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Five Essential Skills for Pharma’s Future Leaders

By Steve Figman, Syntegrity

The recent eyeforpharma ‘19 conference in Philadelphia showcased an impressive array of speakers, with presentations and roundtable discussions from thought leaders and influencers across our industry – leaders who shared innovative, award-winning initiatives and thought-provoking ideas.

I attended many great talks and panels and spoke with numerous pharma leaders about their work, their challenges, their needs, and their priorities. Throughout the conference, it was clear that a new environment has formed in our industry (perhaps overdue) with complexities that call for new ways of working. There were common themes that all point to the need for essential new skills for tomorrow’s successful pharma leaders. Will you be ready to excel in the new environment, with these five critical skills in place, or will you be left behind?

  • Next-level partnering. In our industry we’ve always needed be good business partners to be competitive. But our stakeholders’ demands have evolved dramatically, so our partnering skills need to keep pace. Business interactions are becoming more complex, with more participants, new requirements, and much higher expectations. For example, during the conference presentations we saw that patients are experiencing major fatigue with “patient-centric” approaches that simply market to them in new ways, when they expect us to partner with them to understand their challenges and offer them real solutions. Michelle Carnahan of Sanofi observed that, “Customers are demanding more – not only for their treatment, but for their lifestyle … they demand a better experience.”

Physicians also have more expectations. They want us to understand their perspectives deeply, and they expect personalized, timely outreach for their specific needs and interests. As Debra Hussain from Lilly noted, “Physicians want more from us than just data and general content delivered through automated campaigns.”

Our interactions with other external parties are changing, too. For example, the need to embrace new technologies that are not native to pharma (like AI-generated content or next-best-action recommendations) is forging different and non-traditional pharma partnerships with tech companies, service providers and more. We also saw examples of sometimes unexpected collaborations emerging within companies themselves. Business teams and functional experts who once interacted only rarely, if ever, now share valuable insights routinely, with ever-closer partnerships.

The skills you will need: Successful business, customer and patient collaborations in the future will call for exceptional partnering skills. Pharma’s winning future leaders will know how to envision, create, and maintain partnerships in a complex set of creative yet compliant interactions with a growing array of stakeholders. They will have the ability to address and integrate a variety of needs and expectations from partners old and new, while delivering better outcomes and more competitive results. Without next-level partnering skills, aspiring leaders can’t even be participants.

  • Leadership without borders. In past years, we have heard a great deal about overcoming organizational barriers to execute successful marketing. But this topic wasn’t a big focus at this year’s conference, even though every award-winning case study demanded excellent organizational skills. Why is that, and what does this imply for future leadership skills? Quite simply – working in matrixed organizations and finding ways to bridge across them is now a requisite. Processes, organizational conventions, and longstanding assumptions cannot act as barriers to results, and pharma leaders recognize this. Smart pharma leaders are working up, down, across, and outside of their organizations to, as Mina Makar from AstraZeneca put it, “do to things ‘with’ others, not ‘to’ them.” Functions that used to be viewed as potential barriers (like legal, finance, IT, and regulatory) are becoming a part of the solution, as leaders bring in “obstacle people” early to help with problem solving. This isn’t easy, by any means! But the ability to connect experts from inside and outside the organization creates essential value.1 Borderless leaders like Percival Barreto-Ko of Astellas Pharma are taking it a step further, ensuring that they are aligning front-line metrics and incentives (such as sales compensation) with their strategic goals, so that entire organizations are linked by a common purpose.

The skills you will need: The award winners from this year’s conference had one thing in common – they didn’t let barriers (real or assumed) get in the way of their success. The essential skill for future pharma leaders is expertise at making the system work for them. They will know who to include in their collaborations and when, building high-impact teams with common goals and shared understanding that transcend perceived barriers, and dissolve real ones.

  • Outcomes management, not time management. When we review the detailed and sophisticated case studies from the conference, we can see that work requirements are not only more extensive but accelerating in their pace. Connections are more important than ever, but pharma leaders have less time to make and sustain them — with less time to accomplish even more. McKinsey calls this the “Age of Urgency”2. Urgent issues can distract leaders from their most important, highest-value, long-term goals. Even getting time on the calendars of the people one needs the most is a challenge! But simply getting more efficient at streamlining traditional processes can’t offer new and better results. So how does a leader act with a clear focus on priority goals, and “eliminate the noise,” as David Komlos of Syntegrity called it in his eyeforpharma ‘19 keynote address and in the book Cracking Complexity3?

