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What Makes for a Great Leader in Pharma, and How to Hire One


A look into the traits that hiring managers of pharma companies should be searching for when hiring for a leadership role.

There is no doubt the stakes are high for pharmaceutical commercial organizations. Competition is fierce, regulatory parameters are constantly shifting and there is tremendous pressure to reduce product costs while managing ever-increasing R&D budgets. Oftentimes this creates an unhealthy work environment, which seems contradictory for an industry built on curing illnesses and easing discomfort.

The truth is, many in the pharmaceutical industry are working stress-filled long hours at a heavy personal cost in order to deliver on the promise of better health to patients. This is why leaders in the pharmaceutical industry must be equipped with not only the practical and tactical skills to do the job, but extraordinary interpersonal skills as well.

What makes for a great leader in pharma?

Lots of articles have been published regarding the type of background a person needs in order to be a good manager within a pharmaceutical organization. However, most of these articles only cover the practical skill sets desired. Do they come from a research and development, regulatory or sales and marketing background? Do they have Pharma experience, or an advanced degree? Are they the smartest person in the room when it comes to Pharma related topics?

These are all great questions to ask yourself if your organization is looking for a manager. However, if you are in the market for a leader, a truly exceptional leader, then you must look deeper and explore the candidate’s interpersonal skills as well.

What interpersonal skills should hiring managers look for?

One of the most important interpersonal skills to look for is self-awareness. A self-aware individual understands the impact of what they say, the results of what they do, their character, their desires and their motives. They are aware of that which makes them who they are.

A leader with self-awareness...sounds simple, right? Not necessarily. According to the research, finding a leader with self-awareness can be a challenge. The Hay Group found only 19% of women and 4% of men in general management roles showed evidence of strong self-awareness. This is extremely concerning because it signals that most leaders lack empathy. Once people become more aware of what makes them who they are, they are better able to understand the differences between themselves and others, and what makes each of us unique.

Self-awareness and empathy converge to create what is known as emotional intelligence. The more self-aware a person is, and the more empathetic they are, the greater their emotional intelligence. Therefore, leaders that demonstrate a high level of emotional intelligence have strong interpersonal skills.

When I asked a senior research executive that I coach about what the key to transitioning from being a researcher to a leader of - and collaborator with - other scientific researchers was, they confirmed that self-awareness and strong emotional intelligence were essential. They also added, “the ability to listen and to care about others was a difference maker.”

My client then added that there was something even more important. The character of the leader mattered the most. It was foundational to trust. They could forgive or tolerate a breach of trust in someone’s competencies (knowledge, experience and skill sets). However, it was very difficult to repair trust when someone’s character was lacking.

When questions of honesty, integrity, transparency, fairness, and empathy were present, it could be a relationship breaker.

But how do you uncover a person’s interpersonal skills and attributes?

It’s easy to gain an understanding of a candidate’s practical skills by looking over their resume and work history. However, gaining insights into their interpersonal skills takes a little more digging. Here are five questions you can ask to help analyze a person’s interpersonal skills:

1. Tell me about a time you had a conflict with a superior at work. How did you handle it?

If the answer to this question seems rehearsed, or inauthentic, the interviewee is most likely trying to glaze over this topic. The truth is, all of us have had some sort of conflict with a superior at some point in our careers. We either reacted to it outwardly, or stuffed it down. But regardless of the reaction, the conflict still existed.

An incomplete or misleading answer is a sure fire sign the candidate is not ready for leadership.

2. How would you resolve a dispute between two subordinates?

This is a great question for gauging empathy. If the candidate takes a problem solving approach to get at the deeper issue at hand, they are showcasing strong interpersonal skills. If they take a more authoritarian approach, chances are they lack the skills needed to be a true leader. Also, keep in mind that short, general answers will be too vague to be useful. Look instead for detailed responses that draw on an experience.

3. Tell me about a time someone criticized your work. How did you respond and what did you learn?

If the candidate criticizes or places blame on a former supervisor or coworker in response to this question, chances are they lack self-awareness. None of us are perfect, and taking ownership of our part in things demonstrates a high level of emotional intelligence.

4. Have you ever faced an ethical dilemma at work? How did you deal with it, what was the result?

Watch for contradictory body language signals with this answer. Most candidates will try to gloss over this question for fear that any past ethical dilemmas will make them seem as though they lack ethics. The truth is, our ethics are challenged more often than we would like to admit.

5. If we were to receive criticism on our products or pricing, how would you handle it?

A defensive response is a great indication that the candidate lacks emotional intelligence. Someone with the right interpersonal skills would want to walk in the shoes of the customer first, before jumping to a response.

These are just a few questions to help get you started on the road to finding the perfect leader for your pharmaceutical commercial organization. A more robust assessment tool can be found on PsychologyToday. The Society for Human Resource Management also has a broad range of resources available for hiring managers looking for more on emotional intelligence.

J. Kevin McHugh is the president of JKM Management Development, an executive coaching and team development firm that improves organizational performance by coaching leaders to develop emotional intelligence, conflict resolution capabilities, maximize trust, honesty, and appropriate vulnerability. He has been a guest lecturer at Case Western Reserve University, Weatherhead School of Management.

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