Define And Adapt To Reality: Two Pivotal Pharma Leadership Skills For Sustainable Excellence

Max DePree – a much quoted American businessman and author had once said: “The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality.”

While defining the reality within the drug industry today, it makes many industry leaders to ponder, despite so much of the good work done by the industry in various fields of pharma business, across the world, including India, why is the public perception on the overall leadership of this sector still so negative, and continue going south? Pharma leaders know the reasons too, but they seem to be still searching for the right set of answers without breaking the traditional mold of business.

Around end 2007, being concerned with this trend, the then Chairman of Eli Lilly reportedly expressed publicly what many industry observers have been saying privately for some time. He said: “I think the industry is doomed, if we don’t change”.

On the general apathy of breaking the traditional mold after having defined the business reality, an interesting article titled, “Healthcare Leadership Must Shift From A Cottage Industry To Big Business”, published on June 2, 2014 in Forbes, made some interesting observations, which are as relevant to India, just as many other countries of the world.

The article states that the ‘Healthcare Leadership’ has not kept up with the industry’s evolution to big business over the past 25-30 years – nor does it possess the required change management competencies to effectively lead and rapidly turn around an adaptive health care business model. Thus, unlike many other knowledge industries, pharma sector is still struggling hard to convert the tough environmental challenges into bright business opportunities. This leads to an important question: Being mostly inward looking, are these leaders failing to properly define reality around them, and therefore, not adapting to the critical external business environmental needs, soon enough?

Is current pharma leadership too inward looking?

From the available details, it appears that today, many inward-looking pharma leaders tend to ignore many serious voices demanding access to high quality medicines at affordable prices, especially for life threatening ailments, such as, cancer. Instead of engaging with the stakeholders in search of a win-win solution, global pharma leadership apparently tries to push the ball out its court with a barrage of mundane and arrogant arguments highlighting the importance of ‘drug innovation’ and hyping how expensive it is. Notwithstanding that by now, many people are aware of its frequent use, generally by the global pharma players, mostly as a veil, whenever required. Even then, many pharma leaders, instead of accepting the reality, continue to remain insensitive to the concerns not just of most patients, but other stakeholders and their respective governments also. This mindset further reinforces their inward-looking and self-serving image. This brings to the fore the key issue: Is this high time to pass the baton to a new breed of pharma leaders?

In the above backdrop, this article dwells on some intrinsic issues involved with the leadership puzzle of the industry, as it were. Thereafter, it deliberates on the importance of making some easy self-tests available to the young and especially the millennial pharma professionals, to facilitate them to self-discover themselves in this space, and that too at an early stage of their professional career, as they try to understand and define the business and environmental realities facing the industry.

Leadership skills are difficult to find:

Focusing on the pharma industry, I would say, especially in the pharma sector, leadership skill in all its functional areas though is considered as the most important one, but are equally challenging while identifying the right persons.

The 20th Pharma CEO Survey, March 2017 of PwC, vindicates this point. The survey covered 89 pharma CEOs from 37 countries. Nearly all the Pharma CEOs participating in this survey picked out leadership as the most important for their organization, giving it the top spot, closely followed by problem-solving, creativity and innovation, all bracketed in the second, with collaboration and adaptability occupying the equal third rank, as follows:

Relative importance of skills in pharma industry Skill sets Respondents answering somewhat difficult or very difficult to get each one of these
1. Leadership 79
2. Creativity & Innovation 75
3. Emotional intelligence 72
4. Adaptability 63
5. Problem-solving 55

Over two-thirds of the CEOs face difficulty in recruiting people with the requisite skills that they consider most important to their organization, such as, leadership, problem-solving, and creative skills, the report highlighted. For further deliberation hereunder, I shall pick up the top one – the leadership skill for the pharma industry, as I see it.

The age-old question – ‘Are leaders born or made?’

A critical question that is often asked even today – ‘Are leaders born or made?’ The question keeps coming as some enthusiasts continue to argue that successful leaders are born with visible or apparently invisible leadership traits.

Are leaders born?

To answer this question, let me quote an example. The Management Study Guide (MSG), well-articulated an approach to the study of leadership known as the ‘Great Man Theory’, giving examples of the great leaders of the past, such as, Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Napoleon, Queen Elizabeth I, Abraham Lincoln and Mahatma Gandhi. They all seem to differ from ordinary human beings in several aspects, possessing high levels of ambition coupled with clear visions of precisely where they want to go.

