Guest Column | March 16, 2021

The 3 Secrets To Becoming an Effective Leader In Clinical Research

By Laurie Halloran and Michelle Pratt, Halloran Consulting Group, Inc.

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This article is the third in a series providing insight and guidance to help professional clinical researchers effectively navigate their careers. Check out Part 1 and Part 2.

Experience in clinical research provides a solid foundation, which better positions you to launch your career into management- and executive-level roles in the life science industry. However, there’s a caveat regarding career advancement: your responsibilities will become quite different as you progress upward within an organization. Detailed clinical research activities have less of a presence in your day-to-day responsibilities, while driving strategy and influencing the direction of your teams become the focus as you grow into more senior positions within an organization. This is important to consider when mapping your career path. As a future leader, you will be called to develop the skillsets and level of confidence required to lead and guide teams while moving away from the operational execution.

It’s common to aspire to become a senior leader in the clinical research industry, and luckily there are many different directions for growth. If you can take one thing away from this article, let it be the importance of taking time to explore multiple roles before setting your sights on any one position. Enhancing your leadership skills and developing self-awareness and adaptability take time and experience – an essential first step in moving toward a leadership role is understanding the skillsets necessary to be an effective leader. This article will highlight the key skillsets to understand, develop, and refine along your journey to leadership, using stories to illustrate these skillsets in use.

Understand Your Strengths And Weaknesses

The ability to recognize your strengths and weaknesses is important for personal development at any job level.  However, high self-awareness is especially necessary when determining which leadership career path to pursue. For example, if you are interested in following a path from a trial management role in clinical operations toward vice president (VP) of business development at a sponsor company, you will need to build different strengths than those required to become a chief operating officer (COO) at a contract research organization (CRO) or to eventually co-found a clinical technology company. Over the past year, some of our Halloran employees had the opportunity to take a self-evaluation called CliftonStrengths, which includes a set of questions that identify a participant’s top strengths across the spectra of executing, influencing, relationship building, and strategic thinking. Aptitude in each of these categories impacts a person’s ability to be a good leader. Utilizing a tool to help identify your stronger and weaker attributes is a great way to begin determining a career direction and creating a development strategy to help you achieve your advanced career goals.

The expression “If you want to know the road ahead, ask a person who’s been there” describes a key component on the journey to leadership. When leadership becomes the next logical step for you in your career, it’s extremely helpful to reach out to leaders whom you admire and respect. Understanding a person’s journey, the glorious and the not so glorious, is an invaluable way to learn. The perspective of someone “who’s been there” can help shape the decisions you make as you ascend within your career. Initiating these conversations is also an opportunity to establish a mentorship relationship, which can continue to be beneficial even after you have reached a leadership level.

An outside perspective:
Shelly has maintained a relationship with Lee, her former instructor from her M.S. in Clinical Research coursework, over the years since her graduation. When her current manager, Alice, asked her to consider a lateral move to an expanded role where she will report to a very difficult leader, Shelly felt anxious about the opportunity. Lee knows Alice as well, so Shelly reached out to him to get his perspective and insights. Lee’s opinion regarding Shelly is that she is a solid but tentative manager, sometimes afraid to advocate for herself and her ideas. After Shelly described her potential new manager, Lee suggested that reporting to a challenging leader in the new role would provide Shelly the opportunity to develop her strengths in managing up and self-advocating. Shelly respected Lee’s experience and perspective and felt she could make a balanced decision rather than one colored by her anxieties.

Be An Adaptable Leader

Regardless of your desired leadership career path, adaptability is key to being successful in your role. If you are looking for guidance on adaptable leadership, the Situational Leadership Model1,2 provides different considerations to draw upon when assessing leadership opportunities. Situational Leadership Theory states that there is no single "best" style of leadership. Effective leadership is task-relevant, and the most successful leaders are those who adapt their leadership style to an individual or group’s performance readiness (ability and willingness). This means that situational leaders can effectively adjust their management style based on the situation at hand, including understanding and adapting to their team members’ respective development and maturity levels. This type of leadership is often highly successful, but as the theory states, there is no single “best” style of leadership, so it’s best used as a guide rather than a mandate.

