Leadership in Pharmaceutical Industry - A Reflection on Expectations and General Theme

Partha S Mukherjee through this article makes an effort to capture the general themes/identify the commonality in leadership expectations that are considered to be the key survival elements in the pharmaceutical industry, in the face of the earlier mentioned challenges.

The idea is to share my learning from the various organizations, with the pharmaceutical professionals who may find the article useful as aspiring Leaders, or coming fresh in a leadership role. Different companies may associate different terminology specific to them, with Leadership. But the basic building blocks of a successful Leader are very similar across the industry. This article highlights some of the key leadership competencies, how the leadership expectations have evolved over the past 20 years or so, and current pitfalls in pharmaceutical leadership.

A Leader: Defined
Based on my years of working with and for Leaders in various pharmaceutical companies, I have my own vision of a holistic Leader in this industry. Note I mentioned working "with" and "for". A true Leader will energize people to work "with" him/her wholeheartedly, not just "for" him/her as a formal requirement of the reporting structure.

The common attributes of a Leader irrespective of whether the individual works in branded/ generics/ OTC industry can be summarized in the following statement. A successful Leader is an individual who is ethical (never compromises with quality and safety at any cost), always has patients and consumers in mind as the end-users in all decisions made, visionary, drives performance, leads with humility, credible, excellent communicator, resilient, energetic, fearless (risk-taker), collaborative, respectful, and open-minded. A leader is someone who is empathic, motivator, active listener , decisive, contemporary(has the knowledge of benchmarked competition and possesses current skill sets), embraces the company culture, and someone whom people will trust and follow during crisis and uncertainty, to pull them through. A Leader can be in a people management role, or an individual contributor.

A long list of expectations - right?.That is what it takes to make a visible Leader leading from front. I worked for a global biopharmaceutical company where there were 16 behavioral competency expectations for an R & D Leader, which eventually was reduced to top 10 by a Task Force that I was part of. Also, the above attributes are not ranked in a priority order. It depends on the role. For example, communication becomes relatively even more important for a Leader who manages a global team across sites remotely, vs. a Leader who has his/her team present at the same local site. In the former case, the Leader needs to go the extra mile to ensure his/her message is clearly heard /understood over phone/IM/e-mails, without the associated body-language.

The relative weighing of a particular Leadership attribute may also vary, depending on whether the individual is in branded/generics/OTC business. For example, a Supply Chain Leader in an OTC company will have to possess relatively much stronger sense of urgency compared to an R & D Leader in a branded company. This is because if a respiratory category OTC product is not launched during the limited few month time window of cold/flu season, the opportunity to get most consumers/sales will be lost. In comparison, an R & D Leader in a branded development setting may not always be required to have similar intense sense of urgency, as the R & D development phase spans over several years. I would expect a Project Team Leader in a generics company to possess a more intense sense of urgency, to be the "first to file" in a fiercely competitive generics world, as compared to an R & D Leader in branded company, solely due to the nature of the settings. The focus of a Leader in a pharmaceutical CRO will be mostly on meeting key customer demand to sustain business- much more than any other settings. The key word in all the above examples is "relative".



In a very approximate term, the pace of development at OTC >generics >branded, as the relative intensity of the drive to bring products into market is based on the nature of the industry. On the other hand, the relative weighted importance of some attributes such as ethics, collaboration, decisiveness, and embracing business culture etc. should be the same across all 3 settings.

In essence, all pharmaceutical companies urge the above-mentioned leadership competencies in their visible (who most employees will recognize by face and or name within the organization), and invisible (who have so much humility that they do not come on forefront but get business goals delivered silently and let their teams take the credit for it) Leaders. These core competencies I mentioned earlier are relevant whether it is the Senior Leadership Team who sets the vision, mission, and strategy for the organization, or an individual contributor Leader who is tasked to deliver an objective for his /her department.

The top 3 key skills for a Leader are Ethical, Excellent Communicator, and Inspirational. These 3 key skills are tied directly or indirectly to majority of the other attributes mentioned above. Organization HR may promote the vision that each employee needs to be a Leader. In reality, there will be a handful of exceptional Leaders in an organization at any given point of time, who will demonstrate all the above qualities.

