Trees Die From The Top: Apt For Pharma Leadership Too?

The Management Guru of all-time – Peter F. Drucker once said: “The spirit of an organization is created from the top… If an organization is great in spirit, it is because the spirit of its top people is great.” As “Trees die from the top”, no one should ever become a strategist unless he or she is willing to have his or her character serve as a model for subordinates – Drucker emphasized.

Decades after this assertion from Drucker, meant for management practitioners, it is discernible even today how irrefutable these axioms are.  In the contemporary times, as well, particularly when reality bites a company hard, being caught on the wrong side of ‘generally acceptable’ ethics, value and compliance standards.

While zeroing in to pharma, soundbites usually generated at that time, especially from the top echelon of the management, seem to hint that employees down the rung are responsible for such misdeeds, besides, of course, the legacy factor.

At this moment of truth, it is also not unusual for them to romancing the utopia, as it were. Senior management comes out with several ideas, which are squeaky clean in terms of optics. Some of them also talk about introducing behavior metric on ethics and values in employee performance appraisal before releasing any performance related pay out. In this article, I shall focus on this leadership issue in view of some latest developments in this area.

The latest developments:  

Let me now come straight to the latest developments in this area, as I see around.

“Novartis links bonuses to ethics in bid to rebuild reputation” – was a headline of Reuters on September 18, 2018. It reported: “Swiss drug maker Novartis has revealed its employees only get a bonus if they meet or exceed expectations for ethical behavior as it seeks to address past shortcomings that have damaged its reputation.”

Some interesting points stand out from this report on the ownership of such alleged malpractices. These reconfirm that the reasons for the same, including the repeated allegations of such nature, are being passed on to others by the top management. For example:

  • To past practices or the legacy factor, even if the current CEO has been a part of that corporate environment, since long.
  • To employees responsible down the line, and a new system is being adopted to address the issue.

In this case, as Reuters reports: “Chief Executive Vas Narasimhan has made strengthening the Swiss drug maker’s ethics culture a priority after costly bribery scandals or legal settlements in South Korea, China and the United States.”

Interestingly, as reported by the media, “the company was also this year embroiled in a political controversy over payments it made to U.S. President Donald Trump’s ex-attorney.”  Previously, even in the clinical trial area, Japanese authorities, reportedly “uncovered serious misconduct during a trial of its leukemia drug, Tasigna.”

As I said above, in response to such incidents, the General Counsel of Novartis, reportedly expressed: “This allows us to look at the behavior metric before any money leaves Novartis and catch potential misconduct before there is any risk to our reputation.” The official further added, “You can expect us to continue focusing on resolving the legacy issues that we read about in the press, ensuring we address any remaining underlying behaviors.”

Such steps not taken for the first time by a pharma company: 

EvenGlaxoSmithKline tried something akin in the past.

“GSK scraps sales rep targets after scandal,” was the headline of December 17, 2013 edition of the Financial Times. It reported: “GlaxoSmithKline is to scrap individual sales targets for its commercial staff as it seeks to repair its image and reform working practices in the wake of allegations in China that its staff paid officials up to $500m in bribes. The move comes amid concerns over aggressive marketing across the pharmaceutical industry and follows a series of damaging regulatory probes leading to a record $ 3bn fine in the US last year.”

However, later on GlaxoSmithKline, reportedly “altered the plan when its sales began to suffer in the world’s largest market.”

Where is the real issue lying?

As“PwC‘s 21st CEO Survey: Preparing for disruption” found, 71 percent of CEOs surveyed said that their organizations face greater pressure to deliver business results in less time.

There isn’t an iota of doubt, I reckon, that pharma CEOs are under constant performance pressure from the investors and other stakeholders to deliver expected financial results. This makes them keep their eyes primarily glued on to the grindstone for churning out expected profits from the business. This also means that they expect management efforts to be generally directed to deliver ‘values’ at the least possible cost.

On the other hand, the same PwC survey findings reiterated that with rising drug costs, the demand for the drug companies to demonstrate the treatment efficacy, is increasing by manifold. Thus, “to remain competitive, Big Pharma will have to do things faster (like drug development) and cheaper for the patient, add more value for the same money, and become more proactive partners with patients and doctors in both wellness and cure” - one of the findings of this study emphasized.

