Nine ways to keep focus and boost your pharma career

Oliver Stohlmann’s Corporate Survival Hacks series draws on his experiences of working in local, regional and global life science communications to offer some little tips for enjoying a big business career. His second column addresses the vital importance of prioritisation.

There used to be times when every single task seemed important. Naturally. I’m a perfectionist and recognition-seeker. I thrive on positive feedback. I’m proud of the spotless quality of my own work and that of my team.

Until a point when there were simply no further hours to the day to get everything done. Not even superficially – which would pain me anyway, since not only did my nights become later and later, but the quality of work suffered, too. Who thought I’d be better, or faster, at drafting press releases or reviewing critical company statements at three o’clock in the morning?

Setting clear priorities and disciplined time management are instrumental skills to achieve meaningful results while keeping your ‘corporate life’ enjoyable and the workload manageable.

If everything is a priority, nothing is

One day, the pharma R&D leadership team reviewed our pipeline priorities for the year. Those that would make the biggest difference for patients, as well as the enterprise, and that we wanted to put full resources behind.

Imagine a group of highly accomplished R&D leaders, each advocating for their own compounds in development and aiming to attract the most funding. Before long, we were close to prioritising every single project up for discussion. Until our head of portfolio management challenged us by stating: “If you make everything a priority, nothing will be. It’s like handing everyone at Disney World a fast pass. We’ll lose our ability to fast-track our most value-adding, differentiating drug candidates.”

“You have to decide what your highest priorities are and have the courage – pleasantly, smilingly, non-apologetically, to say ‘no’ to other things”

Prioritisation works best when you focus your time, budget and energy on a select number of true, aligned priorities. Your ability to deliver on critical goals suffers when all sorts of other tasks, expectations, suggestions and deadlines get the same level of attention – a frequent trait of large organisations with lots of stakeholders and layers to manage.

Doing a few things and doing them exceptionally well allows you to deliver them more efficiently and then move on to the next set of priorities faster; if you try doing all in parallel, everything takes longer.

Without a goal, you can’t score

Don’t get me wrong: The small fry will always appear. But your success, sense of achievement and, in fact, your career advancement will mostly depend on getting the major stuff done. You’ll stand out by delivering one or two big ticket items – not the hundreds of additional asks, favours and deliverables thrown at you along the way.

To be able to pursue and deliver a target and not get distracted, you must have it firmly defined. If your employer doesn’t mandate that goal definition at the start of each business year, write down your key deliverables regardless. The late Dutch footballer Johan Cruyff reportedly said: “Without a goal, you can’t score.” At least, you’ll make it much, much harder to score if you don’t have that target in mind.

Once you have a clear, robust goal firmly in view, you will make better decisions towards it every step of the way. You’ll also inspire others to share your vision and encourage them to join the cause.

Alignment is critical

Particularly in complex, matrixed corporations it’s crucial to align top priorities with principal stakeholders including your line management, key business partners, customers, peers. Your own team, too, needs to be squarely on board with your goals to support those.

“Block out regular calendar time to work on priorities and get things done, in one piece, without interruption”

Not only will this extrapolate your chances of delivering. The aligned goal agreement can be revisited later when each of these stakeholders makes requests for additional, off-target deliverables – which helps you recontract and stay your course.

Delegate or ditch

Effective prioritisation requires an ability to deprioritise. Per above, if everything becomes a priority – nothing is! Resources are always finite. If they have to stretch across many “priorities”, none will cut through.

Therefore, make sure to deprioritise tasks of little or no relevance and communicate why these are non-priorities. Educate your environment to understand how non-essential work and processes will come at the expense of hitting agreed priorities. If levels above you make reoccurring off-target demands, help them understand they won’t get meaningful outcomes if everything is declared a priority.

Of course, there will be legitimate requests either urgent, mission-critical, unforeseen or otherwise crucial to prioritise ad hoc. Delegate such relevant tasks to the lowest possible level with the skills and experience to own and deliver a result. Delegation may happen within a team or also beyond it. Many colleagues aspire to prove their abilities by taking on more skilled tasks. Try them. Invest time in them. It’ll pay back multiple times and boost those colleagues’ morale, too.

Advance priorities daily

Most people start their day by getting small tasks out of the way ‘quickly’, to then ultimately focus on the big one. The issue: there’s often a steady stream of new tasks filling your to-do list; if you deprioritise that major project, you might never get to it. Therefore, I made a habit of starting the day off with my biggest priority. Once I’d advanced that sufficiently, I would turn to other duties.

To help you do this, block out regular calendar time to work on priorities and get things done, in one piece, without interruption. A great way to ensure focus and progress is to write down, each morning, one or two specific actions you’ll take today to advance your priority. Not only will this keep you on track, it’s an effective technique to visualise and prepare those steps, eg during your office commute. Then on the way home that evening, make note of your completed actions. Keep gathering both, daily, into a journal. Occasionally flip through your notes and enjoy your accumulating accomplishments, what worked, the insights from what didn’t, and the progress you’ve been making towards your overall deliverable.

As Stephen Covey, author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, says: “If the ladder is not leaning against the right wall, every step we take just gets us to the wrong place faster.” He adds: “You have to decide what your highest priorities are and have the courage – pleasantly, smilingly, non-apologetically, to say ‘no’ to other things. And the way you do that is by having a bigger ‘yes’ burning inside.”

Work prioritisation tips

1. Define your top goal(s)
2. Stand out by delivering 1-2 major priorities
3. Align them with key stakeholders
4. Deprioritise tasks of little or no relevance
5. Delegate to the lowest possible level
6. Advance top priorities daily
7. Start off the day with your biggest priority
8. Block out calendar time to move things along
9. Ensure daily actions and record progress

About the author

Oliver Stohlmann is a communications leader with more than 20 years’ experience of working at local, regional and global levels for several of the world’s premier life-science corporations. Most recently he was Johnson & Johnson’s global head of external innovation communication.