Creative and Cautious: How Pharma’s Managers-Once-Removed Can Claim Relevance

Industry consultant Jane Chin examines what makes the jobs of pharma’s middle managers so tough, and how they can succeed against the odds.

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By Paul Thomas, Senior Editor

Pharma’s middle managers are underappreciated and underrated in their significance. We speak with Jane Chin, founder of the 9Pillars consultancy and author of, among other things, “Practical Leadership for Biopharmaceutical Executives,” on how middle managers can make themselves relevant and recognized.

PhM: It’s been said that pharma middle managers have a thankless job—often blamed for organizational failures but not credited for successes. Would you agree?

J.C.: Yes. Middle managers often are messengers of senior executives' mandates and unfortunately aren't always given a complete set of information they need to answer questions from direct reports about the mandates, including: "Why this? Why now?"

Middle managers' subordinates may assume that their managers know more than what is being communicated, which may or may not be the case. This puts middle managers in a precarious position of balancing expectations from the senior leadership team as well as from their subordinates and having to meet these expectations. I do think that middle managers receive recognition from their peers and subordinates more readily than from their senior leadership teams, who are busy tending to the demands of the chief executives.

PhM: I’ve also heard it said that pharma middle managers often get mixed messages from senior management: that they need to be cautious and avoid regulatory issues or other problems, but need to take chances and meet operational and earnings expectations. What can be done about this?

J.C.: The mixed messages come from the poor scalability of these types of admonitions: "Be careful! Don't get us in trouble!" and on the other hand, "Be creative! We're in the business of innovation!" These warnings seem to fly in each others' faces, and as usual, it's up to middle managers to decipher what their executive leadership teams mean and then to scale this message appropriately to the subordinate-level and, then, execute on these.

One of the ways that middle managers can gain clarity when confronted with contradictory mandates is to ask their senior executive for specifics—but only do this after you've gone back and mulled over potential scenarios. The best way to engage senior executives in a dialog is to present potential options and scenarios you've thought through, and discuss the boundaries of execution for each option to come to a mutual agreement as to which ones are feasible and are both "creative and cautious."

I can't emphasize enough the need to have options and scenarios to present: senior executives may not always be able or willing to sit down and "brainstorm" with you as a middle manager, and you'll be seen as lacking creativity and proactiveness or, worse, "lacking leadership" if you skip this step and go straight to senior executives with open-ended questions.

PhM: New research suggests that the role of the middle manager in pharma and other industries is more significant to organizational success than previously thought. Would you concur?

J.C.: I am biased to agree because the emphasis of my "Practical Leadership for Biopharmaceutical Executives" looks specifically at the phenomenon of "managers-once-removed." These are middle managers and senior level managers who are the critical components of an organization's culture and even success, but because they reside "in the vast middle" of the organization, they almost become "the invisible middle" and taken for granted.

But if you examine the organization, you'll find that this middle layer of management are the ones who are translating and scaling corporate strategies across their individual functions, and then ensuring the appropriate execution and measurements of those strategies. You can look at troubled organizations and find strategies that have been "lost in translation" as it percolates through this middle management layer.

PhM: A lot of experienced, mid-level professionals in pharma have been laid off in recent years, due to budget cuts. Have you seen this? What’s your assessment of the general competency and expertise of middle managers you’ve seen in pharma?

J.C.: Yes, I've seen this, and it's because of what I'd stated prior—the invisible middle is easy to ignore and take for granted, and because of the "vastness" of this middle layer, it's also an easy target for layoffs. It is a lot harder to justify the return on investment of headcounts that don't appear to have tangible, objective metrics attached to their "cost," and unfortunately even in an industry as laden with knowledge work as pharma, we've resisted moving beyond numbers-driven metrics, because numbers can be put on a spreadsheet and manipulated for answers like cutting costs.

The middle managers that I've seen in pharma in many functions—from R&D to manufacturing to medical affairs—are in perpetual reactive mode for the past few years. Part of this is due to the economic crises that has demanded that they react to the effects of layoffs on their team's morale and productivity. Part of this is due to pharma continuing to be miserly when it comes to professional development and training. Middle managers require leadership development as much as executive leadership teams! I think for what they're facing, today's pharma middle managers are doing an admirable job.

PhM: In your view, do pharma companies have proactive programs in place to ensure that middle managers are adequately empowered, trained, and supported?

J.C.: Pharma may have some programs for middle managers, but the usual rule is, "the bigger the company, the more established the professional development program, if one already exists." You'll find companies that lack any type of professional development at this level and middle managers are expected to "learn on the job" or already possess those communication, management, and leadership skills.

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