While 2020 may have seemed like the year the world stood still for many, the pharma industry went into overdrive, working around the clock to ensure security of supply as well as develop diagnostics, treatments, and vaccines for COVID-19. Recruitment also continued apace; here four recent country manager appointees share their experiences of onboarding in the midst of a pandemic and the lessons they learned for their future career.
‘A Very Special Situation’
In February 2020, German national Mario Klesse took on his first country manager position as head of Janssen Norway. Klesse previously held a variety of roles at Janssen, most recently as business unit director haemato-oncology for Austria and Switzerland. Here, he shares his experience of reaching out to external stakeholders and building a team internally during a lockdown.
It was of critical importance that we stayed in continuous communication with each other and created platforms for internal informal exchange
Starting this journey in a pandemic was a very special situation! When taking on a new role, the most important thing is to connect, listen, and understand both the needs of both internal and external stakeholders.
Luckily, I had six weeks at the beginning to be on the ground in Norway and had – at least internally – plenty of time to connect with our 35-person team here. I have been really impressed by the team and how quickly everyone adjusted to the situation. After lockdown was imposed, we began working remotely, with the team in Norway and myself from Austria where my family was still based. At that time, it was of critical importance that we stayed in continuous communication with each other and created platforms for internal informal exchange.
For external stakeholders, I had my first meetings in the first six weeks before the situation became more challenging as everyone switched their focus to the continuity of their own organisations. The healthcare system was working on pandemic preparedness and ensuring they had the capacity to cope, leaving little time for anything else.
At Janssen, we also needed to respond quickly to the pandemic in terms of securing the supply of medicines and being able to answer any questions from medical practitioners about the use of our medicines. As well as patients, we also took action to ensure the safety of our employees and, of course, since February Janssen has been working on a vaccine for COVID-19. We have also put efforts into supporting communities. The global J&J foundation has been supporting frontline workers around the world, and locally we have made donations to Norwegian Red Cross and its COVID-19 aid.
‘Challenges & Opportunities’
Austrian Sabine Bruckner took the reins at Pfizer Switzerland at the beginning of 2020, having started her career at Pfizer in its finance department over 11 years previously. Bruckner outlines the impact of COVID-19 on her planning and shares her pride at the performance of the Pfizer Switzerland team in difficult circumstances.
I am privileged to be surrounded by supportive colleagues, many of whom put forward completely new and innovative ideas on how to work together, not just within our organization but also with customers
COVID-19 has had a major impact, particularly on the implementation of my very well prepared 90 days plan! My priorities shifted from day one. The responsibility of ensuring the safety and wellbeing of my colleagues weighed heavily on my mind and that very quickly became priority number one. It was so important to remain fully operational all the time delivering our products – fulfilling our purpose of serving patients.
Our teams did an amazing job of ensuring the continuity of the business while our offices shut down at the same time. The burden on healthcare workers was more intense than ever, so some colleagues with medical backgrounds volunteered to step in to take on frontline medical work, with others supporting by covering their tasks in the organisation.
I am privileged to be surrounded by supportive colleagues, many of whom put forward completely new and innovative ideas on how to work together, not just within our organization but also with customers. It was great to see how successfully we were using digital tools to stay connected.
We learnt a lot during the pandemic situation, and I did my best to facilitate new ways of working that fit with every colleague’s individual situation. Our global leadership team has been very responsive to feedback from the markets on what was working well and mindful of country specifics.
There are challenges and opportunities in every situation and, while there is no doubt that COVID-19 is challenging for all of us, it also creates a lot of learning opportunities. For example, in August we held a fully virtual conference, involving all our 200+ Swiss employees, which worked really well.
‘Maintaining Dynamic Dialogue’
Kristel de Bisschop became general manager of Pierre Fabre’s operations in Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg (Benelux) in March 2020. Having previously headed up the French firm’s dermo-cosmetics business in the region, she points out some of the key challenges of taking on an enhanced role with added responsibility for the company’s pharmaceutical lines at such a challenging time.
Our way of working had to be adjusted very quickly and thoroughly
Implementing a new organisational focus in line with the [company’s global] transformation plan would be a major challenge for any new GM but doing so remotely and without face-to-face contact made it especially challenging!
At the outset of the COVID-19 outbreak, our first concern was for our employees as in the field they have daily contact with healthcare professionals and therefore enter high-risk zones. We had to switch to working from home and had to make some of our staff unemployed for a few weeks. However, they showed great understanding and resilience and were quickly able to start working again remotely.
This meant that our way of working had to be adjusted very quickly and thoroughly. For our marketing department, this meant developing tools adapted for remote visits with healthcare practitioners (HCPs). The challenge was how to maintain a dynamic dialogue remotely, which we were thankfully able to overcome.
In the oncology department, our medical science liaisons (MSLs) have worked hard to keep in touch with oncologists and provide any information necessary regarding treatments against the backdrop of COVID situation in terms of drug-drug interactions etc. Additionally, our key account managers made themselves available to hospital pharmacists to guarantee the supply of BRAFTOVI and MEKTOVI, our new combined treatment for melanoma. We cannot afford for a patient to not have access to their treatment; therefore, it was crucial to maintain our deliveries.
‘Close & Frequent Communication’
Normally, a new cluster manager would spend the first few weeks in the job visiting the countries under their remit. However, COVID-19 restricted Philipp Maerz’s ability to do so when he became head of Merck’s Nordic and Baltic operations and GM for Norway in September 2020. Soon after taking the position, he shared with us the priorities and items at the top of his agenda in his first few weeks on the job.
We are having workshops with our ‘Northern leadership’ team which is all the country managers of the region, as well as the heads of finance, HR and medical to interact and align on areas of focus and priorities for the cluster
Visiting these countries and our teams there is a must at some point. I strongly believe that if you want to drive a market and develop it, you need to be there for some time and meet the people, not only employees but the healthcare practitioners (HCPs), patients, and patient organisations as well. This is something I have always done, for example when building Allergopharma’s business in India, and cannot be done remotely from a desk. Once the situation improves, I will definitely be visiting these markets.
We are instead in close and frequent communication using digital tools. I find that this works very well. For example, we are having workshops with our ‘Northern leadership’ team which is all the country managers of the region, as well as the heads of finance, HR and medical to interact and align on areas of focus and priorities for the cluster.
Obviously, our immuno-oncology treatments are high on the agenda, as we are in the middle of the launch phase, and this will continue into 2021. We also want to continue driving our MAVENCLAD® business, where there is still a lot of work to do in terms of interaction with the authorities on reimbursement.