Skip to NavigationSkip to content

Soft skills for the commercial manager

Published on 11/02/10 at 01:06pm

The healthcare industry is changing. In pharma, the new rising commercial leaders, business unit heads, marketing managers, have both business and team responsibility. Change is a given, the time frame for which the organisation is vulnerable is up for grabs!

What are the core skills needed to retain drive behind business objectives and manage a team in this new changing landscape?

Time for change

So, why is change on the agenda? The current drug development and commercialisation model is simply not working is the answer. New medicines discovery and approval is down, generic competition is fiercer than ever, and blockbusters are a rarity. Our industry is entering a new health landscape, and its success will be determined by how well risks are navigated and opportunities created and seized.

One way to survive the changing environment is through mergers and acquisitions (M&A). Companies go through the pain and challenge of these with the vision that the larger merged organisation will be able to generate more value than the separate entities.

Whilst in many cases there is a positive impact on factors such as revenue growth and product pipelines - surveys suggest that M&A frequently impact negatively on operational excellence initiatives, information technology systems and infrastructure, culture and understanding, and, most critically, staff morale and performance.

Marketing leaders have their skills tested to new limits whilst an organisation morphs and adapts for survival within this changed environment.

The skills required to drive the commercial success of the brands through a cross functional team of skilled individuals during change takes on a new dimension. The team needs nurture, adjustments need to be made, and team dynamics need re-evaluating before focus can be restored.

However, irrespective of internal pressure and change, it is paramount that the organisation regains its focus with minimal impact on business objectives and deliverables in order to fulfil commitments to patients and customers and remain competitive. At this point in time, the threat to success is not the competition, the products, or the market: it is our people.

What is it about change?

Change is necessary, yet nothing is as upsetting to your people as change. Change can generate uncertainty, confusion and even a sense of loss - principal emotional responses that need to be treated with sensitivity and understanding.

From a business perspective, this has a significant knock-on effect, creating the potential to cause dramatic loss of focus, falling quality and decreased productivity, which can take a deep hold and not release its grip until individuals have moved through their ‘change curve’, which, if left to their own devices can take any length of time.

The change curve, a behavioural model of group and individual reactions, describes a number of stages moving from satisfaction, denial, resistance, exploration, hope and finally commitment. This tool in itself provides marketing leaders with valuable insight and a way of tracking how people are feeling, and once diagnosed, appropriate support and guidance can then be offered.

The obvious problem is that during times of change, the preoccupation with internal and personal politics, the consequent falling productivity and missed deadlines all have a detrimental impact, thus, exposing our business and making it vulnerable.

It is a known fact that in the competitive environment that is the pharmaceutical industry, we thrive on companies going through any type of change. Why? Because we know their eye is off the ball and we have an opportunity to step in and take advantage. The longer a company takes to regroup, the better for the competition - and our feast continues until order is restored.

It is not surprising, therefore, that change creates opportunity for others, our business plans are implemented through our people and without the focus of our people on the business, objectives are left unmet and achieving our commercial goals undone.

Mark Sanborn, an internationally renowned leadership development speaker, states: “Your success in life isn’t based on your ability to simply change. It is based on your ability to change faster than your competition, customers and business.”

The role of the marketing leader is therefore not to prevent problems or even slow the regularity of change, instead it is to focus on accelerating the individuals within the team to accept, adapt and commit to it. The ability to work together as a team and quickly tackle any and all situations, or decide not to, is your ultimate competitive advantage. The quicker a team can reform, align and work together towards clear objectives the less time we are vulnerable as an organisation. 

Balance of heart and mind

The key aim of any commercial manager, be they business unit head, marketing manager, or general manager is to improve the performance of the organisation. This means not just focusing on the figures.

Successful marketing management involves recognition of not just the price and product but also strategic analysis, contingencies, risk, delivery, strong customer and suppliers relationships and getting the right people on board to deliver the business plan objectives.

Despite a likelihood of proven business acumen and significant commercial success, managers may not have the required level of people management skills, such as change leadership, team development, conflict resolution etc., to overcome situations where this change, whether internal or external, impacts the team’s ability to deliver against the plan objectives.

Every manager has a level of man management skill. To be commercially successful you have to collaborate, influence and negotiate with people irrespective of managing a team yourself.

However, how polished are these skills? How confident are you that new commercial leaders have the breadth of skills needed to drive teams to function optimally during times of change? Will change, whether it is new process, new thinking or new behaviours - gain results and be adopted quickly and effectively?

Whose role is it anyway?

Individuals within a team hold the responsibility to do their best, which is different for every person and depends on a wide variety of factors (health, maturity, stability, experience, personality, motivation, etc.).

In addition to commercial direction, the responsibility for managing, leading, developing and inspiring the team resides with their manager.

The marketing leader’s role is to facilitate and enable each member of the team individually from an objective standpoint and measure their performance against specific business deliverables.

This is a complex role, one which we need to ensure we are not scared of but instead treat like the ocean - with the respect it deserves - because to get this wrong jeopardises the future success of the organisation.

In order to overcome fear we need to understand it. Look at the role from every angle and appreciate the connections between leadership, commercial management and people management and understand how that relates to the business plan deliverables. Through change people need a constant: the anchor point for every individual is the plan.

