Creating Success and being one of the “Best Workplaces” for Wellbeing, for Women and overall by “Great Place to Work”

Share this article on...

In Conversation with Richard White

In Conversation with Richard White

Dr Richard White is the Chief Operating Officer of Oxford PharmaGenesis, the country’s largest independently owned Health Science communications consultancy. Founded in 1998, the business has grown to nearly 500 people, operates worldwide, and boasts 9 of the 10 top global pharmaceutical companies as clients.

Oxford PharmaGenesis has built an enviable reputation for its workplace culture. They believe that you can bring out the best in people by giving them an ethical, supportive, inclusive, diverse, and rewarding environment. For two consecutive years, the company has been recognised as one of the UK’s “Best Workplaces” for Wellbeing, for Women and Overall by “Great Place to Work”.

I wanted to learn more about Richard’s background, his attitude to work and wellbeing, and what he thinks has made Oxford PharmaGenesis so successful.

Sue Rees: Richard, thanks so much for giving me some of your time today. Before we talk about Oxford PharmaGenesis, I’d like to learn a little more about your background and how you came to be where you are. Do you come from a family background of science and academic achievement?

Richard White:
You’re very welcome, Sue. It’s great to speak to you again. My background is not academic at all. I was the first person in my family to stay on in education after 16. My dad left school and became an electrician. He completed an apprenticeship and did well, but he was also encouraged by a very supportive boss to go to night school and get some qualifications, so he then became an electrical engineer. Mum was a housewife and did some part-time work in shops and the post office.

The first time I can remember anything academic coming to the fore would have been my second year in junior school when I was 8 or 9. A teacher there – Mr Davis, you always remember the good ones – took my parents to one side and said, “your kid’s really bright, you know”. That was the first realisation I had that I could push myself and try hard and perhaps excel at something.

We lived in Essex, which had grammar schools (and still does), so all kids take a test at the end of primary school called the Eleven Plus. If you pass it, you can go to the grammar school. I went to a school where traditionally very few people passed the Eleven Plus, but I knuckled down and got into the local grammar school.

That was an excellent experience for me because it pushed me to another level compared with my friends who went to non-selective comprehensive schools. I did well in my exams and applied and was accepted into Cambridge University.

I completed my undergraduate degree at Cambridge and wanted to do research, so I applied to study for a PhD in Pharmacology.

SR: Why pharmacology for your research?

RW: I think my interest was sparked when I got a Saturday job as a 16-year-old on the healthcare counter at my local Boots! As well as being a fantastic learning experience on the importance of customer service, empathy and dealing with all sorts of people, I became fascinated by medicines and how they work. There was some training that only the full-time staff did towards a Healthcare certificate, but because I was interested and kept asking questions, the pharmacist said, ” Why don’t you come in an hour early each shift, and I’ll spend some time with you and go through the course?” And I knuckled down to that and got my certificate. It was that experience that started me down the pharmacology road.

SR: I would have thought you were set on the path to a high-flying academic career after your degree and PhD, but I understand you decided it wasn’t for you?

RW: I really enjoyed the research, but I thought an academic career would be about who did the best research, not about which labs were the best-connected. But it turned out it was the best-funded labs that were more likely to get their papers published and grants accepted. It felt a bit political, and I didn’t want to get involved.

So I looked for another route in science, where I could still get involved in the writing, teaching and communications side, but that wasn’t research. That’s how I stumbled into Oxford PharmaGenesis, and I’m still here nearly 20 years later!

SR: What was your first role with the company?

RW: I joined as a medical writer.

SR: And did you always have a desire to get into management and eventually corporate leadership?

RW: I think in some ways I did. I was always fascinated by leadership, managing, and coaching. I hadn’t done large amounts of that in the lab, but I took up volleyball when I was at Cambridge. That was the first time I experienced “professional” coaching. I did pretty well and represented Cambridge in volleyball, and went on to be club president. But I also started to coach, and that responsibility of being in charge of a club and helping develop and improve a team was really enjoyable.

