Creating Account Managers: Building an Internal Bench

By March 31, 2020January 28th, 2021LTEN Focus On Training


Creating Account Managers: Building an Internal Bench

Feature Story – By Wendy Heckelman, Ph.D., and Sheryl Unger, MILR

To win in the marketplace, life sciences companies must effectively achieve results and develop access with large organized customers – whether they are integrated healthcare systems or regional/national payers. Leading the charge for customer engagement efforts are account managers.

The same skills that make someone a successful sales representative or even a district manager do not necessarily lead to success as an account manager.  Instead, account managers need broader industry experience and must possess the skills to navigate a diverse set of stakeholders.

Internally, account managers play a critical role influencing other customer-facing roles and must do so without authority. Therefore, life sciences companies cannot afford to let new account managers learn on-the-job with such big accounts at risk.

Developing Account Managers

The same purposeful development efforts used to create sales leadership should be dedicated to account management development programs (AMDs). Only a few life sciences companies are at the cutting edge and taking the required steps to put in place formal account manager development programs. At Sunovion Pharmaceuticals, “We saw this critical need and realized a strong partnership between market access leaders and commercial training and development. With our account director development and residency program (ADDR), we would create the talent pipeline we needed to build a strong bench,” stated Robert McBride, director, commercial training and development.

Effective account managers must be able to move from transactional interactions with single healthcare providers to formulating value-added solutions with a variety of stakeholders in large accounts. This requires a unique combination of skills and knowledge. A well-designed, one- to two-year program should engage participants through classroom and virtual learning efforts to strengthen account management capabilities and ready them for advanced sales roles. Additionally, on-the-job action learning projects are needed to ensure individuals can apply skills and support sales efforts underway.

Developing an account management development program requires a partnership between learning and development professionals and sales leadership. To set up a program, it is important to:

  • Confirm objectives, outcomes and baseline metrics with the project team and key stakeholders.
  • Define program selection criteria.
  • Leverage existing competency models and identify specific, observable behaviors related to account management.
  • Create a learning journey for developing critical capabilities.
  • Link AMD efforts to existing talent planning efforts.
  • Utilize defined metrics related to talent development, promotions and diversity outcomes to evaluate program impact.

Find the Right Candidates

Once the commitment is made to dedicate resources to a program, one of the most important steps is to outline candidate selection criteria. Using a multi-step approach that includes nomination, performance criteria, potential and some form of  assessment will help to define the potential candidates. The assessment process can be designed to include exercises that evaluate core behaviors and measure potential.  Beyond assessment, the learning assets developed for this program can be deployed for other audiences. The blended learning solution should include a variety of delivery modes, including microlearning, virtual instructor-led, live skill application and on-the-job activities. For example, to develop knowledge and business acumen for evolving healthcare marketplace learning, assets that provide context and updates should be utilized. However, to ensure learning application, it is important that activities designed for AMD participants be applied to specific accounts as needed.

Similar focus needs to be placed on enhancing an individual’s ability to lead without authority. In this case, programs that develop the microskills of effective collaboration, coordination and communication can translate to better planning and execution.

Peer Mentors

One of the most overlooked but critical elements of a well-run AMD is utilizing peer mentors to share their expertise. Companies tend not to want to overburden peer mentors who already have full plates. However, these peer mentors benefit by taking the time to break down what they do. This leads to positive results and opportunities to share what works and what doesn’t work. For example, Brian Giglio, associate director, commercial training and development, for Sunovion, said, “Our mentors play a key role in several respects. First, they provide participants experiential learning as they include them on their account interactions. Second, they can provide mentoring, advice and coaching to participants as they prepare and/or interview for account director roles.”

Another major commitment was participation by peers in an account planning process workshop. External facilitators were able to rely on the peer mentors providing meaningful real-world examples – whether it is working with a challenging account or harnessing the resources of the extended cross-functional account team. In between live programs, the mentors served as coaches for case studies and sounding boards for onthe-job applications. These mentors are further developing their own  coaching skills and are readying themselves for higher-level sales leadership roles. Therefore, all around it’s a win-win-win.

A Close Partnership

A critical success indicator of the account management development program is ensuring that successful participants are rotated into positions that more thoroughly test and utilize these new skills. A close partnership between leadership and HR is needed to ensure ready-now talent is assigned larger, more complex accounts.

At Sunovion Pharmaceuticals, McBride said, they see the value of their account director development and residency program with “a variety of metrics including retention, increasing the current skill set, knowledge of participants in their current roles to improve performance, the cost savings of bringing new individuals into the organization with a loss in productive time required for onboarding, and assimilation to Sunovion’s culture.”


The last critical component includes sustainability efforts. For example, efforts to maintain mentoring relationships (post-program) provides participants with additional support as they advance in their careers. Additionally, engaging graduates to mentor future program participants and possibly teach some leader-led
program content ensures new skills/learning are embedded (see one, do one, teach one methodology).

If your organization is looking to build its account management capabilities, look to create an account management development program. Most of the curriculum can be leveraged from existing managed markets and sales programs. However, thoughtful specific skill development that focuses on integrating evolving healthcare marketplace knowledge with an appreciation for their customers’ concerns will set up new account managers to win in the marketplace.

Wendy Heckelman, Ph.D., is president and founder of WLH Consulting. Sheryl Unger provides project management support for WLH Consulting. Email them at and


About LTEN

The Life Sciences Trainers & Educators Network ( is the only global 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization specializing in meeting the needs of life sciences learning professionals. LTEN shares the knowledge of industry leaders, provides insight into new technologies, offers innovative solutions and communities of practice that grow careers and organizational capabilities. Founded in 1971, LTEN has grown to more than 3,200 individual members who work in pharmaceutical, biotech, medical device and diagnostic companies, and industry partners who support the life sciences training departments.

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