Pharma CEO shares business and life lessons learnt battling COVID-19

Parag Sancheti, CEO of Rubicon Research Pvt Ltd, on navigating uncharted territory during the coronavirus crisis.

The world as we know it has changed and rewritten the CEO’s role with it. We are dealing with new social, professional and economic hurdles that require a deviation from the traditional approach. At Rubicon Research we manufacture essential medicines, which means we don’t have the luxury to adopt the ‘wait and watch’ approach. Our manufacturing plant has been working throughout the lockdown and we’ve activated business continuity plans for our operations spread across India and Canada. This has been a time of tremendous learning, including through mistakes, but also a time of coming together to tackle this crisis impacting our lives. Here are some of my learnings from this time.

1. This is a war

What the world is going through right now is nothing short of a war-like scenario and it has to be dealt with using the same planning, dedication, creativity, agility, and precision. It’s important to adopt military-style techniques as this crisis will be a long drawn out battle and we need to have our strategy in place to come out of this stronger. Enable senior staff across the organisation to revise plans and devise the best possible approach so as to quickly take actions to combat rapid change. While quick wins boost morale, leaders need to focus on the medium-to-long term so as to prepare their companies for growth post the crisis.    

2. Lead with empathy

These are highly stressful times and there’s a heightened need for leaders to maintain their teams’ morale, well-being, health, and safety. This is especially key for a sector like pharma where our employees are coming to work throughout lockdowns, while staying away from their loved ones and other support systems. This is when we have to step up and become their support system, provide a sense of security, and model healthy work habits. Leaders have to find a balance between preparing employees to address critical scenarios and maintaining team morale.

3. Planning is key

I cannot emphasise this enough. Leaders have to plan, plan, and then plan some more while watching out for escalating problems. Plans might turn out to be useless, but planning is indispensable. Be prepared to pivot, reevaluate, and redraw your plans for the way forward in what might seem like a never-ending cycle. Agility in thought and action is the need of the hour. As an essential service we are working with a large number of critical variables, any of which could cause a roadblock. So, we have to plan for all possible scenarios so as to stay ahead of the next problem.

4. Balancing optimism and realism

A crisis like this also reveals the inherent constraints within an organisation—what can and can’t be done. The rapidly-changing situation around us forced us to acknowledge the challenges within our company’s processes. Rather than downplaying them, we drew attention to them, and honed our focus find solutions using the means available. Crisis management requires leaders to do what can be done, not list what they wish could be done.

5. Chase progress, not perfection

Our obsession with perfect can cost us time, a very important commodity right now. Good enough is usually good enough to proceed with and a much better alternative to waiting for a chance at perfection. Make your decisions with the information available to you right now, and act on those decisions, while also drafting a Plan B to deal with any fall out. 

6. Communicate, communicate, communicate

Communication to your employees is key in a crisis. Keep your message simple and repeat it often. We tend to be over confident about how much people grasp when something is told to them. Assigning out tasks or outlining a plan of action? Give clear directions—draft short emails, with the key points highlighted at the top, so people know exactly what is expected of them. Avoid long memos. People will lose interest and your point will be lost. Practical, clear, and concise communication is the most effective at all times.

7. Empower your employees

 As a leader you need to communicate a clear intent behind your instructions/orders, that explain what you want to achieve and why. And then you need to empower your employees so that if they are faced with a situation where your order cannot be executed, they can reevaluate the situation and seek action that is in line with the intention you expressed. In this manner, they can still achieve the desired outcome. To do this you need to communicate a well-defined intent, flexible organisational structures, and, most importantly, trust between a leader and his employees.