The Growth Prescription for healthcare sales professionals | Episode 5

Driving growth with a strategic performance culture

with Will Heard

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In this episode of The Growth Prescription, René Groeneveld, Global Head, Sales & Marketing Practice, is joined by Will Heard, Director, and Alan Gentry, Senior Director, to discuss aligning culture with strategy for sales success. Learn about the importance of purpose in driving strategy, the challenges of launching new therapies, and the role of sales professionals in a rapidly changing market. Discover practical approaches for engaging your organization in cultural change and using simulations for future preparedness.

Rene Groeneveld: Welcome back to the Growth Prescription series, our Fearless Thinkers podcast for healthcare sales professionals. With me today is Will Heard, a director at our London office and an expert, not only in the healthcare and pharmaceutical environment, but also an expert when it comes to culture. And my co-host again today is Alan Gentry, out of our Chicago office, the senior director leading our pharmaceutical and healthcare vertical.

Hi, Alan. Hi, Will. Welcome to the show.

Will Heard: Hi Rene, pleasure to be here.

Rene: Today’s topic is all about creating a more innovative performance culture. When culture is aligned with strategy, you usually think about purpose. And purpose means “why” – why is it the company or the commercial strategy pursuing this direction? It’s about direction: where the organization and the commercial and sales organization is heading. And it’s about the action: so how do we get there and how can I as an individual – as a seller – contribute to success? Setting the stage a little bit, today’s topic is all about performance culture. Alan, maybe you can start us off with a few thoughts.

Alan Gentry: Yeah, well, I think what I’m going to do today is I’m going to ask Will to connect it for us and I’m going to ask him a question about: how does this performance culture really relate to our customers business models?

Will: It’s an interesting question that a lot of our clients are grappling with right now, because we can think of performance through a very HR lens, but actually I think what’s becoming more and more critical right now is thinking of performance as how we’re delivering things like launch excellence. Essentially, if you have great first six months of launch, then that asset is going to continue to be successful. If, however, your first six months aren’t phenomenally successful, only twenty percent of assets can then change the trajectory of sales.

So, it puts huge pressure right now on delivering launch excellence every single time. Now, add on top of that markets changing faster than ever – new kinds of therapy that are being launched and a lot of our clients are looking at new therapeutic areas, for example. And these two things together mean that you can no longer have more static, expertise-driven culture. You need that expertise-driven culture plus something else. And that of course changes how we think about performance and success.

Rene: Alan, who drives this? Who is typically involved in these initiatives?

Alan: I think it’s a variety of people that we’ve been interacting with lately. From L&D, to sales leadership, to HR, to sales enablement and sales excellence. And I think it just depends on the company on who they assign that responsibility to. We often hear from sales leaders that they are trying to ensure that they can create that right sales culture to continue to achieve growth targets and those successful launches of new products that Will was just talking about. So Will, why is this such an important or hot topic?

Will: Portfolios are changing so rapidly. We’re seeing companies launching into new areas, perhaps where they don’t have a legacy of performance. Or, they might be looking at next generation therapies, mitochondrial therapies, or cell and gene therapies, for example, that don’t have a proven route to market or are very different from what that company is used to launching or what their teams are used to providing. You look at a cell therapy: it’s a lot more like a surgical process that you’re selling rather than a drug, and so therefore what a lot of different field roles are needing to deliver and what performance looks like in those roles is rapidly changing.

So, what is the role of a sales professional? Often where we’re seeing the high performers the industry, those roles are acting maybe a bit more like integrators of knowledge rather than just as functional experts. And all of this means that that existing culture may not quite be fit for purpose. Many pharma organizations might be prizing expertise that perhaps was really useful in role three, five, or ten years ago. Expertise really is pivotal. It’s the lifeblood of, biotech. And so, the question isn’t “how do we get rid of expertise?”, but rather looking at the flip side of the coin. Expertise is important, but it can create risk aversion and silos – the exact opposite of the more innovative, fast paced culture that you might need when you’re moving into these new therapeutic areas.

Rene: So how do you change a culture and where do you start, Will?

Will: A lot of questions occur when you start talking about, culture. And the first one is, “can we actually change culture?” because it can seem quite an abstract topic. And so, the first piece has to be by defining it. At BTS, we define this as a set of deeply held organizational mindsets that shape who we are and how we do things.

That means it’s slightly broader than just getting a critical mass of people to act differently. So, we need to look at how the strategy, the organizational mindsets, the processes, the ways of working all help or hinder the culture and ultimately the strategy. Because we need to get really clear on both the strategic direction and crucially how the culture is going to drive it. And then we can start to engage the organization as change leaders to help things move in the right direction. And we often find that a lot of our clients partner with firms to define the future state, then communicate that future state, but not necessarily engaging people in a little bit of the mess, the “how”: how the culture can ultimately support the strategic intent.

Alan: So where are you finding that companies are really falling short or where are they getting stuck in this culture change?

Will: Often that can occur when we think about strategy and culture as two different things. And actually, that gap between culture and strategy causes a lot of tensions when actually they’re two sides of the same coin. You need to prioritize the culture changes and you need to have a clear picture of where to start. And if we see culture as that accelerator of the strategy, identifying what are those biggest cultural shifts that we need to deliver on to deliver on the strategy, then it becomes a lot clearer and that narrative becomes a lot easier. So, another challenge that we sometimes see occurring, especially when there is that disconnect between the strategy and the culture we’re driving for, is that we might see culture change as purely commercial excellence or leadership or learning challenge, but actually it is part of the overall system.

Rene: So, what’s the impact?

