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Bonus Focus - Becoming a Strategic Leader: 5 Challenges & 3 Disciplines


By Rich Horwath


The continued reduction of professionals and budgets in the pharmaceutical, medical device and biotech industries has accelerated the need for managers at all levels to think and act more strategically. The reach and frequency sales model that once drove unprecedented growth is becoming obsolete as customers evolve (ACOs) and access to prescribers and decision-makers becomes more restricted. The cookie-cutter approach of requiring 10 lunches, five CME events and two dinner programs per quarter has also outlived its usefulness. What's required now is the ability to effectively allocate one's time, talent and budget tailored to the nuances of their specific business situation.


My study of more than 500 managers in these industries showed the top five strategy challenges they now face:


1. Time

With more responsibilities and fewer people to handle them, many managers are overwhelmed with activities. While checking lots of tasks off a to-do list each week may foster a sense of accomplishment, activity doesn’t always equal achievement. If the individual tasks aren’t strongly supporting the strategy, then we may fall into the trap of activity for activity’s sake. When there are lots of things to do, managers feel guilty stopping to take time to think strategically about the business. After all, most performance reviews don’t include a big box for “Thinks strategically for six hours a week,” with the rating of “Exceeds Expectations,” marked in it. When there is a lot to get done, time to think is often the first thing to go.


2. Commitment

Leaders attempting to coordinate the activities of sales representatives, district managers, key account managers, managed markets managers, specialty pharmacy reps, institutional managers and their medical counterparts often find the task of gaining commitment to their strategies requires heroic measures. Great strategies can die on the vine if they don't receive the buy-in necessary to effectively execute them. In a matrix organization, achieving this level of commitment demands regularly scheduled strategy dialogues between key stakeholders. While many groups have weekly teleconferences to review the business, these can deteriorate into basic information sharing, which should be done in a less time-invasive medium. Good strategy dialogue gains commitment by first exploring each other's goals (what you're both trying to achieve) and then the strategies to get there. If you first find common ground on the goals, gaining commitment on the strategies has a much greater chance of success.


3. Priorities

A great cause of frustration among managers is the overall lack of priorities at the leadership level. When everything is deemed important, it creates an overflowing-plate syndrome. If clear priorities are not established up front, then it becomes difficult for people to determine what they should be working on and why. This lack of priorities prevents people from taking things off of their plate, resulting in the frustration of feeling spread too thin by too many initiatives. A lack of priorities is a red flag that the difficult work of making trade-offs—choosing some things and not others—was not accomplished in setting the strategy. Good strategy requires trade-offs, which in turn help establish priorities by filtering out activities that don’t contribute to the achievement of goals.


4. Status quo

Numerous studies in the social sciences have shown that people prefer the status quo to change. When people change strategy, inevitably they are changing the allocation of resources, including how people invest their time, talent, and budgets. Since strategy involves trade-offs, certain people will be gaining resources and others losing resources. Obviously, those slated to lose resources are going to prefer to keep things they way they are. Another factor in the preference of the status quo is the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mentality. Especially for groups in the pharmaceutical, medical device and biotech industries that have experienced success in the past, the idea of making changes to the strategy flies in the face of common sense: “Why change what made us successful?” What they may not realize is that changes in market trends, customer value drivers, and the competitive landscape may be making the current strategy obsolete. In leading a revival at Starbucks during his second stint as CEO, Howard Schultz said, “We cannot be content with the status quo. Any business today that embraces the status quo as an operating principle is going to be on a death march.”


5. Not understanding strategy

Even at the highest levels of organizations, confusion abounds as to what exactly is a strategy. Perhaps due to its abstract nature, strategy tends to mean different things to different people. It’s often confused with mission, vision, goals, objectives, and even tactics. Failure to provide managers with a universal definition of strategy, and clear examples to refer to, leaves the term open to interpretation, creating ineffective plans and inefficient communication. To determine the level of understanding in your group, provide each manager with a 3" × 5" notecard at your next meeting and ask each person to record their definition of strategy along with an example. Collect the cards, read them aloud to the group and tally the number that defined strategy in the same way. Professor Richard Rumelt describes the problem this way: “Too many organizational leaders say they have a strategy when they do not. … A long list of things to do, often mislabeled as strategies or objectives, is not a strategy. It is just a list of things to do.”

Managers can elevate their thinking to a level that allows them to see the foundational elements of the business from a higher, more holistic vantage point, using the three disciplines of advanced strategic thinking:


1. Coalesce: Fusing together insights to create an innovative business model

2. Compete: Creating a system of strategy to achieve competitive advantage

3. Champion: Leading others to think and act strategically to execute strategy


The three disciplines of advanced strategic thinking provide leaders with new concepts to change mindsets and practical tools to enhance behaviors so that they are maximizing their strategic leadership potential. The fact that the framework elements are referred to as “disciplines” means that it takes time, effort and commitment to master them.

In our action-oriented world, where we’re electronically tethered to one another, investing time to think on a regular basis can be a challenge in itself. While it’s easy to be pulled into one more meeting that you really don’t need to be in and check e-mail for the 47th time today while meeting with others, this lack of discipline is going to chain you to mediocrity.

The adrenaline rush that comes from scrambling to fight another urgent, but unimportant fire, is addicting and much more exciting than spending 30 quiet minutes thinking about the business. But, it’s these types of decisions that create your patterns of thinking and behavior. It’s the discipline, or lack of discipline, that can make or break your career and determine the success or failure of your business.


Rich Horwath, CEO of the Strategic Thinking Institute, helps managers develop their strategic thinking skills and is the author of the new book, Elevate: The Three Disciplines of Advanced Strategic Thinking. Visit for more information.

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