Say the word biotech and many people automatically think of British Biotechnology, the City favourite that fell spectacularly to earth two years ago after its head of research, Andrew Millar, publicly doubted the company's claims about its hotly tipped cancer drug, Marimastat.
The debacle descended into acrimony, Millar was sacked, and the share price plummeted.
Such a scenario is unlikely to unfold at Profile Therapeutics, a West Sussex-based company pioneering a new method of aerosol drug delivery, which floated on the Stock Exchange at the end of March. Three years ago, with a flotation and the launch of a new product range in the offing, Profile's chief executive Mark Kirby took the unusual step of calling in clinical psychologist Ido van der Heijden to help build a stronger management team. Most CEOs would have blanched at the idea, opting instead for the 'safer' alternative of an outward-bound course in Snowdonia to get the chaps and chapesses pulling together in the same direction.
Profile's directors, however, believe that bringing in a psychologist has given each of them greater self-awareness and a better understanding of their colleagues, and that this has paid rich dividends in terms of their ability to work together as a team.
Kirby had the idea after leading a management buy-out of Profile's main operating company, Medic-Aid, in 1994. 'After the buy-out, I found there was no-one in the company to talk to. Until then, I'd been number two and, in that situation, there is always somebody else to set the objectives.' Kirby joined a group called The Executive Committee, where chief executives could discuss the issues troubling them with their peers. Van der Heijden was a speaker at one of the group's monthly sessions.
Van der Heijden was born in Holland, where he trained as a clinical psychologist.
Coming to England in 1979, he was asked by a Unilever subsidiary to assist in developing the personal skills of some of its key employees. Cranfield School of Management heard about his work and asked him to run its programme of developing interpersonal skills; projects for a wide range of corporate clients, including Thames Valley Police, BT and Visa International, followed.
Kirby and Van der Heijden initially had one-to-one sessions. 'It was really about my personal development,' says Kirby. 'I wanted to ensure that my own objectives were aligned with the objectives for the business.' According to van der Heijden, the chief executive was experiencing doubts about his exact role in the company: 'I remember that at one point you connected with the fact that your role was to provide an environment where people could flourish.'
At first preoccupied with his own aspirations, Kirby realised he needed to focus on Profile's management team and find ways to help them work together. Van der Heijden's brief was expanded.
The psychologist's technique is to look for 'limiting patterns' in each of the individuals he is working with. In his own words, this is 'a pattern, behaviour or attitude that each person develops as a way of coping with difficult situations'. For example, one individual may become distant and cerebral when put under pressure. In the boardroom, that may be a good strategy, he says, but if you adopt that approach with your wife it would disastrous. Problems arise because people are often unconscious of their limiting patterns and so their free choice becomes restricted in difficult situations.
His aim is not just to describe each individual's limiting pattern, but to identify its origin. 'What I do is provide an opportunity for them to tell their story,' he says. Typically, each employee has a one-to-one session with the psychologist, during which van der Heijden hopes to find out about their aspirations, how they see themselves, and why they believe they behave in the way they do. This is followed by a group session, in which each employee talks about themselves, telling their life story, and a discussion ensues in which colleagues can ask questions or make their own observations. They may end up seeing the person in a completely new light.
'By looking at limiting patterns,' he explains, 'we are inviting people to re-connect with why they have developed in the way they have. There may be a very good reason for their behaviour. For example, boarding school comes up frequently. People who have been sent away as young as six years old may develop strong coping patterns but find it very difficult to make themselves vulnerable. They may find it difficult to be sensitive or empathetic.'
Jonathan Denyer, Profile's technical director, was one of eight directors and managers who in early 1997 took part in the first two-day sessions at a country house hotel with van der Heijden. 'Jon's role is as the brain behind the development of the company's products,' says the psychologist, 'so he tends to focus on things, rather than people. He had a reputation for walking in at the start of the day without saying good morning. During our sessions, he had the opportunity to explain to colleagues how he works.'
Says Denyer: 'It is always difficult to get an idea of how other people perceive you, but when you sit down and they are all saying the same thing, you realise that that really is how people see you.' He believes that the sessions led to a greater acceptance of his personality.
Another member of the team, operations director Simon Shaw, adds: 'From a team perspective, you realise that your limiting patterns define the effect that you have on other people's performance. For example, when I am under stress, my response is to become very active, very strong, but that means if someone else has a good idea it may not come out because they are overwhelmed by me.'
Shaw, a former merchant banker who joined the company in 1997, describes the understanding gained from the group sessions as 'a short cut to 30 years of going to the pub after work'.
Subjecting yourself to this kind of personal scrutiny by your colleagues might seem an alarming prospect. For one thing, there may be the fear that, by opening up about your background and innermost feelings, you risk losing respect or, worse, exposing weaknesses that might be exploited. But van der Heijden insists that such fears are unfounded and the more people come to understand their colleagues, the greater respect they tend to develop for them. 'In 23 years, I can only think of one occasion where somebody abused what they had learned, by talking about it to others,' he says.
Most people like the idea of talking to a psychologist, he believes. 'Who doesn't want to talk about themselves for a couple of hours?'
But as a manager, does empathising with your colleagues make it harder to sack them? 'No,' says Kirby, 'you just do it differently. We had to deal with exactly that situation, and what you find is that, because you have a more open communication, it shouldn't come as a surprise. They will be aware that they are not meeting their objectives, and there is a more open process, so you end up causing less damage. We are trying to maximise our day-to-day performance in order to minimise the probability of ever having to get rid of anyone.'
Three groups of managers at Profile have now undergone van der Heijden's programme. In each case, the immediate result has been a greatly increased level of interaction. According to the company's directors, it has not made them better friends or more likely to socialise outside work. What it has achieved, says Kirby, is to instil an atmosphere of openness among those who work at the company that is sustainable. This openness is appreciated by many of those who are interviewed for jobs there, he adds, and has in turn become an important criterion in the selection process.
Van der Heijden talks in terms of building a culture. 'The kind of culture I am talking about is defined by how people behave together, the nature of relationships in the firm - not just sitting down and brainstorming to come up with some mission statements.'
Although agreeing that van der Heijden's work has helped them to perform better as a team, Profile's directors say this is not so much because individuals have modified their behaviour as because colleagues understand each other much better. 'Acceptance is more important than change,' says Denyer, 'because your ability to change is limited. But the change that happens goes on for longer, because of the amount of trust that has been generated.'
For the time being, van der Heijden's work at the company is finished.
'So far, the effects of the work have been sustained,' says Kirby, 'but we would certainly consider bringing Ido back as new members join the team.' Self-awareness, he says, is something you can't forget. Once you've got it, it's with you for good.
PSYCHOLOGY OF TEAM-BUILDING
- Set ground rules for the group sessions. Anybody can ask any question, but an individual should be allowed not to answer. Don't push things too far.
- Lead by example. Don't tell your subordinates they have to open up if you're not prepared to do so yourself.
- Keep the sessions simple. Don't have more than two immediate levels of reporting hierarchy in the group. 'Some may be more nervous if their boss's boss is also present,' says van der Heijden. Six to eight people is ideal.
- Clear the air. Don't start if there are unresolved performance issues.
If a boss is heavily criticised by his team, or a member of the team is badly underperforming, group team-building sessions are not the best place for the issue to surface. Better tackle these issues first.
- Don't video or tape the sessions - the tape could fall into the wrong hands. You can always take a written log, which is subsequently given to the individual under discussion.
- Choose a neutral setting. Don't try to work in the same office, or let people go home halfway through.