A number of years ago when I was a Sales Manager in the UK & Ireland Pharmaceutical Industry I gained an appointment with the new General Manager of the UK & Ireland Operation where I worked. They had encouraged employees to take up the offer of an hour of their time to put forward ideas and suggestions as to how the business could improve. I was keen to highlight my vision for the commercial sales 'teams' within the company which I believed needed to improve their processes and behaviours in order to be more productive. ( You will note that I have put 'teams' in inverted commas because in my experience of over 40 years of being a team member and also managing such 'teams' I reckon I have only worked in one 'real 'team with the rest being simply work groups. This is the subject of another later blog post but see Mark Mortensen's & Constance Noonan Hadley's article in HBR - Do We Still Need Teams? (hbr.org) )
Anyway, I was very keen on articulating my vision for the teams to the new GM in order to see whether they agreed, or at least partially agreed. with my vision. My hope was that there was at least some overlap in our respective 'visions' (and their early talks to the company indicated someone who was future focused and looking to change the way pharma was operating via more effective teamwork) so I was encouraged. Reality, however, proved very different. Let me outline my visions for teams and teamwork and how they were received.
My visions for the future of pharma sales teams were as follows:
Given the company's product portfolio, and increasingly complex environment of the UK's National Health Service with more decision makers outside the traditional physicians, it was time to truly embrace key account management. I was frustrated that, whilst, key account management had been actively discussed as an organisation, the only real change that had happened was that the 'sales' people were not called sales executives anymore, they were called key account managers. They still had the same objectives, sales and activity measures but now they had a new 'badge'. There had been some development done in terms of improving account planning but overall they were still expected to do a certain amount of customer 'activity' and deliver the same old 'key marketing messages'. My view was that whilst it was still their role to generate sales, they had to do this in a more customer focused and entrepreneurial fashion and that to simply stick with the same old historical approaches and measures did not really constitute a commercially focused account management approach. We needed more investment on developing the key business skills and appropriate commercial strategies relative to the account being worked. More training and coaching was required. This got a nod of acceptance and approval albeit I felt that there was a lack of genuine authenticity behind this acceptance.
My next vision was that all the regional sales teams (one of which I was leading) worked towards becoming self-directed teams with the first step towards this being that of becoming profit-centres and being measured more on profit than just against a sales target. At that point in time, the only goals that the regional teams had were a sales target for each product, a promotional budget target and an associated customer activity target. I didn't have any issues with the sales target or the budget target (don't get me started on the activity targets!) but I felt strongly that as the senior executives had a profit target for the company why not distil this down to the regional sales teams and all the other departments and their teams having profit targets? Some regional teams were spending inappropriate amount of promotional budget on driving non target customer activity and generating little profit as a result. Other regions were still hitting target but being very wise with their spend on using it to generate sales via key accounts and key customers. Overall I noticed that there was generally a haphazard and blase approach to other spends such travel, accommodation and meetings, with many team members overspending. I believed that taking a more profit-centred approach would enable the teams to becoming more business focused and pay closer attention to how they approached their business. It would also drive more ownership of activities and spend. It would take time, effort and money to build this capability in the teams but it would be well worth it and make the teams and their team members more resilient, capable and productive. I got a simple 'no way are we moving to profit centres - it's too great a shift' reply. The facial expression told its own story!
Oh well, let's try another vision. One of the biggest challenges to many pharma sales teams actually becoming real or high performing teams is that everyone is measured individually against their own performance objectives with there being no team measure for ordinary team members. The only person in the team who is measured against the team goals is that of the team manager. This was certainly the case in the company I worked for at that time. Whilst I worked on ensuring everyone bought into the team purpose and we discussed how we were going to work productively together, everybody was solely focused on their own individual objectives. And with there being a 'company-induced' culture of competition between individuals (via a 'traffic-light' league table - green , on target, amber- on the way to target, red - off target) there was very little sharing of success and no interest in getting together as a team to work on individual business challenges. I felt strongly that building in a team measure whereby a % of everyone's measure was based on how the team performed overall, would help to refocus individuals, so that they had a focus on both individual and team performance. I got some traction on this, and got the commitment to at least a 'Team of the Year' award scheme. However, building in team measures on top of the individual performance against objectives measures would mean discussion and approval from HR. The GM said they would take this forward. Nothing ever happened in my time at the company as regards the team measure although 'teamwork' did become a company core competency. This 'teamwork' competency ended up not really being measured by managers to any great degree, and just became a bit of a 'tick box' exercise at the year end appraisal. And on the appraisal point, on to my next vision.
