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Leadership in a Crisis

Updated: Sep 26, 2022

Interview with Steven Baert, Ester Banque and Asad Mohsin Ali

When crisis hits, it can be difficult to know exactly how to respond; in such times, we turn to our leaders for direction and guidance. For many pharmaceutical executives, the coronavirus pandemic presented a challenge unlike any in living memory, testing the industry but also paving the way for positive change. Here, three thought leaders share what they have learnt about leadership during this time, as they continue to care for their teams, patients, and themselves.

To what extent can you plan and prepare for a time of unexpected crisis, like the COVID-19 pandemic?

Baert: While you can never plan for every crisis, we have well-established emergency management systems and teams in place with clear roles and responsibilities. The response to a crisis depends very much on the company culture and the willingness and agility to support one another, as well as having the right experts in the right place. You need clear and honest communication – be open when you don’t have all the answers. Start by creating clarity by listening and asking questions, then empower your teams to find the solutions and support them by removing obstacles.

Banque: While none of us could have anticipated a global pandemic of this magnitude, we see countries and governments reacting differently, with more successful countries having had previous experience in dealing with disease outbreaks or robust protocols for crisis management. To boldly move forward during these times, we must learn to quickly adapt and be comfortable with the uncomfortable, not default to the role of victim. By working with teams to accept uncertainty, we will be in a much better position to pivot with agility.

Ali: A crisis management or business contingency plan is fundamental. In the case of COVID-19, the level of response required, the impact to business, and the length of the crisis have surpassed a lot of comprehensive business contingency plans. Government responses and restrictions put in place to contain COVID-19 have changed over time so businesses have had to stay agile, adapt, and re-group to deal with the changes.

How do you sustain a culture of positivity, care, and understanding within teams and towards employees during times of global crisis?

Baert: When managing a crisis, it’s important to set clear principles early on that serve as lighthouses. We agreed that two things truly mattered: the physical and mental wellbeing of our associates, and the continued supply of medicines to patients and customers. We know that people’s potential is unlocked when they consistently experience an inclusive environment. In a remote environment, it’s vital that all team members have an equal opportunity to be visible and contribute. To help our associates cope with the challenges presented by COVID-19, we rolled out a wide range of support tools from childcare and additional paid leave to learning solutions.

Banque: As one of my team members shared, “We’re all in the same storm, but not in the same boat.” It’s imperative that we empathise with people’s unique challenges. We must reinforce a culture of care and understand that issues and frustrations need to be addressed head on to co-create solutions. We also need to help people connect with their sense of purpose: ensuring that our medicines are available to patients, even when facing supply hurdles.

Ali: We clearly communicated our priorities: ensure employee safety and focus on business continuity. We recognised early that there is no ‘one size fits all’ way of working and have listened to employee feedback through 1:1s, team meetings, and pulse surveys. We provided wellbeing resources: virtual yoga, an online wellbeing hub, a network of Mental Health and Wellbeing Ambassadors, and our Employee Assistance Programme. We implemented a COVID-19 volunteering policy, enabling our employees to go back into the NHS or carry out volunteer work for local community groups one day per week fully paid.

Have you adopted any permanent changes going forward that were initially reactive measures to COVID-19?

Baert: The pandemic has accelerated our ongoing digital and cultural transformation. It will have a lasting impact on how we travel and engage with each other, and the digital tools we use. It has also accelerated our exploration of future working models; we have begun to further ‘unboss’ associates by giving them greater choice to decide how, where, and when they work. This is a natural evolution of our culture transformation: the next step on our journey to unleash the power of our people to reimagine medicine.

Banque: Digital outreach has become a key component of how we engage internally and externally and is likely here to stay. Virtual can encourage greater frequency of contact, ease, and expanse of reach. Now more than ever, it’s critical to lead with humanity and empathy, showing kindness and support. Although COVID-19 has been a disruptor, it is also an accelerator. Our ability to address change is grounded in our mission to serve patients and deliver medicines that help them prevail over serious diseases.

Ali: We already had the technology and capability to work flexibly and remotely; for many it was simply a case of replacing the ‘corporate’ office with the ‘home’ office We spent a significant amount of time and investment to engage with our customers remotely; this took many forms, from instant messaging to full video-based interactions with interactive e-materials. We have learnt that the way our customers interact with theirs (for HCPs, their patients) has also shifted significantly; they have an even bigger appetite for remote engagement than we imagined.

What is the most valuable lesson you have learnt about leadership during this time?

Baert: The answer to most challenges is within the team. The leader’s role is to frame problems and create psychological safety, listening to every voice in the team before agreeing on a solution. You need to ask: ‘What can I do to best support my team so that they can do their job?’ COVID-19 has taught us to be more aware of one another’s humanity and as leaders, we should embrace this, practising our listening and coaching skills as we support our people in navigating the new normal.

Banque: I’ve been inspired by the resilience of our teams, overcoming hurdles to ensure patients receive medicines no matter how remote they are, while preserving the safety of our employees. I have also elevated my own resilience. COVID hit when the company was going through major organisational transformation and suddenly, I was working longer hours for extended periods of time. My desire to take care of everyone and lead effectively turned into a very demanding, intense experience. This taught me to manage my energy (meditation, exercise, healthy food, sleep) in order to take care of others.

Ali: The importance of communication and maximising virtual channels to retain engagement, while recognising that people’s appetite for this new way of working will vary and some will take more time to adjust than others. Listening to colleagues to understand how to properly support individual challenges, particularly around psychological health and well-being, as we adapt to the new world. Prioritise deliverables, cutting out non-value-adding activities more than ever, and use a flexible working approach to allow employees space to balance changing personal circumstances.

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