Added to these examples are many top business executives, sports personalities, and even contemporary politicians, who often seem to possess an aura that sets them apart from others. These persons are cited as naturally great leaders, born with a set of personal qualities that made them effective leaders. Thus, even today, the belief that truly great leaders are born, is not uncommon. Thus, according to the contemporary theorists, leaders are not like other people. They do not need to be intellectually genius or omniscient prophets to succeed, but they should certainly have the ‘right stuff’, which is not equally present in all people, MSG highlights.

Even today, some continue to believe in the ‘Great Man Theory’, regardless of many well carried out research studies of the behavioral scientists establishing that it is quite possible for individuals becoming leaders through various processes, such as, self-learning, keenly observing or working with some good leaders, following their advices, training, and practicing the experiences thus gained in one’s real life.

Are leaders made?

Just as above, to answer this question, as well, I would cite another important example.

A September 21, 2016 article titled, “What Science Tells Us About Leadership Potential”, published in the ‘Harvard Business Review (HBR)’, while answering the question ‘who becomes a leader’, stated as follows:

“Any observable pattern of human behaviors is the byproduct of genetic and environmental influences, so the answer to this question is ‘both’.  Estimates suggest that leadership is 30%-60% heritable, largely because the character traits that shape leadership - personality and intelligence - are heritable. While this suggests strong biological influences on leadership, it does not imply that nurture is trivial. Even more-heritable traits, such as weight (80%) and height (90%), are affected by environmental factors. Although there is no clear recipe for manipulating the environment in order to boost leadership potential, well-crafted coaching interventions boost critical leadership competencies by about 20%–30%.”

What would a young pharma professional do in this situation?

The current breed of top leaders would continue grooming and promoting mostly those who fit their profile, while in the family owned businesses succession usually takes place from within the family. The situation is no different in the pharma industry. However, various studies indicate that millennial professionals with leadership traits will develop themselves.

Keeping this in mind and, at the same time, going by the above HBR article, I would tend to accept the dictum that, “Any observable pattern of human behaviors is the byproduct of genetic and environmental influences”. Thus, for identifying and then honing leadership skills in the pharma business, just as many other industries, I would prefer the process of dovetailing the heritable leadership traits with various environmental influences.

An ambitious pharma professional with high aspiration to make a difference in the organization that the individual represents, would obviously wonder what the way forward for him to achieve the goals. In my view, an honest self-test is the first and basic move in this direction.

The self-test:

Taking a cue from the article titled “Strategic Leadership: The Essential Skills”, published in the January-February 2013 issue of The Harvard Business Review (HBR), I would suggest that the young professionals may wish to ask themselves the following important questions:

  • Do I have the right networks to help myself see opportunities before competitors do?
  • Am I comfortable challenging my own and others’ assumptions?
  • Can I get a diverse group to buy into a common vision?
  • Do I learn from mistakes?

The answer to each of these ones should be clear and honest, as one doesn’t need to disclose those answers to anyone else. Nonetheless, by following this process, a young professional gets a clear view of where he or she stands in each of these important areas, which cover some of the basic traits of a leader.

The leadership package:

Irrespective of whether an individual has some heritable leadership traits or not, the above self-test would reveal a person’s strengths and weaknesses, help address the deficits and optimize the full portfolio of leadership skills, independently or otherwise.

Nevertheless, it is important to bear in mind, as several research studies have already established, though leadership skills are important and difficult to find, a few other salient skills such as, ability to apply in real life a creative and innovative mindset, supported by high emotional intelligence or emotional quotient (EQ) are also critical. This is because, together these offer the all-important leadership package for an all-round successful leader.

Should pharma leadership be eclectic?

I guess so, as there does not seem to be any better alternative either. Thus, I reckon, traditional pharma leadership needs to be eclectic. It has still got a lot to learn from other industries too. Let me give a relevant example here – to speed up development of electric cars by all manufacturers, the Cofounder and Chief Executive Officer Elon Musk of Tesla Motors has reportedly decided to share its patents under ‘Open Source’ sharing of technologies with all others. Elon Musk further reiterated: “If we clear a path to the creation of compelling electric vehicles, but then lay Intellectual property (IP) landmines behind us to inhibit others, we are acting in a manner contrary to that goal.”

