What It Takes to Be a Leader in a Pharmaceutical Firm
“Change fatigue” is a phrase that a report from the McKinsey Company uses to refer to leadership in the pharma industry. Indeed, even before the COVID-19 pandemic, pharma wrestled with globalization, the quest to reduce costs, regulatory issues, and efforts to add value while remaining customer-focused, among other challenges.
An overview of pharma-leader responsibilities includes aligning services with institutional goals, generating maximum revenue, collaborating with the leadership team to reduce costs, and managing technology investments. Senior pharma leadership teams may include such roles as Chief Medical Officer, Chief Ethics and Compliance Officer, Chief Quality Officer, Senior Director, Executive Director, Assistant/Associate Vice President, Vice President, and Therapeutic Head. Some emerging executive positions observed by Adam Millinger and his co-authors include Transformation Leaders, Ecosystem Leaders, and Enabling Leaders.
A comprehensive study of the career paths of 50 pharma CEOs by Nathaniel Brooks Horwitz reveals that the average age of pharm leaders is 58. Only three companies in his study are led by women, Horwitz points out.
The pharmaceutical industry, of course, has been particularly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. “The COVID-19 lockdown has exposed deep dependence of the global economy on various aspects of pharma and healthcare companies,” writes Sonny Iqbal and Niveditha Viswanathan of consulting firm Ego Zehnder. The authors cite an emerging need for leaders to make rapid decisions, as well as to trust decisions that come from decentralized sources. Leaders need to be agile, responsive, and resourceful at this time, Iqbal and Viswanathan note. For Dana M. Krueger and Saule Serikova, the concept of “purpose” is key to pharma leadership in the pandemic. “Across all the activities of pharma companies,” the authors write, “from their investments in product development to directly impact patients in need, to the research and supply alliances they are building, to the charitable donations they make – the COVID-19 crisis has reinforced the need for pharma leaders to commit to, communicate, and exemplify the purpose that is at the center of their strategies and organizations.”
Preferred Background: Education and Experience
Horwitz’s study provides valuable insight into the kind of backgrounds that propel pharma leaders to the top. Horwitz made the surprising discovery that 35 of the 50 CEOs he studied have no advanced scientific or medical degree. MBAs, he notes, are by far the most common advanced degrees. He describes the typical career path of the leaders he studied: “a college STEM degree, an MBA or entry-level job in sales or operations, followed by a couple decades of conventional upward mobility through management roles of increasing geographic and financial responsibility.”
The management roles typically included in the “upward mobility” Horwitz describes may be country manager or a director of a minor franchise, followed by head of sales for a region or head of development for a small division, VP of sales or operations or R&D, and then a promotion into a role as SVP, EVP or president of a continent or franchise, and finally the C-suite as either COO or CFO. “A few leap directly to CEO,” Horwitz says.
An array of hard skills, soft skills, and personal traits are keys to success in pharma leadership. In the white paper, The Leadership Challenge in the Pharmaceutical Sector: What Critical Capabilities are Missing in Leadership Talent and How Can They be Developed?, Jean Brittain Leslie and Kim Palmisano report that the ability to build collaborative relationships was identified as the most important skill. Additional characteristics from this and other studies include the following:
Predominant Leadership Styles in the Pharma Industry
Globally, leadership styles in the pharma industry have been extensively studied, with many scholars and experts arguing for a mix of leadership styles. In 2016, Partha S. Mukherjee, director of analytical development at Bristol-Myers Squibb, promoted the situational-leadership style, while also giving a nod to the transformational style, noting that “transformational leaders have integrity; they are excellent communicators, self-aware, empathic, lead with humility, take accountability, and they inspire by emotional intelligence.”
Experts also point to a trend in leadership styles oriented toward building relationships and leveraging teams. In a chapter in Value Creation in the Pharmaceutical Industry: The Critical Path to Innovation, Aubyn Howard observes that “the rapid rise of the Pluralistic–Social paradigm over the last 20 years has brought more collaborative styles of leadership which enabled the emergence of conventional forms of open innovation.”
Leadership style can be especially significant for women making their mark in the pharma industry. Barbara Morgan, an executive at Lubrizol Life Science Health, advises women to embrace various styles, noting that “highly extroverted and assertive leadership styles” manifest themselves differently in women than in men. “We have to be inclusive and open,” Morgan writes, “to allow female leaders to be authentic to themselves and not feel pressured to personify the accepted leadership style.”
Several excellent guides to leadership paths in the pharma industry are available:
- Becoming a Pharma Industry Leader – Profiles of leaders
- The Path to Power in Pharma: A Study of CEOs at the Top 50 Biopharmaceutical Companies
- What Makes a Pharmaceutical Industry Leader? – In-depth look at desirable traits
- 2018 Pharm Exec 50: Head-Smart for High Goals? C-Suite Personality Profile
- Leadership in Pharmaceutical Industry: A Reflection on Expectations and General Theme – Leadership advice