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A Medical Affairs Guide to Leadership

Updated: Dec 16, 2019

Words by James Coker

The dynamics of leadership are changing. The traditional image of a leader, reminiscent of a 19th Century naval Captain giving orders to his crew and expecting them to be obeyed without question, is moving aside for a much more inclusive, people-orientated approach. This mindset is occurring across many sectors, including the pharmaceutical industry, but how should this approach manifest in the realm of medical affairs, a department that is expected to be at the tiller, steering pharma through a new landscape of technological innovation, patient centricity, preventative medicine, and cross-sector collaboration?

It is firstly of the upmost importance for any leader to understand the vast range of skillsets that are needed to work in a modern MA department, moving far beyond the traditional requisite of technical and scientific knowledge. “The bar is high for MA talent”, says Mujgan Ates, Global Head of Medical Affairs, Advanced Accelerator Applications, a Novartis Company. “They need to collaborate with R&D colleagues and deeply understand the science; they should understand the rules and regulations governing the industry; and they should have the strategic thinking capabilities and have customer-interaction skills. Focus is needed to systematically build the required skills and capabilities in the MA workforce.”

I believe medical leaders of the future should be more artistic and creative

Aspiring MA leaders should therefore endeavour to experience a broad range of positions within the pharma sector and even the wider life-sciences industry, as MA increasingly works in sync with other areas of a pharma company, such as commercial and R&D, often helping liaise between them. “An in depth understanding of the environment, the fundamental role of MA, and broad knowledge of pharmaceutical development coupled with an appetite for continuous learning and competency in adapting to new technologies is needed. An excellent starting point is to gain formal accreditation in MA and become Board Certified via the Accreditation Council for Medical Affairs (ACMA). A curious mind is definitely a must”, opines Eric Bouilloux, Chief of Staff, Global Medical Affairs, Ipsen.

For Ates though, being a modern MA leader is about much more than gathering knowledge. It should fundamentally be about understanding and helping their colleagues to reach their maximum potential, which is the foundation upon which MA will grow into its expanded brief. This is a concept referred to as servant leadership, focussing on the growth and wellbeing of people much more than a traditional ‘command and control’ approach. “I believe medical leaders of the future should be more artistic and creative, differentiated by an inspirational and engaging leadership style. Leaders should be able to capture hearts, minds, and emotions to drive the change and inspire teams to perform. Creating trust and engaging people at an emotional level is key”, she conveys.

MA leaders therefore must ensure those around them have the navigational tools they need to take the lead in plotting the direction of travel. “Mentoring of their teams is key for leaders. Providing individual coaching will help to develop high-performing world class MA teams. Developing a set of skills and behaviours will help to manage the challenges of a changing healthcare landscape”, outlines Ates.

This all links into MA’s need to establish a culture of innovation in a new world where digital technology and bold imaginative solutions are set to hold sway. Holding a flexible prose, listening to, and attempting new ideas and strategies is critical for any MA leader. A culture which allows new ideas to come from all quarters must be established. “Evolving our culture is the key enabler of our future success at Bayer, one that gives colleagues a sense of purpose and the opportunity to make a meaningful impact is important. On top of this, we think a lot about agile, adaptive leadership and collaboration, teams working together to bring out the best ideas and deliver those into our mission”, comments Dr Michael Devoy, Chief Medical Officer, Bayer.

If you create a culture of reflection, after action reviews, and open feedback discussions, you’ll start to see what these things are and everyone can make the workplace better.

Removing fear and even rewarding failure is also a crucial component of achieving such an environment. Allowing employees to learn from mistakes and be comfortable to share these experiences with their colleagues should be a key priority for a MA leader: “We [Bayer] provide opportunities for experience-based learning, helping employees to build mastery and rewarding them for the learning needed to get there. If you create a culture of reflection, after action reviews, and open feedback discussions, you’ll start to see what these things are and everyone can make the workplace better,” adds Devoy.

The developing responsibilities of MA is a subject that has been broached on numerous occasions. Creating the culture and acumen within MA teams that are able to successfully fulfil these remits is the next, fundamental step, and responsibility falls to the leaders to make this happen. Leaders themselves should have substantial knowledge of broad swathes of the pharma and life-sciences industry, and ensure these insights are passed onto their colleagues. But more than that, to properly embrace a changing landscape and help ensure pharma moves forward together in it, MA teams should be collectively empowered to take the lead role.

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