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The Dysfunctional Product Launch Blues

The Blogs of Dave Murphy: The Dysfunctional Product Launch Blues

The old adage says “you better be careful what you ask for because you just might get it.” In many ways that captures the spirit of the new product approval process in the BioPharma and Med Tech industries. A company works for years to develop a breakthrough therapy or diagnostic test and when it finally gets approved, then what? The inventors and product developers have completed their job and now all eyes turn to the marketing department – and you better have your plan in place. Nothing is more stressful – and more rewarding – in the career of a marketing professional than the opportunity to launch a truly innovative product. After citing the opportunity for growth and advancement, it is the most common reason that marketing professionals share with me when describing their motivation to make a job change. For most people it only happens a few times in their career, and of course it’s important to make the most of it.

When everything goes smoothly and according to plan everyone celebrates a successful launch and thanks the marketers for doing a nice job. They had leading-edge technology, put together a reasonable plan, and didn’t screw things up. But what about those occasions where things don’t go so well? Sometimes launches don’t meet expectations, or they are so stressful when they are successful that the culture of the organization suffers dramatically. In those instances a marketing team can end up with the Dysfunctional Product Launch Blues.
Similar to a doctor routinely hearing complaints and bad news from patients, when I’m speaking with people about their interest in making a job change it’s often a bad experience in their current situation that has them talking with me. The negative experience can be driven by many things, but a common malady is DPLB. I’ve heard it said that “you never get a second chance to make a first impression” and that the first six months of a launch will usually set the trajectory of the product forever. So there’s a great deal of pressure to get it right, which means long hours, frayed emotions, and the potential for dysfunction in a marketing department.

I recently placed a Marketing Manager in a company that is in the middle of launching it’s first major innovation in about 15 years. It’s a first-in-class product and expectations are running high. While colleagues in Engineering, Project Management, Accounting / Finance and other departments are going home at 5:00, the marketing team is still there at 9:00 or later each time, working frantically to resolve details about things like sales meetings, tiered-discounts, and Med Ed slide decks. Meetings are tense, Directors are yelling at each other, and senior executives are micro-managing. The stress flows down from the top and as the Marketing Manager told me, “it’s hard to find an executive who can display grace under pressure during this launch.”

Marketers choose this type of career path, of course, along with the risk / return that accompanies it. But some organizations and team leaders are more prone than others to foster disorganization and stress in their product launches. The put the FUN in dysfunction. I’ve heard stories about Chief level commercial officers in large organizations overruling decisions about the type of candy given out at trade show booths. One medical device company I work with elected to launch their product in the U.S. – including deploying a sales team – after getting CE mark approval in the EU but before getting FDA approval (it took another 18 months to get FDA clearance). Stories abound about pricing decisions that have derailed product launches, particularly in oncology and other markets that frequently introduce innovations where valid pricing models are difficult to find.

Pitfalls like these are common, of course, but how does this impact staffing and recruitment?

High-profile product launches are terrific for the recruiting process because the best way to attract great people is to offer clear opportunities for growth and development. As we know, nothing drives organizational growth like innovation and a robust product pipeline. But high-profile product launches can be very bad for long-term retention of talented employees. The build-up to a big launch often creates unreasonable expectations and if results over the first year fail to meet those expectations then the marketing team is often the first to be blamed. Depending on their personal resilience and the availability of opportunities elsewhere, these marketers may elect to jump ship rather than wait for a turn-around. The overall morale of the team drops and many people begin to believe that the grass is greener somewhere else, particularly if continued underperformance of the product is likely to result in a downsizing in the future.

Even successful launches can often breed attrition and turnover. Many marketing professionals join companies in order to get a high-profile launch on their resume. After a year or two post-launch they expect to be able to earn a promotion since they helped launch a successful product. The problem is that the company probably hired a large number of talented individuals in the run-up to the launch and people often feel resentment when they lose out to a peer on a promotional opportunity – so they leave.

The other issue that leads to high turnover rates shortly after a successful launch is good old fashioned burn-out. If the stress, frenetic pace and dysfunction of a big launch doesn’t abate within 6-12 months post-launch the marketing team is most likely going to experience turnover, even if the product is booming. Whether it’s excessive overnight travel, long hours at the office, or toxic team chemistry the talented people I know are only willing to put up with it for a limited amount of time. Most marketers understand and agree to the need for short-term pain in exchange for longer-term gain, but the pain will result in burn-out if it persists for more than a year.

