Roundtable Review

Hightable with Roche’s Thomas Schinecker: Fast-tracking up the life science management ladder
Posted 18 September '13

Dr. Thomas Schinecker is a shining example of how a Ph.D. trained scientist can quickly ascend through the ranks within the life science industry. Dr. Schinecker received his Ph.D. in Biochemistry from New York University in 2003. He then joined Roche’s prestigious Perspectives Program. This program put Dr. Schinecker on the fast track to upper management at Roche by exposing him to various aspects of Roche’s business operations while simultaneously teaching him key leadership skills. Following the Perspectives Program, Dr. Schinecker became the Head of Marketing and Sales in Roche Austria, the General Manager of Roche Sweden, the President and CEO of Roche subsidiary 454 Life Sciences and now the General Manager of Roche Diagnostics in Germany.

Thomas Schinecker, Roche

Thomas Schinecker, Roche

OBR’s Scott Schachtele had the opportunity to talk with Dr. Schinecker about how he excelled up the ranks of life science management, his experience in the Perspectives Program at Roche, and his opinion on how science trainees can best approach a transition from academia into industry.

When you entered Graduate School at NYU did you envision a career for yourself in industry?

When I joined NYU I did not have a very good idea of my future options. As a result I did not envision a career in the industry at that time. My advice for current graduate students would be to seek out a mentor very early in their career that can help them understand their options. During my time at NYU I saw what it was like doing academic-based research and also, through other connections, I received a broad sense of how the biotech industry works. Drawing from these experiences, it was very clear to me that I was going into industry after my Ph.D.

What experiences shaped your decision to pursue life science management rather than a more “wet-lab” career within the private sector?

It was clear to me that I wanted to combine my scientific knowledge with business. There are different types of people: those who are extremely good at and are happy doing research and development, and those who are more suitable for business and perform well in that environment. Both jobs are very interesting but it really depends on the individual to determine which job is more suitable for them. It was clear to me that I wanted to pursue the business side of science. There are a couple of reasons for this: I like a very dynamic and fast environment where results are seen quickly. In the research environment you have to be more patient because it often takes a while to actually see results. I am definitely not the patient type.  In addition to that, I like interacting with people. This is integral for business and management.

You are an alumni of Roche’s Perspectives Program, can you give us a brief description of the program?

This program is looking externally for candidates with significant management potential that are at a very early stage in their career. The people should be mobile and quite diverse in background. Within the Perspectives Program you have 4 rotations, each six months. During this time you work in different parts of the world and within different business areas of Roche. This primes you to gather as much as experience as quickly as you can as well as providing a good overview of the company.

How did you learn about the Perspectives Program?

I found out about the program through people in the industry. First, I was interested in Roche. Looking at the company and what it has to offer I was then informed by representatives at Roche that the Perspectives Program would be very suitable for my interests. I then looked at the program and knew that this is what I wanted to do. The experience I gained through the Perspectives Program helped refine my career path because my interests within the business was different before I started the program than after I finished. This was because I got a better overview and acquired a better understanding of what parts of the business fit my strengths the best.

Did you start the program with any management experience? What kinds of challenges did you experience in the program and how did you address those challenges?

In terms of the Perspectives Program, management experience is not necessarily needed, although it can be a benefit. Within the program you run projects and often lead teams in matrix. There are certain indirect leadership styles that you learn in the program to accomplish that.

The most leadership learning I had occurred very early after exiting the Perspectives Program when I had the opportunity to lead a small team. In general I always follow the rule: Treat people the way I want to be treated.

Your tenure during the Perspectives Program was pivotal to launching your career in life science management, can you talk about how the program helped solidify that trajectory?

There are a number of factors in the program that are beneficial. The first is that you see different perspectives of the company. That helps you learn the business faster. Within the four rotations of the Perspectives Program there are four very steep learning curves.

The second factor is the expansion of your network. The Perspectives Program helps its trainees get connected much more throughout the four rotations compared to someone who stays at the home-site for most of their career. In big companies, if you want to push things forward, if you want to get things done it is great to be able to pick up the phone and talk to people you know directly. These people can help you get things accomplished. And I’m talking just about knowing senior leadership – not all the decisions are made by senior leadership – but making sure you get to know people who are located at different parts within the company.

What managerial tactics did you learn in the Perspectives Program that you still employ today?

Within the Perspectives Program I learned more about how Roche operates and the people within the company, than I learned about leadership itself. Most of my leadership experience was acquired at positions following the Perspective Program. One of the main things that I learned was to lead each individual differently, and it is important to recognize that and adapt your leadership style to the individual or group. You also need to recognize that, as you begin to manage larger groups, the size of the group forces you to adapt your leadership style because otherwise it becomes very difficult to manage.

Also, it is important to understand that people want to make decisions and they want to be in charge of their decisions. So, as a leader you have to delegate and empower them to do so. This is very important because otherwise they get de-motivated.

What can current graduate students and postdocs do to build up their management skills to make them more attractive to companies like Roche?

One part is, if they can do it, getting a business degree in addition to a science degree. Then you have the perfect combination. You can always learn the business aspect when you join a company but ideally you bring it with you early on in your career. When Roche hires people with business training, those employees ultimately have to learn the science side of the company. Similarly, if Roche hires a science-trained person, they have to learn the business side of the company. If you can bring in both from the start then you are in an advantageous position.

Also, bringing a diverse background – different experiences and different cultures – is always something that we are looking for at Roche.

The National Institute for Health has acknowledged the need for broader scientific career training for graduate students and postdoctoral fellows. In your opinion, should academic institutes incorporate industry related coursework into their Ph.D. training programs?

Having been a graduate student before, the viewpoint I had of industry at the time was not the reality of the situation. So yes, it would be very beneficial for students in training for the scientific disciplines to get better training for the industry.

You are now General Manager of Roche Germany, what are your main goals?

The main overarching goal is to have a successful company combined with satisfied employees. It sounds easier than it is. In an economic environment like in Europe at the moment, the market demand is lagging and at the same time the cost of doing business is rising. You can only counter that by growing much faster than the markets by managing the costs appropriately.

At this point in your career what excites you more: the science side of business or the business side of science? How does that influence your strategic decisions as General Manager?

Something that I really love about this job is the combination of both. I like the fast pace of business and the interaction with customers, with patients, with employees. For me personally, moving into an R&D field within the industry is not as attractive as being on the business side.

Are you still involved in the Perspectives Program?

Yes. I meet with current Perspectives trainees, both physically and through telephone conferences regularly. I also have phone calls from Perspectives when they want to discuss their situation and need support.

What advice do you have for young scientists embarking on the bioscience/biotechnology management career path?

If you want to go into business, then move as early in your career as you can into industry and get leadership experience early. Also, having a diverse background – especially a mix of science and business training – is always good to have if you want to go into industry.

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