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'Vision’ Quest: Leading Through Change


Pharmaceutical Executive

Pharmaceutical ExecutivePharmaceutical Executive-06-01-2019
Volume 39
Issue 6

Exploring the critical go-to strategies for biopharma C-suite executives in navigating organizational disruption and the impact of global change and volatility on their employees and business.

Exploring the critical go-to strategies for C-suite leaders in navigating organizational disruption in the biopharma industry and beyond



Those who work in the pharma, biotech, or healthcare industries know that change is constant. In order to stay relevant, companies need to continuously innovate, stay current with upcoming trends, and reinvent themselves in order to best serve their customers. Not only is the world’s population increasing dramatically, access to medicine and healthcare is now thankfully becoming available to regions that may have struggled economically in the past. We are able to get medication to more people faster, and more effectively.

However, there are several other factors having a dramatic impact on the industry and increasing the frequency of change exponentially. Technological advancement and digitalization are disrupting the way companies conduct business, not only in research, but across manufacturing, supply chain, marketing, and sales. Data mining, block chain, and artificial intelligence (AI) are only a few examples of why we cannot continue to do business as we have in the past. Processes will become more efficient, job roles will change, and industries will be impacted dramatically.

In addition to the technological changes that companies face, we are also dealing with economic disruption around the globe. Competition remains fierce and while access to medicine increases, so does access to production and adequate infrastructure for additional supply. M&A and partnerships continue to dominate discussions of large and small companies across all parts of the value chains. In order to remain competitive, organizations need to stay alert, agile, and ready for new opportunities. 

The landscape is also changing socially and politically. We are faced with democratic uncertainty in a large part of Western society. Trade wars with the East remain and we continue to debate global vs. national focus in many regions. Employees have gone from a more traditional “company-minded” focus to working in the rising gig economy. More people work remotely and virtually. There are more virtual freelancers, more service-oriented jobs, and a much more agile workforce. This will dramatically change the way life sciences companies do business in the future.

Leadership in a VUCA world

Top executives are well aware of this VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) world and, amid the disruptions, are taking the appropriate steps and actions to prepare their companies for the future. For example, John Upperman, vice president for Procurement, pharma services at Thermo Fisher Scientific, said the following regarding Thermo’s $7.2 billion acquisition of contract development and manufacturing Organization Patheon in 2017:

“We have gone through major changes in several areas as former Patheon employees. However, I believe we now have the unique opportunity to share different ideas and experiences, and to develop an improved strategy on how to enhance processes, services, and, most importantly, our customer’s experience, enabling our customers to improve the health of patients around the world. The integration remains challenging; however, in my view it is being very well managed. It has created a much broader path full of opportunities for both our customers and our employees.”

Strategies across many companies and divisions are being reconsidered and rewritten as change continues and organization identities are modified. Companies are becoming increasingly agile, focusing more on automation, improving their internal and external communication tools, and creating an overall better customer experience. With these changes, there is a desire to increase speed and reliability-all while attempting to reduce costs and improve effectiveness in serving their markets.

Change and the impact on employees 

Of course, while focusing on strategy and processes are important, it is also crucial to remember the impact on the individuals within an organization when disruption occurs. HR and people strategies are becoming more of a priority across several industries. These strategies not only include hiring, retaining quality talent, and ensuring there is a pipeline of strong candidates to lead the company into the future; they also focus on the overall employee experience. In pharma, it remains critical for leaders to have this mindset if they want to retain committed talent. “Helping people navigate disruption is one of my favorite parts of my job as a leader,” says  Upperman. “In particular, I know it is my responsibility to give my team confidence and peace of mind when we are going through times of change.”

It is important that organizational leaders also ask themselves how this increased frequency of change is affecting employees as not only individuals, but as part of the larger company-wide culture. Change and uncertainty typically have a significant impact on the emotional and mental states of employees. 

