Tales from the Middle

Aug. 10, 2011
Pharma's middle managers carry on despite a "damned if we do, damned if we don't" environment.

What are the rewards and frustrations of pharma middle managers? What kind of person would want to be part of this mid-level corps? We spoke to a few to find out. (This article accompanied our August 2011 Cover Story on “The Good Fight: The Plight of Pharma’s Middle Managers.”)

“Middle managers have a thankless job,” says a division manager at a mid-sized Asian manufacturer. Upper management always seems to want answers to what, why, and how things are happening in the plant—readily taking credit when things are going well but laying blame when they’re not.

“Upper management thinks that it is our job to implement what they want,” he continues, “but they don’t really know what is happening in the field or plant.” At the same time, he says, “people under us think that our decisions are to blame” for problems that arise.

Damned if we do, damned if we don’t, he says. Needless to say, “It is really hard to stay motivated and enthusiastic in your work.”

Are middle managers masochists? Certainly not, and plenty of them are perfectly happy in their roles and comfortable in their skin. But it does take a special person.

“I’m a Type A,” says one biopharm Quality manager who asked not to be identified. “But you have to recognize that each person has their own style. You have to know how people work, what they’re doing, and what their workload is.”

Senior management usually understands the challenge of middle management, she adds. “But there’s a difference between understanding and coming out and verbally supporting it.”

“All I need is, ‘Hey, that was awesome, thanks,’ ” she says. “Not enough people look downward or sideways in an organization to just tell you that you’re doing a good job. I try to do that with my junior staff . . . and to be honest, my manager tries. It’s nice to hear that sometimes.”

“I’ve enjoyed the different roles I’ve had, because you get to impact people’s lives and get to help make product,” says Paul Herzich, decision support manager at Novartis Vaccines and Diagnostics. “You’re not always able to influence things like you would hope, not always able to keep things from going wrong in some situations. But there are pluses and minuses, like with any job.”

Herzich’s current position has been at a greenfield site, and he’s been one of a handful of people making key decisions—thus, he’s felt “100% empowered” to influence the site’s development and direction. Novartis believes in giving relative autonomy to its key people at various locations, he says.

At a job with a previous employer, at an “established” manufacturing site, “You were empowered to a degree, but it was easy to be overruled,” he says. “You wanted to make sure you were aligned with your management before communicating anything downward.”

That organization, too, was undergoing massive change, he says, with middle management eventually gutted. Drug companies such as this, he says, “are going to have gaps in their talent pools, and they’re not going to be able to hire or promote internally to fill the manufacturing and management expertise that they need.”

Managing Up and Down

“Right now I deal with senior management on a nearly hourly basis, so the most important thing is keeping a strong rapport between us,” says Herzich. “I try hard to really understand their mindset.”

And if he doesn’t agree with that mindset? “If you’re at the opposite end of the spectrum, you either get on board or you build your case to open their eyes to issues—whether they have to do with Quality, Regulatory, or new suggestions,” he says. “You do a good job from a performance perspective in order to build trust.”

As for working with subordinates? “You understand what it is people on the floor are trying to accomplish,” Herzich says. “And you help them understand how to frame things—you try to be that gateway to present a new product or change [to senior management]. And you try to be a teacher and coach. Again, it’s about building a rapport with people.”

Herzich also credits his MBA (paid for by his two most recent employers) for providing him the business acumen to excel in middle management. “I would still be a floor supervisor had I not gotten it,” he says.

Matthew Frosch, manager of manufacturing at Celgene, is also a Type A. “I’m a direct person, with a military background,” he says. “But the key competency and skill [for middle managers] is team development and leadership.” By “leading the team” Frosch means helping them develop and get proper training, and making sure they have the resources to do their jobs.

As for managing up, “The challenge is to balance regulatory and financial requirements with meeting demands,” Frosch says. “Do you stop the line and refit and possibly risk stocking out? It’s a huge challenge and you must work with senior management and the people on the floor—what can we do to get better and to make improvements?”

One of Frosch’s strategies is to get senior management down on the plant floor whenever possible. “It allows them to ask the right questions and see exactly what we do,” he says.

Frosch says he’s fortunate his company provides support for people in his position. “Celgene has a good system to evaluate, develop, and reward performance,” he says. This includes establishing clear goals for individuals, sites, and the company, and reviewing them regularly. It also has a computer-based development program to connect middle managers to senior managers—“to define our individual strengths and weaknesses, where we want to go in our careers, how we can improve company performance and also meet our career objectives.”

Is an MBA or business background the key to success in the middle? “I’ve had no official business training,” Frosch says. “The company has helped me through the mentorship of senior management and business-related skills.”

His time in the military also prepared Frosch for dealing with people of different organizational ranks, with different personalities and background, and under duress. “In pharma, of course, we’re not getting shot at,” he says. “But you have to have the ability to deal with stressful situations. It puts the whole team at ease.”

About the Author

Paul Thomas | Senior Editor