GUEST COLUMN: Does Size Kill Culture? Prothena Doesn???t Think So

December 12, 2014

By Kevin Hickey, Head of Human Resources, Prothena

“Size kills culture.” – Anonymous

“Businesses often forget about the culture, and ultimately, they suffer for it because you can’t deliver good service from unhappy employees.” Tony Hsieh, CEO of online retailer

It’s often been said that size kills culture. And, some businesses do forget about culture and its impact on their employees-–until it impacts the top and bottom lines.

As the head of human resources for Prothena Corporation plc (PRTA) Prothena, a clinical-stage biotech that was spun-out of Elan in late 2012 with 30 employees, culture plays a critical role in our present and future success. Over the last two years we’ve grown significantly, advancing an active pipeline of novel monoclonal antibodies focused on amyloid and cell adhesion.

We have moved from a pre-clinical company with 30 employees at inception, to a late-stage clinical company with more than 45 employees today. Hiring assumptions for 2015 and beyond will most certainly move headcount numbers even higher.

But, growth presents challenges, as every new employee brings their own past experiences, working style and personality. The biggest challenge we face with recruiting is not adding the right talent at the right time – to match our evolving business needs–but rather ensuring that the talent we do bring into the business adds value to the business while also maintaining or enhancing our culture (clearly not subtracting from it!).

While hiring a team with the requisite clinical and pre-commercial skills to successfully move our business forward is important, protecting our company culture, staying true to our core values (creative—courageous—selfless), and ensuring the right fit of each new employee remain at the forefront of our hiring practices.

We have an active plan in place to protect our unique culture as we grow. Specifically, we focus on core values during the recruiting process, we prioritize two-way communication with the executive team at all levels of the organization and we emphasize mutual respect.

Highlighting core values during all interviews focuses each potential employee on the importance of culture. In addition to investigating prior work experiences and technical acumen, interviewers probe candidates for examples of creativity, courageousness or selflessness in the past. If we do not hear active illustrations of these qualities, we simply won’t hire someone–full stop.

Once hired, we believe that communication between all levels of the organization remains a core tenet of our operations. We operate a fairly flat organization in terms of reporting structure and we encourage employees at all levels to raise questions or concerns not just to their manager, but to those within the C-suite. Further, leadership communicates frequently about company goals, business progress, growth plans and expectations – which creates a tremendous sense of accountability across the entire organization. As we continue to grow, we have active plans in place to maintain open doors and encourage cross-team communication as an integral component of our culture.

From the time an employee joins Prothena, mutual respect is imperative. In a small company, every role matters, and every employee may be required to wear multiple hats. We work hard and play hard, and expect our colleagues to be in the trenches with us. Sub-par performance or a lack of demonstrable values becomes exposed quickly in our fast-moving, high-performance environment.

The culture we have created exudes shared priorities and encourages productive disagreements, so that the whole becomes more than the sum of its parts. There is “no place to hide” for a sub-par performer or someone that doesn’t display our core values. As such, employees develop a significant amount of admiration and mutual respect for what every role–and every person–brings to the greater collective whole. This creates good comradery across the R&D and G&A sides of the organization, and overall it fosters good communication, collaboration, trust and teamwork. As we grow, we focus on maintaining this attitude.

We believe that size will not kill our culture. Our employees, at all levels of the organization, lead by example and continue to emphasize the important aspects of our unique culture as we advance our pipeline of innovative monoclonal antibodies toward commercialization.

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