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The Polymath: A New Commercial Role in the Pharma Industry


Pharma requires leaders who are "polymaths" — that is, those with the breadth and depth of experience within each of the sub-functions of commercial operations. Niti Sawhney reports.

Post-Covid preparedness, omnichannel operations, sales and marketing alignment, software-enabled automation, and being future-ready with AI/ML technologies — these are some hot topics that are top of mind for many in the pharmaceutical commercial world. But not many are paying attention to an acute need that has emerged in the last five years. That is, a new role within the pharma commercial world — the ​“polymath” commercial operations leader​. This is someone who has the breadth, but more importantly, the depth of experience within each of the sub-functions of commercial operations, from data management, data analytics, and BI reporting platforms, to sales force automation systems, and sales force deployment and effectiveness solutions.

Rapid R&D innovation leading to new commercialization dynamics

As the industry has quickly moved towards rare and specialty drugs, there has been a rapid increase in R&D activity and new drug approvals. Despite the pandemic, FDA has kept up the pace of new drug approvals with record number of approvals in 2020. This has a direct impact on the commercial function, which has been taken aback by the rapid pace of drug development. The time available to prepare for a product launch has reduced dramatically, along with the budget to launch multiple smaller drugs instead of the blockbuster that many in the industry have been so used to. Scarcity drives innovation and efficiency, but many in pharma have never worked in such conditions and find themselves struggling to adapt to this new reality.

Lack of polymaths in the pharma commercial world

Every year, dozens of companies get ready to launch a new drug. They typically start with recruiting leaders in the commercial analytics and operations space. But most leaders have had limited hands-on experience. Depending on how you count, there are anywhere from 10-20 sub-functions within a commercial group. Regardless of the number of years of experience, most commercial leaders have not had the opportunity to work in more than three to four sub-functions. For example, it’s very common to find someone who has sales operations experience in areas of alignments, call planning, and intellectual capital, but limited or no knowledge of data management, reporting, CRM, fleet, compliance, and the wide range of commercial analytics required to be successful.

Some people would have you believe that professionals on the consulting and vendor side have wider experience. Though there are always exceptions, for most part it’s a myth. It’s not uncommon to find leaders who are heading commercial functions, but have limited knowledge of specific critical areas of commercialization. They end up depending heavily on vendors. More importantly, they have little understanding of how cross-functional teams, processes, and systems need to be built. This has a direct impact on business growth, leads to inefficiency, and stalls innovation.

Building a function vs. running a function

There is still a lot of uncertainty regarding the future success of the product when the initial commercial teams are formed. Accordingly, all available resources must be used with caution. The typical approach is to be conservative in hiring and building out the commercial teams with limited budget for the key commercial roles. Against this backdrop, recruiters are given the task to hunt for commercial leaders who have built and run the commercial function. At a very broad level, building a function vs. running a function are two very different undertakings. The mindset, approach, knowledge, resources, and challenges of each are very different. However, most recruiters have no option but to ignore that critical difference, simply because there is a shortage of leaders in the market who have actually built something from scratch. Someone with hands-on experience who has both built and managed an end-to-end commercial function would be an ideal candidate. But most leaders have grown up the ranks working in niche areas, so recruiters rely mostly on their experience in ‘’running‘’ the commercial function.

There are major flaws in this approach.

  • Because of lack of depth of knowledge in each of the sub-functions, most of these candidates can only be effective with multiple resources under them. They are dependent on their team’s knowledge and experience. But, at this stage, they do not have the luxury to hire for all the expertise because of limited budgets.
  • With limited knowledge of specific areas, these leaders can make hiring mistakes, and they must rely on external consultants for most functional expertise.
  • Most leaders give-in to the demands and complexities of the role and leave for another more “settled” role at a bigger company or an established product to reduce the amount of work-related stress. A major part of this failure is not that the role is difficult, which it is, rather, the lack of inexperience and organization required to succeed. So, the attrition rate is extremely high, except where leaders are extremely resilient and quickly adapt to the need, or the budget is free-flowing and allows for a quick ramp up of the team.

Working for a smaller company

As the pace of innovation continues to increase, there will be increasing demand for such leaders. The good news is that there are leaders out there who are a good match for this emerging role. These leaders have typically worked with smaller companies or smaller divisions where they have had the opportunity to do end-to-end work. They have built the breadth and depth of knowledge by doing hands-on work in each of the sub-functions from managing data, implementing technologies and systems, running analytics to support decision making, and running end-to-end operations. I believe that the demand for such leaders would increase dramatically and working for smaller companies doing hands-on cross-functional work will have a lot more significance than doing niche work at a bigger company. Such leaders are far and few between because most folks are lured early-on by the opportunity to work for big pharma that offers great compensation and benefits and has large sub-functional teams.

A new approach to hiring and building a career

Hiring management and recruiters have to start using a new lens when searching for such candidates because the breadth and depth is not just important when building the function, but also when scaling it, driving innovation, and enabling cross-functional synergies. A ‘polymath’ commercial leader will soon become the most prized hire and a competitive advantage for new drugs to be successful. Accordingly, professionals working in the pharma commercial world must proactively build their skills and experience. Most new drug innovations and investments would be wasted if there are not enough commercial leaders to successfully commercialize them.

Niti Sawhney is Head of Sales Operations at Nestlé Health Sciences.

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