Leadership at times of uncertainty (Guest blog)

In the last few years I have talked a lot to my colleagues and teams about being ready to deal with the challenges of operating in a VUCA environment. For those of you who haven’t heard that term before it comes from the US army and stands for Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous. Right now, across the globe, we are all facing this reality with the emergence of COVID-19. For those of us in the pharmaceutical industry, everyday is about focusing on developing treatments and solutions that help address some of the most important healthcare challenges now and preparing for what future could bring. Today, COVID-19 has sent shock waves across the world and represents the single biggest challenge our industry has faced for many years. 

The spread  of this disease of has been rapid and given the global nature of how we live our lives it has proven hard to contain. It is a challenge that requires us to think globally as well as locally, and one that demands collaboration across multiple stakeholders if we are to apply the most advanced scientific thinking quickly with the aim to slow the spread of disease and protect our populations.  One of the most important weapons we have to help us tackle this disease right now is communication. To inform, disseminate and dispel myths.  

Enabled by technology, we are now able to do this faster and on a scale that wasn’t previously possible. I was reassured to learn that in just one month there were 164 articles about COVID-19 on PubMed, driving increased knowledge and contributing to finding a solution.  To put this into context, an entire year after the SARS outbreak the number of articles was less than half of what has been achieved in one month. 

Greater connectivity has also meant that as soon as new guidance is issued it is instantly available globally and rapidly adopted by Governments, organizations, and most importantly the public.  People have embraced the need to follow expert advice and adapt their behaviour, for example no longer shaking hands is our new normal and of course in recent weeks more and more of us have been moved into situations of isolation.  As I write this today, I am working from home in Belgium where strict social distancing measures are in place. What is also very clear is that we ALL have a part to play in managing this disease regardless of your job role. Even an act as simple as washing your hands can contribute to the overall effort.

Leading a company through unchartered waters can be a daunting task. I feel grateful that as an organisation we have a credo that helps guide the decisions we make. It clearly states that our focus should be on patients, employees and the customers and communities we partner with. The work we do is critically important to the patients we serve and ensuring they still have access to their medicine is vital. We are partnering with global and local health authorities to address immediate and long-term health care needs to ensure sustainable supply of our critical medicines.

Employee well-being is key, and we have introduced measures that we believe will help protect and reassure them and their families.  Like many companies we have suspended all unnecessary travel and meetings. We talk about living in the digital age so let’s use the technology available to accomplish what we need to effectively run our business in the near term. We have asked most of our employees to work from home to limit the potential spread on our campuses. 

As part of this, and conscious of the important role we play, we have thought carefully about which are the critical roles that need only be undertaken onsite, such as lab personnel and production line, who are needed to continue to supply much needed medicines.  For these employees, we have provided everyone with the option not to work onsite, as we recognise that people’s health and wellbeing must come first.  For those who are onsite, we have implemented extra measures to protect them and limit any potential spread of the virus. This is an entirely personal choice, but so far, the overwhelming response is to help and to get involved, as many realise that they and we, as an organization, can make a huge contribution to the efforts. 

We have robust business continuity plans in place across our global supply chain network to prepare for unforeseen events and to meet the needs of the patients, customers and consumers who depend on our products. These steps include maintaining critical inventory at major distribution centres away from high-risk areas and working with external suppliers to support our preparedness plans. We are closely monitoring product demand and supply levels across our global network to ensure adequate and effective distribution, and are working diligently to try to meet patient, customer and consumer need.

Crucially, as a global leader in healthcare, we also have an important role to play in finding a possible solution to COVID-19. To that end we are actively collaborating with our healthcare colleagues, institutions, governments and communities to offer insight and support. We are mobilizing our best scientists to investigate diagnostics, new medicines and interventions for infection prevention, and we continue to look across our pipeline and portfolio to see which compounds may be effective against this pathogen. We have incredible people across all the whole healthcare spectrum, from doctors and nurse on the front line, through to those in medical supply chain, production and R&D who are continuing every day to go to their place of work, and who are working tirelessly to help those in need. To all critical workers in our Industry and others we owe a huge debt of gratitude.

At the minute we don’t know when normal life will continue. As leaders we need to plan for ongoing change, keep communicating and remain engaged with our teams and stakeholders to ensure we are all doing what we can to help address this health crisis and ultimate beat it.

Kris Sterkens

Since starting his career at Janssen in Belgium almost 30 years ago, Kris Sterkens has been part of many teams...
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