paper airplane following its own course

Charting a New Course: Guiding Sales Teams Through Organizational Change

June 3, 2024 – 8 min read

Change—unless it’s a change of scenery, the mere mention of the word conjures feelings of uncertainty, discomfort, or the looming possibility of failure. Yet, in the pharmaceutical industry, change has become the new constant. The current landscape is filled with ongoing organizational transformations driven by a myriad of factors. Amidst this chaos, sales leaders find themselves at the forefront, tasked with the challenging role of navigating their teams through uncharted territories. They not only must adapt to these changes themselves but also guide their teams through the complexities and uncertainties that come with organizational transitions, all while ensuring that sales targets are met, and customer relationships are maintained.

Digital transformation and regulatory changes continue to reshape the industry in significant ways. Collaborations and mergers, like the one between AbbVie and Calico Life Sciences [1], are becoming more common as companies seek to share resources, risks, and rewards in the face of increasing complexity and costs associated with R&D. Market access and pricing pressures are forcing companies to reassess their strategies as governments and payers demand more value for their money. Companies are shifting towards patient-centricity and incorporating more patient insights into decision-making processes, as demonstrated by Novartis establishing patient advisory boards [2] and integrating patient insights into clinical trial designs.

The key is to embrace generational diversity as an asset. With the right strategies, managers can tap into the unique strengths of each generation to build an innovative, productive, and collaborative workforce. However, it requires taking the time to understand what motivates each generation and adapting your leadership style to foster unity. Patience and commitment to ongoing coaching are also critical to performance. Technology presents helpful tools but cannot replace human guidance.

In this ever-changing environment, sales leaders’ roles have become more critical than ever. How can they ensure they’re ready to lead their teams to meet the demands of constant change?

What is Change Management?

Change management is a critical process that involves preparing and supporting individuals, teams, and business units to adapt successfully to change. For sales leaders in the pharmaceutical industry, change management requires focusing on how organizational changes affect business goals, growth opportunities, and competitive advantage.

Effective change management is not just about strategies; it’s also about people. Leaders must ensure their teams are resilient, adaptable, and skilled enough to handle change. This involves developing and coaching team members and, when necessary, reshaping team structures to better meet the market’s demands.

dominos falling with hand pushing them down

Only 39% of businesses report that organizational change has performed well against its goals

2022 Gartner Q2 CHRO Survey

Change-Ready Sales Leadership

The importance of adaptable, change-ready sales leadership cannot be overstated. These leaders must not only adapt to changes themselves, they must also guide their teams through the challenges and uncertainties that come with organizational transitions. This requires a unique set of skills and strategies that enable them to maintain team performance, motivation, and alignment with company goals, even in the face of significant upheaval.

Sales leaders must focus on their own personal development and adaptability to effectively lead their teams through change. This involves cultivating a growth mindset, actively seeking out learning opportunities, and building resilience in the face of uncertainty. They should also seek out mentorship and coaching to gain insights and guidance from experienced leaders who have successfully navigated organizational change. Additionally, sales leaders must develop strong emotional intelligence and self-awareness to effectively manage their own responses to change.

What is an adaptable or “change-ready” leader?

Being an adaptable leader means being able to quickly assess and respond to new situations, being open to new ideas and approaches, and effectively communicating and guiding teams through transitions.

Change-ready leaders anticipate, embrace, and effectively manage change. They possess the agility to adjust their strategies and leadership styles to suit evolving circumstances while inspiring and guiding their teams through transitions. This type of leadership is vital because it enables leaders to identify and seize opportunities that arise from industry shifts, allows them to mitigate risks and navigate challenges more effectively, and sets an example for their teams, fostering a culture of flexibility and resilience.

Examples of change-ready leadership:

  • Navigating Regulatory Shifts: At Novartis, leaders have actively participated in global discussions and policy-making processes. They have a strong voice in advancing proposals to broaden access to medicines, move toward value-based care models, and limit out-of-pocket costs for the aging population. [3].
  • Embracing Tech Innovations: Merck’s leadership demonstrated adaptability by investing early in AI and machine learning platforms [4], partnering with startups to enhance drug discovery processes and reduce time to market. Their SaaS platform, AIDDISONTM, is a convergence of generative AI, machine learning, and computer-aided drug design that helps screen compounds from over 60 billion chemical targets.
  • Mergers and Acquisitions: During the acquisition of Celgene by Bristol-Myers Squibb [5], leaders from both companies worked diligently to align organizational structures, cultures, and strategies, ensuring a seamless integration while maintaining focus on product pipelines and market delivery.

Strategies for Leading Teams Through Change

Set a growth mindset: Leaders who embrace a growth mindset and encourage it in their teams foster resilience in the face of challenges. These same leaders also promote openness to feedback and a long-term commitment to learning and professional development. Leaders who prioritize ongoing learning and skill development often experience smoother transitions when adapting to new industry regulations or technologies. For example, Johnson & Johnson has implemented a comprehensive AI-enhanced learning and development program called J&J Learn [6] that includes online courses, leadership development initiatives, and mentoring opportunities to support employees’ growth and adaptability.

Involve your team in the change process: Encouraging employees to participate in the change process, can lead to better solutions, greater buy-in, and a stronger sense of control. An engaged workforce is often more innovative, which is critical when rapid responses to new market conditions or scientific breakthroughs are required. Sales leaders who actively involve their teams in the change process can tap into a valuable source of ideas and insights while also building trust and commitment.

charting a new course

While 74% of leaders say they involved employees in creating change strategy, only 42% of employees feel they were truly included.

2019 Gartner for JR Changing Change Management: An open source approach

Create a feedback-driven culture: By encouraging open communication, sales leaders can respond quickly to concerns, incorporate suggestions, and adjust strategies. This enables real-time adjustments and continuous improvement. Sales leaders can and should promote a safe environment for team members to express ideas and concerns, helping their teams adapt quickly to changes. Establishing formal and informal feedback channels ensures that change initiatives remain aligned with organizational goals, with feedback regularly reviewed to inform ongoing strategy adjustments.

Understand and communicate the need for change: Sales leaders must articulate the vision and the underlying reasons for the change to all team members, ensuring they see the value and necessity of the transition.

Empower your team through professional development: Ongoing professional development is crucial for equipping teams with the business acumen needed to adapt to new roles, processes, and technologies. By investing in professional development, sales leaders can reduce fear and uncertainties, build competence and confidence, and ensure that team members have the skills necessary for success in their new roles. Understanding and providing the right opportunities for skill development, as well as assessing the fit of new roles for team members, is essential.

Monitor progress and adapt strategies: Effective sales leaders must continuously monitor the progress of change implementation and be prepared to make adjustments as necessary. This agile approach allows teams to overcome unforeseen challenges and align with evolving industry standards and market conditions. Regularly assessing the impact of changes on key metrics such as sales performance, customer satisfaction, and employee engagement can help leaders make data-driven decisions and course-correct when needed.


Leading pharmaceutical sales teams through organizational change requires a combination of adaptability, effective change management, and a focus on people. By embracing change-ready leadership, fostering a growth mindset, engaging employees, creating a feedback-driven culture, and implementing key strategies, sales leaders can successfully guide their teams through even the most challenging transitions.

As the life sciences landscape continues to evolve, the ability to manage change effectively will be a defining characteristic of successful sales leaders. By developing these skills and implementing these strategies, sales leaders can navigate change and use it as a catalyst for growth, innovation, and competitive advantage.

PDG is grateful to have a bench of experts with deep knowledge in this topic area. We especially thank Laura Zeitler who contributed valuable insights and depth to this article.

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