While Pharma Leadership Change This Atypical Skill Counts

Effective September 01, 2019, the global pharma major Sanofi will have a new CEO, as the present CEO retires attaining his retirement age of 65 years. This appears to be a mandatory announcement from the company, as is required during the top leadership change in any large and listed organization.

However, there is something novel, as well, in this announcement, especially when specific qualities, skills and experience of the new CEO were highlighted by the company’s Board of Directors. According to Sanofi Press Release, the new CEO – Paul Hudson “has proven his strategic vision, his strong leadership and his ability to achieve the greatest challenges, particularly in terms of innovation and digital transformation.”

Among the stated experience and skills, the one that appeared atypical to me, is the experience of digital transformation, particularly in the position of the CEO of a global pharma major. I In this article, I shall, therefore, explore, why knowledge and experience in this atypical skill is gradually becoming critically important for pharma leadership positions, at all levels.

Why is the need for digital transformation of pharma business?

According to the Internet Trends Report 2019 by Mary Meeker, at 3.8 billion internet users, more than half the world’s population is now online and it is growing. This number would obviously include patients.

As we know, the core purpose of pharma business is to offer a unique patient experience during any disease treatment process. And, the expectations of which from Internet-savvy individuals will be significantly more for various related reasons.

To achieve this objective, drug players would always require to be in sync with customers’ perceptions, expectations and aspirations, among others. Moreover, it’s also not ‘one size fits all’ type of a solution. These will significantly vary for different patient groups, so are the processes of engagement with them – based virtually on real-time information.

Interestingly, the core purpose of digital transformation is also to facilitate this process, with a great amount of precision. The entire process of creating a unique patient experience, involves generation of a massive amount of customized data, customize analysis of which is done through sophisticated analytics, and thereafter, translating and using them as key strategic business inputs, on an ongoing basis. Traditional organizational methods, systems and processes are incapable to deliver the same. Hence arises the crucial need of digital transformation of the organization, across the board.

The transformation is not just about software, hardware and data: 

That said, it is also essential to realize that digital transformation is not just about software, high-tech hardware, mobile apps and sophisticated wearables and data. These are, of course, some of the vital tools – used while transforming a company into battle readiness to create and provide a unique customer experience.

Such unique experience for each customer should cover all touchpoints, spanning across – before, during and after treatment with the company’s medication. This, in turn, helps generate an increasing number of prescriptions from doctors, which otherwise would not have been possible, following the conventional means.

Why this atypical skill is in demand today?

Like any other transformation process within an organization, digital transformation should necessarily be driven by the company CEO, having adequate experience in this area. Even the Board of Directors of many pharma players believes that such a CEO can facilitate the process faster and more effectively. Hence, the demand for this atypical skill is increasing, also for a pharma CEO position, besides leaders in various functional areas, as it is being considered as pivotal to achieve the core purpose of a pharma business, in the digital world.

Thus, if a CEO doesn’t properly understand, how the digital world operates with increasing number of visitors in the cyberspace and convinced about its relevance for business excellence, the organization would ultimately lose its competitive edge. One may, therefore, question, did the need for this atypical skill also arise during the selection of the new CEO of Sanofi?

Is this atypical skill for a new CEO more important now?

The answer, I reckon, could be both, ‘probably yes’ and also ‘no’.

‘Probably yes’, mostly because, being an uncommon skill for a pharma CEO, so far, it arrested the attention of many while reading ‘Sanofi Press Release’, for the appointment of their new CEO. Nevertheless, Sanofi is not the first pharma company placing so much of importance on digital transformation, especially for the key leadership positions. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) of February 18, 2018, the CEO of Novartis said: “We need to become a focused medicines company that’s powered by data science and digital technologies.”

Why it is so important for a pharma CEO?

The AT Kearney paper titled, “New Medicine for a New World – Time for Pharma to Dive into Digital,” also captured that an increasing number of pharma customers are now getting engaged and have started interacting in the digital space, more than ever before. This trend is fast going north – becoming an ‘in-thing’ of the industry, as it were. But more probably to be seen as trendy or display that they are also in it, by ‘dipping a toe in the digital waters.’ Whereas, ‘it’s time to take the plunge,’ as the paper cautions them.

‘Plunging into the digital water,’ doesn’t mean sending people to some external training program – with the word ‘digital’ prominently featuring as the course objective. It means bringing out ‘digital transformation’ of the entire organization, spearheaded by the CEO. The leadership of each functional area would then implement from the same playbook, with a structured and custom-made plan designed specifically to achieve the vision, mission, goals and values of the company.

We have recent examples of, at least, two top global pharma majors taking a plunge in the digital water to make the digital transformation of the organization a reality. The key purpose of the same, is to create a unique customer experience, being on the same page with them, in more effective ways, for business excellence. To move in this direction, the organization must imbibe the non-negotiable principle – ‘digital first,’ across the organization.

