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Breaking Orbit


How pharmaceutical leaders at established companies can still disrupt the status quo and change the game.

Pamela S. Harper

Pamela S. Harper

Why do some successful pharmaceutical organizations become “The Disruptors” and others become “The Disrupted?” What type of leadership does it take to break through the constraints of success to reimagine what’s possible, and innovate to keep bringing new products and services to life to keep pace with a world that is changing in so many ways faster than ever before?

In the face of the COVID-19 health emergency, multiple pharmaceutical companies have heroically re-prioritized their business models to rapidly develop, seek approvals for, and launch sorely needed COVID-19 vaccines and therapeutics. But in the absence of a similarly compelling emergency, how will pharmaceutical leaders break out of the orbit of their status quo? How can they help their company innovate and transform to meet emerging challenges arising from constantly shifting therapeutic needs along with evolving environmental, social, and governance issues?

D. Scott Harper, PhD

D. Scott Harper, PhD

It’s undeniable that success feels good. It is natural to want to keep doing what has already led to saving lives, creating new value in the world, and helping people feel engaged in work actually worth doing. The desire to stay with what is working well can be further reinforced by increased growth and profitability. Yet, some of the top leaders of the world’s most successful companies have confided in us that success has its limits. As one CEO shared, “I stay up nights thinking about how to keep our organization from becoming complacent about our success. We can’t live in a constant state of emergency.”

Many visionary pharmaceutical executives embrace the foundational approach of leading to their companies' aspirational purpose, vision, and mission. However, despite this, they share with us that there can still be a gap between this aspiration and the reality of the sometimes "strange" responses that employees, partners, and other stakeholders may have to moving in a different direction to achieve the next level of innovation, transformation, and growth.

Every leadership team’s challenge of breaking free of the orbit of their status quo is unique. For instance, a few years ago, the visionary CEO of a public mid-market pharmaceutical company reached out to us, concerned about the stubborn pushback he was facing from some of his Board members. The CEO’s vision to expand reach in the company’s established therapeutic market included the strategy of filing several new drug applications for different dosage forms. Several Board members disagreed with this strategy, concerned that the investment required to expand the company’s offerings would decrease short-term profitability and potentially decrease shareholder value. While both the CEO and Board had valid perspectives, this stalemate kept top leadership—and the entire company—circling firmly in the orbit of the status quo. While the company was currently successful, it was in danger of missing these emerging opportunities to expand its reach and was at risk of disruption from competitors.

In a separate instance, an executive of another pharma company turned to us because he was deeply concerned that despite his leadership team’s outward agreement on vision, mission, and strategy to launch multiple products in a new geographical market, they were not taking the necessary actions to reach their critical milestones for transformation and roll out. This was causing them to risk their window of opportunity in this new market, which put both their top- and bottom-line growth targets in jeopardy.

What did these two companies have in common? Their leadership teams were both dealing with the paradoxical issues of moving from a comfortable status quo into promising but uncharted territory. When these leadership teams reframed their situations and increased their awareness of what was actually behind the challenges they faced, they were able to discover more options to break free of the forces holding them in place.

Three “Growth Igniters®” paradoxes

As unique as every company is, we’ve learned that visionary CEOs and top leadership teams who are able to consistently lead their companies to new heights of innovation, transformation, and growth share a similar mindset of expansive thinking, curiosity, and cultural intelligence. This enables them to embrace three particular leadership paradoxes that tend to naturally emerge when they move to challenge the forces of their status quo. We call these the “Growth Igniters Paradoxes.” The greater the ambiguity of a situation, the greater the likelihood is of encountering these paradoxical challenges.

On one side of each paradox is the appeal of the rationally conceived new vision, strategies, and objectives that can promise substantial rewards. On the other side are complex human dynamics issues rooted in neurobiology. In essence, stakeholders often feel ambivalent about putting what has worked up to date at risk for unproven, albeit attractive, promises.

As everyone is under pressure to move at warp speed in an extremely complex environment, it’s natural for even the savviest leadership teams as we described above to address some issues on one side of the paradox while leaving some issues on the other side unresolved. This can lead to hit-and-miss outcomes that leave a company vulnerable to disruption from competitors with new business models and technology, or other rapid changes in the business environment.

The more aware you are of the Growth Igniters Paradoxes and how they may show up in your unique culture, the more likely it is that you and your leadership team can embrace these issues and take the necessary action that is best suited for your company to break free of the orbit of your status quo.