According to research by Prosci, which specializes in  change management practices, more fear leads to distraction, which could lead to a potential decrease in productivity across the organization (see Figure 1 below). However, companies need productivity to be higher than ever as we navigate the challenging roads ahead. Fortunately, research also shows that if the change is managed properly, productivity may actually increase as a result, and limited attrition will occur. Certain departments may experience the changes differently than others. This is dependent on several factors. However, research shows that effective change leadership always plays a critical role. 

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Strategic and relational change approaches

As we navigate this challenging space together, it helps to focus on the development of three key areas in what can be defined as a “transformation triangle”-strategic vision, refined processes, and relational dialogue (see Figure 2).

Strategic vision 

As it navigates times of change, a company usually first focuses on whether its strategic roadmap still makes sense given the dynamic environment. But it is important to focus on the “vision” aspect of the strategy- where is the company going, and, most importantly, why? 

Organizations tend to be drawn to compelling, captivating, and moving stories that capture the minds and hearts of

individuals. In many cases, strategies are filled with implementation steps and action plans, moving quickly past “why we are even here in the first place.” This is not just a mission statement or tag line that is somehow surreal or detached from the individual worker. It is about developing a clear purpose for each and every part of the organization. This creates emotional connection, purpose, and a greater sense for why we are coming to work every day and putting so much energy into the efforts at hand.

Only half of the battle of having a strategic vision is creating one. The larger and more challenging part is then getting people’s buy-in and making them aware of why certain changes are needed, and, more importantly, fueling a desire to act. This comes only with a proper coaching and training plan, and also a plan to address any future resistances that may arise. 

Many believe that communication is the largest component part of any change process. However, communication goes two ways. This requires a large investment in time, curiosity on the part of leaders, and incorporates the organization’s feedback and input. In particular, in an age where virtual working becomes more common, it becomes even more critical that virtual communication touches the hearts and minds of the people.

In many cases, organizations attempt to do this on their own. However, getting the support of external consultants or facilitators to help steer the process can pay off, allowing the organization to focus on customers and implementation.



Refined processes  

These are all of the areas where roles and responsibilities are impacted by change. It can be the rollout of a new tool or a desired change of how people work together either within or across functions and operating divisions. One small rollout can have massive impact across various parts of an organization. When things don’t work as they used to, people get frustrated and performance tends to suffer as a result. Therefore, making clear to all company divisions what will be different going forward, how it will affect their activities, and why, are critical parts of any change process.

In most cases, it is not yet clear to upper management how the particular change will impact processes, positions, or job descriptions. For example, the rollout of a new data mining tool will eliminate the need for more traditional roles in a marketing or sales department. What will be done with those positions or even full departments? As anxiety, particularly around job security or employment, starts to infiltrate an organization, the job of senior leaders is to establish more dialogue with employees, not less. 

We tend to avoid the situation until we have clear answers. However, the less vocal or present leadership is during times of uncertainty, the more focus is put on these topics by the organization. This results in rumors and, in most cases, a decrease in performance and the overall well-being of the company. 

During times of uncertainty, it is critical that leaders engage employees in the process of defining the future. There may be ideas that employees have as to how they can modify their roles or adapt in order to add the most value. They may request training to support them in developing skills geared toward a specific direction. Investing in the employees that are willing to learn and adapt can create tremendous value for the future. It may also help to avoid potential complacency of the employees, if they feel their value-add is declining.

In addition to the dialogue, it is important for life sciences leaders to focus on and emphasize the areas and processes that are working well. “When things are working, we like to give our employees the freedom and autonomy to continue doing what they have done in the past,” says Upperman. “This gives people confidence and the ability to realize there may be some quick wins to celebrate.” 

Relational dialogue  

This is probably the most critical, yet most overlooked part of the transformation triangle. Communication can be challenging; it becomes even more difficult when you mix in different cultures, value systems, experiences, and beliefs. Organizations are becoming more diverse, but this does not always make dialogue easier. 

