Strategies to lead your manufacturing organization through COVID-19

March 25, 2020
There’s a new normal that doesn’t feel normal at all.

The impact of the COVID-19 crisis may be greatest on the pharmaceutical industry long term. Right now, on the front line, whether or not your company is directly engaged in the crisis, you and your teams are feeling the waves that are emanating from a pandemic. You may be facing urgent challenges. Do we have enough materials? What’s happening to our supply chain? How do we maintain health and safety for our employees? How will cascading quarantines impact our production lines? What do we do about shortages? How long will this go on?

Longer term, COVID-19 will upend many industry standards. Demands for changes in sourcing, supply chain and production will challenge everyone. This will also be an opportunity. Disruption is the catalyst for change. Savvy leaders in pharmaceutical manufacturing will accelerate innovation and speed new ways of doing business, from digital to Big Data, artificial intelligence, the industrial internet of things (IIoT) and machine-learning to improve processes and quality. 

In the meantime, you and your team must deal with the very real, here and now concerns of your employees across Asia, Europe and the US.  There’s a new normal that doesn’t feel normal at all. Your teams are stressed at home, challenged to work virtually, and wondering how they can meaningfully contribute to help your company either manage the increasing demand or shift gears to survive and thrive. 

As a leader, your first job is to minimize general health risks, and be sensitive to employee concerns. Be sure that you go the extra mile to communicate this to everyone. You also have to attend to the risks brought on either by increased demand, or slowdown, which would of course hurt employees, customers, investors and shareholders, potentially over a longer term. How can you project calm, assure people, help them focus, and be courageous? 

Here are six strategies we are advising our clients to adopt.

Manage the swirl

Acknowledge people, admit there’s a lot you don’t know, and whatever you do now, don’t allow a vacuum to develop. When people don’t know what’s happening, they fill in the void. This increases anxiety and makes it challenging to get them focused.  You need to open the lines of communication through a variety of channels. Be visible and available.

Help people work through the angst they’re feeling, so that they can refocus. Information calms people.  Give thought to the message. Don’t worry if you don’t have much that’s new to say. Keep the channels open, and let people see you and hear from you. Express faith in others. Use humor when appropriate. Tell it like it is. Keep people up to date and communicate regularly.  Go live, use video when you can so they can see you and each other.

Assure people you want to hear the news, good or bad, and create a safe, welcoming environment

Make it safe for your team and your people to come to you with problems and bad news.  Let them know you want to hear from them, whatever they have to say. Back this up by being visible and accessible. This is not the time to hunker down or disappear. Increase your check-ins — one-on-one with your reports and together with your teams — to ask how things are going, what they are learning, and what they think could be coming up and needs to be addressed. 

Listen carefully and take note of what you learn. If your office has gone virtual, get on video for those check-ins, and use the technology to chat and connect virtually. Use email strategically to inform and share.  And, pick up the phone.

Encourage innovative, creative ways to do business

The best ideas often emerge from a crisis or challenge when you’re forced into a corner. Foster an environment that encourages new ideas and innovation. Welcome thoughtful discussion and set up groups to evaluate ideas. Virtual group work is great, especially if you have sharing platforms and tools for group discussions.  

Pauses can be a time of astounding discoveries. During the Bubonic plague in 1665 when people were also asked to social distance during a pandemic, Sir Isaac Newton invented calculus, developed his theories on optics, and outside his window was an apple tree which legendarily inspired the theory on gravity. It doesn’t hurt to give people questions and time to think about solutions. Who knows what revelations may come to them?

Don’t make impulsive decisions. Give yourself time to consider everything

Volatile and uncertain times and competing priorities can create tension and stress, and many of us are given to impulsive decisions. Avoid the temptation to speak too soon, before you have enough information. Since events at work are unfolding quickly and you need to stay agile, it’s tempting to hit “go” before ready. Slowing down and gathering a few more facts will prevent decisions you later have to undo.  

It’s always OK to take some time to think. That’s your job as a leader! Resist impulsive action to create clarity and understanding. In the swirl of activity, set the example for others. Letting the heat of the moment pass will bring more clarity to your thought and give you more control over the situation.

Urge others to follow a process for evaluating situations

Create the expectation that you and others will follow a process for evaluating and making decisions before taking a course of action. Set criteria for the decision before you start generating ideas and picking the best. Each problem has many potential solutions, and creating the criteria first (easy to implement, cost-effective, can be done with few resources) is a way to evaluate those solutions.

Provide guidance by communicating a clear decision process including who should be involved, and who has the “D.” Be intentional in clarifying what steps to take, what resources to tap, and how you will help with questions or challenges. This takes the guess work out of navigating the unexpected and reinforces a culture of openness to news and input, whatever it is.

Keep people focused on the future

Finally, and perhaps most critically, while managing the day to day, don’t overlook how important it is to start focusing on what’s next. Pharmaceutical manufacturing will very likely transform in ways large and small after we have navigated this pandemic. There’s also a likelihood new challenges arise as the industry faces public scrutiny, with questions about the wisdom of having a supply chain and manufacturing centered in China. Public pharma companies will also undergo intensive scrutiny on matters of public policy and health and safety, which will drive stock price and values. 

Smart pharmaceutical manufacturing leaders will be encouraging their teams to prepare now. They’ll look ahead at how disruption will create risk and opportunity. Turning the team’s attention to future challenges will energize and mobilize them to look around corners. Your company could be next to reinvent the future of how we make, deliver and distribute drug therapies to the world, prepare for the next pandemic, or invent a new therapy or cure. Inspire your teams by challenging them to be part of creating the future.

About the Author

Suzanne Bates | CEO