From the Editor: Channeling General Patton

Aug. 2, 2011
Pharma could learn a few lessons in accountability and respect.

This month saw the release of another dopey comedy, Horrible Bosses, which taps into the fear and loathing that many people in the business world have for their direct supervisors and those above them.

It also saw the publication of an internal corporate review that touched on the root causes of J&J’s ongoing QC problems with some of its “household word” over-the-counter medications. 

I know this problem has reached epic proportions when our publishing company’s CEO keeps asking, “Why is it that I still can’t get Pepcid?”

The J&J report, conducted by a team of executives and legal experts, was intended to respond to angry shareholders’ demands to know why, among other things, corporate quality systems allowed such significant and expensive problems to take shape.

Interestingly, the document connected the company’s repeated recalls and consent decree with FDA to understaffing and errors made by quality and operations management, who apparently “forgot” the company’s quality mission, but it exonerated senior corporate management.

After all, it reads, there was no smoking gun. “Senior management never issued any directives to the effect that quality should be sacrificed for production; nor did anyone report to senior management that McNeil was in jeopardy of significant regulatory intervention because it was out of compliance with cGMP.”

OK, I’ve never actually worked in a pharmaceutical facility, but tell me, would any CEO or senior executive ever send out an email explicitly stating, “We need to focus on production output, so damn the GMPs, full speed ahead!” And, in an environment where QC headcount was reduced by 35%, and operations staff by 24%, and managers changed frequently, who would have the time to blow a whistle to warn the top manager of the month?

Does the fact that no such memo or taped phone call emerged from the investigation let anyone off the hook?

I have no desire to flay J&J or its employees here, but rather point out patterns that we see repeated, again and again, at drug companies and elsewhere. Most disturbing is the practice of blaming our victims, setting people up for failure, whether they are at mid-management or operator level, and then passing the buck when things go wrong.

Perhaps we need to look at military leadership and ask: What would Patton do in a situation like this?

On the surface of things, he would appear to have been the ultimate horrible boss, screaming and cursing at those around him. Although he was a complex man, I still picture him as someone who might have loved the smell of napalm in the morning.

But I often wonder what it might have been like to fight under him. I just read his famous D-Day eve speech, and, whatever his excesses, he made a powerful connection with and inspired those he led. 

In that speech, he spoke of the unsung heroes that kept the Allies going—the drivers of requisitions, those who repaired cable lines, those on KP. He also spoke of the need to ensure that assets were in top condition. 

He “got” the fact that quality systems involve a chain, and that every link in that chain is critical. “Don’t ever think that your job is unimportant,” he said. “Every department, every unit, is important.” As FDA’s Rick Friedman and colleagues recently reminded pharma, this chain also includes global suppliers and contract partners.

Most importantly, Patton said, “Always do everything you ask of those you command.” 

The general may not have spouted all the Japanese phrases that have become so popular in management circles, such as “Go and see,” phrases that many executives still resist.

Patton lived that motto.  “Tell people what to do, not how to get there,” he said.

He would have taken a report like J&J’s, shredded it, barked at its committee of authors and then presumably used it to shore up supplies of a certain type of paper product before it saw the light of day.

Comparisons between the military and business worlds are easy to make. There’s risk, uncertainty, and in a business like pharma, lives are at stake.

Today, we hear of major failings in the military—buck passing and blame in the bloody Wanat battle in Afghanistan. In June, a survey of 22,000 officers by the Center for Army Leadership found that more than 80% had directly observed a toxic leader within the last year, while 20% had reported to one. Their definition of toxic? Someone who puts his or her own needs first, who micromanages and thwarts. 

In pharma, job security is far too tenuous for inflexible managers to last too long. 

Bad bosses will always be with us. Middle managers, and everyone working today, must have a battle plan to ensure that their voices are heard and that their superiors get a strong dose of reality, each and every day.

Careers, patients’ lives (and corporate reputations) depend on nothing less.

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About the Author

Agnes Shanley | Editor in Chief