- 2 years ago
17 November 2021
People decide whether someone is a leader, not their job title says Wayne Burns*, executive director of the Centre for Corporate Public Affairs – one of Australia’s top leadership coaches across a range of industries, including pharma.
“There are a lot of people with titles but in terms of leadership, it’s a pretty small club,” says Burns. “The best leaders are vulnerable and, because they show their humanity, people are more likely to follow them.”
No stranger to the pharma industry, Burns is often called in often when new company heads arrive in Australia to help them adapt to the local cultural and political environment.
As Australian companies cut paths out of Covid and into a new normal, Burns spoke exclusively with MedNews about what it takes to be a leader, the challenges leaders faced in Covid, and the opportunities presented by the pandemic to reset reputation.
You have the title but…
Burns says when training leaders, one of the key points he focuses on is the concept of formal and informal authority. While formal authority comes with the job title, informal authority is bestowed upon leaders who are seen as trustworthy, demonstrate independent thought, authenticity and the ability to listen.
“True leaders aren’t parrots, they’re songbirds who do a lot of listening to get that song as dulcet as it can be,” says Burns.
“If you’re just pushing out key messages, you’re not listening. The best leaders use their own life experiences or stories they’ve heard from customers or patients, they use adversity in their life or the lives of others to get their messages across without having a list of key messages and just parroting them.”
Burns says informal authority engenders trust in a leader but that person’s style of leadership is also important, particularly in the context of the task they’ve been given.
“Sometimes you’ve got the messianic leader and she’s come to save the organisation and is expected to be a disruptor,” he says. “To do that, she needs a certain style, and that’s not going to be pensive and introverted.”
Instead, he says the pensive, introverted leader may be tasked with consolidating an organisation or considering the direction in which it is headed.
“Good leaders are able to adapt their style according to the challenge that the board has given them and to solve the problems they see as well. It’s about being flexible but it’s also being honest with yourself – are you in the right job?
“If transformational leadership isn’t your thing and you don’t enjoy it, people are going to pick up that vulnerability. You need to know what style of leadership is needed. If you feel you don’t have those capabilities, then you either need to know how do to get them or consider whether you’re in the right job.”
Don’t let company culture dictate
Burns says Australian pharma operations are often “branch offices” for multinational corporations, responsible for sales and marketing, regulatory and corporate affairs functions but little more, making it difficult for leaders to identify a “burning platform” for change.
Yet he says many leaders are brought here to enact transformational change, with the trick often being to become unpopular as slowly as possible.
“People don’t resist change, they resist loss,” he says. “When people see a loss in headcount or in budget, that’s when really good leaders say, okay, there will be winners and losers here, but this is where we’re going to be in the end. I realise the loss that is going to happen but we are going to end up in a better place, so follow me.”
Burns says great leaders don’t fit themselves into the company culture but instead work around the culture, or even challenge it.
“The medical industry in Australia is very hierarchical,” he says. “The multinational business model makes it more difficult but not impossible. There have been some fantastic leaders in the industry over the past three or four decades.
“Effective leaders push back and say, well you’ve given me this operation in Australia and this profit target or sales projection, and this is the best way to meet that.
“It’s very risky and lonely being a leader here, especially when you’re encouraging people to do things differently or to go against the grain of the culture or to change the culture. Culture is set by leaders and effective leaders may take advice, but they go their own way.”
Companies that empower leaders
Burns said Moderna was one company with a reputation for trusting its leaders to act independently, providing they did so within the company’s values.
“It’s one of those companies where it doesn’t matter where you are in the world, your title will give you formal authority but there is a lot of leeway to build that informal authority,” he said.
When asked who he saw as great company leaders, Burns pointed to the founders of Atlassian as having “nailed their colours to the mast in terms of their values, and those values are reflected in the company and its people”.
“They’ve been transformational leaders,” he said. “Atlassian is not a group-think organisation but most people there share the same values. They will stick their neck out on issues they think are important to the sustainability of their business, but also to the sustainability of the planet.”
In terms of leaders who steady the ship, he referred to Scottish businessman and former BHP Billiton CEO Sir Andrew Mackenzie who succeeded Marius Kloppers in 2013 and “calmed the waters and was really good at being himself, including showing his vulnerabilities”.
“People just trusted him and followed him. He wasn’t this messianic leader but he was this quiet, determined person who had a plan and was warm and went out of his way to meet people and understand them. He was a great listener and that engendered a lot of trust, a lot of informal authority, and he left the company in great shape.
“To be authentic means to put your vulnerability out there. The best leaders understand their vulnerabilities, they talk about them, and people like that and relate to it. People are not androids.”
In Part 2 of our leadership series, Wayne speaks on the opportunity of Covid to ‘reset’ reputation in pharma companies, and also of the risks for those companies seen to be making ‘super profits’ from the pandemic.
*Burns has been Executive Director of the Centre for Corporate Public Affairs since 2005. He writes and speaks internationally on corporate public affairs and the socio-political interaction of business, governments, not-for-profit advocacy entities, and the community. Wayne’s upcoming executive leadership course focusing on adaptive leadership will be held in Melbourne next February.