In summary, big product launches are great for marketing professionals – except when they’re not. If you find yourself with a case of the Dysfunctional Product Launch Blues give me a call and we can discuss what to do about it.

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The Cost of Bad Writing

The Blogs of Dave Murphy: The Cost of Bad Writing

From the dawn of human commerce the livelihood of marketing professionals has been built on clear communication, and with the growing importance of electronic messaging the need for effective writing skills has never been greater. Technology driven industries, including Biopharma and Medical Device, are particularly reliant on clear, concise writing because of the complex nature of the information being communicated. Yet many industry executives and students of organizational communication lament the reality that writing proficiency is in decline.

In a recent survey published by Harvard Business Review, 81% of business people who spend more than 20 hours per week reading for their job said that poor writing skills cause a significant amount of wasted time for them, and over half said that what they read is frequently ineffective because it is too long, poorly organized, unclear or filled with jargon. Employees get little training in how to write in a brief, clear manner and the result is a profound lack of impact in what they are trying to communicate. And the problem is not just in junior level cubicle dwellers – senior managers struggle to communicate exactly what they want within the subject line / title and first few sentences of what they write. As the HBR story points out, when executives are clear and direct in their business writing they will develop a reputation for candor and truthfulness, and employees will get to work accomplishing the goals that are set out for them.

In the context of the marketing profession, the need for effective writing is not confined to customer engagements or promotional material. The long term planning process, built in part on reporting the “voice of the customer,” is driven by clear, concise communication of strategies that are based on extensive analyses and in some cases massive amounts of data. The magic happens when a marketer can identify patterns in customer’s voices and articulate them clearly in written form. A Vice President of Marketing at a high-growth surgical instrument company told me that one of the most important drivers of their success is the ability of upstream marketing personnel to bring clarity to product development needs. The success of his organization, like most companies operating in a dynamic, fast-paced environment, depends on efficiency in the written word.

So why does this matter in the world of filling jobs and obtaining jobs?

On the employee side of the table it’s more important than ever to be clear and concise when writing a resume, a cover note that describes motivation, and the follow-up correspondence after interviews. Managers place a premium on finding candidates who can write efficiently, communicating the most important points in as few words as possible. Hiring authorities are most impressed by resumes that begin with a maximum of two to three sentences of “overview” statements describing key attributes and qualifications. They want to get to the point about where someone has worked, the kind of problems they were asked to solve, and the results of their efforts.

From the employers’ perspective, it’s time to take a hard look at what’s being written in job descriptions and online job postings. It’s remarkable to me that some of the largest, most prestigious organizations in the world create job descriptions that fail to convey the specifics of what an employee will do on the job. Here is some language from two job descriptions different clients of mine have written for current marketing openings:

“Responsible for the development of specific marketing plans and activities for specific product(s)/project(s)/product line(s) to establish, enhance or distinguish placement within the competitive arena. Activities may include tactics, tools, logistics, campaigns, basic messaging and positioning. Leads cross-functional teams/groups, (i.e., launch teams); to develop new products or enhance existing product(s) or product line(s). Understands business environment and relates extensive knowledge of internal and external activities to trends. Interfaces with a variety of management levels on significant matters, often requiring the coordination of activity across organizational units.”

“Responsible for the design, development, implementation and coordination of marketing plans for specific product, product line or product areas. Design, develop and implement deliverables such as product specifications, branding and launch strategies per New Product Development procedures and Launch Excellence guidelines.
• Core team representation as commercial and customer VOC on internal product development teams, also responsible for launch planning.
• Commercial Integration – partnering cross-regionally to identify best commercial practices to accelerate penetration.
• Executes marketing plans and programs, both short and long range, to ensure profitable growth and expansion of company products and/or services
• Researches, analyzes, and monitors financial, technological, and demographic factors so that market opportunities may be capitalized on and the effects of competitive activity may be minimized”

The problem with this unclear, subjective style of writing is that it not only fails to inspire talented prospects to want to pursue a job opportunity, it also leaves the description wide open for unqualified individuals to assume they can perform various functions because of lack of clarity that they cannot. I can’t complain too much about this problem, however, because candidates rely on me to explain what the job actually entails.

It’s clear that bad writing leads to wasted time and ineffectiveness in the corporate world. It’s possible that texting has led to a dumbing-down of writing skills in all forms, but I think the cause is more complicated than that. It’s incumbent upon senior leadership to insist on improvement in employee and candidate writing, and as a start they should work to enhance their own skills, setting a high bar for others to follow. As always, I welcome any comments or questions.

