Mentoring and Leadership at Biogen Czech Republic

I have been involved in the pharmaceutical industry since 1995. Between 2010–2017, I was Country Director of Biogen, Czech Republic. Since 2011, I have held the position of Vice President of the Association of Innovative Pharmaceutical Industry. In 2017-2019, I led the international team responsible for a specific therapeutic area in Central/Eastern Europe. Currently, I am Director of Patient Advocacy for Canada/Europe/Partner Markets in Spinal muscular atrophy, a member of Biogen’s Global Corporate Affairs team.

In my career in the pharmaceutical industry, I have built and led several successful teams, launched new drugs, and initiated some projects that have a broader social impact.

In my spare time, I am engaged in mentoring. Among my topics belong collaboration and equal opportunities in the sense of effectively connecting talents from different groups, equal opportunities for women and men, and older and younger generations.

I would never allow myself to advise anyone, I only share my experience when someone asks me to, at work and outside. I’m happy when my experience helps someone, saves them time, puts them in the right direction, where the person will be satisfied and successful. Finding a way and making mistakes are however very important processes by which one learns the most. Ideally, the leader or mentor directs and creates sideboards between which the mentee can find their way. But we do not always have enough time to do so or the right supporting learning environment.

According to Wikipedia, a mentor is usually a more experienced or older person who takes care of a younger and less experienced persons (mentee), is their support and adviser, helping them to get to know themself, their potential and their abilities better. I would add from my own experience that the role can be intertwined for the benefit of both. When I mentor, I also really learn a lot from my mentees. I agree that the mentor should be an observer, a model, a feedback provider, an equal partner.

I work from the Czech Republic, but I have been in an international position for more than a year. Therefore, I focus not only on the environment of the Czech biotechnology industry as in the past. Currently, I mentor more in my free time within projects such as Equilibrium, organized by the British Chamber of Commerce, or Equal Pay Day, a project organized by Business & Professional Women Czech Republic, of which I am a member. It’s my “social responsibility” project. I most often mentor women (but not only women) of various professions and ages, beginner entrepreneurs, young women looking for their way after graduation, managers from corporations, including pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies. Several themes often resonate. For example, how to combine work and caring for the family in an environment that still sees women in the traditional role of a housewife. How to find time for self-education, how to find one’s WHY. How to assert oneself as a woman in a male world. It is not common everywhere for women and men to be given the same opportunities, for talent, experience and motivation at work and not gender to decide. According to surveys, women in the Czech Republic often face pay inequalities. They get a lower salary than men for the same work.

I have been lucky that I have always worked in corporations for which equal opportunities and remuneration according to performance and experience are a matter of course. I am grateful for that, and I try to help women who have not been given such an opportunity as I have had.

But back to the innovative, biotechnology industry in the Czech Republic, and my experience with mentoring.

I perceive the field of biotechnology within the pharmaceutical industry as a specific area. In the Czech Republic, the availability of innovative treatments has significantly improved in recent years. However, not all patients receive the most effective treatment. The system for the reimbursement of medicines is generally relatively complicated and there are frequent changes, the legislation for the availability of so-called orphan drugs for rare diseases is still being negotiated. Thanks to various criteria, doctors no longer have the only decisive say in the process of choosing the most suitable therapy for patients. This situation is placing increasing demands on pharmaceutical companies in general. They must understand the complicated environment, the ever-changing legislation, the pharmaco-economics, constantly study and adapt to changes and new situations. They must understand cooperation with the many groups of stakeholders who are part of the environment and decision-making processes in the healthcare environment. They must learn to work with new communication technologies, but most importantly they must continuously educate themselves in the medical field in which they operate. Biotechnology companies are even more often bringing innovative drugs for previously incurable diseases to the market. It is necessary to pay close attention to the often very complicated innovative mechanism of action of a drug, to continuously acquaint oneself with the results of a number of studies, to pass on this information in the highest possible quality to experts such as doctors, pharmacists, payers and regulatory bodies, for whom this information is often new. Biotechnology companies often communicate with patient organizations as disease experts. The views of patient organizations are important for the development of further drugs.

From what I describe, it follows that the demands on the employees of biotechnology companies are great and it would be ideal to have experts in each area. But biotech companies are often smaller, often launched as start-ups. They do not have a broad portfolio, they cannot employ many specialists in individual areas. In addition, in some areas such as market access or cooperation with patient organizations, there are not enough people with the necessary experience in the market. Many positions are outsourced. The reality is that an employee is hired for a certain position, but gradually is forced to cover a much wider area. But as the saying goes, a challenge is an opportunity. To learn new things, be part of teams that often bring revolutionary innovations to healthcare.