Adapting to and accepting the change

Firstly, it is important to clearly establish the nature of the change for the team. If the team is newly formed then the requirements start at a different point from say an experienced team facing loss of exclusivity on a product.

Once the team position has been established, the leaders have to then decide which ‘people management’ skills need to be adopted on top of the ‘business management’ skills to address the scale and nature of the issue.

Leading teams through change

Change leadership is defined as the strong, visible and aligned leadership of the end-to-end of the implementation process. The business plan therefore, roots every individual and gives common purpose during times of change.

Whatever the change or changes you are trying to implement with your team, the change has to start with you. Evaluate how this change may impact the plan. Will it mean less resource? Does the change mean you have acquired more products within your therapy area and now your resource is spread thinly?

Do tasks need to be redeployed and you need buy-in from your team to take on extra responsibilities? Does the team need to expand or get smaller? How do you ensure that everyone is still doing a thorough job?

The role of the leader is to provide a strong ‘vision’ of where the organisation or business needs to get to and what that will look like when you get there.

Taking steps to bring the team with you along the way is key to keeping the business plan on track and making your ‘vision’ a reality that others will want to be a part of.

Communication is key. Communicate and reinforce in an ongoing, committed basis the change you want to see in others. As a leader of a cross functional team it is imperative that this can translate across roles and functions e.g., marketing, medical, sales, public relations, training, clinical research etc., and bring the plan to life for all involved.

Understanding of how the process of change impacts on performance can be advantageous when planning, especially as during the transition state, performance and productivity undoubtedly plummet.

Knowing and understanding this and preparing for it during the business planning phase can help you minimise risk.

Which style of leadership suits your team and your goals?

Leadership style is the manner and approach of providing direction, implementing plans, and motivating people.

Kurt Lewin in a 1939 study led a group of researchers to identify different styles of leadership. This early research has been very influential and established three major leadership styles:

Authoritarian or autocratic: when leaders tell their employees what they want done and how they want it accomplished, without getting the advice of their followers.

Participative or democratic: the leader including one or more employees in the decision making process (determining what to do and how to do it). However, the leader maintains the final decision making authority.

Delegative or free reign: in this style, the leader allows the employees to make the decisions. However, the leader is still responsible for the decisions that are made.

Although good leaders use all three styles with one of them normally dominant, bad leaders tend to stick with one. The implications of the change to the business will inevitably necessitate adaptation of your leadership style as the team goes through different phases of the change.

For example, if the team is at a point of fear or anger, a consequence could be paralysis of action - it may then be necessary to adopt a more authoritarian approach.

Through understanding the leadership style that you naturally display and that which would best suit your team at each phase, you can ensure that your leadership is followed and you build a high performing team.

Developing high performing teams

Change may have altered your team, you may have a new team, it may be a different size, occupy a different remit. An inclusion or exclusion of even one individual will give rise to a new dynamic which may necessitate reforming of boundaries through team building techniques.

This needs careful management. Our industry often suffers from ‘The Apollo Syndrome’ where teams of highly intelligent people often perform worse than teams made up of more mixed ability. So members will need to be managed and supported appropriately.

Development, for individuals or teams, is a method to keep motivation and productivity high. What are the main criteria for development? Who should be developed, why and how? Do you develop everyone who asks for it or do you think more strategically to meet the key strategic goals? Should it be used as reward or for retention purposes?

It is widely accepted that the 70:20:10 development philosophy is the best way to develop individuals: through on the job experience (70%); relationships, networking and feedback (20%); and formal training opportunities (10%).

The majority of development should ideally and can be achieved on the job, through stretching individuals while supporting them with constructive feedback and coaching. Something that requires sophisticated people management skills to perform successfully and although talked about at length within organisations, is seldom executed well. As a leader do you have the necessary skills and knowledge to facilitate this process?

Making vision a reality

It is clear that people management skill and ability are inextricably linked to commercial success.

Recognising the vulnerability of the business during change and understanding the process and tools to enable change to happen is critical. This equips leaders to make predictions of the pitfalls and opportunities relating to performance that are likely to impact on the plan and help marketing teams get back in the game following change. After all, our plans, our strategies our objectives are but words without the individuals who implement them.

It is crucial to ensure that leaders are confident to manage the complex and diverse reactions we humans have to change and restore calm and focus, using the business plan as an anchor point.

We have all encountered someone during our career that we have referred to as being ‘not a people person’ and can recall the negative impact it had on us within our career development and ability to perform effectively.

It is therefore safe to say that these skills do not come naturally to everyone.

The process and techniques however can be learned and applied to any situation to ensure our teams are supported to put our values into action and make vision a reality.

Theodora Anastasi is a consultant at the MSI consultancy. For further information visit or email 

Mission Statement is a leading portal for the pharmaceutical industry, providing industry professionals with pharma news, pharma events, pharma service company listings and pharma jobs,
Site content is produced by our editorial team exclusively for and our industry newspaper Pharmafocus. Service company profiles and listings are taken from our pharmaceutical industry directory, Pharmafile, and presented in a unique Find and Compare format to ensure the most relevant matches