As we’ve helped leadership teams such as the ones in the examples above, we’ve learned that the three Growth Igniters Paradoxes often combine like a knot that’s hard to untie. This is because all three of these paradoxes are associated with ambivalence as well as the need for speed, as we saw in both of the examples above. This is why these issues can sometimes seem so mysterious and be so persistent. To untangle the knot, it’s important to understand each paradox and its unique impact on your situation.

The visionary’s paradox: The bolder the vision, the stronger the pushback

While many leaders agree that a compelling vision can be a great asset in focusing energy and resources toward innovative objectives, visionaries often come to their big ideas from a personal space filled with their values, biases, knowledge, and experiences. However, when they try to engage other stakeholders who have their own biases, values, knowledge, and experiences, there may be a mismatch. As pharmaceutical companies are increasingly reliant upon not only employees but a variety of external relationships including strategic alliances and outsource providers, the human dynamics and cultures within and between organizations matter more than ever. For instance, in the case of the two companies we described, each had critical stakeholders whose unvoiced and unresolved interests kept them locked in active or passive resistance. Understanding which stakeholders may be most important for a particular strategy’s success, and the thoughts and feelings supporting these perspectives, is foundational for breaking free of the orbit of the status quo.

The success paradox: The stronger the push toward new paths to growth, the stronger the pull of the status quo

This gets to the heart of the issue: While a visionary CEO may feel very excited and engaged by the prospect of game-changing innovation and transformation for growth, other stakeholders may perceive the same vision as a threat. In fact, neuroscientist Tali Sharot cites research on confirmation bias suggesting that over-relying upon facts, figures, and data alone to make a case for change can actually lead people to dig further into their established positions. This is where emotions and perceptions come into play. Since each of us perceives the world in our own way, “go big or go home” decisions happen when you can help others reframe the situation so each individual is able to maximize his or her perception of the rewards he or she personally find meaningful for moving in a new direction. In the examples we described, each leadership team had reached an impasse based upon data supporting its positions. Once we helped the leaders to collectively reframe their situations so they could individually perceive the relevance of the innovation and transformation, they were able to quickly make the major strategy and execution decisions regarding the journey ahead.

The momentum paradox: The organization that accelerates momentum for growth creates friction

Even when everyone seems to agree on a game-changing strategy for innovation, transformation, and growth, the orbit of the status quo can still persist. On one hand, growing in new directions, whether through organic growth, M&A, or partnerships, can add a level of talent and organizational capability that enables your company to dramatically accelerate momentum for growth. This often includes transforming roles for employees and external partners, adding new staff and partnering relationships, implementing new technologies including various forms of automation and digital transformation, and more. On the other hand, adding or changing technologies, roles, functions, people, and working modes can create new complexity and upheavals in a company’s culture as people, politics, responsibilities, and accountabilities change. Many times, these issues are not openly discussed and become destructive “elephants in the room.” For instance, in the second example of the company stalled in their efforts to move into a new geographical market, we spoke individually to leadership team members to foster greater comfort with surfacing their concerns and questions. We discovered that the leaders felt a lack of clarity in their roles and were undecided about how to proceed in the face of conflicting priorities. This was reinforced by their culture of being polite and discreet. When we brought the team together in a way that helped them feel safe discussing their frustration, confusion, and ambivalence, there was a tangible sense of relief as the “elephant in the room” finally came out of hiding. When they reframed this complexity as a natural part of growth, they were able to more easily focus on the challenge at hand and collaborate to make the necessary “go big or go home” decisions to move forward. This enabled them to increase the speed of their transformation and rollout by six months.

Breaking orbit for game-changing success in a constantly changing world

The pharmaceutical world continues to evolve in both expected and unexpected ways. As one CEO told us, “It’s one thing to be on top; it’s another thing to stay there.” The biggest factor that will help or hinder your ability to “be the disruptor and not the disrupted” is not external market or economic factors; it’s your ability to lead your organization to find hidden opportunities to break free of the status quo in every situation. Embracing the conflicting truths of the three Growth Igniters Paradoxes on an ongoing basis can help you and your team lead your company to break free of the constraints of your successful status quo. This can enable you to stay relevant to customers and other stakeholders and keep creating value for tomorrow, starting today.

Pamela S. (“Pam”) Harper is a keynote speaker, author, and Founding Partner/CEO of Business Advancement Inc. (BAI), a strategic growth advisory firm, and D. Scott Harper PhD is Senior Partner at BAI.

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