Promoted too soon?

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Pharmaceutical Representative

Some reps may be promoted to management before they're ready.

Unprecedented industry growth during the last two years has led to a national sales force expansion unlike any the U.S. pharmaceutical industry has ever seen. The Hay Group, a Philadelphia-based human resources management consulting firm, estimated that there will be 60,000 reps in the field by the end of 1999. Others speculate that there are already this many reps or more. By either estimate, there are 10,000 more sales reps in the field than there were two years ago and almost double the number in 1995.

While this is great news for those interested in a career in pharmaceutical sales, it creates a unique challenge for pharmaceutical companies. For every 10 to 12 new sales reps, a company must fill a district manager position to oversee them. And in the rush to fill the need for new managers, some companies may be forced to promote sales reps to district managers before experience brings them the skills district management requires.

Today, the Hay Group estimates that 65% of district managers have two years of management experience or less, a figure Larry Gabe, vice president and general manager of Sales Staff Surveys (a division of the Hay Group) said should be closer to 20%.

"Because of all the expansion that occurred, companies look down the bench and wonder who is going to become a DM," he said. "That is why you're going to see people who were in the field two or three years as sales reps being promoted. That's awfully early, experience base-wise and knowledge-wise to touch a person on the shoulder, not provide a lot of developmental training and say, 'Congratulations, you are now a manager.'"

Steve Connelly, director of executive education for St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia, agreed: "There's a certain amount of wisdom and judgement that comes from time on the job and time in the field. When you try to accelerate that judgement – I'm not saying it's not possible – but all of a sudden the district is seeing people who are more green."

Sales reps in districts led by new managers have noticed the trend and recognize the challenges their new managers face. One sales rep with a large pharmaceutical company said he knows of a manager who spent only six months as a district manager before he was demoted back to a position as a sales rep – a demotion the sales rep attributes to inexperience. "From a managerial standpoint, there was just no experience," he said. "This is someone who may have been successful as a sales person, but [he] was working on his own and not really managing other people. Managing yourself and managing other people are two different things."

This type of incident carries even more weight when one considers the huge impact a manager has on his or her district. "The first-line manager, the district manager in the pharmaceutical industry, is the most important person in the whole sales organization," said Gabe. "They are the biggest leverage point. They are touching, on average, 10 sales people in the entire district, and they are singly the most important person."

Advice for the inexperienced

According to Connelly, the director at St. Joseph's University, one trap inexperienced managers fall into is they let their confidence in their promotion cloud their judgement.

"One of the common mistakes [new district managers] make is that they think what they did to get promoted is the right thing for everybody to do," he said. "They need to become more open to the idea that there isn't a right way, there's often many right ways, and that requires flexibility in one's management style." Connelly recommended that new district managers listen to their sales reps and let the reps help contribute to the management of a district.

Seasoned reps can make great allies for an inexperienced district manager and can offer a lot of advice and input on how a district can be managed. Because of their years in the field, they may already be highly trusted by the other reps. "Often times, some of the more senior reps in a district become the peer leaders, almost the de facto district manager," said Connelly. "One of the things that a new manager can do is to try to immediately identify who the peer leaders are and try to form an alliance with them so that those peer leaders end up visibly supporting the new manager's decisions."

But what about the rep who has been in the field for 15 years and is skeptical of a new manager who has only two years of field experience? In this instance, the inexperienced manager has to gain the trust of the veteran rep before the manager can make the rep an ally.


"New managers have to establish credibility early on with the seasoned rep in the district," said James Brockway, manager of integrated health training for TAP Pharmaceuticals, Deerfield, IL. "They have to let that rep know that they are going to help them with their career and successfully guide the district by becoming not only an expert in the skills that the reps use every day, but also in what's required of a manager." According to Brockway, these skills include both clinical and sales skills. Once new managers show seasoned reps that they know their stuff, they can win them over.

Another way a new manager can establish credibility with seasoned reps, according to Mark Osborne, director of sales and development for Chicago-based Searle, is to show them that he or she is a person who can get things done for them. "When they have a need, and it is something as a new manager you can identify and then make happen, I think that starts to get their attention, and it sends the signal to them that you are there to help them out," Osborne said. "That helps to establish trust and credibility."

Once new district managers have won over the district, they need to establish clear goals for what they hope to achieve and what they expect their people to accomplish. But how does a new manager with only a couple of years in the field know what he or she wants a sales team to accomplish?

"They don't, that's just it," said Brockway. "They have to sit down and figure it out. Sometimes they don't have clear expectations, which can confuse the representative."

Keeping the lines of communication open, and attempting to manage "through their rep's eyes" can eliminate misunderstandings, according to Brockway. "Because managers see things only from their [own] eyes, they get tunnel vision and they only want things to be done their way," he said. "But maybe the rep's way is a good way, or maybe there's another way somebody's doing things outside of the district that is the best way."

Frequent communication is also necessary between a district manager and his or her regional sales manager. Regional managers are a great resource for ideas or advice. "Keep them informed. They can help you out a lot," said Osborne. "Bounce ideas off your manager. Get advice from them, ideas, because they want you to succeed. They want to support you."

Another source of support for a new manager is a mentor. This person, who is an experienced manager, can help by providing ideas, advice, questions and a listening ear. Fortunately, establishing a mentor relationship is something that's relatively easy to do. "Some companies have a formal program, some companies have an informal program, or it may just be that you have to go to your manager and ask them to hook you up with a more experienced manager who can help your development in your new role," said Osborne.

Preparing for management

Though it can be difficult for an inexperienced rep to handle a promotion to a management position, it is by no means impossible.

Prior development of key management skills and competencies makes for a smoother transition into a district manager job. "In advance of going into a position, you can work to build skills - if management is something you want to do," said Osborne. "Once you've identified what the competencies are for being an effective manager and get some feedback on where you are, you can work to develop those skills before you become a manager."

This preparation can include anything from leading the district meetings to offering to ride with a new rep and coach him or her on how to do a good job. "Those are experiences that will mirror some of the activities you might encounter as a manager, so it gives you opportunities to experience and learn," Osborne explained.

Many pharmaceutical companies are making it easier for newer reps to break into management by tailoring their training to each rep's strengths and weaknesses.

According to Larry Gabe, pharmaceutical companies used to give everyone the exact same training. However, he has noticed a shift toward focusing the training on each manager's needs. "Today I'm seeing companies identifying what managers need for developmental purposes If it's coaching for performance, for example, there's a coaching for performance skills course and videotape, or program, or whatever it might be for that competency that that manager goes through. But, if that manager has a strength in that area, you don't waste your time there, you go to another area," says Gabe.

Other companies are offering assessment programs, so that reps who are being considered for management can get an idea of where their weaknesses exist and work on those weaknesses before they get promoted. Said one rep who went through one of these week-long programs: "This was a week where I had to go through all kinds of different management scenarios–real-world scenarios– that you would come across out in the field. For everything I did, I had three people sitting back and evaluating how I interacted in those role-plays. I think you need to have those scenarios because you need to think about them ahead of time, versus being put in that position not having any experience at all." PR