The skills you will need: Successful future pharma leaders will approach problems differently and allocate their time differently, managing to their end goals and outcomes, not the tasks to be performed. They will accelerate results by eliminating the noise and focusing on the most powerful, agile approaches to problem solving, while collaborating with the right partners to meet their goals. Future leaders will be highly proficient at stopping the activities and behaviors that aren’t helping to create successful outcomes. They will free up the time to focus on what really matters and will offer the leadership and resources that helps others to do so as well.

  • Innovation on demand. We saw a strong emphasis on innovation at this year’s conference. Innovation is not a nice-to-have in our industry; it’s an essential. Pharma leaders have long since recognized that constant innovation is required to deliver outcomes to patients, while remaining one step ahead of the competition. We’re all familiar with medical innovation— and the difficult technical and scientific challenges that rely on having the best team of expert scientists to deliver innovations such as the newest immuno-oncology agent or gene therapy. What’s changing today is the speed and sophistication with which all business leaders need to deliver innovative results and ideas. How can leaders unlock the power of great ideas within their organizations – and do it quickly to drive tangible results? How do they create the high-quality interactions with the right people, so that they work together to produce the ideas they need now and in the future? And how do they execute on those new ideas, instead of losing them in the churn of busy organizations?

The skills you will need: Future leaders will be adept at deploying novel approaches that unlock, integrate, and accelerate innovative ideas — and bring out the best from their organizations. They won’t try to outsource innovation, but they will know when and how to engage the right partners from inside and outside of their organizations who have the expertise and experience they’ll need. Tomorrow’s top leaders won’t rely on traditional, constrained problem-solving approaches, but will be able to deliver innovation on an accelerated timeline. They will be skilled at asking the right questions to create the right dialog, surfacing the best thinking across their organization and beyond, and leading co-creation of the best ideas that are ready for action. Finally, they will rapidly identify champions to carry these innovations forward, equipping them with resources and actionable execution plans.

  • Unravelling complexity. This is arguably the most essential executive skill for future pharma leaders, and probably the most difficult to master. Throughout eyeforpharma ‘19, we saw example after example of the challenges that today’s pharma leaders were tackling – different types of challenges requiring different types of approaches and resources. As David Komlos described in his keynote address, you can’t solve the problem unless you know the type of problem you’re solving. Is it a simple problem that may be solved readily? Is it a complicated challenge that has been solved elsewhere and follows a repeatable formula? Or is it a complex challenge, with a unique set of factors and circumstances to consider? Leaders tend to think that they’re very good at this skill, but research has indicated that’s not always the case.4 Pharma leaders who don’t identify the type of problem they’re facing and apply the right resources and approach will struggle to get the outcomes and commercial results that they need.5

The skills you will need: Successful future leaders will be able to identify the type of problem they’re facing and know what approach to apply. They will know when to bring in experts, when diverse thinking from across their organization and partner network is essential, when “distributed thinking” needs to be avoided, and how to optimize their resources, including their people. It’s important to acquire this skill first and foremost, as the ability to expertly unravel complexity is essential for using any of the other skills of future pharma leaders. This skill will enable pharma leaders to leverage all the other essential executive skills they will need to solve their most important business problems – now and in the future.

The skills of successful future pharma leaders are the ones that will empower them to excel in the new environment that has emerged in one of the most complex industries in the world. These skills go far beyond subject matter expertise! They include sophisticated partnering, deep understanding of needs, adept organizational navigation, excellent decision making, and effective prioritization – all while keeping pace with new and better ways to deliver results. In a forthcoming piece, we’ll explore how to apply these essential leadership skills to align diverse voices, experiences, and expertise and achieve one of the pharma industry’s scarcest assets – shared understanding and purpose.


About the author: Steve Figman is the WW VP, Head of Life Sciences for Syntegrity, an RTI International Company. Since 2002 Life Science leaders have leveraged their science-based approach to solving clients’ most important challenges – product launches, competitive counter-launch, BU strategy, market access, Digital, AI, and many others –where speed, new thinking, and internal alignment are critical, but often missing.



1Casciaro, T., Edmondson, A., Jang, S. “Cross-Silo Leadership,” Harvard Business Review (May-June 2019), p 4.
2McKinsey Organization Practice. “Decision making in the age of urgency,” McKinsey & Company, April 2019.
3Benjamin, D., Komlos, D. (2019). Cracking Complexity. Boston, MA: Nicholas Brealey Publishing.
4The Syntegrity Group (2019). Internal research.
5Benjamin, D., Komlos, D. (2019). Cracking Complexity. Boston, MA: Nicholas Brealey Publishing.




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