At a time of year when employees may look for a fresh start, Naysan Firoozmand explains how to keep talented personnel on side.
Pharmaceutical reps can usually spot a medical analogy from a mile away. On a recent online pharma discussion board one contributor reposted an article from the Gallup Business Journal, ‘Turning Around Employee Turnover’ – originally written by Jennifer Robinson in 2008. This article explored the available research into employee retention and how it can be used to identify key warning signs that organisations should look out for. The attention grabbing metaphor?
Sadly, too many managers have tied all the tourniquets around the wrong limbs, yet they’re wondering why their teams keep bleeding.
Or, to move slightly away from the world of triage and A&E, even the most potent remedy will not successfully deal with the patient’s symptoms if the underlying diagnosis is faulty. Nor will the HR equivalent of a ‘cure-all’ be any more effective than a placebo: if the presenting symptom is high turnover or repeated loss of key talents, the task is not to attempt a blanket cure, but to identify which of many potential complaints is triggering the organisational malaise.
Vision and strategy
The qualities that are readily admired in rising talents can often be out-of-step with those that the emerging leader’s followers are looking for. Indeed in its 2010 White Paper, The Leadership Challenge in the Pharmaceutical Sector, the Center for Creative Leadership identified ”having too narrow a functional orientation” as the greatest potential derailment factor for budding pharma executives.
While their own expertise and knowledge provide a shortcut to establishing trust within their organisations, technical knowledge is not all that is required of them. A successful leader needs to provide more: the ability to provide vision and strategy, the emotional intelligence to relate to others interpersonally and show a willingness to engage with them, and a desire to inspire achievement and attainment.
In the context of the pharmaceutical sector, they must also typically be able to communicate effectively and credibly with an audience that comprises highly intelligent and critical individuals working in various scientific, research and academic or supporting roles. Moreover, to do so requires them to effectively deploy emotional intelligence in an arena where intelligence and factual reasoning will often hold greater appeal than self- or social awareness, never mind self- or relationship management.
It’s not you, it’s me
Like any relationship scenario, whether they involve two people or many more, a high turnover rate or the loss of ‘someone special’ probably suggests there’s a problem. Perhaps a key member of staff really has found ‘someone new, someone truly special’ and your previously perfectly adequate contribution to their life and wellbeing simply can’t compare. Naturally, that stings a little at the time, but these things do happen: if you are seeking lifelong dedication and fidelity, swans would be a better proposition – although their sales skills would no doubt be highly questionable!
But, like any frequently dumped or jilted partner, an organisation that keeps finding itself on the receiving end of ‘the big elbow’ should start asking itself why this is a recurring pattern. There comes a point when it’s not them: it probably is you – although former employees might say otherwise during their exit interview. And at that point, the employer becomes both the question and the answer.
If you’ll excuse a further pun, engagement – and the factors that encourage it – provides some potent clues. In another Gallup report from 2002, A Hard Look at Soft Numbers, the article compared responses to Q12 Surveys across 308,987 employees from 10,885 organisations. Apart from, probably unsurprisingly, revealing that business units with high employee engagement have a 44% higher success rate – less turnover – than those with low engagement, its meta-analysis also showed 9 of its 12 factors as having ‘strongest positive correlations’ with retention. One further factor (recognition) has a ‘positive, generalised relationship’ – which it is probably arguable is stronger in the pharma sector, given the role that peer review plays in the development of individuals’ personal ‘portfolios’ and the importance of validation within the industry. Only two factors (having a best friend at work and having opportunities to learn and grow) were not clearly statistically proven.
Looking specifically at companies with sustained profitability and revenue growth, a commitment to quality and a working culture in which respondents strongly agreed that “at work, my opinions seem to count” both showed 20% improvement by comparison to the overall Gallup database.
Statistics, of course, speak in terms of generalisations. Each organisation will face different challenges, driven partly by their internal structure and culture and partly by sector-specific issues and general trading and operational environments. Leaders and managers who can provide clarity and cohesion around vision, mission and strategy have an important role to play: it is hard for anyone to engage with something that is nebulous, unclear or contradictory. Until organisations can answer the theoretical question ‘What do you want?’ it is impossible for companies to provide it no matter how willing, or otherwise, they might be.
Organisations can, to revisit the earlier relationship metaphor, help themselves by thinking of this stage as what might be called the ‘wooing’ period. The more clearly an organisation can explain what it is offering potential recruits and talented individuals – in terms of culture, opportunities and the recognition and reward practices that aren’t measurable in cash terms – the better the chances that it will not endure a series of unfruitful blind dates or tempestuous but short-lived flings. An industry that is built on research and product development processes with long timeframes is more dependent than most on not just the recruitment, but the retention of its key talents: the more honestly and transparently it can set out its stall, the better the prospects of a happier and more enduring outcome. While history may have shown us that successful scientific endeavour can often be a result of serendipity, life science companies should not, indeed cannot, rely on achieving success through mere chance – although they can create opportunities for serendipity amongst and between the individual talents that they procure.
This process – creating a compelling employee value proposition – doesn’t end when the contract is signed, however. Nor is it all about talking: it’s probably more about listening, the traditionally more neglected element of ‘communication’. Compelling is what compelling does, to rework a careworn phrase. And this listening extends to many other elements of broader talent management practice.
The pharmaceutical industry can be partly characterised by two motivational characteristics of those within it. The first, in many cases, is an altruistic wish to serve humanity by helping to eradicate diseases, treat symptoms and reduce distress and suffering. While altruistic tendencies may be out of place in many sectors, or at least poorly aligned with organisational missions, in the case of pharmaceuticals there should, surely, be a close degree of alignment with the organisation’s strategies and vision. As long, of course, as that element of the vision is clearly visible to those helping to work towards it.
The second characteristic – a desire to achieve professional recognition, often from peers in scientific practice who may be external to the organisation – may present a more difficult challenge in relation to talent retention. But an organisation that recognises the possible threat of departures to competitors and the importance of providing opportunities to shine may face fewer problems. And there’s an element to be learned from Cinderella, at least in terms of the role of job design and career progression pathways. Sometimes, no matter how much pressure might be applied to shoehorn one thing into another, it’s the shape of the shoe that needs to be adjusted rather than the foot.
Naysan Firoozmand is a Managing Consultant at ASK Europe plc.