Q&A With Harvard Business School Professor Linda A. Hill

If less than half of c-suites believe their organizations have the right talent to compete in the digital era, what is the playbook for a turnaround in talent development? In this installment of the Harvard Business School Healthcare Alumni Association (HBSHAA) Q&A series, Harvard Business School Professor Linda A. Hill, PhD, shares her insights on this topic with Pharmaceutical Executive contributor Michael Wong.

Wong: During our last Q&A, you shared ideas on increasing the velocity of transformation for the pharmaceutical industry via collective genius. Specifically, you explained how great leaders of innovation do not fit the conventional mold of “good” leadership where c-suite members are thought to be visionaries who set direction and inspire others to follow. Instead, your research pointed to how leaders who create organizations that routinely innovate, although visionary, focus more on creating the context in which others are both willing and able to innovate. Innovation is a voluntary act and is more about co-creation than followership.

But do c-suites have such talent across their global operations to take such actions? After all, your recent research pointed to 97% agree or strongly agree that companies won’t remain competitive unless they embark on a digital transformation, and yet only 47% believe their organizations have the right talent to compete in the digital era.1

Hill: I just finished teaching an executive education course on leading digital transformation. Executives shared strategies about how to address the formidable challenge of attracting, and more importantly, retaining top digital talent. But they all acknowledged that to catalyze digital transformation, the key imperative is to upskill everyone in the organization. The upskilling is more about changing mindsets and behaviors than competencies. In our research, it is mindsets like curiosity, not coding, that the c-suite believes will make the difference.2

While digital literacy is important, not everyone needs to be a Python programmer. What is most important is how leaders and their employees collaborate with people who do have specialized skills. No one function alone has the whole picture. In our program, we did a simulation to demonstrate all the ethical dilemmas associated with developing an algorithm. The programmers alone cannot make those judgment calls. We also were able to show that only by working together did the business unit leaders come to ask “the right questions” to get their analytics teams to run A/B experiments that would provide answers about the problem they were trying to solve.

As most people are self-conscious about exposing their limitations, c-suite leaders should set the tone by leaving, as one put it, “their ivory towers,” and problem-solve alongside members of cross-functional and cross-generational teams. By displaying their willingness to engage with and seek advice from the technologists, they can encourage others to adopt an enterprise-wide learning and customer-centric mindset.

Wong: As companies plan for their 2023 talent management efforts, what three recommendations should they consider in building a capable workforce that can successfully compete in the digital era?

Hill: First, c-suites need to provide easy-to-use tools that can help facilitate collaboration both within their organizations but also with the stakeholders—including customers—in their respective ecosystems. For sure, those who rely on an API design approach and on visualization tools are finding more adoption of technology by employee and customers. But the only real way to develop user-friendly tools is for those developing the tools to work hand-in-glove with those who are supposed to use those tools.

C-suite executives are coming to see that their digital talent needs to have empathic and communication skills. It is not surprising that so many companies are adding design thinking talent to their digital organizations—to help their digital talent “fall in love with the problems of the users,” as opposed to their favorite cutting-edge technical solution, as one executive put it.

Second, from my engagement with global c-suites, it is clear that despite the well-intended significant investments in digital assets, many are underutilized. These dormant assets are an untapped resource that can be used to build future-forward coalitions with stakeholders able to innovate and address challenges that no one organization can tackle alone.

C-suites and their employees need to embrace a new playbook of building partnerships—often across sectors—with others in their ecosystems if they are to meet increasing demands for business to play a role in addressing some of society’s most intractable challenges like sustainability and inequality. C-suites need to develop leaders who can think both strategically and systemically—who can connect the dots and figure out how to catalyze change well beyond the boundaries of their organizations.

While several Fortune 500s have made statements about how they must collaborate with other ecosystem stakeholders to achieve bold ambitions, the payoff only comes when alliances of organizations can scale from idea to implementation. This is where collective genius comes in—how does the c-suite develop leaders able to work across multiple organizations willing and able to collaborate, experiment, and learn together. This is a tall order since so many c-suites still struggle to break down the silos inside their own organizations.

Finally, c-suite leaders need to provide a corporate setting that balances the urgency for speed and the understanding of the long-game. One example is Pfizer’s vice president of global clinical supply (GCS), Michael Ku, who led a 10-year cultural and digital transformation of Pfizer’s global clinical supply organization.

In 2011, Ku was promoted to his current position after the company had undergone large-scale mergers and acquisitions and outsourcing initiatives. He and his new leadership team set out to build a patient’s first proactive, end-to-end, digital, and physical clinical supply chain. It took three years to get the cultural foundation in place, another three to overhaul GCS's legacy systems and develop its digital capabilities, and another three to embed a culture of innovation across his evolving global organization. As Ku and other leaders will tell you, digital transformation is never done—new emerging technologies are creating ever more exciting possibilities.

As most of your readers might guess, maintaining that type of sustainable focus and commitment is challenging given the typical organizational changes that occur at Fortune 500s. Still, by 2020, GCS had made significant progress toward becoming the agile, innovative organization necessary to support Pfizer’s new strategy to focus exclusively on developing innovative medicines and vaccines. The group was just beginning to pilot a 24-hour, five-day-a-week workforce model when COVID-19 struck. The team found itself on the front lines having to supply Pfizer’s vaccine candidate and investigational antiviral studies, while also ensuring continuity of clinical supply to hundreds of other trials across the globe.

The lesson learned was that because of the 10-year investment they had spent on their cultural and digital transformation, they were ready to rise to the challenge and help Pfizer deliver a COVID-19 vaccine in record time.3 By having the right talent, technology, and processes in place, this team created value that supported Pfizer’s big bet during the COVID-19 days.

Linda Hill, PhD, is the Wallace Brett Donham Professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School and chair of the Leadership Initiative. She completed a post-doctoral research fellowship at the Harvard Business School, earned a PhD at the University of Chicago, and received a BA from Bryn Mawr College.

Michael Wong is an emeritus board member of the Harvard Business School Healthcare Alumni Association.

References

  1. Hill, Linda A., Le Cam, Ann, Menon, Sunand, and Tedards, Emily, Where Can Digital Transformation Take You? Insights from 1,700 Leaders, Harvard Business School Working Knowledge, Jan. 31, 2022
  2. Hill, Linda A., Le Cam, Ann, Menon, Sunand, and Tedards, Emily, Curiosity, Not Coding: 6 Skills Leaders Need in the Digital Age, Harvard Business School Working Knowledge, Feb. 14, 2022
  3. Hill, Linda A and Tedards, Emily, Michael Ku, and Global Clinical Supply at Pfizer Inc.: Bringing Hope to Patients (C), HBS Case Collection, October 2021