Developing your personal pathwayAs pharma evolves at a revolutionary speed, what do today’s young executives need to stay ahead of the crowd and what can they learn from some of the brightest and best who are already doing just that?  

In healthcare, people are accustomed to change. What’s different now is the pace of change, which is continuing to accelerate, fuelled by advancing technology and an increasingly competitive and complex market.

The traditional route into pharma for those looking to get out of the lab or away from law has been via sales, particularly for marketers. The rep moves on up to manager and then into the ‘office’ to work on a brand, before rising up the ranks to marketing manager and then marketing, therapy area or business unit director. 

Direction and drive

Look at the ABPI website careers section and it still hints at this way forward for aspiring marketers. More marketing-based websites recommend marketing assistant as the place to start. But is such a linear career pathway the only or best way to progress? Talk to those at the top of their game today and the answer is probably not – breadth and depth of experience is the name of the game and while industry is supportive, individuals will need direction and drive to achieve their ultimate ambitions.

A solid understanding of the sales and marketing basics is increasingly important whatever your role, but the fast pace of the work environment will sometimes mean that you do not have the time for the academic or idealistic approach; important decisions will have to be made in tight timeframes, with incomplete knowledge or data.  Experience should of course direct you to make the right decision, but do you have the right experience? 

Non-linear progression

Antoinette Dale Henderson, director at Zomi Communications which delivers leadership, communications and coaching programmes to the industry says: “Price and cost pressures, regulatory changes and expiring patents leading to shrinking markets are all trends impacting continual professional development in pharma.

“Career development and training must shift focus from abstract concepts and academic theories to real-world business challenges and opportunities, with industry-specific skills, tools and insights that people can apply directly to their day job.”

“With an increasing demand for strategic thinking and innovation set against a highly regulated environment, career development and training must shift focus from abstract concepts and academic theories to real-world business challenges and opportunities, with industry-specific skills, tools and insights that people can apply directly to their day job.”

Without doubt, one could argue that linear career progression develops experience as you may face similar situations on a number of different occasions and build on the learnings. Equally, you might just end up doing what you’ve always done!  A non-linear approach to career development, with more emphasis on ‘sideways’ moves, gives exposure to many different situations and fosters an approach to thinking that means you ask the right questions to be able to develop the right solution.

Paul Tunnah, CEO of pharmaphorum, which connects healthcare stakeholders through thought leadership, is seeing evidence of an increase in this non-linear career progression: “Pharma is traditionally very ‘silo-ed’,” he observes. “For example you might see marketing and market access as different departments, where in other industries such as FMCG they would be one function. Increasingly, we are seeing more progression from people coming in from outside pharma, with a broader skillset, and this is leading to less silo-ing of skills.

“Looking forward, as the new NHS environment drives pharma to look beyond the pill to more holistic services, it is possible that progression may even shift to become therapy area-led. Rather than the brand manager who builds relations in epilepsy, gains and in depth knowledge of the stakeholders and issues and then moves on to a position in oncology, perhaps we will see a career that moves around in that therapy area, with an individual gaining experience of, say, marketing, then R&D and commercial and supporting the company’s positioning as an expert and leader in that disease.”

Whatever the future, we are fortunate that on the whole, the pharma industry is sophisticated in its approach to talent development. Those who are motivated can find a range of specialist internal support from employers and external training and development programmes, such as the PM Society’s PriMe, to augment real life experience.

Accessible learning

“Learning has at last become fashionable and accessible,” suggests Eamon O’Brien who spent fifteen years in marketing and sales in pharma before following his passion for developing people by turning his hand to executive coaching at CRandC: “The rise of massive open online courses (MOOCS) provides a fantastic way either to self-develop in an area of expertise or try something new.

“To be quite unusually brilliant these days, an individual must take ownership of their development maybe even investing their own time and money in getting better as well as absorbing everything that is on offer from their organisation.”

“More and more people work in a matrix - in order to be successful they need to develop the competency of willing collaboration. Sharing (rather than owning) ideas, territory and projects is essential.  Larger organisations are investing in their own people to become coaches for example. This is a wonderful way of developing a culture of learning and sharing, assuming accreditation is maintained.

“To be quite unusually brilliant these days, an individual must take ownership of their development maybe even investing their own time and money in getting better as well as absorbing everything that is on offer from their organisation,” concludes O’Brien.

With a large number of dynamic factors affecting the industry, some evolving at breakneck speed, is it better to have a range of experience based on things that have worked in the past? Or to have a range of skills that allow you to understand the situation quickly, and develop the right solution? 

On-the-job-learning, a preparedness to take a non-linear approach to career development, by moving around to acquire a variety of skillsets and experience, and a commitment to completing external and internal training and development appears to be the mix that will best serve today’s ambitious pharma executive.  It seems that alongside ‘hard graft’, flexibility and taking firm ownership of your own destiny is the key to success.