A fresh path: how to harness competitive advantage in the age of the unconventional

As we settle into the year, every executive should be excited about uncertainty.

Yes, that’s right. Because the truth is, no-one knows for certain what will happen this year. Will there be more lockdowns? Further disruptions to business conditions such as supply chains? Will the great resignation have as much impact as predicted?

It’s impossible to tell. At Hunton Executive, we call it the age of the unconventional.

In the age of the unconventional, the gap between good leadership and extraordinary leadership is only going to get wider.

In the age of the unconventional, the gap between good leadership and extraordinary leadership is only going to get wider. Leadership is under the spotlight more than ever and leaders must be able to deliver. The age of the unconventional can be a confronting prospect to many, but instead of being concerned, leaders should get excited about the uncertainty, and embrace it to gain an edge over their competitors.

Charles Heeley, CEO of Rock8 Science – one of Hunton Executive’s key partners – says:

“COVID represents the biggest opportunity our industry has had to transform the way we operate. And those who do it well will leapfrog their competitors. However, to harness these opportunities, companies need to look at their operating models and avoid falling into the trap of ‘copying competitors when trying to stay competitive’”.

We agree that settling for how we have always done something is not enough. For senior leaders, nailing an innovative, fresh strategy is a must. So is striking a balance between:

  • Business skills – for ensuring progress and forecasting the future
  • Leadership – to build high-performing cultures
  • Digital-first mindset – to futureproof your business
  • Emotional capital – to make sure your team takes action on an individual and collective level, as well as feels committed over the long term
  • Relational agility – to influence outcomes and achieve shared goals within a highly complex organisation.

To make this happen, you have to ensure you hire and retain the right people. Get set to step up your workforce planning in the age of the unconventional. Here are some of the crucial steps to give you a jump start.

Identify gaps and plan accordingly

If you want a disproportionate competitive advantage, you have to have the talent in place. A ‘gap’ analysis of your organization will identify when and where to re-deploy or recruit resources. 

Charles Heeley states that the workforce ‘gaps’ he sees in the life sciences companies he works with are mostly caused by one of two reasons:

  • businesses acting reactively, or
  • business being reactive to internal pressures rather than the needs of customers.

“Very few leaders plan from the perspective of what their customers need,” Charles explains.

For example, he says customer access is one example of a common ‘gap’ within a company. However, many are trying to plug this gap by investing in omnichannel resources as that has been accepted as the common solution. However, what this approach fails to consider is whether it actually works well for the customer.

“From the point of view of the customer, where is the value add? Do they really want to receive so much information? Or will they eventually hit unsubscribe?”

If you change tactics and plan from a customer perspective, you might increase your reach while holding or even reducing your costs, simply by working smarter, he says.

Selling to customers in a way that delivers competitive advantage is, in its essence, about finding a value add – which involves understanding industry trends and forecasting innovation. Some ways that life sciences companies are starting to focus on customers rather than simply doing things the way they have always been done include:

  • Increasing the prominence of the medical affairs function
  • Challenging the accepted thinking of traditionally-siloed pharma companies to focus on enterprise and portfolio selling
  • Redeploying their talent in ways that focus on their skills and attributes, rather than experience. For example, moving people with pharmacovigilance backgrounds into sales, or regulatory affairs into marketing.

Identify industry trends and think global

Rather than looking outward at your competitors and inward in your planning, you should be identifying industry trends – regularly plugging into broad information flows scanning wide networks and diverse sources of data to find information that gives you a sense of when change is coming, earlier than your competitors. This could range from trends in digital health to upcoming health technology, to workforce planning. To be unconventional, you need to be progressive by understanding industry, economic, technical, digital, political and social trends. You need insights and information that will help you make the right decisions.

Remember to do this with a global mindset – seeing the whole industry, not just what is in front of you. Having a global mindset opens your mind to new perspectives, allowing you to take thinking from different political, economic, and social-geographic regions and apply them to your environment.

