Power to the People

by Susan Nemetz, April 2018

Each month, as I ponder possible topics for this e-conversation, I find myself struggling with the same challenge: So many things to talk about; so hard to pick just one!

When I decide to set aside topics within our core area of commercialization, you know I must be feeling a pressing need to speak to a significant worry within our amazing biopharma ecosystem.

By the way, I am not a worrier (generally)! I try to see the positives in people and situations. But in this case, and despite my best attempts to interpret this in some other way, I keep bumping into the same dilemma:

It seems that in our talent hungry, high expectations, fast-paced industry, we have lost what I believe is an essential focus on people development, coaching, and honest feedback. Instead, we have collectively settled on an approach in which we simply hire around the “problem” or live in a land of frustration that robs us of the limited energy we have to tackle the world’s challenges.

Much in our work lives has changed over the last twenty-five years (she states the obvious once more).

I am grateful that in my career I worked in environments that had early / mid / executive leadership training, as well as a requirement that all managers provide regular, in-person feedback.

Maybe I was just lucky in this respect; I began in hospital sales and then on to sales management, a world in which pre-call planning, post-call summary, and feedback were the only ways in which managers and their respective employees could connect. Back then, we didn’t even have email, so we had to actually write and mail a letter. (Sorry for the prehistoric times reference but hey, when you got a letter from your manager, it mattered.)



This “developmental” environment resulted in all kinds of positive benefits, for both the organization and those who worked there: better communication; more collaboration; reduced turnover; greater talent development. Not to mention the increased alignment, speed, and efficiency that occurs when coworkers — across all levels — have a clear understanding of company objectives.

Contrast this with some of what we have heard — just this year alone — in companies in which we have worked (actual examples modified to protect the not so innocent):

  • “The SVP of this function doesn’t listen and does their own thing, so we need to hire a leader in this new function that can provide an appropriate ballast (weight) to the SVP.”
  • “Our leadership team spends ZERO time talking about people or people development, and yet our leader is frustrated that people are not working hard enough or getting work done quickly enough.”
  • “I know this individual is a problem, but we need what they provide so let’s try to work with them.”
  • “This director isn’t able to operate at the level we need so we are going to hire over them.”
  • “This SVP is not engaged and doesn’t read email.”
  • “This team does not know how to write a plan, so we are going to hire a firm to do it.”

You get the picture. Note that in all of these cases, our relationships were with senior leaders, medical affairs, or commercial teams, so I have every reason to believe this is central to commercialization.

As for why this evolution (devolution?) has occurred, I think it’s some combination of the few things I mentioned earlier: the pace, the competition for talent, and the skyrocketing expectations for tangible results. We now often hire for pedigree, the “right” previous company, and narrow domain expertise, rather than broader leadership capability. Instead of fixing management deficiencies we look to manage around them.

What to do?

I am not naïve or egotistical enough to assume I am the right resource to best answer this question. That said, I do believe it is important for us to re-prioritize the development of our people and to call out one another when we see our colleagues leaning in a different direction.

A few problem areas/behaviors to watch out for and address:

  • A reorg is happening because of one person. Reorganizations have their place. Just make sure they are not happening as a way of working around an individual, process, or management issue that should otherwise be addressed by good old-fashioned leadership.
  • Bad behavior that is allowed to continue, without anyone objecting or calling for coaching to improve. (Note to senior leaders: You might be interested to read the following from our twin firm, McKinsey [ha ha], in their “Am I a Jerk?” series, here.)
  • Constant interrupting — anytime, anywhere, by anyone. Or, its runner-up for dismissive behavior, spending the entire meeting multi-tasking on one’s phone/computer.
  • More time in management team meetings spent on deliverables and budgets than on people development or culture.
  • Colleagues/managers who are frustrated with another individual and yet have not had any (or many) direct conversations with that person.
  • A team member that does not know how to operate effectively and yet no one has worked with them to develop a plan to “learn or develop” in a given area, with feedback over time.
  • People who are frustrated with fragmented, misaligned work efforts but who are unwilling to take the time to clarify what exactly the scope of the work might be.
  • Job descriptions that don’t include contributing to the team, the culture, mentoring, etc.

  • One of my first bosses liked to say, “It’s all about the people — you need to develop your team.” I confess that at the time, I thought it was a rather obvious observation to make. But it may just have been because in those early days, the people — and their development — were a given. We understood that their growth represented the difference between success and failure.

    As to how we fix this and get back on track doing the incredibly important work in front of us, I don’t have the answer(s) and need to prioritize focusing on development in my own team — they deserve it too.

    Tell me… are you seeing these same trends in your organization and, if so, what do you think would make the most difference?

    Please reply here and let me know.