Cultural intelligence is key in the global pharma landscape

Market Access
global pharma

When I started my job as the head of intercontinental markets at Bristol Myers Squibb in February, I was prepared for a steep learning curve. After all, the region covers 60% of the world’s population and 65 countries. Making the job even more challenging was the fact that my teams work in markets with vastly different GDP levels and complex health care systems: some governments can take several years to agree to reimburse a new medicine, and health equity varies widely.

My first 100 days were very intense, but went surprisingly smoothly. Fortunately, I had experience living and working in different countries that helped prepare me: I was born in France, spent a few years of my childhood in Tunisia, studied in the United States and Japan, and started my first job in Southeast Asia, where I stayed for five years based in Bangkok. My work has also taken me to Latin America, the Middle East, and Africa, and most recently to Rome, where I served as the general manager of BMS Italy.

I’m grateful for all these personal and professional experiences because they gave me an opportunity to develop a global mindset that I believe is an important leadership quality. During those years, I spent time observing new environments, learning new languages, meeting new people, and figuring out how to function and be accepted in new workplaces.

Now, I realise this “cultural intelligence” is necessary for global pharmaceutical leaders’ success. It’s a perspective that allows you to appreciate and feel comfortable in a new culture, even when you still have so much to learn.

It’s the key to overseeing diverse regions that require different approaches to risk, pricing, and patient access. By embracing this mindset, you develop an entrepreneurial agility that helps prepare you for whatever situation comes your way. And by taking the time to imagine yourself in another person’s shoes, you cultivate empathy that is important to keeping patients at the centre of our work.

I wanted to share some of the “best practices” I’ve learned during my career:

1) Get to know your markets

Shortly after arriving in Bangkok for my first job after business school, I attempted to speak Thai. It’s a notoriously difficult language to master because it has five tones, and you need to learn how to write the characters in order to know how to pronounce a sentence. People struggled to understand me, but no one commented on my mistakes. They appreciated that I had made an effort to learn their language and connect with them. It's a lesson I’ve carried with me throughout international roles and market visits.

Learn everything you can about a country. Learn their greetings, holidays, rituals, and customs. I’ve discovered it’s the secret to being embraced and included in their culture. Consult a local partner that can offer insights about how business is done there. You can’t parachute into a new market and assume the key players will adapt to your way.
This is an important principle for working in international markets, but it’s especially critical for working in the pharmaceutical industry. You must know the cultural nuances of your local environment. That means holding face-to-face meetings with healthcare professionals and policymakers and learning about their motivations and institutional pressures.

Engage with patient associations, advocates, and caregivers. Talk with your local teams. Our biggest challenges can only be solved when we engage with multiple stakeholders. This starts with getting to know them on a deeper level.

2) Lean about a culture’s emotional temperament

Not all cultures deal with crises the same way. I got a quick lesson about this truth early in my career. I was working in Thailand at the time for a pharmaceutical company and was stressed out about a supply chain issue at a local factory. Can you guess what happened when I became impatient and agitated? My Thai colleagues laughed at me. In many Asian cultures, losing your cool is often seen as losing control of a situation — not to mention your credibility. I would have been taken more seriously if I had remained calm.

It's important to remember that different cultures have different emotional temperaments and reactions. This includes taking extra care to acknowledge your local teams’ customs, in addition to questioning the assumptions you bring to your markets that are based on your own cultural background: Are there psychological barriers to patient access that you might not be aware of? What emotional factors inform physicians’ prescribing behaviours? What are the cultural attitudes about participating in clinical trials? Curiosity goes a long way.

3) Be comfortable outside your comfort zone

Living in a foreign culture by definition means doing things differently — from what and when you eat to how you organise your work, social, family, and leisure lives. Sometimes, such change is full of delightful discoveries. Other times, you have to learn to be comfortable with the discomfort of culture shock, even if it means eating unfamiliar foods out of politeness or honouring local customs out of respect. Once, when I was conducting business audits with a distributor in a patriarchal country, I was puzzled why an important physician refused to answer my questions — that is until I learned he was not authorised to speak directly to women. So, I learned that I had to give my questions to my male colleague who asked them on my behalf.

Yet, learning how to be flexible helps you to develop resilience and the ability to tolerate change.

This is critical for today’s global pharmaceutical landscape because unwelcome events are pretty much inevitable. Political and policy winds will shift suddenly. Reimbursement negotiations may not go the way you want. Launches of new medicines may be delayed for reasons outside your control. By learning to navigate difficulties — and even anticipate them — you and your teams are better positioned to evaluate risks and respond to crises with strength and ingenuity.

The longer I pursue my career, the more I appreciate how my various experiences have shaped and motivated me. That’s why I encourage people to work far and wide and learn as much as they can about the world and how our industry can make a difference in meeting unmet medical needs. But even if you can’t work in international roles, you can work at cultivating an international mindset that values openness, inclusivity, and integrity. That’s the shift we need to bring us all together to expand the reach of science and help patients worldwide live longer, healthier lives.

Emma Charles
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Emma Charles
22 June, 2023