In the important ‘green’ automobile space, this is indeed a radical, gutsy and an exemplary decision to underscore Tesla Motor’s concern about global warming.

Why such type of leadership is so rare in the global pharma world, even today? Besides sanctimonies, as these appear, why the global pharma leaders are not taking similar large scale initiatives for drug innovation, especially in the areas of difficult diseases, such as, Cancer, Alzheimer’s, Multiple Sclerosis and Metabolic disorders, just to name a few? For this purpose, pharma organizations would require mettlesome change agents who can break the traditional mold –new leaders of the millennial generation having a different business outlook altogether, could possibly do so.

Becoming a change agent:

Today, more than ever before, the ultimate goal of pharma leaders requires moving beyond making more money to satisfy the shareholders and stock markets. It also needs to include the requirements of society, in general, more than what mandatory CSR demands. This is palpable today, as many stakeholders vehemently questioning the business game plan of many pharma players. Would this situation change? I don’t know, but it should, which prompts a change in the overall quality of pharma leadership, at all levels. I have had reason to believe that a good number of bright, millennial pharma professionals look for empowerment to discover themselves early. Right at that stage, they also need to chart a road map for self-development, which would facilitate attaining their professional goals, quite in sync with the broad societal expectations, as they move on in life.

New pharma leadership would require greater focus on ethics and engagement:

While pharma industry leaders, in general, have been impressive articulators of all right things that need to happen, ‘Talking the Talk’ and ‘Walking the Walk’ in the frontiers of business ethics, values and shared goals are found wanting in many of them. These articulations are probably used to run expensive global ‘Public Relations (PR)’ campaigns, lobbying and advocacy initiatives in the corridors of power.

What else then could possibly be the reason for such perception gap that this great industry has allowed to increase, over a long period of time? Could it be that many pharma leaders have not been able to adequately adapt themselves to the demands of the changing healthcare environment and the needs of various stakeholders in this sector? Is the leadership, therefore, too archaic and it’s a time for a change?

Thus, unlike the current pharma leadership, the new age leadership needs to be ethically grounded, and engage all stakeholders effectively in a transparent manner with impeccable processes of governance involving all areas of business. Such leaders may not be know-all individuals in the pharma business, but must possess a clear vision of where they want to lead the company to, and don’t slip back, especially in terms of public image and meeting patients’ expectations.

In conclusion:

Pharma business in modern times faces rapidly changing stakeholder expectations, which are generally difficult to predict well in advance. Thus, today’s pharma leaders require to adapt their strategic approach and the tactical game plans accordingly for business excellence in an inclusive manner, and simultaneously try to shape the environment to the extent possible.

There is a growing expectation from the pharma leaders to do business by imbibing a caring outlook towards the society, where it operates. Spending time and money to transplant the past practices in the changed environment, or continuing with the traditional business approaches, I reckon, is a no-win game today.

Thus, there arises a need to help the young pharma professionals, from the early stages in their professional life, for shaping up as the chief change agent in the organization that they would lead. Even after reaching where they wanted to reach, these leaders should keep studying on a continuous basis, various other successful leadership styles, approaches and visions, to splice them into a more productive strategic approach for the business or functional areas that they lead.

This new breed of leaders would also require defining the reality prevailing in the industry on an ongoing basis, to pave the way for a glorious future for their respective organizations. This effort would call for regular and effective engagement with all the stakeholders through various digital and other platforms. The critical question that the new pharma leadership should never forget to continually ask themselves: “How can my organization provide better access to high quality and effective medicines to most patients along with achieving commercial excellence in business?”

Properly defining and quickly adapting to associated environmental realities with a creative mind, requisite emotional intelligence and ethical business practices, would call for coming out of the zone of comfort with promptness. These, I reckon, would be the two pivotal success factors for new pharma leaders for inclusive and sustainable success in business, as the industry moves on.

By: Tapan J. Ray

Disclaimer: The views/opinions expressed in this article are entirely my own, written in my individual and personal capacity. I do not represent any other person or organization for this opinion.

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