As part of my series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Robert Spurr who was appointed President at Salix Pharmaceuticals in June 2020 after serving as Senior Vice President, Market Access and Commercial Operations since joining the company in August 2018. Bob joined Bausch Health from Novartis’ U.S. Oncology business, where he served as Vice President, Patient Solutions and Access. He began his career at Sandoz, serving in several sales and managed markets roles over a 10-year span, before moving to Aventis. He later joined Ortho-McNeil as Vice President of Sales and Marketing for its institutional franchise. He also held sales and marketing executive leadership positions at Lantheus Medical Imaging and Repligen Corporation.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
Working in the health care industry has allowed me to devote my career to serving others.
Years ago, I held several sales and managed market roles over a 10-year span at Novartis before moving to Aventis and later joining Ortho-McNeil as Vice President of Sales and Marketing for its institutional franchise. I’ve also held executive leadership positions in sales and marketing at both Lantheus Medical Imaging and Repligen Corporation, respectively. In 2012, my career took me back to Novartis’ U.S. oncology business, where I served as Vice President, Patient Solutions and Access for nearly six years and then went on to serve as Senior Vice President, Market Access and Commercial Operations of Salix’s parent company Bausch Health.
I was appointed President of Salix, one of the largest specialty pharmaceutical companies in the world committed to the prevention and treatment of gastrointestinal diseases in June 2020, while our employees were working remotely and in the in midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Our top priority is the health and safety of our employees, so with safety measures in place, we could then ensure continued support for patient care, healthcare professionals and access to Salix’s treatments. Delivering against our purpose of improving patients’ lives has truly been one of the most challenging and fulfilling experiences of my career.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
I believe that being an active listener is the most vital role a leader can play during challenging times. An organization is nothing more than the sum of its parts, it is entirely made up by the people who work there and other key stakeholders, which includes patients and health care professionals alike. Listening to the needs of these key stakeholders, and not just listening, but absorbing these conversations and insights when making crucial decisions, enables leaders to create a company, that works in the best interest of those who serve it.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate, and engage their team?
While it may sound cliché, I feel strongly that communication is key to all of the above: boosting morale, inspiring and engaging team members. This is especially true in the socially distanced world we are currently living in. Having been appointed to my role as president in the middle of a pandemic, unfortunately that meant I couldn’t meet everyone in-person. Because of this, one emphasis for me has been to leverage virtual platforms to engage in face-to-face communication with as many people at the organization as possible. When leaders make an effort to communicate and engage, especially during uncertain and stressful times, I think there is an opportunity for a greater level of connectedness and transparency. By increasing and driving effective communication, we can ensure an engaged employee based. That engagement delivers a more unified team aligned on a common mission.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
Leaders make plans to account for future uncertainties. We do this by remaining optimistic while basing decisions on the facts we have at hand. We focus on a plan that navigates through the current situation and anticipates a future state on the other side of these challenging moments.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
The number one thing that can guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times, is the same one that guides us and pushes us toward constant improvement during “normal” times — our mission. While a mission is unique to each company, for Salix, this means improving patients’ lives. Our mission has helped keep me motivated each day. Knowing that our work makes an impact to millions of patients and their families ensures that our mission remains at the forefront of Salix’s work.
What are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
Listen to understand
When seeking to learn what our employees and customers are facing and how it impacts our business objectives, I find that listening to understand — meaning listening for context, significance and feelings, and showing empathy and compassion — allows me to strategically address what our employees and customers are working against and develop effective plans for achievement. It’s important to take the time as a leader to host question and answer sessions at company meetings or conduct listening tours. This practice is not only an extremely valuable tool to identify dynamic challenges, it is also an investment in employees who have dedicated their time and careers in the company.
Focus on the vital decisions
Leaders are often faced with an endless list of challenging decisions to be made. Instead of allowing this list to be all-consuming and to help take the paralysis out of decision making, I find it most efficient establish priorities. Understanding company obstacles and how they align to this is critical. In challenging situations, this ability and predisposition to prioritize important matters is nothing short of necessary to keep a business running as efficiently and effectively as possible.
Be a learning organization
This past year, organizations were forced to pause and reflect on their practices in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. In more ways than one, Salix has spent the better half of the year learning how we can continually improve to meet the evolving needs and demands of those we serve. At the start of the pandemic in March 2020, those in our corporate offices began working from home and hundreds of our sales representative were quickly tasked with redefining the scope of their jobs. Unable to enter health care providers offices, we needed to learn new ways to communicate with our health care professionals, and Salix as an organization needed to relearn and rediscover the best practices to provide its employees with the tools and resources that would enable us to deliver on our mission to improve patients’ lives.
Companies and leaders must continuously absorb information from outside sources through listening and learning and use the information to reflect on their organization from within and embrace changes in business practices to harbor positive business growth.
Transparency is one of the most important qualities that leaders need to instill through example. Every team member at every level has a role to play and a stake in the company. Transparency throughout the company enables people to not only better understand the importance of their individual work but empowers them to continually improve. Specifically, in times of uncertainty, this is imperative to keep employees engaged and motivated. For example, at the onset of the pandemic transparency around our action plan to keep everyone safe and healthy was more important than ever in reminding our employees that their wellbeing is of the utmost importance.
Embedded within the four pillars above, is accountability. At the end of the day, we are running a business, and everyone is accountable for results. To me, there is no paradigm in which one person answers to another in authority when it comes to accountably. We all have a shared responsibility to be accountable and need to take individual ownership of our roles and responsibilities. I am held accountable for making vital decisions that impact employees and customers for setting the right example, and for operating with integrity. I hold my employees accountable to those same standards as well as to understanding their local markets and meeting their objectives. Through this balanced approach, I believe, we are able to attain the best results possible in today’s challenging market.