To relate this to a clinical research role, someone who has multiple years of experience as a clinical research associate (CRA) at a CRO and has just joined your biotech company as a clinical project manager (CPM) needs a very different level of guidance and coaching on trial management responsibilities, such as selecting sites, than an employee hired just out of college as a clinical trial associate (CTA). A manager who takes a very hands-on approach with all employees could potentially be micromanaging and demotivating to this new CPM. A productive approach is to have a conversation with this CPM about her comfort level with project management and vendor oversight to determine what support she needs. In contrast, the new CTA likely needs an overview of the nuts and bolts of clinical trials and detailed instruction on each task they need to complete.

Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard described this leadership style in their 1969 book Management of Organizational Behavior.3 Originally called the “Life Cycle Theory of Leadership,” the authors renamed the theory to “Situational Leadership Theory” several years later. They posited that no singular leadership style is appropriate for every situation and outlined four styles within the overarching theory. They also noted that the leader’s and subordinates’ individual attributes and actions contribute to determining a best-fit leadership style in a given situation.

Table 1: Hersey-Blanchard Leadership Styles

Leadership Style

Telling

(Give instructions)

Selling

(Explain decisions)

Participating

(Share ideas)

Delegating

(Turn over decisions)

Team Skill Level and Behaviors

Individuals lack the specific skills required for the job in hand and they are willing to work at the task. They are novice but enthusiastic.

Individuals are more able to do the task; however, they are demotivated for this job or task. Unwilling to do the task.

Individuals are experienced and able to do the task but lack the confidence or the willingness to take on responsibility.

Individuals are experienced at the task and comfortable with their own ability to do it well. They are able and willing to not only do the task but to take responsibility for the task.


The right leadership style heavily depends on the person or group being led. Below is a set of labels to use for an assessment of an individual’s level of maturity. The maturity levels outlined below are task-specific. This means the person might be generally skilled, confident, and motivated in their job but would still have a low maturity level when asked to perform a task requiring skills they don't possess.

Table 2: The Four Levels of Maturity

High

Medium

Low

Very capable

Capable but unwilling

Unable but confident

Unable and insecure

Individuals are experienced at the task and comfortable with their own ability to do it well. They are able and willing to not only do the task but to take responsibility for the task.

Individuals are experienced and able to do the task but lack the confidence or the willingness to take on responsibility.

Individuals lack the specific skills required for the job in hand and they are willing to work at the task. They are novice but enthusiastic.

Individuals are more able to do the task; however, they are demotivated for this job or task. Unwilling to do the task.


To do this effectively adds a layer of assessment for a manager. With the CPM and CTA example above, the manager will need to determine how comfortable, confident, and willing each of the employees are with trying new things, understanding their knowledge and skill gaps, and stretching themselves to support the various trial activities. They may have the same capability level to support their assigned tasks; however, the activities of the manager are going to be very different if, for example, the CTA’s maturity level is lacking confidence to give things a try.

It’s important to understand that leadership styles are not one size fits all. Effective leaders need to be flexible and adaptive to be able to captivate a group and influence a team’s ability to perform. This skillset is challenging to develop.  As a leader, it’s critical to constantly assess the person(s) you are leading and to modify your strategy in order to grow that person’s or group’s skills. This is an exercise in patience and an opportunity for continuous growth.