Types of Leader in pharmaceutical sector
There are numerous classifications of Leaders out there. Resources on Leadership at the Crossroads, Leadership in 21st Century etc. will provide comprehensive overview on those. There are tests to identify whether Leaders are people or task oriented, transactional or transformational, autocratic or democratic, and combinations of some of these. These sets of questionnaire may be a bit simplistic, but they can assist to point someone in the right direction on a career or organizational path.v I particularly feel "The Eight Archetypes of Leadership" as proposed by Manfred F. R.Kets de Vries (Harvard Business Review Dec 20, 2013) are quite applicable to the pharmaceutical sector.

Manfred identified there are mostly 8 recurring patterns of behavior that influence an individual's effectiveness within an organization. He calls them as leadership "archetypes," reflecting the various roles Leaders can play in organizations. It is a lack of fit between a Leader's archetype and the context in which he or she operates is a main reason of team and organizational lack of effectiveness. The types of Leaders include: (1). The Strategist: leadership as a game of chess, (2).The Change-Catalyst: leadership as a turnaround activity, (3). The Transactor: leadership as deal making, (4).The Builder: leadership as an entrepreneurial activity, (5). The Innovator: leadership as creative idea generation (6). The Processor: leadership as an exercise in efficiency, (7). The Coach: leadership as a form of people development, and (8). The Communicator: leadership as stage management. My own interpretation is you need to have a balanced mix of all the 8 patterns in pharmaceutical leadership, based on the nature of the current industry. For example, if you lack (8), chances of success for a Leader who is a strong (1) or (4), or any other type, will be greatly diminished.



Identifying the types of Leaders you have on your team can be a Key Performance Indicator (KPI) of your effectiveness as a group. It helps you to recognize how you and your colleagues can individually make their best contributions. This will in turn create a culture of mutual support and trust, inclusive working, ease team stress and conflict, and make room for more creative problem solving. It also assists in future talent search or grooming for succession planning: what kinds of personality and skills are you missing?

Tips for successful leadership
I would like to highlight some of the key activities I believe a Leader should do, and provide perspectives based on my realization of their importance across all pharmaceutical sectors:
  • Do an intra-view :
    Before you embark on a leadership role that came your way, consider doing an "intra-view". Formal self-assessment is done as part of mid or year-end review. But Intra-view takes it a step higher- it is really looking inside yourself and asking questions such as: do you believe in your heart that can you handle the role and associated challenges, what are the areas you will have to improve, how will it affect your work -life balance etc. Do your self-analysis of pros and cons. There are standard sets of questions out there I am sure from various Leadership Development resources. You are the best critic of yourself and you can use that to your own advantage. It is absolutely fine if you decide to choose a path of not to lead, but be led by a highly successful established Leader. At the end of the day it is your career, so choose wisely what makes you happy, and allows you to enjoy the other gifts of life beyond work. Successful Leaders always do an intraview in terms of relevant skills required to excel in their roles.
  • Proactively seek feedback :
    Successful Leaders will reach out to peers, direct reports, and stakeholders to proactively seek what things are going well and what are not, and adjust their leadership styles accordingly. Getting feedback is great but meaningless unless you act on those. I believe people are professional enough to provide candid/unbiased feedback to really mean the well-being of others. I have seen a Leader use this very effectively -first providing "raw/uncut" feedback on a weekly meeting to direct reports. Then turning the table, and soliciting feedback from them. The advantage of this approach is often times, the direct report maybe not too happy with the feedback just received will disclose the true feelings from his/her side about the leadership style of Manager, which definitely open up the areas of improvement for the Leader. This would otherwise not be possible if both were trying to please each other in a compromising manner.



  • Be an active listener :
    If you just are a good listener but do not act upon the concerns voiced, that is also not desirable, and you are definitely bound to hear about it in feedback. And, if you do not speak often, you are missing out on the most important element of leadership- Communication (verbal, written , and non-verbal).

