Future Pharma Leaders will be Failures

May 25, 2017

If you’ve suffered through a professional failure, here’s some good news: You could be the next successful pharmaceutical leader.

During a panel discussion at the FT US Healthcare & Life Sciences Summit in New York City last week, executive recruiters shared what characteristics future pharma leaders will possess, and one of those qualities was the ability to fail—and bounce back from it.

“Have you failed?” asked Janet Vergis, former CEO, OraPharma, and executive advisor to private equity. “I really don’t want to hire anyone who hasn’t failed before.”

She followed up by urging another important answer from candidates, “have you been in an industry that has been disrupted?”

Panelists explained that the pharma industry is on the brink of disruption, and future leaders in the field will need to have the skill set to deal with this type of business experience. That includes being willing, and knowing how, to fail, dust yourself off, and try again.

It also includes a willingness to listen to other opinions, surround yourself with a variety of viewpoints—including those outside of the pharma industry—as well as the willingness to adapt and learn something new.

“This kind of new leadership takes a lot of courage,” said Alyse Forcellina, lead, US healthcare practice, at Egon Zehnder.

Traditionally, leaders come in with a vision and they align people around it, she explained. Now, and looking to the future, a leader must come in with an open mind, surround themselves with a diverse set of perspectives, and visualize how it all fits into the contextual framework.

“You must be able to surround yourself with people who think differently than you, and you have to be comfortable with that,” Forcellina said. “We need data, but they also need to have intuition.”

Julie Staudenmier, senior director, global learning and development, at Pfizer agreed.

“It can’t be all about the data,” said Staudenmier. “They must seek out other perspectives and really listen to those perspectives.”

Disruption in healthcare, she explained, is coming from a variety of areas and the industry can’t work in silos anymore. Therefore, a pharma leader of the future needs to be able to work across various platforms.

Although millennials tend to get a bad rap when it comes to—well, everything—Vergis thinks they could be highly beneficial to the pharma industry.

“A millennial’s idea of a long-term job is three years, ours was 30, but that flexibility and nimble mindset is fantastic,” she said, adding how the industry is changing at such a rapid pace. “They also have an overwhelming desire to do something that makes a difference and that is [meaningful].”

Vergis sees “large potential” in the millennial skill set. Future pharma leaders cannot be complacent, and now more than ever, must keep updating their skills. 

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