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Gain Competitive Advantage: Think Like a Navy SEAL


Pharmaceutical Executive

Pharmaceutical professionals, teams, and organizations can succeed at an elite level by tackling the tough mental challenges of Navy SEAL training, writes Stan Bernard.

Pharmaceutical professionals, teams, and organizations can succeed at an elite level by tackling the tough mental challenges of Navy SEAL training, writes Stan Bernard.

Victorious warriors win first in their minds, and then go to war. Defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win. - Sun Tzu, Author of The Art of War (544 BCE-496 BCE)

Training to become a United States Navy SEAL (SEa, Land, and Air) or “Special Warfare Operator” is considered among the most intensive and preparation in the world. The average successful Navy SEAL candidate spends over a year in a series of formal training environments, including a rigorous Boot Camp; the Basic Underwater Demolition (“BUDS”) course combining basic conditioning, diving, and land warfare training; Basic Parachute Training; and Advanced Specialty Training, including sniper, explosives, and tactical communications training. During BUDS Training, candidates must survive “Hell Week,” five 20-hour days of continuous physical training, including running over 200 miles.

Stan Bernard

While most people focus on the physical challenges of SEAL Training, few appreciate the arduous mental preparation which helps SEALs win a mission even before they conduct it. In his recent best-selling book The Way of the Seal: Think Like an Elite Warrior to Lead and Succeed, former SEAL Mark Devine reveals many SEAL conceptual frameworks that can be used for not only military battles but also brand battles. For example, SEAL approaches to “bulletproof mission planning” and “high-value target” selection are readily applicable to product launches and competitive action planning, respectively.

Devine believes that “to win at anything, we must first control our minds.” Pharmaceutical professionals, teams, and organizations can apply many of these conceptual practices to enhance their mental toughness and establish a winning attitude. Here are some of the most relevant SEAL principles to help pharmaceutical professionals succeed at an elite level.

Find a Way: According to Devine, the unofficial motto of the Navy SEAL is “Find a way or make a way.” SEALs are mentally trained to possess a can–do attitude. They do not think or believe they are going to win; they know they are going to find a way to win. SEALs are taught to “deliberately break the mold,” “innovate and adapt quickly,” “operate in the present, “break inertia with decisive action,” and “to excel in chaos.” SEALs have the mental toughness to persevere no matter what the odds.

Winning pharma professionals and brand teams embrace a similar can-do attitude. They manage to overcome competitive challenges, compliance issues, regulatory hurdles, resource constraints, organizational bureaucracy, and - perhaps most importantly - their own real or pre-conceived limitations.

• Train for Life: Devine describes how SEALs utilize a three-phase “crawl, walk, run” training approach which corresponds to learning fundamental, specialized, and advanced theories and skills. SEALs are constantly training as individuals, in their platoons, and as part of larger task groups to maintain, enhance, and ultimately master their skills.

Ironically, most pharma companies only provide competitive training for their sales representatives and not for the rest of their extended multi-disciplinary brand team members. According to a survey of 58 pharmaceutical executives conducted by the market research firm Ipsos, only 7% of pharmaceutical companies do an effective job of training non-sales professionals. Over the past five years, executives reported attending, on average, only one training course pertaining to competition in the marketplace; more than one-third report receiving no training at all. Imagine the consequences of a SEAL Team that has only one of its SEALs trained to fight?

Like SEAL Training, competitive training for non-sales pharmaceutical professionals typically consists of fundamental training emphasizing competitive analysis, strategy, and actions; specialized training in topics such as Multi-Level Competition, Competitive Conference Management, and Winning Beyond the Molecule; and advanced training focusing on product launches/counter-launches and product lifecycle management stages. Those pharma companies implementing such training are gaining a significant competitive advantage.

• Bulletproof the Mission: SEAL Teams must identify and evaluate multiple different options to determine the optimal approach for each mission. The details of the selected option ultimately become the mission plan. Devine recommends the four question “PROP Process” to assist in this planning: What are the current priorities? What are the realities of the situation? What options do your targets offer? What path forward will you select to succeed?

The results of the PROP Process should provide both clear mission objectives and the desired future state. To ensure the alignment and support of key stakeholders, SEAL Teams often communicate the mission plans by using graphic images and three-dimensional displays. Pharma brand teams can learn from and adopt a version of the PROP Process for market and competitive planning.

• Dirt-Dive the Mission: “Dirt-dive the mission” is SEAL-speak for “rehearsing until the team has won the mission in their minds.” For example, after the Joint Operations Command SEAL Team located Osama bin Laden, they rehearsed their mission for months in their minds and in a mock compound, ensuring that they would be fully prepared.

Similarly, pharma companies should regularly rehearse their plans for product launches, counter-launches, and other competitive activities in the form of Competitive Simulations, the new, improved version of business war games. The most successful pharma companies conduct Competitive Simulations every quarter for their major products and at least annually for their other products. Like SEALs, these companies conduct Simulations for many different types of situations, including for not only brand competitions but also franchise and portfolio planning; annual brand plans or longer-term strategic plans; new product indications or data releases; major professional conferences; and global, regional, and local market planning.

• Develop Front-Sight Focus – “Front-sight focus” is how Devine describes the incredible concentration and single-mindedness that SEALS rely on when pursuing a target. They literally and figuratively have a laser focus on one target at a time and do not shift focus to a second target until the original target is eliminated. They utilize a variety of techniques such as meditation, deep breathing exercises, and mental visualization to build a mental defense against distractions and keep a clear mind to effectively choose and pursue these targets.

Prior to their mission, SEALS deliberately select “high-value targets” where their resources are best directed to achieve the overall mission. They apply the four-question “FITS Process” to analyze and prioritize these targets: Does this target fit your team’s skills and does it give a good return on investment? How important is this target to achieving mission success? Is the timing optimal for pursuing this target? Is the target simple and clear?

Pharma professionals can leverage front-sight focus to complete prioritized projects, streamline their commitments, and start new initiatives without getting derailed. The FITS Process can help these professionals identify the 3-5 “highest value targets” or the essential action steps for winning against competitors.

Very few people have the ability, desire, or opportunity to become a Navy SEAL. However, pharma professionals can apply these cutting-edge approaches to learn the mental fortitude, leadership skills, and winning mentality of the world’s most elite warriors.

Stan Bernard, MD, MBA is President of Bernard Associates, LLC, a leading global pharmaceutical industry competition consulting firm offering competitive simulations, strategy, and launch/counter-launch services. He can be reached at SBernardMD@BernardAssociatesLLC.com

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