It is quite common for most large to medium sized pharma companies to have in place a well-articulated organizational ‘ethics, compliance and values’, together with requisite checks and balances in the form of rigorous rules, regulations and other guidelines.

Most often these adorn the respective websites too, for public knowledge. The question, therefore, surfaces what could then possibly go wrong in the organization and where exactly does the real issue lie, while effectively managing the organizational growth?

“Non-compliance – A serious challenge to growth”: 

Serious malpractices and their related fallout in pharma business – not just in marketing, but clinical trials, manufacturing, quality assurance and other areas, are not usually due to any lack of requisite processes or expertise. These are generally serious consequences of non-compliance of various organizational norms. At times, with the indirect support of senior management, or senior management keeps their eyes closed on such non-compliances, under demanding obligation for delivering expected financial results and business growth.

Tweaking areas, such as employee performance-incentive norms, as happened in the cases of GSK or Novartis, can’t fetch a long-lasting solution in such a situation, as I see it. Nonetheless, the survey report findings of Deloitte, titled “Non-compliance – A serious challenge to growth,” are interesting to get a sense of the reasons behind the same.

Key reasons for non-compliance: 

The Deloitte report identifies some key contributors to malpractices and non-compliance in the pharma sector, indicating the percentage of survey respondents involved against each, as follows:

  • Lack of an efficient internal control/ compliance system:  61 percent
  • Weak regulatory enforcement / action taken against fraudsters:  55 percent
  • Inadequate utilization of technology tools available to identify red flags:  45 percent
  • Lack of a zero-tolerance approach towards malpractice and regulatory non-compliance:  45 percent
  • Inadequate due diligence on employees/ third party associates:  36 percent
  • Unrealistic targets/goals linked to monetary compensations:  33 percent
  • Senior management override of controls:  24 percent
  • Inadequate oversight by the Board/ Audit Committee:  06 percent

As I mentioned before, most key contributors to malpractice and non-compliance point towards a lack of senior management efficiency in internal controls, systems, and “inadequate utilization of technology tools available to identify red flags.” Curiously, no one mentions about the requirements for any fresh measures or systems to curb such incidents, in the future.

Just tweaking the present system may not help:

Just for changing the optics, tweaking the present system often doesn’t help. Many similar instances in the past, such as GSK’s example, as cited above, would vindicate this point. In the GSK case, at least, it’s the then CEO – Sir Andrew Witty expectedly realized that ‘unrealistic targets/goals linked to monetary compensations’ lead to such corruptions.

But total delinking of the core responsibility of any sales staff, namely ‘generation of top-level numbers both in volume and value’, with performance incentive, could throw some future challenges. Similar reason, presumably prompted GSK altering the plan when its sales began to suffer, at a later date.

Similarly, Novartis is, reportedly introducing a new behavioral metric as qualifying criteria for its employees to earn bonuses or incentives. Intriguingly, despite the existence of rigorous rules, regulations, guidelines and associated punitive provisions for not complying with the company ethics and values for a long-time, malpractices are still being reported today.

Thus, I wonder, how will an additional system of similar nature prevent recurrence of such incidents in the future? Anyway, only the future will tell whether a tweaking of this nature in the present system that did not work in the past, will work in this particular case effectively.

Conclusion:

The reasons for less than adequate internal controls of an organization, I reckon, fall squarely on the senior management, especially for repeat offences. Passing the blame to employees down the line or tweaking their performance appraisal system by introducing a ‘behavioral metric’, is likely to be short term, finger-pointing on the legacy factor notwithstanding.

On the contrary, these may likely to be construed as manifestations of knee-jerk reactions, and not so well-thought-out strategic measures. Neither do such repeated malpractices demonstrate a great spirit of the organization, nor do these evince astute leadership qualities of its top management.

Coming back to where I started from, quoting what the management guru Peter Drucker once said: “The spirit of an organization is created from the top… If an organization is great in spirit, it is because the spirit of its top people is great.” He also reiterated, no one should ever become a strategist unless he or she is willing to have his or her character serve as a model for subordinates This is certainly not the situation for those pharma players mired with alleged malpractices, repeatedly – not just in marketing, but in other operational areas too.

As the good old saying goes: “trees die from the top,” so is also an organization when its senior management lacks a moral compass on ethics, compliance and values. Considering what is being often reported on business malpractices within the drug industry, isn’t the saying equally apt for pharma leadership, as well?

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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