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Mission Critical

When it’s lonely at the top, leaders can seek a critical friend
Critical blue hand

Our evolving life sciences market asks a lot of our senior people. Increasingly complex and turbulent market conditions, combined with ever more demanding boards and shareholders, mean that business leaders often feel both pressured and isolated. 

Of course, leaders can sometimes share the load with their teams but there are real-worlds limits to this. Political considerations mean that it isn't always appropriate to share doubts, fears and half-developed ideas with sub-ordinates or colleagues.

Hence the increasing use of strategy counsellors to help leaders assess, choose and implement strategic options. But what is a strategy counsellor? How does this process work? And how might a leader get the most out of this intensely personal process?

My research concerns how life science companies are adapting to the future and the use of strategy counsellors is emerging as an interesting strand of that work.

What is a strategy counsellor?
There seems to be a clear difference between a counsellor and a consultant, so let us begin with what a strategy counsellor is not. Although both are external experts, counselling differs from consultancy in three very important respects. Firstly, it is much more personal and focused than consultancy; it is as much about the leader as the company. Secondly, it is much less prescriptive than consultancy; it is about the leader finding his own answers, not buying someone else's. Finally, it is much more of a growth process for the leader; counsellors work to make themselves redundant, not to create dependency.

In fact, a strategy counsellor is a particular variant of the 'Critical Friend' concept, an idea defined so well by Costa and Kallick in 1993 that it is worth quoting them:

A critical friend can be defined as a trusted person who asks provocative questions, provides data to be examined through another lens, and offers critiques of a person's work as a friend. A critical friend takes the time to fully understand the context of the work presented and the outcomes that the person or group is working toward. The friend is an advocate for the success of that work

This definition gives us a good indication of what makes a good critical friend and, from the huge, diverse literature on this subject, we can extend this to identify the three attributes seen as critical for a strategy counsellor:

  • Market understanding. A strategy counsellor must have sufficient understanding of how the market works to enable effective communication and retain the leader's confidence. Importantly, however, a counsellor's main role is rarely to bring new knowledge of the particular disease area in which the leader and her team are usually already experts. More often, a good counsellor reframes existing knowledge.
  • Strategy knowledge. A strategy counsellor must have a deep understanding of what strategy is and how it is made and executed. In fact, this is typically the most important asset the counsellor brings to the relationship. An exceptional grasp of strategy process is what enables the counsellor to challenge and provide the essential fresh perspective.
  • Counselling skills. These are essential to make use of the counsellor's market understanding and strategy knowledge. A counsellor must be able to listen reflectively, evaluate objectively and criticise constructively. These abilities allow the counsellor to facilitate the leader's own thinking rather than impose the counsellor's own.

Paradoxically, these attributes are rarely found in one individual. They seem to be psychologically embedded qualities and the extrovert personality type who, for example, has made a career as an executive or consultant is often not a reflective listener. They may instead tend towards selling their own view of the situation. Equally, the cerebral geek who has deep market understanding may lack the ability to robustly challenge a senior executive. This paradox of essential attributes that are, in part, mutually exclusive, is what makes counselling difficult and counsellors different from most consultants.

How does it work?
In addition to the specific knowledge, skills and attributes required of a strategy counsellor, my observations of how strategy counselling works in life science companies have also revealed the key stages of the process. These may or may not be specific to our complex, regulated industry (my research only covers life sciences) but they do seem to be common to all of the pharma, medtech and biotech cases I observed. Effective strategy counselling for life science companies follows a three stage process: understanding, challenging and facilitation.

A strategy counsellor must have deep knowledge of his plans

The fundamental, foundation stage of strategy counselling is one of deep understanding of the context. While this seems obvious, it is more complex than it first appears. Firstly, it involves understanding three entities: the market, the firm and the individual. Secondly, it involves not simply making sense of the explicit, hard information about each of these three but also the implicit, soft information that is often deliberately concealed. It is quite striking how little of the real picture is provided by the management data we usually rely on. Sales data hides local variation; competitor information is 'framed' by artificial and misleading structure; and the issues expressed at first be a leader are rarely those that truly concern her. In practice, strategy counselling begins with a large amount of reading, questioning and listening, divided equally between obvious, salient issues and their submerged, underlying drivers. And that interrogation of the information has no defined end point; rather, it merges into the challenging stage.

