Guest Column | July 22, 2021

The 6 Pillars Of Effectively Managing Up In Clinical Development

By Laurie Halloran and Michelle Pratt

Expert NetworkManaging up, regardless of title, can be a challenging skill to master from the onset. In many life sciences companies, clinical development team members have challenges with the complexity of their ultimate impact on the success or failure of the company. That success is often quite hard to illustrate for executives who have little experience until they have lived through the failure of a program or product.

Throughout our professional careers, we’ve observed six key lessons, or pillars, that work time and again. We hope these pillars – told through our own stories in clinical development – will help you manage your relationships with your colleagues in a more senior role, while also positioning yourself for success. While we focus on managing your manager throughout the article, these lessons can be applied to any managing up scenario, as some of the stories illustrate.

1. Put Yourself In Their Shoes

When you take on a new role, one of the most important things you can do to manage your relationship with your boss is to identify what they know, where their pressures are coming from, and how they may utilize your input in decision-making. We have identified two helpful tactics to help you achieve this:

Tactic #1:

Schedule an interview with your boss with the goal of maximizing the productivity of the relationship. Approach the interview with a “help me help you” mindset, preparing questions prior to the interview that will illustrate your dedication to the success of both the relationship and the program’s outcome. The obvious benefit is to get to know how they work but also where there may be challenges ahead for you, especially with respect to wider organizational buy-in and how your development programs may be impacted positively or negatively as a result of an integrated approach.

Some sample questions you may want to ask are:

  • What is your preferred communication style?
  • How would you like me to manage our relationship on an ongoing basis?
  • What kind of updates and metrics would you like to receive, at what frequency, and in what format?
  • What types of details would you like when I am approaching you for a decision? In this scenario, do you want my recommendations, or would you prefer to provide a recommendation on your own?
  • What does success look like for my role?
  • How can I add value to your team?

Additionally, interviews with leaders in your department and your boss’ peer group (e.g., prioritize preclinical, finance, supply chain, regulatory, and quality) will provide added insight that could further influence the success of your role.

Tactic #2:

Research your boss’ experience using some simple intelligence gathering. For example, if you are reporting to a chief medical officer, is this their first position as a CMO? Have they worked in a similar size and stage of a company before? Have they come from a large sponsor company? All these factors will impact their approach to your team and your program. If they have never been in management or leadership before, you may be challenged as they work to understand the role they should be filling and how to appropriately delegate. We’ve included some tips below to aid their thinking and get them to let go of responsibilities that you can manage.

Take time to observe how your boss communicates their needs, asks questions, and collects information. Within a short time, you can diagnose what type of person they are if you take the time to view their conversations (with you or others) under that observing lens. Are they data-driven or anecdotal? Do they like to get right to business or take some time to warm up in the beginning? Are they detail-oriented or big picture focused? Each of these factors will help you to propose providing information that supports their communication of your program’s status to the company’s leadership at the right level of detail and frequency.

If your boss is data-driven, they won’t be satisfied by receiving executive summaries without the data until you have established a level of trust. It will be important to have data and analytics available to support any information you are presenting to them during casual check-ins or more formal executive meetings. Once you build that trust you will be able to propose a higher-level update that will enable you to provide less frequent and more structured summaries. Knowing how they think will ensure that your boss feels confident in you to perform well in your role, but it will also help you to feel prepared and that you are meeting expectations. It’s really important that you don’t give into feelings of irritation about being micromanaged and instead invest the time to build the trust that will result in a higher level of autonomy.

2. Make it Easy for Them

Be sure to do the groundwork in advance of any meetings with your boss or that you and your boss are participating in. One key thing you can benefit from understanding is the pressure they might be experiencing in lateral groups or from external sources. For example, if a project is massively out of scope, there are major inspection findings with a vendor, or there is delayed enrollment on a key program, it’s likely there will be a strong focus in your meeting about these sensitive topics (cost, quality, enrollment). Identify pain points from past experiences and prepare your proposed responses so you can take the lead on aligning you and your boss. Knowing where your boss’s pressure comes from and learning as much as you can about those pressures early on will enable you to partner to problem solve proactively.

For external meetings, such as those with CROs or advisory boards, your boss may need to operate as the face of the company and cultivate relationships without getting bogged down with logistics and details. Consider and evaluate what messages they would like to be sending and how you can package the data presentation to meet your boss’ objectives. This will enable your boss to function at a more strategic level, and enlist you to provide the detailed updates. Propose an agenda, major questions and data to provide as updates to make it easy for them to operate at that level as often as possible.

In the example below, Susie used Pillars 1 and 2 to support her CEO in her new role:

Two weeks into her job heading up the Clinical Development group, Susie noticed that the CEO would stop in almost daily and ask how things were going. She was surprised by this because she was updating the CMO regularly, who, she assumed, was in turn updating the CEO. After a few more weeks, Susie gathered her courage and made an appointment to meet the CEO one-on-one. They got acquainted, and then she asked some of the questions sketched out above. She learned a lot throughout this conversation, but her last question was “What is one thing I could do for you that would really help?”. His response was to provide him with a hard-copy graph of all the enrollment metrics for the current programs to show the expected vs. actual enrollment across the research sites once a week. He was getting inquiries on a regular basis from the Board, but he didn’t have access to the information in real time and wasn’t having success with getting it from the CMO. It was an easy task for Susie to do weekly and strengthened her relationship with the CEO from that point onward.

