What business can learn from the military

May 27, 2009
By Pharmaceutical Executive

The global pharmaceutical market is forecasted to enjoy unprecedented growth in the next decade. Despite this backdrop, the industry is facing a number of challenges including, shrinking product pipelines, rising SG&A costs and increased regulatory constraints. While the pharmaceutical industry has not experienced the meltdown associated with other sectors during this recession, credit squeezes has further slowed pipeline development as early-stage companies struggle for financing and major companies re-think expenditure budgets.

As the business climate turns colder, I find that most business leaders I know who are succeeding are doing so on principles similar to those used in the tense, highly uncertain situations the military specialises in. Troops and employees are not interchangeable terms, but the responsibilities of leaders in business and battle are similar, especially in crisis. In the military, there are three 'dos' to remember as a leader.

Firstly, everyone is afraid in a battle — the leader included. However, a leader should not show this to the troops (forget all the modern talk about showing your weaknesses and vulnerability!), or otherwise you will confirm and amplify their fear. No matter how bad and fed up you feel — don't show it!

Secondly, do not let your troops lie down in a firefight or they will not want to get up. Instead you need to maintain moment and purpose. If now is not the moment for the big push, keep their energy and enthusiasm with worthwhile tasks (and definitely not ones that will be cancelled half-way through).

Thirdly, it is the leader's responsibility to bring his troops back alive. Leaders should do all they can to get good performance from a team but should remember that these are real people with real emotions — the City has forgotten that you can't buy loyalty, yet it is this that is the mark of a successful leader.

In both the military and in business, leaders need to 'train hard to fight easy,' to deal with ambiguity, and expect the unexpected. For the pharmaceutical executives looking to restore leadership in their company, the following are crucial — understanding your situation, having a sense of drive to achieve the aims, and maintaining flexibility to adapt your plans as to how to get to the end goal.

Effective action in battlefields is only possible if a clear strategy exists. In the military, once the goal is set, it needs to be intelligible to everyone. Everyone down to the foot soldier needs to understand not only that, for example, taking the hill is important, but why it is (in this case, to protect the village, which itself plays a part in ultimately winning the war).

Such a strong strategy is equally crucial in business. If every employee understands their part in the overall goal, they can perform at their best. Leaders must ensure their team's efforts are aligned with organisational intent. All employees, not just their close team, require a clear framework within which they can operate — with genuine freedom to succeed. This is only possible having considered one's goals, and the goals of those above and below, in detail. That way people's reactions are as informed as possible while remaining agile.

If communication is clear from the CEO to the ground floor and back, it can mean the difference between the red and the black at the end of the year. More than this, teams will follow a leader enthusiastically if they believe he (or she) knows where he is going. This is not about having all the answers, but setting a clear target.

In the present economic climate, leaders are tempted to batten down the hatches and weather the storm. They cut back on training, research and marketing. But that's not the right way forward. Many businesses we work with, such as Pfizer and Argenta, are in fundamentally good shape. Cutting back means that when conditions improve they are suddenly at a disadvantage to their competition.

Ultimately, now more than ever it's time for the leaders to stand up and be counted. It's time for them to lead.