As one leader described it, challenging is walking the tightrope between pushing hard enough to make progress and pushing so hard as to undermine confidence. Many leaders unconsciously undermine the counselling process in two ways. Firstly, they are apt to use counsellors to validate their existing views; secondly, they frequently want to 'win the argument' rather than learn from the challenge. These are natural human tendencies and a good counsellor overcomes them by asking gently provocative questions, framing new perspectives on old problems and using critical thinking skills to flush out and challenge the leader's implicit working assumptions. All of this requires the counsellor to think deeply, critically and objectively beyond the leader's current thinking. Given that the leader is almost always intelligent, well-educated and knowledgeable, this is usually difficult and sometimes impossible.

The cost of failure is high for today's life science leaders

Understanding and challenging are, for the most part, analytical processes in that they break down the situation into its component parts. The final stage of strategy counselling is the opposite; it involves synthesising new ideas and answers that are better than the existing ones. It is this stage that highlights most clearly how counsellors differ from consultants. Consultants are usually tasked with finding an answer to a specific business problem whereas strategy counselling involves facilitating the leader to develop his own answers by identifying, evaluating and selecting options. This is easily and often confused with buying-in to the consultant-supplied answer, but it differs in three important respects. Firstly, counselling uses different source material (the leader's thinking). Secondly, it uses different methods (facilitation rather than strategy creation). Finally, strategy counselling has a wider remit. It is not simply about the business problem, it is also about the person that is the leader. Successful strategy counselling leaves a leader more capable and less in need of support. It also addresses the personal and inter-personal issues that may lie beneath the business problem.

Getting the most from strategy counselling
Strategy counselling is an expensive process, less in direct cost, but more in the time, energy and emotion that it demands. Many leaders who consider strategy counselling are deterred by this; but those that have had successful, enjoyable experiences suggest four steps to getting the most from it.

  1. Counselling when necessary. As one of our research respondents put it, counselling and consultancy are different tools for different jobs. Well defined problems, in which the leader is experienced and that are dominated by explicit business issues, are best addressed by consultancy processes. Confusing, messy problems with which the leader feels less comfortable and that involve implicit or poorly understood issues, are usually more effectively addressed by counselling.
  2. Select carefully. The attributes of a good strategy counsellor, described above, are self evident. Yet many leaders choose counsellors poorly. This seems to be because they mis-prioritise the necessary attributes, placing heavy emphasis on market knowledge (which the leader has already) and less emphasis on strategy knowledge (which the leader may not understand well himself). Or they may be influenced by affability and personal charm, rather than selecting for critical thinking and challenging skills. A counsellor should be chosen to complement the leader, not compliment him! 
  3. Enable the process. For the majority of her time, it is appropriate for a leader to be task oriented; focussed on getting the optimal output for the minimum input in the shortest possible time. Like any true learning experience, counselling doesn't seem to work like that. Leaders report that they need to allow time and energy and, as one said thoughtfully “to give my mind time to breathe”. To get the most out of strategy counselling, leaders should prioritise the process over the task.
  4. Follow through. Almost all strategy counselling programmes are intended to address a significant perceived challenge. But the process will often reveal other issues and offer many distractions. In the most effective strategy counselling partnerships, the leader and the counsellor focus, as the project draws to a conclusion, on actionable plans that address the original issue. Other issues may be addressed separately, but effective counselling never loses sight of the goal.

To conclude, our rapidly changing life science industry places great demands on our leaders and the costs of failure, both corporate and personal, are high. When the strategy challenge is messy, unfamiliar and involves implicit and personal issues, strategy counselling is often more appropriate than traditional consultancy. But choose your counsellor well, enable the process of personal growth and follow through. In the words of one senior industry leader, “to get to the place we like to be, we have to talk about the things we don't like”.

Article by
Professor Brian D Smith

is a world-recognised authority on the evolution of the life sciences sector. He welcomes comments at

17th April 2015

From: Research, Sales



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