Case study

Create a culture to capitalise on a strong product pipeline

"I believe that culture can be a unique competitive advantage. How we do things is at the heart of what we achieve. It’s a culmination of a hundred thousand small choices that create a culture. As an organisation, you’re going to have a culture whether you like it or not. So, you have to ask yourself the question are you going to help shape it into something productive, fun and successful – or do you just let it be whatever it’s going to be. I believe that great cultures are intentional. You have to make it a point of focus in your values, vision, mission and, importantly, in your strategy.”
Chief Executive, Global Pharmaceutical

The challenge

Our client is a leading global pharmaceutical company with over 120,000 employees around the world.

The industry’s patent laws mean that companies have a limited time frame in which to capitalise on the investment they have made on their drugs before these go off patent and competitors can reproduce them as generics.

The ability to quickly and effectively launch new drugs and grow market share as well as the agility to rapidly course correct where necessary are therefore critical success factors.

We started working with our client just after they had launched two new potential blockbusters – that is, drugs with the potential to grow from 10% to 70% of global revenue during the lifetime of the patent.

Ensuring that the organisation was capable of capitalising on this potential growth was the key business priority but with so many drugs in the portfolio, the focus was somewhat diluted.

The recently arrived Chief Executive was clear that the company’s culture would have a big impact on its ability to turn these two drugs into blockbusters.

Our mission was clear: to help the client create a winning culture that would enable them to capitalise on their strong product pipeline over the next 10 years.

The approach

Phase 1: Design


Walking the Talk conducted a full culture diagnostic, engaging 500 people in 50 focus groups across 17 countries in 9 languages.

Our qualitative Discover methodology invited them to describe unprompted how they are encouraged to behave and think. We probed these findings through interviews with senior stakeholders and field-based associates in small and emerging markets.

This research provided a rich picture of both what the culture was and why it was that way. We revealed the culture’s strengths and its weaknesses, as well as providing a rigorous assessment of root causes, that is, the collective beliefs influencing behaviour throughout the business.

Culture Blueprint

Working with the Executive Team, Walking the Talk identified the priority behavioural focus areas, with a clear brief to focus on what could improve performance within a year as well as set the business up for long-term success. It was immediately clear what those focus areas should be, given the business challenge of quick and effective product launches.

“The two big pieces missing [from our culture] were a strong external orientation and simplification. External orientation is imperative because we need to understand the context for our decisions and actions and get foresight into trends. We need to understand the dynamics of our markets. In practice, this means three things. The first is that our headquarters has to serve the needs of our country operations, and not the other way around. Local markets have different rules, regulations and contexts, and we need to empower our country-based associates to respond to these. Second, we need to focus on competitor activity and market share. And third, we need to move to an outside-in approach. This means moving from a product/science focus to a patient/ physician focus.”
Chief Executive, Global Pharmaceutical

Our qualitative research methodology allowed us to explore deeply the challenges of complexity the organisation faced and uncover that they were not limited to bureaucratic processes but were derived from a deep-rooted perfectionism and fear of failure.

The combination of these two factors meant that people were reluctant to prioritise, to take calculated risks or to make smart choices about when a solution was fit for purpose and good enough.

Based on a deep understanding of what was driving the current culture and a clear articulation of the desired behaviours, we were able to produce a simple Culture Blueprint. This short document translated the culture aspiration into tangible behaviours so that employees could understand precisely what was required of them.

Culture planning

Identifying the priorities was the easy part: working out how to shift such deep-seated beliefs and ingrained patterns of behaviour was where the hard work really started.

The executive team tasked a cross-functional group of business leaders and functional specialists to identify the symbolic changes and the harder, big ticket initiatives that would create a dramatic shift in the culture.

The team role modelled the culture goals in the way it carried out this task, for example reviewing external best practice, engaging representatives from countries and the field force and ruthlessly prioritising according to the effort-impact equation.

Over 50 potential ideas were culled into 5 initiatives, planned and executed in an agile manner and, wherever possible, integrated into existing programs or business as usual activities.

“You can’t flick a switch on culture. So, we spent a lot of time on what are the individual behaviours we wanted to shift and breaking it down to really simple language.”
Global Head of HR, Global Pharmaceutical

Phase 2: Leading Culture

Based on our 30 years’ experience of culture transformation, we know that culture change needs to be led from the top. Leaders need to role model the desired behaviours and encourage and reward their teams for doing the same.

We worked closely with the top 2 levels of leaders in 33 teams across the regions, countries, functions and franchises to build awareness of and commitment to their individual contribution to the culture. We focused on raising self-awareness, shifting individual and group behaviours and symbols, identifying and celebrating role models of the new culture, and identifying the big process changes that needed to occur to ensure the transformation was systemic.

