Editor’s note: We are delighted to have a guest series from Lynn Walder, an executive administrator with more than 20 years’ experience (including 10 years focused on biotech), and a passionate advocate of the executive-level business administration function. In this article, Lynn discusses how organizations can better integrate executive administrators into their operations. In my experience, the challenges a chief executive officer at a biotech company faces are no different than a principal investigator or division/department head faces as they try to establish or grow their research programs and highlight the value of integrating administration into a leadership team.
In the previous article, ‘Manager of the miscellaneous:’ why you need a business administration partner, we explored the evolution of the administrative function and how it translates value to a CEO, the extended leadership team, and the broader company by being the bridge between strategic vision and tactical executables (especially for projects that do not neatly fall into any of the traditional company-wide functions).
In this installment, we will explore how leadership (and the business entities themselves) must also change how they view, integrate and utilize the business administration partner role for optimal success within a scaling biotech start-up environment.
How can companies begin this process? My experiences at a number of small start-ups over the years have helped me categorize the change opportunities (which can be implemented via a step-stage process) into three distinct categories:
- Philosophical modifications (how leaders must view the role);
- Function structure recommendations (how the business must empower the role);
- Operational recommendations (how administrators themselves must empower the role)
For this article we will explore the first two categories (the third will be addressed in a future article).
The historical “Mad Men” stereotype of an administrator acting in a strictly secretarial role limited to purely calendaring, catering, and meetings management is no longer a reality. The day-to-day responsibilities of a business administration partner have become much more strategic and soft skills-driven than in years’ past. But the gap between perception of capabilities and the reality of assignment of responsibilities remains egregiously wide. So, the very first step in ensuring the successful integration of this position is to not only recognize it as a “cross-functional generalist role” versus a “narrowed tactical role,” but also to appropriately recruit on these broader role expectations as well.
To assist you on the first part of this process, I have created an open-sourced, evolved title and updated job description framework for the business administration function of the future. You can access, download and edit the materials here.
Function structure recommendations
Define “business administration” as a standalone function within your company.
Organizational design structures traditionally link all aspects of a business administration partner’s role (including budget, goal setting, and learning and development) to the CEO or executive manager with whom they partner, alongside the departmental function in which they work. This default link significantly minimizes the ability for administrators to advocate (in a collective manner) on behalf of this unique role (especially at the C-suite level). Administrators require a dedicated communications channel on how the strategic growth needs of administration feed into the future planning of the organization.
This is why I highly recommend setting up business administration as its own stand-alone function.
Below are some suggested organizational structure modifications that will assist with implementation:
Request that your internal HR representative (or external HR consultant) work with and advocate on behalf of business administrators as a grouped cohort.
Partnering business administration with an HR representative allows for a collective voice which translates into action-oriented advocacy on behalf of your business administration partner. From facilitating group goal-setting to discussing pro-active headcount requests during budget season, working with a dedicated HR champion would be another opportunity for updated structural alignment in support of your business administration partner(s).
Assign a dedicated yearly budget line item to administration
In my personal experience over the years, administrative headcount resourcing has always been a reactive exercise when one or more administrators were on the verge of burnout. The business administration function should be proactively reviewed and resourced during budget season just as any other company function (R&D, legal, HR, communications, etc.) would be. Your thoughtful integration will not only support the mental health of your business administrators, but it will also support smoother scaling of your company as well.
Integrate an evolved onboarding checklist specifically tailored to executive-level, business administration needs.
Given the business administration partner role is that of a cross-functional generalist, who acts on behalf of the CEO (and many times, broader executive leadership team), it is critical to set this new team member up for success on Day 1 (if not earlier). From my own experiences of being the first business administrator to join several start-up companies – outside of a laptop, an email address and a few introductory one-on-ones – I have usually been left on my own to seek out critical information that allows me to do the job I was hired for (and to do it at the level of a true strategic executive-level partner).
This is why it is important to integrate a supplemental, yet formalized, onboarding checklist that caters specifically to the unique needs of the administrative function within your company. From copies of previous board materials and confidential pitch decks to IT power-user training and access to facilities lease agreements, your business administration partner will require much more than just delegate access to your calendar. To help with a beginning list, I have created an editable version for you to download HERE.
By having this support within the first days of being hired, more immediate and positive impact can be delivered, and parity of performance expectations for the function are explicitly set from a place of proactive planning for the role (instead of a reactionary “figure it out” approach).
For CEOs and their company’s hyper-growth scaling needs, a mindful reassessment and integration of the evolved administration role (supported by mechanisms of accountability attached to administration when structured as a standalone function) will be key to leveraging the highest potential “stratactical” support from your soon to be hired business administration partner.
In our next and final article, we will explore the aligned growth and development of your business administration partners as your biotech continues to scale.