When I joined Oxford PharmaGenesis there were only about ten people in the business, but I think I always felt that if the opportunity arose in the future that I would want to take on the challenge of leadership roles.

SR: And as we know, you certainly did take on those challenges, and you’re now on the board helping to steer the whole organisation. During your time in the role, what do you think has been the biggest management challenge?

RW: For the business, I think it’s something that’s common across the sector – trying to make sure that you’re an organisation that people want to join and then where they want to stay. A lack of good people can really hold back companies in life sciences.

In terms of a personal challenge I’ve taken on as COO, it’s to make sure that the company’s offering remains current. I try to make sure we are doing things at least as well as the other leaders in our field. Before the pandemic, I’d spend a lot of time at conferences, engaging with clients, and seeing what we need to do to ensure that we always give them reasons to come back to us.

We did a lot of work in publications, but my view was that we need to be diversified. So another challenge is building out those other areas and ensuring they get absorbed into our operations. I was involved in hiring our first in-house creative, our first in-house digital hire, and most recently, an operations director for the whole digital space.

I’m always encouraging us to be thinking about where we need to be looking to develop next. So keeping us current and in the leading pack among agencies is my main challenge. 

SR: What do you think has made the company so successful?

RW: From a business perspective, that’s simple – it’s the quality of the work we deliver to our clients and the relationships we build with them on the back of that. Much of our work is repeat business and referrals and recommendations, which says a lot.

But we’re also in a sector where you need great people on your team, and there’s a finite supply of great people. Your corporate culture is key to being a company that those people want to work for. For example, we’re independently owned and financed. That means we can make decisions that align with our own values and make some non-revenue generating choices. We do things because we think they are the right thing to do. We fundamentally believe in treating each other well, thinking about individuals and teams, and working collaboratively. 

SR: What does ‘“wellbeing’” mean to Oxford PharmaGenesis

RW: For us, it’s about “balance”. By that, I don’t necessarily mean ‘work-life balance’. It’s not going to be the same for everyone all the time. People need to bring their whole self to work, so work is part of who you are, which is why I think the phrase ‘work-life balance’ is a bit artificial.

For example, there may be times when you really want to prioritise work – you’re going for a promotion or are striving for success with a critical project. There may be other times where the balance tips towards personal life – perhaps family issues, illness, or celebrating life events like getting married.

So for me, wellbeing is about an ever-shifting balance. It’s never going to be perfect – we work in a client-facing service sector, so being able to work 9 to 5 every day isn’t going to be a reality. But we need to make sure that if the scales tip one way, it’s not for too long.

Our industry is tough, there will always be external pressures, deadlines and other stress points, but if people feel that they are being supported and never left on their own, that’s crucial. We operate an authentic team culture, and that’s how we mainly deliver support.

Of course, we do offer specific programs around mental and physical health, and we make sure people know where they can go for support in addition to line management, but that team-based mutual support is at the heart of everything.

SR: What prompted the company to go down this route?

RW: Well, the fundamental culture was there from the start, put in place by the original founder – a family feel, no top-down directives, empowering people to make their own decisions. When we were part of the management buyout in 2013, the new Board kept most things the same but decided to make some changes, mainly around how we can commit to people.

One of the first things we put in place was to change the standard ‘“office hours”’ from 9 am to 6 pm with an hour for lunch to a 5:30 pm finish. It made it easier to arrange things for after work. It aligned people with hours that partners and spouses were working. It made attending parents' evenings and after-school events easier.

We were aware that we all have a challenging work environment. That was the first in a series of conscious changes to ensure that we’re not adding any internal organisational challenges that make it worse.

We’ve always championed a very open culture. Whenever we have a company meeting, it’s always focused on our values for individuals, teams, and clients. Office politics are not welcome here.