3. Package The Information At A Level They Can Handle

It is important to understand the level of involvement your boss has within your organization. Often, chief development officers or chief medical officers, for example, aren’t involved in the day-to-day details of the clinical development programs. Keep this in mind during your one-on-one meetings when you need to share updates on progress or ask for advice and/or decisions. Think about the major topics they need to be knowledgeable about, such as enrollment as mentioned above, and provide only essential updates and your recommendations. They can request additional details if they feel it is necessary, but if you have the issues summarized and your recommended solutions, it’s not likely there will be a deep dive into the details.

Tom had a boss who loved to dive into the details and would derail his monthly progress meetings, complaining how he would have taken a different approach, long after this advice could have helped the situation. Tom often found that he left his meetings with unproductive new assignments that he had taken on just to appease his boss. He approached a colleague and got advice on how to better approach these meetings. Tom now packages the information as an executive summary with graphs and charts, followed by a set of specific questions he wants to discuss. He subtly distracts the boss with questions that keep the meeting on track and will provide him with useful answers/decisions and puts together detailed meeting minutes afterward with those documented decisions. He is now able to better manage his boss so that their time together is much more productive, both during and after these meetings.

4. Arrive With Proposals To Solve Problems

As mentioned above, prior to bringing problems to your boss, think through ways to navigate the challenge. A great example on proactively offering solutions is regarding patient enrollment challenges. Should additional clinical sites, regions, or countries be added to the study to achieve enrollment needs, or should the protocol be amended? Would it make sense to engage active patient outreach groups or a new vendor to support the patient journey? When you arrive with proposals, include costs, potential benefits, and potential risks to show you have done your due diligence ahead of the meeting. This approach is essential, so you are not just dropping a problem in your boss’ lap for them to take on. This kind of tactic, when consistent, will build long-lasting trust from your boss and build their confidence in you as a problem-solver.

5. Manage The Meeting

In the pillars above, we talk about not only preparing for meetings with your boss but managing the meetings as well. Managing meetings can mean different things to different people. Throughout our experience, these are the most essential tips to meeting management:

  • Prepare with an agenda that highlights progress factors, areas for discussion (including proposed solutions and action item updates)
  • Send out the agenda via email a few days head of the meeting, and have the agenda available to share during the meeting (e.g., bring printed copies to in-person meetings or share the document in virtual meetings)
  • Arrive to the meeting on time
  • Keep track of time during the meeting
  • Steer the conversation back to the agenda if it veers away
  • Ensure that all the essential agenda items are reviewed, and that key questions have answers to enable you to move forward after the meeting
  • Keep track of the meeting minutes, including the status of agenda items
  • Document action items
  • Provide meeting minutes and action items to your boss after the meeting
  • Follow up action items as necessary prior to your next meeting

6. ​Be Empowered

Following the tactics above, you’ll earn appreciation from your boss and these practices will help you build a trusting, confident relationship and help you avoid being micromanaged. They will be grateful for the ways in which you keep them on track, accountable, and free to operate in their own role, remaining informed about critical factors that may impact their program and potentially be escalated to executive management or the board. You should feel free and empowered to operate in this capacity. Even more, your boss will see you as a key member of their organization and you will likely be seen as having leadership potential.

Mary saw that her boss Lisa (the CEO) had to take on a massive amount of new internally facing work when the chief operating officer left the company. Lisa had many regular public meetings to generate thought leadership and to build a client community as a way to amplify and expand the work the company was doing. Mary went to Lisa and suggested taking on as much of the planning as possible to alleviate her boss’ workload, effectively allowing Lisa to continue with the external role that brought new clients in to continue the company’s expansion and take on the internal business activities. Lisa couldn’t have done it without Mary’s help and support!

From our perspective as leaders and executive team members, the people who gain our trust quickly consider the data we need and when we will need it, and propose decisions with proactive information to facilitate high-quality outcomes. We are grateful and happy to delegate to the communicators we trust the most, who can manage up confidently. If there is one big lesson we can leave you with, it is to feel comfortable putting yourself in our shoes, presenting information in a format that makes decisions easy, and to speak up. You will improve the quality, cost, and timeliness of the clinical programs we are all trying to move forward, and our trust and collaboration will increase exponentially.

About The Authors:

AuthorLaurie Halloran founded the Halloran Consulting Group in 1998. Her time as a pediatric ICU nurse has inspired her to start a company that helps move new therapies through the FDA processes to get them into the hands of patients that are desperately in need. Halloran has been named 2018 Women’s Business Enterprise Star by the Women's Business Enterprise National Council (WBENC) and has won a 2017 Enterprising Women of the Year Award from e magazine.


AuthorMichelle Pratt is a senior manager of consulting operations at Halloran Consulting Group. She has over 13 years of experience in the pharmaceutical industry. Her career has focused on scientific leadership, project management, training, employee development, mentoring, process improvement, departmental oversight, and business operations. Before joining Halloran, Pratt served in global roles including director of operations and director of scientific and medical services at Parexel Medical Imaging. She holds an MS in clinical investigation from the Boston University School of Medicine and an MBA from Fox School of Business at Temple University.