Only the CEO can decide ‘digital first’ as guiding organizational principle:

None other than the CEO of a drug company, can decide that ‘digital first’ will be the guiding principle of the company, across all the functional areas of the business. As the above paper articulates, it ‘should be explicitly incorporated into core business processes.’ It further says: ‘Top management must challenge any parts of the business that have not explicitly considered the opportunities from digital in their plans.’

Functional leaders to be in sync with digital transformation: 

All in the pharma organization, across all functions, must work for the end consumer of any pharma business – the patients. Every single employee in the company should strive delighting them with the company’s products and services, at every touchpoints, during their quest for relief from illnesses. As I said before, this is the single most important factor that determines not just the pace of growth of a drug company, but help enhance its reputation, too. It goes without saying, its ultimately the patients who are playing a catalytic role in the digital transformation of an organization.

It is essential for the CEO to make sure that entire corporate, functional and even departmental leadership teams are in tune with the need of digital transformation of the organization. Despite the detail explanation, if some remain unconvinced about the rationale behind the transformation of the core business process, the right leader should assume the responsibility.

This is because, even with one loose knot at the leadership level in this area, the entire objective can seriously get thwarted – down the line. Such changes, as, if and when required, can be achieved in various different ways, not through attrition alone. For example, by encouraging them to work with members of his peer group who can set good examples to emulate.

Brand promotion to physicians will still remain as important:

In tandem, no company should lose sight of the fact that their face-to-face interaction with physicians, will continue to play an important role in brand promotion. Primarily because, doctors and hospitals help patients to get desired solace from ill-health by prescribing recommended medicines, and consequently, will keep prevailing as an integral part of the pharma marketing process, supported directly or indirectly by every employee in the company.

The key challenge in digital transformation:

The key challenge in the digital transformation of a pharma company is broadly possible inflexible or a rigid mindset of some of its leaders. This is generally fueled by the fear of moving out of their respective comfort zones – rather than resources and expertise required to make the technology put to use. A well-running-business with a grand idea for the future, will generally be able to garner necessary resources and other wherewithal, without much problem.

All pharma leaders should always consider themselves as an important solution for the future success of the organization, Otherwise, he or she may be construed as a part of the problem and a hindrance in achieving the corporate goal and should make way for the capable ones, in this area. Hence, selecting leaders with the right spirit to make digital transformation effective, is so critical for the CEO.

To commence this journey, the leaders may either be willing to acquire the experience of a disruptive digital transformation, guided by the domain experts or may be recruited from outside having the necessary experience. Collective and well-coordinated steps towards this transformation can neither be tentative, nor should it commence without having the right leader at the right place with required will and experience.

Digital players entering into health space with game changing ideas:

Pharma players should also note, how the big technology companies, such as, Apple, Google, Microsoft and Amazon, besides many startups, are trying to create space for themselves in the health care arena. Several of them are also trying to reinvent health care with zest, much beyond what traditional drug companies could even envisage, till recently.

The digital transformation of the organization would help drug players to align the company’s business model with the tech companies in those specific areas to reap a rich harvest. More opportunities will also unfold – either to collaborate with them for targeted projects or moving into the tech space with well-calibrated measures, for business synergy. Without digital transformation of business, either facing such competition or benefitting from the available opportunities, will be challenging for drug companies.

Conclusion:

In the digital world, while patients are emerging as a key driver of change in the health care space, traditional pharma operational systems, including sales and marketing are likely to give a diminishing return on investment. Although, many drug companies can sense this ongoing metamorphosis, several of them are still wondering how to go about it. Moreover, to test the ‘digital water’, some of them have started converting several traditional operational methods, systems and processes in the digital format, as well. Yet, are unable to fathom, why such efforts are not clicking – leading to a quantum increase in the operational efficiency – in pursuit of excellence.

The good news is, global pharma organizations, such as, Sanofi and Novartis, besides several others, have realized that incremental performance improvements with small tweaking here or there, across the organization, aren’t just enough. The corporation needs to move towards a holistic digital transformation, spearheaded by its CEO, having experience in this process. This new breed of pharma CEOs, well-supported by his team of leaders, fostering a burning desire to produce pace setting results, can usher in this ‘disruptive’ transformation. Because, they realize, traditional pharma operational systems, when tempered through the fire of the digital transformation process, can yield game changing outcomes for the organization.  The entire process, as it comes to fruition, helps delivering greater customer value, creating a unique customer experience – similar to what customers want – on an ongoing basis.

In fine, strategic intervention of this genre, initiated by the CEO and cascading down the organizational hierarchy, creates a whole new patient-centric outcome, which is much more than what a company can get through re-engineering the operational processes. Hence, especially the young mangers of date, may wish to note note that during virtually every leadership transition, this atypical skill is now likely count much more than ever before – with an ascending trend.

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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