When I was looking for employees for Biogen, I had all these facts in mind. I was looking for people who, with their talents, experience, but mainly motivation, corresponded as much as possible to the profile of the given area. From the very beginning, I openly communicated the fact that it would be necessary to constantly learn professional information and technical skills, that we were a small team, and that we had to work closely and communicate as a team. That we needed to be substitutable, ready for frequent changes. And that it would probably sometimes be necessary to work beyond the job description. In return, I offered work in an excellent company with excellent medicines that bring help to seriously ill patients. The opportunity to learn new things and thus be prepared for new job challenges in the future. I tried very hard to implement the principles of modern leadership – employee involvement in decision-making, space and trust in their own problem handling, teamwork, a culture of feedback and listening.

Especially with young employees, I observed that rather than financial rewards, they are motivated by meaningful work, the chance of self-fulfilment, flexible working hours, home office options, and what is most important, through words of recognition from colleagues and superiors, the experience of being a member of a successful team. These are, for example, great drivers for millennials, who usually look for meaning in everything they devote their time to. For them, money is usually not the most important motivation.

Many of the employees came with good professional knowledge and technical skills, experience from other areas of the pharmaceutical industry or directly from biotechnologies. They are usually ready to undergo further education. Sometimes they were too specialized and focused on one direction. I tried to help them see things in context, from above, from the perspective of various stakeholders. To look for higher meaning, to make one’s own specific input.

According to research in graduates from one Czech university, the prevailing opinion among them was that school equipped them theoretically, but entirely failed to prepare them for practical employment. To tackle complicated interpersonal situations, manage people and projects, handle crises, etc. I must say that experience has often confirmed this to me.

To improve the skills and knowledge of team members, we used specialized courses and lectures by external experts in the given areas, or together we found mentors from the ranks of experienced colleagues within the company, local or abroad. We always tried to connect the requirements of the position with the person who had the best preconditions for it thanks to their experience and skills.

In my mentoring, I focused more on soft areas, effective communication, change management, conflict resolution, prioritization, we paid a lot of attention to leadership and its aspects, combining demanding work and private life, together we created the values and rules of culture in our Czech branch. Feeling like a member of a team and sharing the same values connected and motivated my colleagues a lot. Together we have created a culture of feedback and active listening.

I tried to ensure that young and older team members, women and men, respect each other, look for each other’s strengths and try to find ways to work together as effectively as possible. People most often leave companies due to interpersonal disagreements or when they do not feel rewarded.

Of course, everyone is individual, everyone has different interests and motivations. That must be respected, but at the same time it is the task of the leader to connect strong individuals and lead them to common success as a team. In addition, it is necessary to maintain excellent talents, know their motivations, help them with personal development. I think that managers should pay more attention to employees than to operations, because the loss of a complete skilled employee has great implications for business results and team stability. And we cannot afford such losses in today’s fast and very competitive times.

About the author

Michaela Hrdlickova

Michaela Hrdlickova

Biogen, Director Patient Advocacy Europe/Canada/Partner Markets, SMA

Michaela has been involved in the pharmaceutical industry since 1995. Between 2010–2017, she was Country Director of Biogen, Czech Republic. Since 2011 I has held the position of Vice President of the Association of Innovative Pharmaceutical Industry. In 2017-2019, Michaela led the international team responsible for a specific therapeutic area in Central/Eastern Europe. Currently, Michaela is the Director of Patient Advocacy for Canada/Europe/Partner Markets in Spinal muscular atrophy, a member of Biogen’s Global Corporate Affairs team.

Michaela is considered as an expert in the field of biotechnology, in the pharmaceutical industry and in work with patient organizations.

In Michaela’s career in the pharmaceutical industry, she has built and led several very successful teams, launched several new drugs, and initiated several projects that have had a broader social impact. Michaela strengths are negotiation and the ability to find ways to solve often very complicated situations. She passes on her vision to the people in her teams. She listen to them and give them confidence and space to realize themselves.

Michaela is a member of Business Professional Women. She regularly cooperate as a mentor at Equal Pay Day, activities promoting cooperation and equal opportunities for women and men, older and younger generations.

Michaela is the initiator of the project of the Academy of Patient Organizations (APO), which has been very successfully implemented by AIFP (Association of Innovative Pharmaceutical Industry) since 2011. This project has helped many patient organizations to become independent, professional and respected partners of healthcare institutions.

In the years 2016 - 2020, Michaela repeatedly ranked among the finalists in the TOP Women ranking organized by the Economia publishing house. In 2019, 2020, she was listed among the most influential women in the Czech Republic according to Forbes magazine.

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