Then, when everyone in your industry turns left, then you might just have gathered enough information from trends and customers to have the courage to turn right…

The mirror to this is looking globally at resourcing – both for hiring and as a way of developing people. And while we all know that global transfers have always been common in life sciences – both to develop your leadership and bring in fresh talent – there are ways you can step this up by thinking unconventionally. For example, secondments or shared learning with global counterparts.

Capture opportunities by nurturing a diverse, multi-generational team

While it’s important for an excellent leader to understand customer and industry trends, the needs of the individuals in the workforce cannot be underestimated. Because when you nurture the skills of a varied workforce, focusing on their talent and tapping their true potential, then you’re in the best position to capture the opportunities in the age of the unconventional.

Organizational transformations will be essential in 2022, and with this in mind, leaders will need to have their people at the centre of the frame, to refocus and reinvent the view of talent as a competitive asset rather than a seat in an office. This means thinking about:

  • How to attract and hire the best talent in a competitive environment. Leaders who want to thrive in the age of the unconventional need to think about this from an enterprise perspective, rather than a siloed approach
  • Using a diverse workforce to create competitive advantage. The workforce is made up of a diverse range of people from many different backgrounds, circumstances, and experiences. When you focus on nurturing a diverse workforce, you can add huge value to your business through the intellectual property, skill, reputation, and culture that your workforce helps create. A great asset in unconventional times.
  • Getting the best out of a multigenerational team. At one end, we’re live longer and retiring later. At the other, young people are entering the workforce earlier and looking to rapidly expand their skills and experience. As a result, we can now have up to five different generations in any workplace. It goes without saying that much has changed across the span of these generations, including attitudes to life and work, expectations of what they want from a workplace. Leaders must adapt their style to accommodate these differences, to avoid conflict and indecisiveness in the workforce. If done well, their different perspectives and experiences will provide a diversity of thinking that will be invaluable to your growth – helping solve problems, generate ideas and share learning.                 

As senior leaders learn how to better manage their people in an environment of constant transformation, they will have to also balance the challenges of working in a high-trust, remote-working environment and creating a psychological safe workplace. We addressed last year the need for psychological safety to be front and centre of every workplace, and it is essential for leaders to check in on the wellbeing of their people and measure whether their team feels psychologically safe.

Rethink culture, building emotional capital and relational agility

The two-year period of covid disruption has changed the company-customer interface in the industry in many ways, including through digital acceleration. This is a long-term change that will influence strategy, culture, people, and performance. Leaders need to change their own mindsets and lead a mindset shift across their entire organization to meet these rapidly evolving customer needs.

Extraordinary leadership will be the driving force of that mindset shift and will significantly impact the performance of organizations in 2022 and beyond.

The best leaders will balance this with people-based decision making so they create a positive culture which becomes their most competitive asset. They need to implement new ways of working that will help them transform. To do this, they must have:

  • Emotional capital – to receive timeless commitment.

Emotional capital is the collection of all the skills and self-awareness that together enable a greater understanding of self and others. Strong leaders build ‘emotional capital’ within their teams which then enables the team to deliver superior performance.

Being aware of the balance between business logic and emotional engagement to drive personal and collective action will transform a leader and the business from average to extraordinary.

  • Relational agility – to influence transformation.

In highly complex, fast-paced organizations, developing effective person-to-person relationships is a critical component in achieving shared goals. The ability to deliver results through effective relationships with others is what distinguishes extraordinary leaders from their peers.

As we move through the age of the unconventional, planning and strategy is of the utmost importance and senior leaders will be under scrutiny to deliver. To capture competitive advantage, it’s crucial to get your strategy right and plan your workforce carefully and effectively. Progress needs to happen, and to thrive in the age of the unconventional, leaders need a layer of courage to be a disrupter as well as balance their business skills, leadership, digital-first mindset, relational agility and ability to build emotional capital.

The age of the unconventional awaits.

Hunton Executive can help you, your leaders, and your organization to navigate the age of the unconventional 

If you are interested in learning more about Hunton Executive’s services in executive search and recruitment, organizational consulting or executive coaching, contact us today.


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