The New Era of Purpose-Led Leadership in Pharma
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April 22, 2020
Leadership StrategiesLeadershipHealthcareBoard and CEO Advisory
It is time to seize opportunities presented by emerging innovative operating models and new ways of employee engagement and collaboration with external stakeholders.


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The PharmExec article, “The New Era of Purpose-Led Leadership in Pharma,” was co-written by Russell Reynolds Associates Consultant Dana M. Krueger, PhD, on key lessons learned from purpose-led executives. The article is excerpted below. 

The healthcare ecosystem: Fighting to save the world 

The current COVID-19 pandemic is a global tragedy with profound human and economic consequences. While it has left leaders in many industries fighting to save their businesses, leaders in the healthcare ecosystem face a different challenge: They are fighting to save the world.  

Across all the activities of pharma companies – from their investments in product development to directly impact patients in need, to the research and supply alliances they are building, to the charitable donations they make – the COVID-19 crisis has reinforced the need for pharma leaders to commit to, communicate, and exemplify the purpose that is at the center of their strategies and organizations.  

Pharma companies’ response: Purpose as a central driver 

These days, we often ask our clients how they are feeling. Understandingly, many use words like anxious, challenged, concerned and stressed. At the same time, many in influential senior leadership roles describe their current mental status as energized, engaged, focused and reflective. This dichotomy demonstrates that the crisis can severely test – and reveal – the quality of an organization’s leadership. It is during these times that great leaders act – and act decisively, and with purpose. Through their actions, they set an example for everyone in the organization. They stand as the difference between thriving in a crisis or suffering irreparable damage. 

To succeed in this moment, we recommend looking to the 10 lessons we’ve learned from purpose-led executives over the past years to help the companies emerge stronger in the moments of severe uncertainty. The first five focus on dealing with the crisis itself, the second five underscore the need to treat the crisis as a crucial training period for the next generation of leaders. 

Pharma score card: Opportunities for extraordinary performance ahead 

Adapting corporate purpose to the needs presented by COVID-19 is critical right now and will be even more critical after the crisis has passed. In general, from an operational perspective, pharma is already beginning this adaptation process. Most pharma companies have pivoted their strategic course to bring an ‘all-hands-on-deck’ approach to finding crisis solutions. And pharma leaders have been among the first to look beyond their normal time horizons and outside their company walls to solve the crisis and help the global community. 

Yet, as in every organization, there is still work to be done. Pharma leaders need to invest effort and time in building strong teams and developing next-generation leaders. During the crisis, new skill sets around teamwork, agility and risk-taking are being developed and tested.  

It is time to seize opportunities presented by emerging innovative operating models and new ways of employee engagement and collaboration with external stakeholders. A looming question is: Does the pharma industry have the right group of leaders in place to take full advantage of these opportunities? 

Russell Reynolds Associates’ recent analysis of the CEOs of the top 40 global pharma companies offers some encouraging observations. Looking at the group as a whole, 90 percent of leading pharma companies are led by first-time CEOs who have held their positions, on average, for 4.8 years. Unlike their predecessors, many of these CEOs bring experiences across several functional areas, and from different parts of the healthcare ecosystem and beyond. This cross-training suggests we have a strong cohort of agile leaders who are familiar with thinking creatively and working collaboratively. By leveraging purpose as a behavioral compass, these leaders are able to not only navigate through the crisis, but transform their organizations and the pharma industry overall.  

Outlook: Leadership redefined 

In the coming months and years, we will undoubtedly see lasting changes in how we conduct business emerge from the current COVID-19 crisis. Among those we already see are the acceleration of digitalization, the virtualization of clinical trials and an evolution in how we work together. These operational changes may embed faster than expected, but pharma is overall well-positioned to adapt at pace. 

Equally important are the lasting talent implications, which current pharma leaders should not overlook or delay in addressing. With the right encouragement and support now, strong leaders will come out of the current COVID-19 crisis – leaders who saw beyond short-term milestones and quarterly results and focused on the fundamental purpose that their organization could serve in the world. Over time, these purpose-led leaders will push the boundaries of their organizations and the pharma industry far past current limits, creating a higher impact and more resilient industry in the future.  

To read the full article, click here.