My next vision was to build on the team measure, and highlight the nature and benefits of a more self-directed team approach which I had some experience of and which had worked extremely well in a previous company. I highlighted this experience and outcomes, and pointed out that by developing the team to be able to run their own peer support meetings ( where they shared their progress against the objectives) and their own appraisals (rather that the traditional 1:1 manager to account manager appraisals) , this would bring increased support , development and performance through better sharing of success across the team alongside team 'problem solving' of individual challenges. To achieve this we would have to have more face to face meetings than we had historically and more teleconferences, but the more learning and development that was shared, the more the team, the individual team members and the business, would benefit due to increased performance. Now given that the team members were also starting to work on projects together, this approach of more regular contact through these objectives review meetings, would mean that all team members would have an appreciation of everyone's progress against their objectives and also of their capabilities. The team would now be in a good position to do their own appraisals. The manager, who also worked 1:1 with each team member would obviously have a strong input, but it would be the team who ultimately decided each team member's level of performance over the year, not simply just the manager. Assuming regular objectives progress meetings (with the focus of enabling everyone to be on track as regards their performance objectives) then the year end peer appraisal meeting should be fairly straightforward. If you had seen the reaction of the GM, you would have thought he thought I had two heads! This was too revolutionary for this GM and the fact that this would 'take people off the road too much, and away from selling' in their eyes, it was a complete non starter. In fact, it was highlighted that perhaps I was not wanting to do the 1:1 work necessary with each individual. I pointed out that this was most definitely not the case but it would enable me to do more strategic work with top level key customers and make my 1:1 coaching work more productive. Apparently I was deviating away from my core role description as a sales manager so I was advised to get 'back on track'.. No move on that one!
Final roll of the dice. More general teamwork development. All of my above proposals I strongly believe would have led to stronger and more productive teamwork which would have led to us actually being able to genuinely call our regional sales teams - actual teams and not just groups of sales individuals. It looked like I may get a degree of investment on developing individual business capabilities along side at least a Team of the Year Award. Becoming a self-directed 'profit centre' where we embedded a self directed team approach embracing peer review and appraisal looked a complete non starter sadly. My final push was for more development of teamwork particularly around embedding the basics of team performance and creating team charters and team development plans. I had a fair degree of experience of experiential team development with the processes and outcomes linked to workplace practices so I was keen to highlight this experience and suggested that in future conferences instead of team events (which to me were more corporate entertainment) such as synchronised drumming, and performing 'the haka' we looked to get in team coaches who could support teams to build their team charter and development plan and further develop their teamwork. If this couldn't be done at conference, then perhaps within dedicated training time away from people's everyday core work. The reply didn't surprise me. Company conferences were to be fun and so called team building events always produced good feedback. Dedicated time to bring in team coaches and facilitators would be costly and . yes, you've guessed it, unnecessary 'time off the road' for the sales people. The GM was not for turning.
Maybe I tried to 'bite off more than I could chew' in one meeting and although I got some commitment to account manager development, my feeling was that the key proposals of a team measure, self-directed teams and 'proper' dedicated team development was very much a step too far for this supposed visionary General Manager. Another example of a senior executive who talked a good game but when faced with potential change backed away from it due to a lack of risk taking and reliance of traditional approaches. Perhaps my pitch wasn't as effective as it could have been but was my visionary approach to building teams and corporate performance actually now an actual threat to this GM? Building real and high performance teams takes time, effort, expertise and money but get them right and you will get a decent return on your overall investment. If you are going to talk about teamwork then act on your spoken word. As they say, 'actions speak louder than words'
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