In order to bridge cultural, racial, gender, and generational gaps, companies need to be open, empathetic, and inclusive. This requires time, patience, and curiosity. Biases, conflicts, and misunderstandings can occur, sometimes leading to teams being hesitant to provide open feedback and enter into dialogue. With added deadlines and the time pressure most organizations are under today, it is no wonder that individuals tend to avoid the elephants in the room.

“We need to remember that the people in our organizations each have their own worries, hopes, dreams, and personal issues,” says Upperman. “I try to always apply three things when leading through change: understanding the emotional state of my people, exercising a high level of empathy, and being the calm leader that people can always go to with their fears.” 

Dialogue is not always easy and sometimes may result in conflicts, especially when topics are challenging, emotions are involved, and stakes are high. However, conflict or negative feedback, if presented in a healthy way, can move teams forward and allow them to elevate to another level of performance. 

When working with organizations on relational dialogue, the focus should be on these critical areas:

  • Inclusive listening and curiosity. Making sure that the voices of all employees are heard not only creates a culture of taking risks and of people wanting their ideas to be known, it generates a more innovative dialogue, which may ultimately help contribute to a better, thought-through solution.

  • Enabling an open feedback culture. People can always grow and learn, and that usually happens with the support of external observation and feedback. However, giving feedback can be a tricky, especially when it’s not positive feedback. To that end, there are techniques that have proven to work well and that can be applied within organizations. Ultimately this creates more vulnerability, open communication, higher trust, and tremendous growth. In many cases, conducting a first-group feedback round with a trained facilitator can be useful.

  • Facilitating conflict when stakes are high. Typically, when conversations get tough, we sometimes tend to table them for another time. But are we revisiting the topics that really need ultimate discussion and conflict resolution to get issues hashed out? When organizations can address these areas openly without fear of feelings getting hurt or emotions running high, they can make tremendous progress. Emotions are normal. Bringing well-managed emotions more into business environments can lead to greater commitment, and ultimately more sustainable results.

  • Understanding how decisions are made. It sounds obvious, but, in many cases, companies are not clear how decisions should be made. Who is the ultimate decision-maker and for which topics? Do we need a full team buy-in, or is it ultimately the decision of one, with expectation of full commitment? If this decision process is not talked through and understood, organizations have the risk of either moving too slow and not making decisions fast enough, or steam-rolling the organization with decisions that, in the end, will not be implemented. There are ways in which decision processes can be better understood, discussed, and implemented across companies. Committing time early on to this topic, particular with new teams, pays off greatly in the long run. 

Leading through change 

As a company institutes its own practices around the three pillars of the transformation triangle, several questions emerge that perhaps should be at the top of the leadership agenda. Going through the following checklist can be helpful for an organization. 

  • Is the company vision clearly communicated to the broader organization?

  • Is the vision communicated in various ways where all people will feel a connection and clearly understand their ability to contribute to the greater purpose?

  • Are there certain roles changing in the organization, and is there enough investment going into how things will develop for these individuals in the future?

  • Is the organization’s values clear to everyone? 

  • If so, do they represent what will result in increased curiosity, innovation, healthy dialogue, and resilience to change among the employees?

  • Is the company investing enough in soft skills across its leadership and broader organization? 

  • Is dialogue, in particular where there are differing opinions, healthy and appreciated on all levels?

  • Is there not only a diverse environment of individuals in the organization, but does it have an inclusive environment, where all viewpoints are respected and heard?

  • What behaviors are expected from employees and, even more so, the C-suite that people look up to?

  • Is the organization focusing on not only the awareness and recognition for a need to change, but also creating desire for the employees to do things differently?

Defining success for future organizations 

Many top business leaders and executives raise the question: What will differentiate the good from the great companies of the future? In times of change in the life sciences and healthcare industries, it is critical that we put organizations and their people at the forefront. 

While strategies, processes, and business models may differ, one thing that most companies share in common is the relational elements of their employees. As investments in technology, new production, and supply chain infrastructure continue, it is the asset of human capital and the larger organization’s commitment to it that will likely determine future success within corporations large and small.


Lauren Seufert is the founder of emOcean Coaching & Consulting

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