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How pharmaceutical industry leaders guide their teams while keeping clinical trials moving forward.

Pharmaceutical industry leaders are navigating through some of the choppiest waters in history right now. In times of crisis, it's more important than ever for leaders to adapt and respond quickly and engage personally with both customers and employees. At a time when nothing is certain and anxiety levels run high, soft skills take center stage.

Industry Dive recently spoke with Brenda Reese, head of North American business development for PSI CRO, a full-service, privately owned global CRO about what's required of today's life sciences leaders. Reese, a life sciences leader herself for more than 20 years, shares her thoughts on what it takes to lead effectively through COVID-19 and beyond.

What leadership traits are most important in time of crisis?

Brenda Reese: Guiding a team is one of the most rewarding challenges a leader will ever navigate. And now more than ever, leaders must guide with an increased focus on respect, empathy, and communication.

We're each experiencing the effects of COVID-19 differently—whether we're going through personal and family challenges, challenges to changing our routine and normalcy, or any other challenge, employees are treading through COVID-19 with questions, uncertainties, and in many cases, concerns. As leaders, we have to respect the differences that each employee faces, be empathetic to their situation, support them through it, and reinforce our commitment to them through open, honest, and transparent communication.

Your team is your greatest asset; as leaders, we must prioritize their assurance of connection and understanding. Step away from the vague or ambiguous. Lead by example. Guide your team genuinely and with authenticity, now more than ever.

How is PSI leading its team through the coronavirus pandemic and beyond?

BR: At PSI, we live by the mantra 'we can do hard things.' That mindset remains as we live through this pandemic. This isn't an easy time. In fact, it's a trying time for us all—for the entire world. We're making strong efforts to lead our team through COVID-19 with open communication, increased avenues of connection, and by leaning into our cultural values.

We're coordinating video lunches and virtual team-building activities, creating support networks for parents that are now working remotely with the addition of their children, and hosting fun after-hours events such as virtual bingo nights. Our internal team even built a communications dashboard to keep staff up to date on any process changes that are related to COVID-19.

Our cultural values focus on our dedication to teamwork, and our mission statement mentions being the best CRO in the world as measured by, among others, our employees. We know that to meet the needs of our clients, sites, and vendors, we have to first meet the needs of our teams. When the employees are in the right spot, it will be easier to navigate the changes that lie ahead for our industry.

CROs and drug developers work closely together to bring life-saving therapies to market. How have relationships changed during this crisis?

BR: What we're seeing here at PSI is less of a change and more of an increase. Our relationships and partnerships have gotten even stronger as we collaborate with sponsors to accomplish goals and find creative solutions to keep their trial on schedule.

Just recently, a project team reported that they were able to help a site to find an alternative solution to navigate travel restrictions to help a patient enroll in a specific trial at a specific site. For this patient, the timing made all the difference. Without partnering as strong collaborators, this wouldn't have been possible.

If CROs are willing to think outside the box and adapt to the changing landscape, they can prove to be critical partners for drug developers. At PSI, this solutions-driven mindset is one of our key focuses.

And how do you think the relationship between CROs and drug developers will change moving forward?

BR: It's difficult to project ideas about what the future will look like after COVID-19. We don't know what the next week will bring, much less the next few months. But we do know that difficult times are revealing times, and typically represent a test of a true partnership.

At PSI specifically, we're proud to stick with our partners and move studies forward against the odds. We're committed to keeping our promises and remaining true to our sponsors, even when the odds are against us—especially, when the odds are against us. We're finding creative solutions that are working right now, that we can deploy right now. The future is exciting, and moving forward is exciting. But before we can get there, we have to focus on what we can right now.

What approach should life sciences leaders take to instill confidence and harmony among employees as well as among partners, sites, and vendors?

BR: By approaching the topic head-on and encouraging transparent communication, we're able to open the door to the tough questions. Life science leaders should approach this situation head-on. By supporting your staff, increasing the lines of communication with vendors and partners, and by being intentional with supporting sites, life science leaders will show that even in times of crisis, they're committed to pushing ahead. Stepping up to do the right thing, even when it's hard, and proactively instilling confidence and harmony is crucial.


Leaders in multiple industries are taking a long look at sales and marketing campaigns and other plans, and shifting focus to fit the context of the current environment. What's your advice for pharma?

BR: We need to keep clinical trials going. Apart from COVID-19, there are still many diseases deserving our undivided attention. We need to make sure that oncology patients are receiving best possible treatments, that IBD patients can find their way back to their study doctors, and that kids who had been scheduled to receive bone marrow transplants in a neighboring country don't keep losing their only chance for life because of logistical complications. While we need to become adaptable to the new circumstances, we have to remain loyal to our core beliefs and values. Every patient counts, and that is a big commitment that stretches far beyond any one particular therapy.

Published: May 19, 2020

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