How Moderna’s people strategy helped create its COVID vaccine

Two years ago, few people outside of biopharmaceutical circles had likely heard of the company Moderna. Now, it’s a household name–thanks to its COVID-19 vaccine, which received emergency use authorization by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration at the end of 2020. As of last week, more than 156 million Moderna COVID vaccines have been administered in the U.S.

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With demand like that, Moderna had to rely on its people like never before–and scale up quickly. When CHRO Tracey Franklin joined the organization in October 2019, less than six months before the pandemic started, the company employed just 800 people. Today, it’s home to more than 2,400 workers, 600 of whom have been hired in the last three months.

Pre-COVID, the company was still focused on mRNA vaccines but hadn’t yet brought a product to market; it was gearing up for its first product launch by 2022. It had already invested significantly in a fully digitized platform to drive product development so, when the pandemic picked up steam in the spring of 2020, the executive team spent just one day exploring all the possibilities of throwing their hat into the vaccine-maker ring.

Tracey Franklin, Moderna

“We said, ‘OK, if we’re going to do this, let’s lock arms,’ and we did,” Franklin said during a Wednesday session of the Institute for Corporate Productivity’s Next Practices Now conference. That can-do attitude, she said, was shaped and supported by the culture already in place at the organization.

See also: Biden’s vaccine mandate rule is released. What HR needs to know

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“I believe to my core that the culture, the mindset, the way our organization was operating was why we were able to bring a product to market faster than I think anybody ever dreamed of doing,” she said.

Moderna, founded in 2010, has long been a company that thrived at a fast pace. It didn’t focus on long-range, strategic planning but rather undertook very iterative processes: Leaders would sit down with data, make a plan, move forward and then pivot as needed. That was ingrained in the culture and came in handy when COVID hit, Franklin said.

At the time, the organization didn’t have the capability past late-stage clinical development to actually walk a product out the door–so the HR team had to literally stand up entire functions, start to finish. They quickly found that “you can’t over-hire” in such an environment, Franklin said. Roles they hired for at one point, she noted, ended up being three times bigger than intended within just a few months, and many workers were asked to change focus on a dime, depending on need.

“Working here isn’t about you or your job–it’s the impact on patients, the output and the outcome,” Franklin said. “[Employees] knew that if they were coming to the company, they may be doing something one day and have to pivot to do something else on another day.”

That presented some “interesting” HR challenges, Franklin said, as that reality contradicts traditional org charts and workflows. But, employees across the organization quickly learned the value of “being fluid.”

Related: COVID vaccines for kids are here. What role do employers play?

The high-pressure environment, however, meant that some employees were working nearly around the clock at times. “As an HR leader, I’m not proud to say that,” Franklin said, noting that Moderna sought to “wrap our arms” around those employees, ramping up benefits and support resources throughout the pandemic.

And with hiring hitting such a rapid pace, leadership also aimed to ensure both existing and new employees were connected to company culture. Managers and leaders, in particular, needed to be well-versed in the culture to model it for their employees; there were about 50 senior leaders when Franklin started and that number has since grown to about 115, many of whom are responsible for functions that didn’t exist before, Franklin said. And with hires coming from across pharma, tech and many other industries, the HR team was concerned the company could start to feel like it had undergone a major, multi-company merger.

So, over the course of two days, leaders conducted interviews with employees across the organization and invited them to offer feedback on what makes Moderna “tick.” Ultimately, they used their stated mission and their core values–being bold, curious, relentless and collaborative–as the foundation for 12 newly created “mindsets.” The “We” statements essentially define what it means to work at Moderna, Franklin said.

For instance, one primary mindset is “We push past possible,” a model that Franklin said CEO Stéphane Bancel sets from the top and that allowed the company to scale at the rate that it did and get the vaccine to market.

“I really, truly don’t think there’s anything we don’t think is possible,” she said.

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Jen Colletta
Jen Colletta is managing editor at HRE. She earned bachelor's and master's degrees in writing from La Salle University in Philadelphia and spent 10 years as a newspaper reporter and editor before joining HRE. She can be reached at [email protected].