    We are probably all familiar with the approximately correct phrase "The Good Lord has given you one mouth and two ears so you should listen twice as much as you speak". True, the successful Leader needs to master the art of "Active Listening" or even better "Emphatic Listening"-where you are not only listening to the other person but putting yourself in his/her shoes to feel the real situation faced by the individual.
  • Communicate well :
    Over the years, I got exposed to various communication courses, some with common themes and some with company specific focused ones. My own interpretation of efficient communication by a Leader is "O5CT": Open, Clear, Concise, Consistent, Correct, Concrete, and Timely. Bottom line is 2-way communication is an absolute necessity across all layers of organization. It is the lifeblood of any organization, where a Leader serves as the interface/conduit between senior management and others.
  • Build trust :
    I like the "Johari Window of Trust" model as it is intuitive, and highly effective to provide visible results if practiced consistently. I have also seen a pharmaceutical organization using a "Trust Equation" to relate trust with credibility, reliability, intimacy, and perception of self-awareness. A Leader will earn respect only through building the trust and credibility (walk the walk), and demonstrated consistent behavior. A Leader coming on-board from external source/other site/other function will probably first have to spend a considerable time and effort on building the elements of trust with his/her manager, direct reports, and team members, while navigating the business strategies and getting up to speed on ways of working.
  • Have courage to take risks :
    Have the courage to make decisions on-the-fly without the full picture, taking appropriate risks associated with it, and take accountability for the outcome. Some leaders are tested with decisiveness right after they take up a role, and will have to bank on their prior experience in similar situations, or general broader industry experience, or just by trusting instinct or gut feeling.
  • Know where to focus when it comes to people management:
    Best way to know where to focus is to have a documented or mental chart of where employees (direct reports) stand with regards to their ability and attitude. Your performance is a function of both. A Leader will have to spend most time in dealing with employees having negative ability and negative attitude, vs. empowering employees with positive ability and positive attitude. Treat your employees fairly and consistently, but not in identical manner. Companies expect on treating all employees equally. Here "equally" means with equal respect and transparency, irrespective of their performance level.
  • Rely on Human Factor Analysis :
    I am a strong proponent of the less tangible areas of demonstrated behavior, which can be interpreted accurately by various Human Factor Analysis tools such as HFAT®, HFACS etc. Essentially there is the propensity to include just a single statement as "human error" in technical investigations CAPA (Corrective Action Preventive Action) plans, with remediation measures such as the analyst was trained in SOP etc. That is not sufficient. There should always be the need to analyze the situation from human perspective - what, who, when, and why. The Human Factor Analysis tools guide through flow charts to do root cause analysis.
  • Embrace the company culture :
    One of the Leader expectations is to openly embrace the company culture by being an active proponent of, and encouraging others to practice it. Each company has its own culture, which varies on the approaches it uses to achieve the company mission and vision. On the other hand, protectin and improving health and wellness is the common deliverable from all. All have commonality in striving to be the best in the industry. What sets apart the companies is how employees embrace the promoted culture, as executed by the Leaders. I am particularly impressed by the OWNIT! Culture from Pfizer, because it has the right message in urging employees to own the culture, and it is easy to comprehend and follow. The culture of "Speak up" and "Straight Talk", as encouraged by the Leaders in several pharmaceutical companies, are expected from all layers of the organization.
  • Show and expect accountability :
    Not only does the Leader holds others accountable, but also does so for himself/herself. Meeting or exceeding the clear visible accountabilities consistently allows a Leader to move up in the organization at an impressive pace.
  • Motivate :
    Be an Inspirational Leader who can motivate people by providing the right tools and support for career development, provide extrinsic motivation such as rewards and recognition on a routine basis, and practice inclusive style of working while being a visible Leader.
Individual Contributor vs. People Manager as Leader

We are probably all familiar with the 4 Stages of Leadership (Individual Contributor, Novice Manager, Experienced Manager, and Transformation Leader ). It is important to realize that an individual contributor can also be a Leader, and be expected to demonstrate the core leadership competencies as a Group Leader. The direct people management skills may not be necessary for an individual contributor. But in some aspect, some of the leadership skills such as influencing and negotiation could be of more challenging for an individual contributor because he/she does not have a direct reporting structure and may have to work across cross-functional peers/sr leaders to get objectives delivered for his/her own function. Also, if the core Leadership competencies are consistently noticed in an individual contributor, it is a trigger for upper management to evaluate this individual by providing opportunities to progress along the 4 stages.