What it looks like when it works:
Jessica grew over the course of her executive tenure as she sought ways to tailor her leadership style to her individual direct reports, her peers, and her management. Each of her Clinical Development VP level direct reports, all very seasoned technical experts, required unique guidance and direction. As she grew more comfortable leading her full team, she pulled back and led each unique group slightly differently based on what she knew of each report’s strategic thinking, leadership qualities, and general capabilities. Mark, one of her VPs, was a very seasoned clinical operations professional, but needed coaching in corporate finance to make better informed project resourcing decisions based on profit, loss, and gross margins. After this coaching, Jessica needed to provide less input on his approach, which allowed her time to participate more fully in executive planning activities and to support the launch of new ideas and programs across her team, promoting strategic skill development and capability expansion. One thing she asked of her VPs was to proactively propose major divisional goals to support and grow the organization over the next three years. Her goal in doing this was to pave the way for her VPs to take initiative so she could step back and provide insight from the executive team only when needed. Mark proposed embarking on a decentralized clinical trial initiative. Given his new strengths in finance, Mark was able to more aptly define the value proposition of this initiative as well as the costs and benefits, such as decreasing some of the sponsor’s reliance on its CROs.

Think Strategically 4,5,6

Self-awareness and adaptability are required to provide leaders and executives time for thinking strategically. Strategic thinking is defined as “a mental process applied by an individual in the context of achieving a goal, or set of goals, in any type of overall venture.” As a cognitive activity, it produces big directional ideas or insights.

When applied in an organizational strategic management process, strategic thinking involves generating and applying distinctive business insights and opportunities intended to create a competitive advantage for a firm or organization. Strategic thinking can be an individual exercise or a collaborative one such as the example described above between Jessica and Mark. Group strategic thinking can create more value than individual strategic thinking, as it enables proactive and creative dialogue through which individuals gain visibility into other people's perspectives on critical and complex issues. This is certainly beneficial in highly competitive and fast-changing business landscapes.

So, are strategic thinkers born or made? In our opinion, if you understand the concepts of strategic thinking, you can refine them.  However, it’s much easier to develop this skillset if you genuinely enjoy big picture thinking. Observing others who do this well during real situations is the best training.

Geoff was a manager of junior level clinical research staff. His manager recognized his strengths in data analysis and had him take on the management of operational metrics across the company. Geoff began leading monthly meetings to enable service area heads to proactively discuss their team’s pipeline, which facilitated discussions about prioritization across the company. Having this opportunity, Geoff was able to digest the data and begin making recommendations for strategic initiatives that could help improve the management team’s visibility to the business coming in and better predict future revenue. He was able to build on his strengths to enhance his strategic thinking skills, and his manager supported this development by giving him the opportunity to take ownership, which grew his role in the company to a valued member of the leadership team.

At Halloran, our executive team has been able to grow their strategic thinking skills as a collaborative group. At strategy sessions, each team member has a well-defined role, and everyone is respectful of each other’s talents, insights, and input, such as prior experience in clinical research. Everyone shares their ideas and no idea is ranked better than any other, which facilitates open communication, problem solving, and consensus. This environment enables our executive team to arrive at decisions that they feel good about, and that will benefit everyone at the company. The team prepares an agenda prior to each session and appoints a facilitator to ensure meetings stay on track. Sometimes the decisions come quickly and easily, and sometimes they require more discussion and time. Ideas requiring further development are discussed. Over time, and particularly through the past year, the team has learned the importance of lifting each other up to better enable building a long-term, multifaceted vision for the business. Having the right combination of perspectives drives better decisions for all.

References:

  1. https://situational.com/situational-leadership/
  2. https://online.stu.edu/articles/education/what-is-situational-leadership.aspx
  3. Management of Organizational Behavior: Utilizing Human Resources, 3rd Ed: Paul Hersey and Kenneth H. Blanchard Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1977.
  4. http://www.inc.com/paul-schoemaker/6-habits-of-strategic-thinkers.html
  5. https://www.forbes.com/sites/terinaallen/2018/11/20/3-unmistakable-signs-youre-a-strategic-thinker/?sh=118ddbfa6921
  6. https://hbr.org/2019/09/how-to-demonstrate-your-strategic-thinking-skills

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.