The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted millions of people both personally and professionally in ways most of us would not have imagined two years ago. All of us who are or manage MSLs know that the life of an MSL team has been changed, in some cases dramatically. I interviewed my friend and former colleague, Jean-Francois Fortin, Medical Affairs Lead at Eli Lilly Canada, to find out how he has overcome the challenges of managing a team of MSLs in a virtual environment. We discuss growth and development and what skills MSLs need in order to excel and bring value in their current virtual environment. Jean-Francois speaks openly about the challenges of guiding his team in a world that has been stripped of face-to-face interactions and opportunities to engage and forge the human connections that are so imperative to providing and receiving feedback.
All MSLs require a few basic skills in their day-to-day work. These key elements are scientific acumen, business savvy, communication skills, and identifying and leveraging customer value and arguably have not changed as a result of the pandemic. Several skills, however, have emerged as being necessary for success in a virtual environment. Certainly, there is the need for technical aptitude, or at the very least a willingness to learn. As far as coaching and development go, this skill is relatively straightforward to teach. Indeed, step-by-step instructions and a little bit of practice are sufficient for most of us and a little extra hand-holding can help the more resistant wade through the technological swamplands. And the universe has granted us plenty of opportunities to practice.
The so-called soft skills, like dexterity, resilience, creativity, and adaptability, are not as easily coachable. These have always been an important component of the MSL’s constitution. In COVID times, not only are these the skills that help us get us through the long days of lock-down, they are a requirement if MSLs wish to excel and continue to bring value to their customers. In contrast to mastering a new disease state or treatment, which MSLs are practically hard-wired to do, soft skills are much tougher to learn. Perhaps we should call them out for what they are – tough skills.
Let’s take a deeper dive into why Jean-Francois Fortin says that dexterity, resilience, adaptability, and creativity have been key to maintaining a high-achieving MSL team during the COVID-19 pandemic. Last year, Fortin’s team had to up their flexibility game to accommodate their KOLs’ shifting schedules. As the lines between work and home lives blurred, KOL meetings were pushed into the late evening or weekend hours. While the scheduling pendulum is swinging less wildly these days, flexibility around meeting times continues to be something Fortin’s team needs to be comfortable with. More than ever before, KOLs report being bombarded by virtual event invitations and overwhelmed by meetings and activities. The first impression upon opening an email could make the difference in deciding whether to accept or decline an invitation. Being creative, knowing how to capture their customers’ attention, has helped ensure that the MSLs on Fortin’s team continue to engage their KOLs in tactical programs that further their medical strategy.
The way that MSLs deliver scientific messages has also changed. The advantages of face-to-face meetings are not available to us during remote interactions. Typically, MSLs would guide their customers through a publication using graphs and tables, the visual representations of the data that we are all accustomed to. There would be pauses to observe body language, make eye contact, and adjust accordingly, as MSLs tell the story of the data. The information we glean from a person’s body language is lost in a virtual call. Layer on ZOOM fatigue, replace video calls with good old phone calls, and now MSLs are left out in the lurch without our trusted graphs and figures. If a picture is worth a thousand words, what do you do when words is all you’ve got? Fortin helped his team adapt to the changing environment as they transformed the graphs and figures into an articulate story in order to communicate effectively with their KOLs. He noted that MSLs need more preparation for remote meetings and need to be nimbler on their feet. He has also coached his team on resilience and resourcefulness, particularly as they enter new therapeutic areas. Building KOL relationships from scratch in a virtual world requires these skills. High-resilience teams are able to dig into their resourcefulness and creativity and persevere in the face of cold-calls with, sometimes, nothing but cricket sounds to show for their efforts. But how does a team become flexible, adaptable, creative, and resilient?
As with most skills, one gets better with practice and with consistent coaching and feedback. Typically, Fortin would meet with his MSL team two or three times per year and would conduct field visits with each of his MSLs. But coaching and development are tougher to achieve in a virtual world. He can certainly attend virtual calls, but this is hindered by scheduling as more calls are now ad hoc and more interactions are accomplished via email. Fortin, who joined his team at the cusp of the second wave of the pandemic, has never met his MSLs in person. Despite the constant interconnectedness that today’s technology allows, nothing replaces the human connections that are formed from face-to-face interactions. Those human connections drive empathy, a skill that is integral to our ability to give and receive feedback. Without it, coaching is impaired and incomplete. As a manager, he works harder to help his team develop in a virtual environment to get the same amount of output as he would in a face-to-face world. Says Fortin, “many things we can do virtually, but the human factor will remain a need.”
As we look with hopeful hearts toward a vaccinated future when we can return to in-person interactions with our team members and our customers, we know that on some level, our work as MSLs will never return to what we knew before the pandemic. We will be happy to leave behind the monotony of hours upon hours of virtual meetings. But we should continue to practice those soft – ahem, tough – skills that have helped us succeed despite the limitations and challenges we have experienced in the last year. While adaptability, resilience, dexterity, and creativity are not the typical competencies one would expect on a development plan, I like to think that investing a bit more in these skills is a worthwhile insurance policy, not for the next pandemic, but for the everyday mountains, we climb in our journeys as MSLs and MSL team managers.
Darina Frieder is an experienced Medical Affairs professional and is currently a Medical Science Liaison at UCB Pharma. She also runs her own medical writing business, Science Nerd for Hire. She lives in Toronto, Canada with her husband, 2 kids, and 1 temperamental cat. She is passionate about many things, a few of which are gardening, creating delicious meals for family and friends, and reading as many books as she can.