Why the pharma industry needs a different type of leader

Dr. Rebecca Godfrey shares how supply chain leaders can overcome three key challenges: fire-fighting, balancing conflicting priorities and managing stretched resources

Add bookmark

Pharma IQ

Leadership can be empowering, it can be inspiring, and it can help you to grow and stretch yourself in ways you never knew possible. In our industry, being a strong leader can not only allow you to play a key part in the development of your team but also in the development of life saving solutions for the patients we serve.  Conversely leadership, particularly in our fast paced and highly regulated environment, can be tough, it can be stressful, and it can be lonely.

The problem is that as we climb the career ladder and work our way to the top, we’re seldom taught how to be a leader. For those of us who came up through the more technical or scientific ranks, we may in fact have never intended to find ourselves in the position of leader - yet here we are, responsible not only for our own success but also for that of our teams and, consequently, for the careers of those that we lead.

In our industry we need to innovate and to progress scientifically and/or technologically to be able to deliver much needed, life changing solutions to the patients we serve. At the same, we need to maintain strict compliance with complex, stringent and ever-evolving regulations. As a result, our organisations and teams are often shaped organically due to scientific or technological development or in response to regulation change. Altogether this leads to particular challenges unique to leaders in our industry.

From our own personal experience and from hearing from leaders across the pharma landscape, we see the top 3 challenges leaders in this space face being:


  1. Fire-fighting – the need to be reactive rather than being able to be proactive

In pharma we need to be flexible, agile and in a position to respond to changes in regulation, organisation or as a result of the outcome of experimentation, data analysis and so on.  As scientists this is something that we learn to be comfortable with, not knowing the outcome until it arrives, not being biased by expectation, being open to what results arise and what they may tell us. 

In leadership, however, dealing with such unknowns can be tough.   In our highly regulated industry, changes to regulations are so frequent that we are often still dealing with or implementing the last change and so don’t have the time or space to consider, plan or resource for upcoming changes until they are upon us. 

Not only are we under pressure due to this constant change as an individual but we are leading a team experiencing similar challenges, each team member looking to us as the leader to chart the course and steer the ship.


  1. Balancing conflicting priorities

Due to the complex nature of our industry, there often are roles and responsibilities within a process, product or project that span teams, departments, offices and in some cases organisations.  So as if dealing with the conflicting priorities of innovation and compliance weren’t enough, due to the complex, global and interlaced nature of our industry, each team has multiple stakeholders each with their own set of priorities, timelines and needs.  As an individual balancing these priorities can be tough, as a leader however the challenge is even greater.


  1. Stretched resources in the team

Speak to any leader, in Pharma or otherwise, and when you ask them their greatest challenge more often than not they will tell you they either don’t have enough time, enough budget and/or enough human resources.  In Pharma we aim to work as lean as possible as any unnecessary or increased costs can result in the difference between a medicine being available to our patients or not.  Due to this we need to make decisions quickly, however given the impact of those decisions, they must be sound as well as swift.


Taking these challenges into account, what can we do differently to allow us to lead in such a way that allows us space and time to think, plan, prepare, develop and lead our teams all whilst maintaining compliance and driving innovation?

From the review of the successes and failures experienced and witnessed in Pharma leadership roles we have found that it comes down to 5 areas:

  1. Know where you are going and how you plan to get there.  Clarify and communicate your team’s purpose and direction for the future.   Having all members within the team being crystal clear on the purpose for your team, will see increased engagement, increased commitment and enhanced communication, three vital elements to any high performing team.

  2. Be clear on what you are here to deliver (and what you are not).  Removing any confusion reduces the risk of gaps in process ownership between teams leading to non-compliance or overlaps leading to inefficiencies. 
  3. Distribute control, share the burden and build resilience in your team.  Identify and develop subject matter experts at all levels within the team.  This not only enhances personal ownership and accountability, both key motivators, but also allows for more eyes on upcoming changes and less reliance on one person, the leader, to implement the changes.

  4. Develop your team’s confidence as well as knowledge so that individuals within the team have not only the knowledge but also the confidence to continuously improve themselves, their processes and their outputs.

  5. Stand back and let your team own the processes.  Developing process owners and subject matter experts within the team allows space for the leader to step back and have better perspective allowing for enhanced oversight where issues and risks can be identified early, mitigated proactively and lead to robust improvements.

Whilst this wonderfully exciting, fast paced and high regulated industry will always bring within it challenges for our leaders, focusing on these 5 areas can support leaders in developing high performing, aligned and focused teams where the distribution of control and involvement of team members can ensure we are making the best use of the talent and resources we have available in our team to face these challenges together.



About the Author

Rebecca Godfrey is the founder of Etheo, a Team & Leadership Transformation consultancy with a focus on the highly regulated technical industries.

Rebecca is a scientist by background having completed a PhD in Immunology at the University of Cambridge. Since leaving academic research, Rebecca's career has given her the opportunity to build and develop a successful drug safety consultancy business, work with and lead colleagues from more than 90 countries, live and work abroad and lead organisations and groups in roles ranging from Company Director of a small consultancy to Global Head and Global Director roles in two of the world's top 10 pharma companies.

Having thoroughly enjoyed a fruitful and successful career so far, in 2018 Rebecca took the leap to set up Etheo bringing her wealth of business experience, outstanding leadership skills, strategy and process development expertise and passion for meeting new challenges to support individuals and leaders build cohesive, high performing teams with a focus on operational excellence.