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Pivotal Moments: How Leaders Can Prepare for the Unexpected


Pharmaceutical Executive

Pharmaceutical ExecutivePharmaceutical Executive-06-01-2020
Volume 40
Issue 6

Balancing bold and pragmatic approaches during times of crisis.

Elaine Quilici

Flexibility, adaptability, and open-mindedness are all important concepts when it comes to running a business. You never know when a curve ball will catch you by surprise. But when that curve ball is big enough to change

your entire game-say a global pandemic-these qualities become critical. Sure, leaders can draw on their experiences for possible direction, but in unprecedented times, there is no proven course of action to follow. There is no playbook to rely on.

“Having an open mind and being agile and flexible are almost table stakes in situations like these,” says Dana M. Krueger, managing director and global healthcare sector leader at Russell Reynolds Associates. “But what makes a leader really stand out is being decisive and willing to take risks. That means not only are you open for input more broadly, you’re also keeping the longer term in mind, you’re grounding things in purpose, and you’re willing to make a decision that might be wrong, but you can always change course as necessary.”

Though it may seem risky, bold decision-making can help cut through the ambiguity of novel situations. It’s easy to become paralyzed by the amount of everchanging information coming across your desk, but swift choices keep you moving. While there is potential for mistakes when acting quickly, the key is to know when to pivot. It’s okay to try a different, riskier approach, as long as you recognize where the new direction can lead you.

“That really instills confidence in an organization, in a team, and energizes people around a common goal,” says Krueger.

While being bold to address short-term priorities is important, you need to strike a balance with thinking toward the future. Eventually, the crisis will subside, and it’s what you’re prepared to do at the other end that will carry you forward. This is a great time to tap into your company’s core values and mission statement. Weighing options against what is fundamental to the company can help guide decisions.

The pharma industry is unique in that it has a clear purpose: to help patients. Though that critical value driver has always been there, many companies are now demonstrating that commitment, not only by racing to develop treatments for COVID-19, but by donating time and goods to people on the frontlines (see story here).

“Confirming an enterprise’s purpose and reminding every team member of the ‘why’ is essential to rallying people around what is needed to rise to this challenge,” says Krueger. “Leaders in this industry will need purpose-led leadership as a core competency in their success profile going forward, otherwise they’re not going to be able to drive success.”

Another way to be prepared for a crisis is to invest in continuing learning and education so that when the need arises, you will have a broader base of knowledge to leverage decisions.

“Even if you don’t have an immediate application for an insight, that continuous curiosity-whether it’s learning content or improving your own leadership or whatever it is-if it’s part of your repertoire, that will at some point in your career become relevant and helpful,” says Krueger.

As much as leaders need to focus on business matters and values, there is another element that can’t be ignored during a crisis-people. Reaching out to individuals to understand their needs and responding to those needs with empathy can provide a clearer picture on how to lead them.

Creating open lines of communication is paramount. While it’s common to hear about the need for frequent and clear communication during trying times, it’s not just about sending messages. Leaders need to be open to receiving messages. A time of crisis can be an opportunity to seek and incorporate feedback from employees into the decision-making process.

“Great leaders change their approach to communication in times of crisis by making it more two-way than it might [be] in a typical scenario,” says Krueger. “If they engage earnestly with those around them, have the humility to ask questions, and listen to a wide range of opinions, they often create not only a sense of togetherness, but they also often are able to envision and ultimately rally the broader organization around what is the path forward.”

Of course, emerging from a crisis is not a one-person job, and one of the most effective ways to prepare for the unexpected is to prepare others to be leaders. “The best leaders step up individually during turbulent times, but they also provide others the latitude to lead,” says Krueger. “In turbulent times, the strongest leadership often comes from those without senior titles. Don’t stand in the way, and let emerging stars shine.”


Elaine Quilici is Pharm Exec’s Senior Editor. She can be reached at equilici@mjhlifesciences.com

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