What differentiates pharmaceutical companies in their relative rates of success?

All top 10 global pharmaceutical companies have more or less similar resource in terms of global presence, skilled people, R & D budget etc. So what differentiates one company from the other? It is basically how many exceptional Leaders a company possesses within the organization, who consistently demonstrate all the core leadership competencies. It is the Leaders who provide the necessary edge to an organization to make it the trendsetter, or set it apart from the rest of the competition in today's everchanging pharmaceutical arena. Leader is something you become by demonstrating the behaviors, while Manager is a title given by the organization. A Leader can be a Manager but the reverse may not be true always.

What have changed in pharmaceutical leadership expectations over the years

1. Over the years, leadership has begun to consciously focus on a "Happy and Healthy Workforce"- a paradigm shift that was generally absent 20 years back . This is in alignment with the realization of an aging global population.

2. There is a marked increase in the common theme of expectations from present day Leaders to build energy and resilience to cope with the fastchanging landscape of pharmaceutical environment.

3. With increased globalization, there is increased Leadership expectation to lead diverse global teams, going beyond the previous comfort zone of local and regional teams.

4. Leaders are asked to deliver more with tighter R & D budget, not-so -impressive pipeline, and in a faster pace of time to stay competitive in the pharmaceutical world. This is inevitably leading to more focus on Innovation (Open Innovation/partnering with key enterprise/consultancy firms etc).

5. Leaders are being asked to streamline processes and policies more than ever across global sites, to make an organization run in a more efficient and productive manner via harmonization and standardization.

6. To stay competitive and find novel medicines are also often challenging the Leaders more to stay up to date with latest technology know-how/cutting edge/emerging automation technologies. Leaders are expected to be more creative to make better use of existing resources by looking at them from a different outlook.

7. With the popularity of Digital Age technology introduction across all phases in Pharmaceutical arena, Leaders are also expected to be more IT savvy, or at least be well versed in the relevant areas. Digital Leadership is not an optional part of a CEO anymore (Josh Bersin).

8. Leaders with diverse background (e.g.- worked in several organizations/ different functions within same organization) are considered an asset to be acquired, as they bring onboard the best practices and diverse knowledge from other organizations. Their diverse experience also allows them to look at existing practices with a fresh set of eyes, challenge status quo, and implement more efficient and productive ways of working to stay competitive.

9. Leaders are expected to drive performance with an increased sense of urgency- to do the right thing with the right people in the right time. Leaders today are expected to raise the bar in this area even higher and respond/remediate the concerns voiced, through demonstration of sense of urgency. So, the basic leadership attributes have not changed over the years , the expectations have only intensified. And on top of that, the above mentioned 9 areas are demanding more attention from the current Leaders.

Final thought
Remember, Leadership is not something you practice at workplace only. It also teaches valuable lessons and provides you the tools to improve your quality of life as well. Whether you are an enthusiast embarking on a pharmaceutical career and aspiring for a dream leadership role, or a highly successful Leader getting ready to wrap up a glorious and long pharmaceutical career, it is worthwhile to remember this nice quote from Actor Christopher Walken:

"None of us are getting out of here alive, so please stop treating yourself like an after-thought. Eat the delicious food. Walk in the sunshine. Jump in the ocean. Say the truth that you're carrying in your heart like hidden treasure. Be silly. Be kind. Be weird. There's no time for anything else."

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are solely based on the Author's relevant experience, and reflect his own interpretation of the situations encountered during the pharmaceutical career.

Author: Partha S. Mukherjee, Director Analytical Development at Celgene, is an Analytical Chemistry Leader with 23 years of experience in pharmaceutical settings spanning Discovery molecules to Commercial products, and a strong track record in scientific leadership and people management in major pharmaceutical R & D. Broad expertise in various Analytical and Bioanalytical Separation Science techniques and instrumentation. In-depth knowledge of overall drug development process. High energy level, strong take-charge ability, and follow through. Demonstrated leadership skills in strategic thinking, passion for customers, developing others, collaborative working and driving performance of organization.