Pharma industry leaders know better than most the importance of balancing long-term demands and short-term results, with the glacial pace of drug development at one end and the impatient call for quarterly results at the other.
This tension has been eased by multimillion-pound software systems, supply chain efficiencies and closely monitored matrix structures. Analysis and technology can only take us so far though and, as the Brexit whirlwind passes through, the human factor of leadership will be more important than ever in helping people to navigate these uncertain times.
The various outcomes have been well debated, so there is no need for me to go over old ground. Just last month, PharmaTimes carried an article from the Economist Intelligence Unit examining the prospect of drug shortages as a result of Brexit, highlighting the fact that shortages are not a new phenomenon. A 2018 report by the European Association of Hospital Pharmacists, it said, found that 73% of pharmacies across 38 European countries ran short of some medicines on a daily or weekly basis.
As pharma companies have got bigger and bigger, so they have become more unwieldy to manage. The sector is facing challenging times, whether it is dealing with the day-to-day logistical and regulatory uncertainty from Brexit, or the uncertainty of how AI and technology will start to impact both healthcare and drug development.
Rather than staring inward and focusing on managing a team, leaders need to look out to see what lessons they can learn from other industries faced with similar challenges.
The military, elite sport and even performing arts operate in environments of intense pressure, constant uncertainty and, in the case of the military, life or death decisions. You might argue that in professional sport, international football and rugby teams operate in environments where some people think the outcome is even more important. The pressure is powerful enough to unnerve even the most experienced players. Mental preparation is key to success.
I learned this from personal experience when, as an England cricketer, pressure caused my game to collapse.
It was 2002 when I was included in the England Cricket squad to tour India. The first ball I bowled was against batting legend Sachin Tendulkar, my nerves were pounding as I ran up to bowl, the noise coming 120,000-strong crowd was incredibleand the pressure rose in our run chase.
I was batting with Freddie Flintoff and I ran him out, we couldn't hear a thing. After that, I began listening to that negative voice in my head. I was out in the middle of that cauldron of noise and I started telling myself I wasn't good enough to be there. Then I played a terrible shot and followed him back.
My biggest regret was that India didn't beat me on that night, I beat myself.
This started my research quest to find out what neuroscientists, military leaders, and Olympians could teach us all about performing under pressure.
In the last decade, I’ve interviewed some of the world’s most impressive and prolific leaders, from Sir Alex Ferguson to military generals and even the performance director at the Cirque du Soleil to understand what tactics and strategies they use to mentally prepare for uncertainty.
Here are some essential tactics to help leaders cope with chronic uncertainty:
Stop blaming others; own the situation
With our current situation there are plenty of people your management team might feel like blaming – the electorate; former Prime Minister David Cameron; the EU; MPs in Westminster; our Prime Minister. If that is what you they are doing, they need to get over it.
Great leaders don’t waste time blaming others: it may win you sympathy, but it won’t help you solve the problems. Making excuses gives you a reason to fail but the biggest regrets of your career will come from not showing your character and taking risks. In any situation there will be factors outside your control that could affect your mindset and performance but champions don’t waste energy on those, they double down their efforts on their preparation, attitude, communication and skills to maximise their chance of success.
Uncertainty creates opportunity so start by making a plan that turns the uncertainty into an advantage. After all, other businesses have the same problems so those that actively tackle the situation will be the ones that succeed.
Pressure is a privilege
Having played in and worked with some of the world’s highest profile sporting teams, I’ve seen how they use pressure as privilege and use this mindset to tackle potential issues head on. Worrying about what might or could happen leads to paralysis, so an effective leader must embrace the challenges ahead.
In sport, the best coaches prepare their teams for Plan A, but they also throw scenarios into the training that get the teams thinking on their feet. I’ve supported several senior leadership sessions at Sandhurst military academy and heard how they create challenging and chaotic scenarios to test the soldiers’ ability to think clearly and adapt under pressure.
In a business context, this could mean equipping teams with the skills to make decisions under extreme pressure and rehearsing with scenarios. By pressure testing various challenges, you will be more familiar wit the decision-making sequence that follows when chaos ensues. What if a vital shipment was stopped at the border? The teams that talk about pressure and rehearse responses are most likely to succeed.
Don’t micromanage – enable
An effective leader needs to have confidence that their team will know how to find solutions while under intense pressure.
By relinquish control, you are building trust in the team and empowering it to make decisions. Having coached across different sporting codes, it’s been interesting to compare and contrast coaching styles. Cricket and rugby feature more implicit training drills and questions from coaches which encourages the players to solve the problems creatively like entrepreneurs. Football on the other hand with its short-term pressure for results has traditionally been more directive and instructional which results in compliance.
One Olympic coach I interviewed told me that his philosophy of leadership could be summarised by the formula C3B4ME. Maths was never a strong point for me so when I asked for an explanation he said ‘when my team have a problem, I ask them to see three people before they come and see me this way they get to work together and I can remain free to think about the next strategic issue’.
Leaders need to trade perfection for speed so let ten of your team do things to 80% of your standard rather than slowing the whole system down as you perfect each one.
Be fluid not fixed
Rapidly changing situations calls for leaders who can bring together diverse project teams to fix problems and exploit opportunities, fast.
Leaders must understand that they can’t predict and prevent all problems from arising, they must prepare teams so they can assess and respond quickly.
Deploying teams to futureproof your business is key; for example, what if your biggest supplier is affected by Brexit? What if your top talent left to join a rival? Understanding your biggest Brexit threats and how your business will respond if they become reality is important to be able to withstand the pressure that comes from uncertainty.
Confidence comes from preparation, so plan for the unexpected and turn disruption to a commercial advantage.
Very few will have the perfect strategy to deal with the political uncertainty in coming weeks but those who maximise their mindset and culture will have the best chance of winning whatever the position.
Jeremy Snape is founder of high performance consultancy Sporting Edge (www.sportingedge.com)