Creating Tomorrow’s Life Sciences Sales Leaders: 3 Strategies

September 13, 2017

How do  you create great sales leaders?

I recently had a conversation with a senior sales leader of a Fortune 500 pharmaceutical company. The leader discussed the highest priorities for the organization: “I’m most concerned about the development of tomorrow’s sales leaders. I know that if I have solid folks leading my organization, then I don’t have to worry about my reps because they’ll be as good as the people who lead them.”

The Changing Face of Sales Leadership

Pharmaceutical companies historically promote high-performing sales representatives to the front line managerial ranks based primarily on their performance in the field. With about 65,000 pharmaceutical sales representatives reflecting an annual cost of about $13 billion, developing effective leaders from those ranks stands as a critical success factor for a  company’s overall commercial effectiveness.  Charged with the overall commercial success of an organization, sales leaders contribute directly to the creation and execution of sound strategies to grow the business, while conducting critical coaching and development opportunities with sales representatives.

The profile of tomorrow’s leaders involves something more complex than just the ability to sell. Shifts in the industry range from rapidly changing sales models to a greater emphasis on account selling to the always-evolving managed care landscape. Key areas like these require more attention within a commercial leadership development program than ever before.

Developing Leaders at the Speed of Business

If you’re familiar with the speed at which commercial effectiveness runs in the pharmaceutical industry, you’ll know that the era of assessment days, weeks-long development workshops, and binders full of curricula simply won’t do. To match today’s highly-competitive ecosystem, sales organizations need to define the core competencies of their leaders and ensure that representatives are identified, selected, developed, and certified through a series of short, impactful, accessible experiences. Investing in tomorrow’s leaders requires that this development occurs at the speed of business.

But a program of this nature isn’t a series of events. It needs to be developed as a process to cultivate and nurture individuals so they can practice and apply their skills freely. And it needs to be fun, too!

Building a Next-Gen Strategy for Leadership Development

To accomplish an approach that will have the largest measureable impact, best practices dictate that the following components drive the development of future leaders:

1. Back to Basics

  • Develop an organizational approach to selecting leaders from among individual contributors that satisfies the talent management criteria as well as commercial competencies
  • Create scenario-based assessments to immerse potentials in the types of situations they will face in the future, thereby establishing the benchmark for candidates moving forward
  • Be sure to identify individual goals for incoming potentials so their development path is succinctly laid out and achievable
  • Establish mentoring relationships at the outset by leveraging high-performing managers who are getting ready for their next step professionally; their wealth of knowledge and experiences can be invaluable in the development of new leaders
  • Create a community of practice by linking members of the cohort with one another and having mentors encourage communication outside of curriculum activities

2. Building Blocks

  • Implement smaller, more immersive opportunities that developing leaders can experience to improve their sense of context and expected behaviors
  • Align program assignments with strategic activities and planning that developing leaders can complete both with their mentors and the community of practice
  • Evaluate candidates through a capstone assessment that is scenario-based and provide comprehensive feedback to candidates based on their individual decisions
  • Establish mentors who update the goals and development plans with candidates

3. Call to Action

  • New sales leaders takes an active leadership role
  • New sales leaders constantly evaluates their goals to identify how they’re performing to plan
  • New sales leaders becomes mentors and lead a community of practice moving to further develop their skills

Organizations continue to develop at different paces and there may already be components in the above list that are being employed. But let’s hearken back  to the senior sales leaders’ priorities that we started this article with: how confident are you in the sales leaders in your organization?

If you are interested in learning how we arrived at these conclusions, or how they would apply to your organization, please contact PDG.


Marcus Hswe is Associate Vice President of Sales and a consultant for Performance Development Group.

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