For so many MSLs, their purpose was clear when they were practicing healthcare professionals or in the lab. But then, after moving to ‘the dark side’ of pharma, as their friends often quipped, they started to second guess their purpose. The question, “how do you live your purpose as an MSL and find meaning and joy at work?” may be daunting. If it sounds like too big a question, think of it this way. What is it about your work as an MSL that makes your efforts worthwhile? And how do you keep your noble purpose – to help HCPs save and improve lives, front, and center? And finally, how do you show others your noble intentions to help patients – despite their pre-existing stereotype of you?
I’ve interviewed hundreds of MSLs from around the world to help them find, develop and communicate their purpose. Why? When MSLs connect with and share their purpose, things change. They go home happier, feel more engaged, and know they were more effective at helping HCPs help patients!
When I ask MLSs why they do what they do, three commonalities emerge.
- The first thing that comes to mind is their family—of course. It makes sense that everything we do is to support the people we love. They think their ‘why’ is their family. But I like to push people to think deeper. After all, we could support our families at any job—so why are you in pharma as an MSL? When I persuade them to think about why they chose this role and keep choosing it, that’s when the conversation gets interesting.
- In nearly every conversation, MSLs either immediately or eventually realize that they love that their work ultimately helps people; the patients we serve. Universally, MSLs have chosen this work or stay in this work because not only do they love science, but they also harbour a deep desire to make a difference by helping to save and improve lives and to do it on a larger scale than they could in private practice.
- The third thing they have in common is feeling like they have lost their connection to their purpose at some point—either due to professional frustrations, reorganizations, bureaucracy, global pandemics, or personal challenges. Fortunately, through my research and years of experience, I’ve come to understand the key to holding onto that meaning day after day.
During our journey together, MSLs also discover something else. They learn that connecting with your organization’s purpose isn’t enough. Most pharma companies now have a mission statement that reads something like, “Everything we do is to improve patients’ lives.” That’s great—but if you work in pharma, it’s important to move beyond that general statement to find something more personal.
It is important to connect with why improving patient lives matters to you. Where does your desire to help others come from? Why is it so meaningful to you specifically? In his book Drive, Daniel Pink describes an organization’s purpose as the ‘big P’ and the individual’s purpose as the ‘little p.’¹ He says that often organizations will splatter their purpose all over their website and marketing materials but until the organization helps each individual connect their own life story with the organization’s purpose, it will fall flat.
The magic becomes even more game-changing when you share what drives you—your little p—with others. Sharing your purpose lowers walls and builds connections because then the HCPs and colleagues you want to help understand what drives the work you do. People engage with those they trust, admire and believe care for them and the patients you serve together. In Simon Sinek’s ground-breaking TED Talk (the third-most viewed talk of all time) and his book “Start with Why”, Simon says that the best communicators in the world begin by sharing not what they do, but why they do it.³
For those of us in pharma, I believe we need to push that idea one step further. Because of the industry’s negative reputation, we are operating under a trust deficit. We walk into every conversation with outside stakeholders knowing that we need to build trust—and quickly. That means it’s not enough for us to say that everything we do is to improve patient outcomes. We need to put some proof behind our words. We must explain why patients are so important to us and then, and—most importantly—we must act upon what we say. Our noble purpose must guide everything you think, say, and do. And the “do” is the most important piece.
When each individual connects with their purpose, a winning culture is created. In his 2022 book Moonshot, Pfizer CEO Dr. Albert Bourla explains that creating a purpose-driven culture was the single most important factor to developing the COVID vaccine in an unprecedented and world-saving nine-month window.²
For many, understanding that purpose is a powerful revelation. And what I’ve found is that when entire teams connect—or reconnect—with the meaning that comes from serving patients, a transformation occurs! They feel brighter, they have better access and engagement with HCPs, the culture is enriched, and siloes fall. Why? Because they are all connected and united around such a meaningful mission. They are on the same team – the patients’ team.
It’s your choice to connect to your purpose – or not. It’s also your choice to act on it – or not.
We should never forget that each of us either is or will be a patient or caregiver ourselves. And when the time comes, don’t you hope that the people who are working on your treatment are dedicated to their purpose – to help save and improve lives.
So how will you live your purpose? In some ways, the key is so simple. However, it can be tough to implement it—and stick to it.
Here it is: To maintain a sense of purpose in your work, you must put in the effort. That’s it. There’s no shortcut solution! Just like any other professional goal, staying connected to your purpose requires continual effort. But the returns in happiness, satisfaction, and effectiveness make it more than worth the effort.
What do you need to do each day to put your purpose front and centre—to take your Vitamin P?
Maybe you can start by putting a picture of a patient on your screen. In Moonshot, Dr. Bourla says that he asked each member of his executive team to submit a picture of the patient who inspires them. Then, he had the photos mounted on the wall of their board room and removed the table from the room, placing the chairs in a formation that he calls ‘The Purpose Circle.’ They have a constant reminder of their ‘why’ – the patients they serve.
What could you do to create a ‘purpose circle’ of your own? Instead of a circle of chairs, it might be something else that is meaningful to you and your team. Maybe your colleagues will take turns sharing a patient story at the beginning of each meeting. Maybe you start sharing a short version of your ‘why story’ with your collaborators. Maybe you decide to volunteer for a patient association event.
Living your purpose might also mean improving your skills and expertise so you are better equipped to help the HCPs help patients. Perhaps you will take a course to upskill or perhaps you take the initiative to redesign a process that is inefficient. Maybe you will simply choose to assume the best intent and practice forgiveness, tolerance, and kindness with your peers and collaborators more often.
Think: what is the one most important thing you need to do in the next six months to make the biggest difference in your connection to your purpose?
The way I think about it, we are all little pieces of a big puzzle. When you put us all together, that’s when the big picture comes clear—an image of health and well-being for all. What a blessing to be a piece in that puzzle! We should strive to never forget it!
- Pink, Daniel. Drive (2009)
- Bourla, Albert. Moonshot (2022)
- Sinek, Simon. Start with Why (2009)
Jill Donahue, MadEd, HBa
Author of 2 books, popular speaker and program creator, Jill Donahue helps MSLs build teamwork, engagement, and communication skills, all with the common denominator of purpose. She’ll know she has been successful when MSLs feel proud of what they do and confident that they can make a difference for themselves, their organizations, and most importantly…patients.
Jill is living her purpose by helping MSLs live theirs through The Power of Purpose.
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