This phase included:

  • 500 individual leaders completing a bespoke upward feedback assessment on the extent to which they were visible role models of the desired behaviours.
  • 1:1 culture advisory sessions to provide practical tips and techniques to role model more effectively and to identify, explore and reframe any limiting beliefs inhibiting behaviour change.
  • Fit for purpose interventions in regular team meetings, for example strengths-based learning from role models within the team and prioritising the key systems and symbols that needed to change to enable the new culture to flourish.
  • Observation of business as usual team meetings to provide real time feedback about how to build the desired behaviours into the regular work of the team and reinforce the point that culture is not what you do on the side; it is how you run your business.

Examples of system and symbols that were changed:

  • The Global Finance Team producing an app to make it easier and quicker for teams to understand market share.
  • Simplifying an expense policy from 37 pages to 7.
  • Abolishing traditional leadership team meetings in favour of team-based field visits to meet with customers, patients and sales reps.
  • Setting up reverse mentoring schemes so that leaders have direct feedback conversations with front-line employees.
  • Simplifying and speeding up the hiring process by reducing the number of people required to interview a candidate.

Skill transfer through capability building

The program was enabled through capability building of the HR/OD and communication communities globally.

From the outset the program was designed in line with our philosophy of teaching others to fish and every one of our consultants was paired with an internal HR/OD professional to deliver the work jointly.

The only exception was the 1:1 sessions with leaders where it was judged more effective for someone external to the company to provide the feedback and advice.

The results

In the year that this work was carried out, the financial performance of the business improved significantly.

External focus and prioritisation became much more important parts of the culture, because the senior leaders were actively role modelling and encouraging these behaviours in their people.

As a result, there was a far clearer focus on the two potential blockbuster drugs and a dramatic uplift in the quality of execution plans. That really paid off – sales of those two drugs increased by 53% and 164% in one year.

“We had a strong year in our business unit, and I believe what contributed to this success is really how we worked to achieve things: our cultural focus to live our values and behaviours, make things simple to have more time to spend on the things that really matter, and keep an externally oriented mindset to bring valuable insights into our strategies.”
Chief Executive, Global Pharmaceutical

220 leaders from 18 teams globally participated in a retest of the upward feedback assessment six months after their original assessment and the individual and team sessions. The results of this retest showed how quickly and extensively behaviours had changed across the business:

  • Scores had improved on 65% of the behaviours, with 100% of leaders improving in at least 1 behaviour.
  • More than half of leaders (56%) had improved on more than 10 behaviours.
  • 53% of leaders were being rated at the level of being a role model in more than 5 behaviours.
  • The lowest scoring behaviour from the firstround assessment, relating to perfectionism and the struggle with the notion of fit for purpose, received the most improved score in the retest.

These dramatic improvements were further reinforced by the comparison of OCI (Human Synergistics’ Organizational Culture Inventory) data from 2015 and 2018. In particular, the scores on Perfectionistic had dropped from above the 95th to the 70th percentile.

Dependence had dropped from the 71st to the 29th percentile and Humanistic Encouraging had increased from the 49th to the 79th percentile. In a period of 18 months, by focusing on two very specific cultural goals, this organisation was able to produce measurable changes in chosen behaviours and to link these to measurable changes in business performance. The speed with which this was achieved can be attributed to the client’s willingness to invest for a clear business benefit and their focus and persistence in leadership messages, as well as to several features of Walking the Talk’s approach:

  • Our focus on behaviour change in the business context. Rather than work with leaders in workshop settings, divorced from their daily reality, our individual and team inventions were anchored very strongly in the business as usual meetings and conversations.
  • The tight link made from the start between the selected behaviours and the business impact these would have, which made the tangible benefits of addressing these behaviours clear to everyone and avoided the need to spend time persuading people why this was a good idea.
  • The design of interventions which directly addressed the root cause diagnostic findings, especially working with leaders individually to identify and reframe limiting beliefs.

The organisation is now on track for another year’s superlative performance. They now have a deep expertise in how to change elements of their culture within a short time frame and so, as new business opportunities and challenges arise, they are able to respond more quickly and effectively to adapt behaviour.

They have also been able to add new dimensions to their cultural goals which support their emerging strategy. Leaders have had personal experience of the benefits culture leadership can have on immediate short-term performance and, as a result, now focus continuously on both the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ of their business.

“When I step back from the day-today and think about how it felt to join Pharma in 2016, compared to what it feels like to work here today, it’s as if it’s a completely different company.”
Chief Executive, Global Pharmaceutical

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