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

July 11, 2011
Industry consultant Jane Chin examines what makes the jobs of pharma’s middle managers so tough, and how they can succeed against the odds.
By Paul Thomas, Senior EditorPharma’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.You asked three different questions, with a qualifier "adequately" to each. My view is that today's middle managers are not adequately empowered, because they are often viewed by the senior leadership team as conveyors of messages but are either not allowed or not privy to the rationale behind the messages they are asked to convey to the rest of the organization. Countless times throughout my prior life in pharma employment I've heard the statement, "We're all professionals." Yet, if we strip away the talk and look at how pharma employees are treated, the dynamic looks almost infantile: "Do what we tell you to do, stop asking why, and if you do ask we'll say, 'because we said so'!" We can use the cliche that "knowledge is power"—what middle managers need for empowerment is more knowledge that they can share, but this requires trust from senior executives.My view is that today's middle managers are not adequately trained, because most companies don't know how to train at this level. Training middle management is not like training individual contributors, where knowledge may be factual, and therefore, teachable. This relates to the popular debate about whether leaders are born or made. Even when companies have a program in place, this level of training requires consistent retraining. Those of us who have been through any kind of training, especially those in "soft skills" that middle managers are constantly confronted with, know that we need continual reminders, constant practice, and a way to assess where we can improve."Improvement" touches on the last part of the question—support. My view is that today's middle managers are not adequately supported. At this level, support isn't about how many training programs or professional development courses you can offer your managers. It's about a continual learning-based relationship, and now we're talking about mentoring and coaching. I've known middle managers who have personally engaged coaches (life coaches and career coaches) and gain support in a confidential manner with a trusted source. Companies should also provide a source of support and leadership mentors to their middle managers.PhM: One consultant told me: “Pharma has defaulted a lot of its operations management to finance. Finance wants to reduce services and people to commodities.” Your thoughts?J.C.: Not that I want to be the harbinger of doom but I'd add that a lot of pharma operations has defaulted to finance AND legal. Finance wants to reduce services and people to commodities, and legal wants to impose additional restrictions because it's in the business of mitigating risks. Now you have pharma employees who feel like they don't matter and they can't do anything (or anything right, or anything without filing inches of paperwork). Then we can't be surprised when people start asking, "Why am I working here? I got into this industry to make a difference, and I'm starting wonder if it makes a difference if I'm here at all."PhM: This same consultant also said that middle managers who ask tough questions and try to change the status quo are often “shown the door.” Would you agree with this statement?J.C.: Yes, I agree. As I've said before, peer inside many pharma organizations and you can see relationships reduced to infantile when it comes to middle managers. When they get promoted to middle management, they may be testing their boundaries in this new role, and many are genuinely excited to share their personal vision with the rest of the organization. The problem is, many of these visions conflict with the comfort zones of senior leadership. The truth is, funneling up the management chain takes effort and energy, and there are some senior executives who want to cruise along doing what they've been comfortable doing, and they don't want to spend more energy and effort than necessary.PhM: What advice do you have for middle managers seeking greater relevance within their companies?J.C.: This is an interesting question because I've been focusing on issues of "relevance" (or "significance", which is the term I use) over the past few years. Recently on Quora (an online Q&A community that I'm very active in, particularly in "big question" topics and career development/personal development topics), I saw a question that made me mull for days before I was able to distill part of an answer. The question asked how one would measure one's life. That question stopped me in my tracks because I'd moved beyond using metrics of "success" and am now looking at metrics of "significance" and "relevance." When we're using success metrics, those may be as "simple" as how much money you earn, how many promotions you win, even how many "awards" you garner over the course of your career. Once you transition into relevance and significance, you are forced to ask new questions about why you are doing what you are doing.My advice for middle managers when seeking greater relevance within their companies is to turn inward and take a hard look at themselves because herein lies their answer. The middle managers need to find out for themselves what makes them unique. Each middle manager may have a different measure of relevance for themselves. Again, identifying these is part of the "support" and "mentoring/coaching" aspect of middle managers' professional development. I think what's happening in many pharma organizations today is that middle managers find themselves constantly busy, yet feeling like they've accomplished little. It's not that they've not done anything, it's that the outcomes of their "busy work" is removed from their personal sense of relevance. If you feel like someone else in the same rank can step in and do whatever you're doing without too many people noticing, then you've disconnected from that sense of relevance, or perhaps you've not yet identified what this is for you.