A Twist on Reference Checks

One of the most important steps in the hiring process is one of the most over-looked—the Reference Check. Checking references is usually done in haste in order to get an offer out to a candidate as quickly as possible. If you take the time to conduct a well-conceived reference check earlier in the process you’ll benefit in several ways:
1. 5-10% of the time red flags about the candidate will pop up in a reference check conversation – not necessarily huge problems, but enough of a concern to potentially give an edge to another candidate. It is far better to have this information early in the process so you can effectively recruit the “back-up” candidate(s).
2. You can gather important information by going beyond the standard questions that ask the reference to rate the candidate on a variety of parameters. Instead of asking “would you rehire the person?” or “what are his/her strengths and weaknesses?” consider the following: “you’ve mentioned a number of real strengths and attributes that he/she offers, what about areas for development that for him/her?” Most references are reluctant to discuss overt “weaknesses,” but they recognize that we all have areas for development.
3. Although it takes some time, you can use a reference check call to a peer or colleague of the candidate as an effective recruiting opportunity for future openings you may have that could be a fit for that person. For that matter, if the reference is a senior level executive you can use the reference check call to build a relationship with a potential hiring manager for yourself in the future.
As a recruiter, I jump at the chance to do reference checks mainly for the reasons outlined above. So, I’m not trying to get you to do my job for me. Even if your recruiter performs the reference checks, I still recommend the hiring manager call with a few questions. The reason for that is because so much about what is said is how it is said. Typed notes can only tell you so much.
I also recommend that if you’re going to have your recruiter do reference checks, have them done before the final interview if possible. Now, this isn’t always feasible, especially if you have a large pool of finalists or if the candidate only has references from their current employer. If it is possible, doing them before the final interview can help you craft your questions and can help you identify areas of concern that you want to further vet.
I hope these tips help strengthen your hiring process, and if you want to discuss these ideas in more depth, I’d be more than happy to carve out some time.
Dave Murphy
The Alpine Group
dave@alpinesearch.net

Resume Tips

I’ve reviewed tens of thousands of resumes over the past 14 years in Executive
Search and can safely say that some are better than others – much better. Here
are a few tips about resume formatting that will help capture the reader’s
interest:

– Introductory comments: Limit “Executive Summary” and “Career
Overview” comments. Readers want to get to the point and know where you’ve
worked and what you’ve done. Searchable keywords about hard-to-find skills are good here, rather than subjective qualities like “hard working” and “attention to detail.”

– Reverse chronological order of positions held: They expect and want this.

– White space: Too much of it is bad. Readers want substance and details about
what you’ve done, including narrow margins if necessary. Be specific about the expectations in your assignments, including the products / markets / technology.

– Accomplishments: Many resumes are exclusively focused on duties and responsibilities,
and are very light on accomplishments. It’s great to know what you were asked
to do, but how well did you do it? Provide numbers whenever possible, about cost savings, revenue generation, timeliness, or anything else that is a matter of fact rather than opinion.

– Finally, if you have had more than three employer changes within a five year time period that may be cause for concern for the reader. Consider including a brief, one-sentence explanation in italics as to why you changed positions, inserted right after the title and date information. For examples “Left after acquisition of ABC Company by XYZ and subsequent downsizing.” Without the explanation the reader is left to assume that you quit or were terminated.

Selecting Your References

One of the services I provide for my clients is checking references for candidates I represent. The hiring managers are looking for a list of at least 3-4 professional references – people who have worked closely with the candidate and know them well. The list must include at least one direct supervisor – someone who managed the candidate directly and did their performance reviews. You would optimally have more than one direct supervisor on your list, particularly if you’re in an active job search or unemployed.

In the interest of preserving confidentiality no hiring manager expects you to list references from your current employer. But they do expect the candidate to consider their viewpoint – “if you were me, trying to make an important hiring decision, who would you expect to see on a reference list?” Other good references can include dotted-line supervisors, your bosses boss, peers that worked with you directly for more than two years, and even customers who know you well. But there’s really no substitute for the words of a former supervisor.

Who you select as your references is just as important as what they say, particularly since the hiring managers expect the references to give a glowing, favorable report of your work. Personal and character references are not important in pre-employment reference checking. Often hiring managers will simply look at the list of references, consider their titles and how they have worked with the candidate, and make a general impression about candidate credibility based on who they listed. So work hard to keep in touch with former employers and have a quality list of references. Like the old adage says, “you’re going to have a reputation – so you might as well make sure that it’s a good one.”