We also invest a lot in learning, development and training. We need to make sure that we are doing all that we can to make sure that coming to work isn’t any more difficult than it needs to be! Many well-being issues can arise when people are asked to do things they don't know how to do and don’t know who – or how – to ask for help. And I don’t just mean technical skills. It can also be interpersonal and management skills. If you feel the team you’re working with doesn’t have a good connection and bond with each other, that will affect how you feel about work. That’s why ensuring our team leaders have the skills to build the right environment is also key.

SR: You’ve mentioned that the balance can sometimes swing to work needing to have your full focus. So as a COO, who can you turn to when things get tough, or you need support?

RW: Most often, it’s Chris, the CEO. And likewise, for him, it’s me. The relationship we have is really complementary – we’re different, and that’s why we can help each other to find a middle ground that neither independently would come up with. The wider Board are really helpful in this, too.

One thing we’ve all done is learn to step away. We’ve expanded massively, and we have lots of really talented people. We set up management teams for each office and region, and we need to let them get on with running things. That works really well for reducing the workload on myself and the Board and retaining the best people. I’ve been here for 20 years, but I never felt the need to leave because the opportunities to grow and develop were made available to me here. That’s the way we want our talented people to feel as well.

SR: If you were to give advice to anyone who was looking to take their first step into the Board room – as CEO, COO, or CFO – what would your top tips be?

RW: The first thing is to get some external coaching. We’ve recently been through some IMD (Institute for Management Development) training and coaching, and I think having that outside view is key. Being great at the technical side of things will get you to a certain level of management, but what will get you into the Boardroom is being able to make things happen by teams of people, influencing others, and developing others. Some people have those skills naturally; some don’t. I’d advise everyone to get some form of leadership training.

Another thing is to get out there and build your network of peers in your sector. It’s easy to think that you’re the only one who doesn’t have the “secret formula” that others have or that you’re doing things radically different to others. By building a network and speaking to people, you’ll soon realise that everyone’s making it up as they go along, too! That gives you the confidence to realise that your judgment and ideas are just as valid as anyone else’s.

Don’t be worried about Imposter Syndrome. Everyone talented feels it; if you don’t, then I suspect you’re going through life and not noticing an awful lot of things! Getting out there and building a network also helps you realise that you’re actually doing pretty well. If you understand that you (and everyone else) will feel like an imposter at some stage, that will hopefully prevent it from holding you back in your decision-making.

SR: It seems like we’re starting to come out of the other side of a global pandemic – something none of us could really have planned and prepared for. What impact did it have on Oxford PharmaGenesis, and will there be any lasting effects for you?

RW: I think things have certainly changed, and they aren’t going to go back to how they were for all of us.

We were very careful to check in with our people through the pandemic to make sure they could adapt. While it wasn’t trivial, adapting the tech was a process, and once you had something that worked, it worked. But for people, coming downstairs from the bedroom straight into what had suddenly become your office without seeing or interacting with anyone affected us all differently.

We gave people support on how they could work differently, but we’ve really embraced flexible and adaptive working. We sent out some surveys and gathered opinions, but in the end, we gave the detailed decisions back to our teams. They needed to discuss what working patterns they wanted and what would work for the team, and once they sorted that, we were happy to support whatever worked for them.

So we have some teams working fully remotely; some are mixed with remote and office-based but have particular days when everyone is in together. We are being more flexible because we’ve seen that it works – we don’t need everyone to be in every day for us to perform to our best. However, something that’s more difficult is how to let the 100 or so people we’ve hired since the pandemic begin to understand our culture. That’s more difficult if you are only working remotely, so we are encouraging people who can to come into an office from time to time. Those moments at the water cooler or over lunch can be really important in understanding what a company is about and how everyone there has bought into our vision.

To support that, we’ll be rolling out a lot of communication around our company values, crystallising what they are, and getting people involved across the organisation no matter how they are working. What I said earlier about attracting, retaining, and developing the best people is even more important in this new work landscape.

Subscribe to our email updates

Receive all our latest blogs and "In Conversation" articles straight to your inbox

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.