commitment to its values. From crafting job descriptions to structuring interview questions, each step should be imbued with the organization’s core values, creating a cohesive narrative that resonates with potential employees. 

“Embedding company values from the job description to the interview process has been highly effective. It communicates a clear message to prospective employees about what we stand for, drawing in those who share our values,” O’Brien explains. This strategic alignment ensures that from the first interaction, candidates feel a sense of belonging and purpose, pivotal for fostering initial engagement.

By prioritizing a fit with company values and establishing a sense of connection to the company’s mission from the outset, life sciences companies can create a strong foundation for retaining and developing their teams, crucial for achieving long-term success and innovation.

Leadership’s Role in Driving Engagement

In the realm of creating and sustaining a deeply engaged workforce, the influence of leadership cannot be overstated. O’Brien delivers a candid assessment of the criticality of authentic leadership in fostering engagement: “If the leader is not walking the talk, it’s lipstick on a pig.” This analogy sharply emphasizes the disconnect that occurs when leaders espouse values they themselves do not adhere to, leading to superficial attempts at engagement that fail to resonate with employees.

Expanding on this notion, O’Brien suggests that the true measure of leadership’s commitment to engagement is reflected in their daily actions and decisions. “Leaders must embody the values and culture of the organization in every decision they make and every action they undertake. When employees see their leaders as paragons of the company’s values, it naturally engenders a sense of trust and motivation,” she explains. This visible commitment from the top acts as a powerful catalyst for fostering a culture where engagement is not merely encouraged but woven into the very fabric of the organizational ethos.

Kaner reiterates the importance of leadership in igniting a culture of engagement. He points out, “Great leadership creates a trickle-down effect of engagement throughout the organization.” Kaner’s observation highlights the cascading impact of leadership behavior on the organization’s overall engagement levels. When leaders actively demonstrate the values they champion, it sets a powerful example for the rest of the organization, encouraging managers and team members alike to follow suit.

Further elaborating on the practical aspects of leadership-driven engagement, O’Brien discusses the necessity for leaders to engage in meaningful dialogue with their teams. “Leaders should regularly check in with their employees, not just about the tasks at hand but about their aspirations, challenges, and how they feel about their place within the company. These conversations signal to employees that their leaders are genuinely invested in their well-being and professional growth,” she advises. This approach not only strengthens the bonds within teams but also aligns individual aspirations with the company’s goals, driving deeper engagement and loyalty.

The role of leadership in driving engagement is both profound and multifaceted. Through authentic behavior, meaningful interactions, and a commitment to accountability, leaders have the power to cultivate an environment where engagement thrives. When leaders lead by example, they lay the groundwork for a culture of engagement that permeates every level of the organization, fueling its success and innovation.

Beyond Hiring: Fostering Continuous Engagement

O’Brien passionately advocates for the creation of personalized development pathways as a cornerstone of sustained employee engagement, emphasizing the transformative power of asking employees, in a genuine one-on-one setting, what is truly meaningful to them. “This kind of dialogue is a potent tool for retention. It shows employees that their personal and professional growth is a priority and that the company is willing to invest in their future,” O’Brien explains. This approach not only bolsters retention but also enriches the company culture with a sense of individual care and attention to employee aspirations.

Kaner stresses the necessity of maintaining an open line of dialogue regarding career aspirations and growth opportunities. “True engagement is a journey, not a destination. It requires an ongoing dialogue and commitment beyond the initial hiring phase,” he notes. 

Rethinking Engagement Surveys

The traditional reliance on engagement surveys comes under scrutiny from both O’Brien and Kaner. O’Brien articulates a preference for a more nuanced and interactive approach to gauge employee sentiment. “Engagement surveys often miss the subtleties of what employees are actually feeling and thinking. A conversational approach allows for a deeper understanding, where non-verbal cues like body language and tone provide additional context,” she remarks. This perspective challenges the status quo, advocating for methods that foster genuine connections and insights.

Echoing this sentiment, Kaner highlights the limitations of engagement surveys, particularly their potential to create a disconnect between management and the workforce. He argues for the cultivation of a culture where feedback is an organic part of the daily workflow. “Creating an environment where feedback is continuously welcomed and acted upon ensures that employees feel heard and valued. This can significantly enhance the sense of engagement across the organization,” Kaner points out.

Both O’Brien and Kaner’s insights pivot towards a future where employee engagement is fostered through meaningful interactions and a culture of continuous feedback. By moving beyond traditional methods and focusing on personalized development and open dialogue, companies can create a more engaged and committed workforce. This approach not only enhances retention but also contributes to a vibrant and dynamic organizational culture, essential for thriving in the competitive landscape of the life sciences sector.

Practical Steps for Implementing Engagement

O’Brien emphasizes the need for tangible, actionable strategies to foster a culture of engagement within organizations. She introduces innovative tools like question cards for managers, designed to facilitate meaningful conversations around growth and development. 

“These question cards serve as a guide for managers to engage in deeper discussions with their team members, exploring areas of interest, aspirations, and potential growth paths within the company,” O’Brien explains. She also champions the practice of quarterly check-ins, which shift the focus from compensation to personal and professional development. This, according to O’Brien, is where the real value of engagement lies – in recognizing and investing in the growth of employees.

Kaner adds perspective on the importance of these practices, “By ensuring that employees are consistently given opportunities to develop new skills and are acknowledged for their contributions, we lay the groundwork for a more engaged, committed workforce.” He sees these methods as fundamental to nurturing a sense of belonging among employees, which is essential for a productive and innovative work environment.

Culture of Continuous Engagement

O’Brien goes further to outline the necessity of integrating these strategies into a broader culture of continuous engagement. “It’s about creating an ecosystem within the organization where engagement is woven into the very fabric of our daily operations,” she states. This involves everyone from leadership to entry-level employees in a collective effort to maintain an environment where feedback, growth, and development are prioritized.

To solidify this culture, O’Brien suggests that organizations must be diligent in recognizing and celebrating achievements and milestones, large and small. “Celebration and recognition are powerful tools in reinforcing a culture of engagement. They remind employees that their efforts are seen, valued, and essential to the organization’s success,” she notes. This practice encourages a positive feedback loop, where recognition breeds further engagement and innovation.

The synthesis of insights from O’Brien and Kaner underscores a fundamental truth: the journey to cultivating a culture of engagement in the life sciences sector is continuous and multifaceted. It demands strategic hiring practices, leadership that embodies and promotes company values, investment in employee development, and a commitment to open, two-way communication. By embedding these principles into the organizational DNA, life sciences companies can foster a dynamic and engaged workforce. This, in turn, positions them to attract and retain the talent necessary to drive innovation and growth, ensuring their competitive edge in the fast-paced and ever-evolving landscape of the life sciences sector.

About Kate O’Brien

With 25 years in HR, change management, and organizational effectiveness (OE) roles, Kate O’Brien is the founder of O’Brien HR Consulting, LLC, focused on designing and implementing elegant people interventions and HR systems that allow employees to thrive and companies to achieve their goals. Kate holds a B.S. degree in industrial and labor relations from Cornell University, and an M.S. in organizational psychology from William James College.

About Adam Kaner

Adam Kaner is a Senior Vice President of RPO and Project Management at PharmaLogics Recruiting. He has over 15 years of recruiting experience in Life Sciences, with over 14 years at PharmaLogics. Adam has provided recruitment support across North America and the EU, partnering with companies from seed-funded startups through big pharma, on individual searches through large-scale build-outs. He has a Bachelor’s in Business Administration with a focus in Healthcare Management from the University of Connecticut.