Alan: Fundamentally, culture can either help reinforce or undermine a strategy in pharma. We often see “expert cultures”, which work brilliantly in areas of historical strength: we have had all the answers, our experts know the answers, we know all the stakeholders, we know the data, etc. But when we shift to new therapies in new therapeutic areas or new competitors come into an area where we have been dominant, suddenly the need to have every answer means we don’t act in an agile enough manner and we don’t learn enough because we don’t try new things. So, we don’t break out of those molds of doing it the way that it’s been done and we need to make that shift.

Rene: So, how can we at BTS help in this case?

Will: Taking this example of that very expert driven culture, a lot of organizations come to us frustrated at that culture, maybe seeing some of the downsides, but also recognizing that it is the lifeblood of their company. Expertise is pivotal the scientific process. And so, there’s a question: how do we move forward holding these two things to be true? Many organizations give up. The answer is that you need that expert culture plus something else.

So, how can you normalize this in the right areas? Practices such as, say, disciplined experimentation. Here, I mean experimentation, not necessarily in a clinical sense, but in terms of how we go to market, how we engage HCPs, or use things like a simulation culture. And this impacts everything from say, rehearsing launch planning to identifying the future talent we need in our business. When we think about the rapidly changing environment we have, what we maybe thought that we needed in the past in terms of a leader isn’t what the organization is going to need in five years’ time. If we can define where we need to experiment or how we need to experiment, then it gives us a much better way of identifying future states when it comes to launch, but also identifying the new talent by maybe simulating the role that they’re going to take within the organization.

Rene: This is absolutely true, and I think simulations and modeling can play a great role here. It actually reminds me of one of my first projects in cultural change in the healthcare industry. And although it was a commercial context and in the end was about transforming sales, the key client in this case was the chief financial officer, And I remember in our first meeting with him, he said, “I think we optimized everything. We have a vision in place. We have a common purpose. We have a strategy. We have the processes, the systems. We invested heavily in capability building, but still, something is missing.” And that’s the culture piece we’re just discussing, and not just the culture itself, but also, of course, as a CFO, he was interested in measuring culture and measuring the success of this cultural change.

Will: One example that immediately comes to mind when we talk about this is with an organization who were, again, looking at launching in some new therapeutic areas, needing to deliver that launch excellence because particularly that first six months is absolutely pivotal. And they realized they had a lot less expertise in the area [than they thought]. They were thinking then, how can we make sure that each launch gets both the right resources, but also with stress testing – thinking through scenarios. Now, the typical way they might’ve approached this was getting in a room and talking about some of this.

But actually, what we ended up doing as a way of normalizing this experimentation culture was building a launch simulation. So, asset teams get together to war-game launch plans against each other, see the impact of decisions, both at the global and at the affiliate level, and ultimately giving the experts the license to be rookies for a little bit, to ask some silly questions, to admit, “You know what? Maybe we don’t have the answers here. What are the experiments we can define or look at that are going to help us both come up with a better launch plan, but also course correct faster once we get on market?” And similarly, when it comes to defining some of these things, we’d say to executives and organizations, it’s not just simulations – practices like idea flow and disciplined experimentation can really help experts to admit that they don’t necessarily have the answers in these situations and explore different ideas.

The other example that springs to mind is with another client who realized that their pool of asset and sales leaders were hired for what “good” looked like five or so years ago. They obviously needed great talent now, but the skills required were actually very different when you think about a portfolio that includes a gene therapy, for example. So here, we partnered with the organization to actually use simulations to assess talent based on what the future of the role would look like before actually taking on the job and trying it out. So, these are a couple of different ways that we can think about using the expertise driven culture to deliver performance, but also finding ways that we can almost allow a bit more of that experimentation and break down those silos within that expertise.

Rene: What are the three tips to remember? What are the three things our listeners should take out of this session here?

Will: Firstly, as the organization grows and shifts with your strategy and your business, your culture needs to shift too. So, think about the business of the future and what culture is going to be required for that business to succeed. Secondly, the culture must be strategically responsive to the environment. Organizations have to constantly and carefully monitor what’s working and what is not working, so they can reshape the culture as needed to continue to succeed. And lastly, as you begin to examine your organization’s existing culture, remember that the assessment starts with understanding a bit of what is below the surface in the context of both strategy and the business. From there, it matters how you engage the organization in the process of change and that engagement needs to come pretty early in the process. By taking the right approach to engaging people in how you redefine the culture, you can foster that deeper, more committed ownership of what matters for your organization, ultimately enabling more of that performance and more of those successful launches.

Rene: In a nutshell, by taking the right approach in redefining your culture helps you to foster deeper and more committed ownership of what matters in your organization, enabling your new culture to propel your new strategy, possibly by far more force than ever before. So, it is a crucial topic.

Where do you get started? Feel free to reach out to us: to Will Heard, to Alan Gentry, or me, René Groeneveld, Global Center of Expertise. You can find us on LinkedIn, of course, you can find us on And if you want to find out more about our podcast the Growth Prescription series, find it on I think that today’s session perfectly links into the other sessions we already had on talent management, creating a sales coaching culture, and value driven culture, but also a more digital learning culture. Thank you so much to both of you for being our guests and co-hosts today. And thanks to all of you for listening in let’s stay tuned and stay in touch. More to come. Bye, bye and take care.

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About the show

Fearless Thinkers is produced by Masami Cookson, Nicole Hernandez, Taylor Hale, and Aron Towner.

Special thanks to Joe Holeman, Chris Goodnow, Meghan McGrath, and Roanne Neuwirth for their invaluable help.


Show notes

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