Can Elephants Learn To Dance?
This interview was conducted by Steve Crom of OXYGY with two leaders, Jeanne Thoma and Amy Pott, who collectively have 40 years of experience leading Life Science companies in the US and internationally during periods of turmoil and uncertainty including during the COVID-19 pandemic. Can businesses within larger corporate structures be truly agile, a capability more important than ever in this time of uncertainty?
OXYGY: How has the public health crisis we are in changed the way you lead?
Amy: The uncertainty we all face, means having to take action and make decisions that we know are at best 80% correct since we do not have complete information and need to act quickly. For many people that causes anxiety, is disorienting.
Jeanne: It is about risk tolerance and acceptance. In many organizations “no surprises” is the norm which means we fall back on processes as a form of shelter from the storm. Often the perception is that there are fewer consequences for not taking a decision and some would rather do that than take a risk and be wrong. What they miss is that not making a decision is a decision in itself.
I have heard business unit leaders, like yourselves, describe it as parallel universes: The operating companies had to go into overdrive during the crisis, while the corporate functions stayed with their processes and planning cycles as if nothing had changed.
Amy: Absolutely. When COVID hit, the hospitals and clinics closed to outside visitors including our sales reps. We had to quickly adjust and reframe our annual sales plan, market access plan, financial plans. We had to huddle every day, week and month to listen, learn, adjust to meet the changing needs of customers to give patients access to medicines, . We had to ensure our supply chain was robust. We listened to our customers changing needs. We supported teams to think and engage differently.
Jeanne: Corporate initiatives are well intended; but often they underestimate by a factor of 10 what it really takes to implement them well. Or, those starting the initiatives suffer from the syndrome, that I like to call: “If it is new to me, it must be new to you!” For example, they identify a need for a new communication plan, based on a single situation. Then they roll out a new plan, neglecting the fact that many business units or regions may already have a system in place that is working really well for their organization, customers, markets.
Being able to listen, collaborate, engage when all of us are faced with so many unknows seems like an essential leadership capability at both the corporate and business unit level, no?
Amy: Yes, I would add to that managing adversity and conflict. In these times it is inevitable, in fact desirable. It is the leader’s responsibility to surface issues, engage people with diverse views in understanding the issue and converge around the best course of action.
Jeanne: A classical command and control leader surrounds herself/himself with people who don’t challenge them or offer alternative views. That limits the information they have available to make decisions. Wanting to appear decisive, especially in a crisis, they continue to make decisions with less and less information or creativity as the pressure builds.
As a business leader in a larger corporate environment, is it possible to build a micro-climate that is engaging, entrepreneurial?
Jeanne: The leader of a team or business unit can create an entrepreneurial, agile micro-climate up to 90% of what is possible; however, it is a fragile environment. It is dependent on that leader. They are a bit of a human shield protecting the group from the bureaucracy. If there is a change and that person leaves, the micro-climate can change quickly and dramatically.
Amy: I agree, it is very possible to influence and shape the culture. You have to earn the right to do it by building trust in both directions with your teams you lead and the corporate structures around you.
Is it possible to create a truly entrepreneurial culture, start-up mentality in an established, publicly traded corporation?
Amy: Yes. In a well-established Healthcare company, I worked in a innovation group that acted like a venture capital group within the corporation. We incubated new products, service ideas within business units and across the portfolio of businesses; however the watch out is that in a business downturn, experimental units tend to be the first to get cut as budgets are tightened.
Jeanne: In my experience as well, innovative units have to have financial autonomy to survive i.e. their own P&L. If they are embedded in an existing business, they will get pruned in the first down cycle as “not worth the risk”. That is why large corporations tend to buy entrepreneurial start-ups when they have reached a level of stable profitability.
Thank you both for your sharing your experience and insights!
About the Authors
Amy Pott has over 15 years of experience in the areas of private and public healthcare. Most recently, she was Head of North America at SOBI – an international rare disease company. Her past experience includes positions at Shire, Baxalta and Baxter. Her executive leadership and international roles have allowed her to support the growth of organizations to the fullest.
Jeanne Thoma has over 25 years of experience in the Pharmaceuticals and Life Sciences Industry. Most recently, she was the President & CEO of SPI Pharma, prior to that Jeanne was President of the Microbial Control business at Lonza AG. She started her career in sales with BASF where she held several leadership roles in the Pharm Ingredients business. She currently serves as a Non-Executive Director for Avid Bioservices and ANI Pharmaceuticals.
Steve Crom (OXYGY Chairman & Partner) has supported leaders and organizations in achieving sustainable breakthroughs in performance for 35 years. Trained as an economist, he realized early in his career that getting to the right answer is at most 20% of the solution. Unlocking and mobilizing an organization’s creative and productive potential to implement solutions is the bigger challenge.