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Leading in the New World

Updated: Dec 2, 2021

Words by Isabel O’Brien

The past 18 months have been tough for leaders in the pharmaceutical industry; demanding the ability to adapt, transform, and re-think traditional approaches. But what have leaders learnt from COVID-19 and how must they evolve to succeed in workplaces of the future?

The mansion dwelling super-rich and fanatical conspiracy theorists were once the key proprietors of the nuclear bunker business but, since the pandemic hit, there has been a 2,000% increase in doomsday investors. While this affirms our knowledge of human nature, it also shows that people react in irrational and unexpected ways if they do not trust the individuals in power to protect them.

As we emerge from the height of the pandemic, leaders in the pharmaceutical industry are standing at the foot of a new chapter, but what has the industry learnt about leadership throughout COVID-19 and how will these individuals need to evolve to continue inspiring and retaining the trust of their teams?

Speaking at the 2021 HBA European Leadership Summit, Lynelle Hoch, General Manager, UK and Ireland, Bristol Myers Squibb, contextualises the transformation: “When COVID first started gripping Europe, I faced the challenge of keeping the safety of my employees front of mind, but also ensuring they could continue to deliver for the customers and patients who needed us.” Business as usual morphed into a delicate balancing act of not only contending with lockdowns and disruptions but also the responsibility of carrying the world back to safety.

While leaders typically are the ones posing the difficult questions, now leaders are asking themselves the difficult questions

“Things are changing; they always will change, have changed before, and they are going to change in the future. But right now, we are going through a drastic change,” says Sumant Ramachandra, President, Pharmaceuticals, and Senior Vice President, Chief Science and Technology Officer, Baxter International, also at the summit.

Speaking at the same event, Kathrin Schoenborn, Vice President, Head of Integrated Planning, Analytics & Partnering, Merck Group and Chair, HBA Europe region, affirms: “In today’s world, leaders must help their teams to meet the challenges of the changing workplace. As we start to near the end of the pandemic, it is the time to move away from traditional mindsets and systems.” Leaders must upgrade their former toolkits as the typical implements will no longer be effective in maintaining the performance of their employees.

The great homeworking migration of 2020 saw barriers and taboos around bringing family life into work be dismantled; professional masks slipped, revealing flawed and raw human beings. “My team didn’t just need a general leading through the crisis: calmness, steering, direction, and vision. They also needed me to be the mother of four, juggling home schooling, and a wife of a husband,” says Hoch. While calmness can be created through clear and consistent communication, empathy must come from showing the human self – removing the corporate charade and showing what is underneath.

As we look to the future, it will be imperative that this ethos is maintained. “As leaders, we are the ones that can create psychologically safe workplaces through empathy and trust and create an environment in which people can be at their best,” asserts Schoenborn. “This next normal will probably have a lot more of life and work together, and our employees are going to challenge us,” agrees Hoch.

While traditional systems will no longer be in favour, neither will conventional mindsets. The chaos of COVID-19 required leaders to place absolute faith in their teams to allow for maximum agility, and this must be sustained as we return to normality. “Leadership is not about control; you are at the centre of that decision-making, but you must view yourself as a leader of influence,” says Ramachandra. He continues to explain that if a leader can release control and the limitations this creates, the lives they are able to touch will be limitless: “Think of it as a stone that is thrown into a still pond. As the stone hits that still pond, that’s the one impact you make, but then it ripples through the rest of the pond until the whole pond is filled up.” It will be vital that morale is maintained through dynamic and inspiring leadership. “As leaders, we must ensure all stakeholders are positioned to adapt to a future that requires agility, collaboration, and continuous and constant readiness for transformation,” asserts Schoenborn.

While the hype around ‘digital transformation’ may be beginning to fade, leaders must embrace technological transformation with zeal as well as demonstrate a willingness to understand advancements on at least a top line level. “As leaders, adapting our leadership style to these emerging technologies is important. You have to be a lifelong learner. Employees respect leaders who understand the fundamentals of what they do,” says Ramachandra, adding: “Surround yourself with people who can fulfil the gaps that you may have in your own capabilities. That is what leadership is about. It is not about insecurity.” As technology evolves further, leaders must have confidence in their orbit and trust their teams to make key decisions in contexts where their own understanding may be lacking.

The pandemic has provoked the top figures in pharma to reflect and analyse themselves as leaders as they attempt to configure positive outcomes from a challenging period for the industry. “While leaders typically are the ones posing the difficult questions, now leaders are asking themselves the difficult questions,” says Hoch. The difficulty will lie in what to reserve from the pre-crisis period, and what to absorb from the present. “What we have learned during this pandemic period is that there is also an alternative, and that alternative is not mutually exclusive from the old world,” states Ramachandra. Leaders must tread carefully to assume a leadership style that is familiar yet forward thinking, summoning a generation of trailblazers rather than bunker builders from the uncertainties of the COVID-19 crisis.

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