As an experienced hiring director of MSLs with a solid commitment to MSL development that aims for excellence and effectiveness, I have been asked on many occasions how one can get into a first MSL role and once there, how they can be promoted to the next MSL level. Getting into a new MSL position may feel like trying to join a secret society, however the only secret you need to know is that MSLs must have a long list of competencies and this means striving to be the “total package” in the hiring process. Additionally, the question of promotion often comes up early in an MSL’s career, thinking that it’s easy to jump ahead rapidly on the MSL career ladder. MSLs are generally high achievers who actively seek out professional development. They are not content with the status quo. So how does one become the “total package”? Seek first to understand the broad array of MSL competencies needed!
It’s useful to consider that MSLs often make Medical Affairs their career focus, spanning many years and even decades, reaching for higher MSL roles either on a scientific ladder or moving to a managerial ladder. The MSL career path can and should extend across years of honing key skills and capabilities that not only bring a sense of accomplishment to the MSL but also make them indispensable within organizations. I truly believe all MSLs are leaders, whether they lead people or projects. First and foremost, they must lead themselves, and by this I mean “pave your own path” toward success and by defining success for themselves based upon MSL capabilities that deliver value. Many MSL capabilities are hard or even impossible to train and therefore, must be integral in the fabric of an MSL candidate from the beginning of their MSL career path. Aspiring MSLs should seek first to understand the complex and broad capabilities required of an MSL. Those in MSL roles need self-awareness and feedback from managers and peers to provide honest gauging of current capabilities to guide further development or risk stagnating their career path.
After three decades in pharmaceutical industry comprising FDA, industry regulatory and clinical development roles plus nearly 20 years in Medical Affairs, I culled sufficient information to devise an MSL Competency Index that has been a very useful guide when I need to hire MSLs and evaluate whether someone new to an MSL role truly has the total spectrum of capabilities to be in the role. The MSL competency index has also served as a resource for MSL development plans, considering how to evolve MSL capabilities and when an MSL is ready to move to a higher MSL level. It’s vital to not only understand the various capabilities an MSL needs to have, but also to define the MSL levels at your company in way that distinguishes function with capabilities from one level to another and is defensible to leadership and HR when making promotion recommendations. I have been using my MSL Competency Index as a resource for the past 5 years. Recently I became aware of other capability continuum lists used by MSL leaders and MSL competency research from the MSL Society Global survey conducted in 2015. It is interesting to note that everyone who has attempted to define a comprehensive listing of MSL capabilities for success has significant overlap in what we consider most vital to the MSL role. This is also confirmatory evidence as we all sought to answer a similar question: What skills and capabilities must an MSL have in order to be successful in the role?
The 2015 MSL Society Global survey on Competencies that Contribute Most to Success defined 14 competency areas. I compared this with my MSL Competency Index, examining overlap areas across the competency areas in Table 1. I encourage reading the full survey report on the MSL Society website for more detailed information.
Table 1: Comparison of MSL Competency Areas: 2015 MSL Society Survey and MSL Competency Index (Hyder)
*Fits in more than one Competency Area Overlap
Based on the analysis of competency area overlaps, we see that MSLs need to bring a lot to their respective roles and organizations! In my view, an MSL needs to be the “total package”. The skill set of an MSL is quite broad. Most career paths will focus on a smaller set of capabilities one needs to be successful, however the list of MSL capabilities is quite diverse and I find that companies desire increasing required competencies for MSLs! It is a competitive market. Everything we do as MSL leaders to identify MSL candidates with broad competencies during the hiring process will strengthen our teams from the beginning of team formation. As we continue to polish MSL skills and enhance these competencies through continued development, there are many areas where we can invest in training. Not all competencies are equally weighted from my perspective. Some areas worthy of prioritization are strategic thinking, presentation skills and influencing / persuasion. All competencies are vital to the role, however with such list of wants and needs for MSLs to fulfill, it’s important to focus on competencies that deliver immediate value. Competency areas that are more challenging to train include: creativity and innovation, emotional intelligence, self-motivation and decision making. These areas should be prioritized in the hiring process to identify in potential MSL candidates, alongside other key attributes leaders believe are critical to MSL function.
Organizations have many ways of labeling MSL levels such as MSL, Senior MSL and Executive MSL or MSL 1, MSL 2 and MSL 3. The 2019 MSL Society Salary Survey summarizes percentage of MSLs at various levels and demographics in Table 2. I prefer descriptive level titles, however the actual title is less important than the definition of the role itself. Job descriptions should be developed for each MSL level, delineating the added responsibilities and expectations. I use the MSL Competency Index to guide writing MSL job descriptions, again emphasizing key areas that build upon each scientific ladder MSL level. If one is to categorize MSL capabilities, the MSL Competency Index yields core area groupings such as Scientific Expertise, Collaborative Partnerships, Business Acumen and Interpersonal Skills. Within each of these areas, multiple MSL core capabilities are defined and then stratified across the MSL levels. Stay tuned….if you want to delve deeper into the MSL Competency Index and core MSL capabilities that will allow you to create a roadmap for MSL hiring, development and promotion, this topic will be covered in subsequent articles in The MSL Journal and a workshop at the Annual MSL Society Meeting in Las Vegas 2020!
Table 2: 2019 MSL Salary Survey – MSL Position Levels
MSLs often believe they are ready for promotion before their leadership has determined it’s time to move them to the next level, and it’s imperative that conversations about development are done routinely to help manage expectations. There may be a totally divergent understanding of what the next MSL level entails from a responsibility standpoint and the company may not have considered what the levels above the initial MSL role should be. It is ideal to begin with the development of staff in mind, knowing that much effort and investment in hiring top talent has gone into bringing an MSL onto a team. That said, there needs to be a defined path for MSL development that both leadership and MSLs can refer to as performance is continuously evaluated.
Common pitfalls in this process include:
- Only one MSL level; no other levels exist or have been defined
- MSL job description is not detailed; levels above MSL are not defined in any job description
- MSL capabilities are not understood or defined within organization
- Performance management is inconsistent; not done on routine intervals such as mid year / end of year
- MSLs have goals they are accountable for, but no development plan is laid out
- MSL and leadership have divergent views about what the next MSL level represents
- Time in service as an MSL is how promotions are viewed by organization
- A major accomplishment means a promotion is due rather than looking at MSL consistent excellence in performance over time
Any of these situations creates a major dilemma in navigating the steps toward MSL evaluation and promotion; some are easier to rectify than others.
Steps that allow you to move ahead and overcome these obstacles include:
- Build a detailed listing of MSL capabilities or competencies; or even easier, ask an MSL leader colleague to share theirs with you!
- Define at least 2 or more MSL levels with appropriate titles and job descriptions
- Assure MSLs not only have clear goals and metrics, but also have accountability for an individual development plan that assesses 2-3 key competencies they are working on to develop that year
- Have open discussions with the MSL team about what MSL levels look like, how expectations and responsibilities increase at higher levels, how MSL career paths progress over time
- Share the MSL capabilities with MSL team, discuss what excellent looks like and how consistent performance is necessary to support and defend promotions
- Assure MSL performance reviews are completed at mid-year and end of year with formal recommendations for development
- Attend the MSL Society 2020 Annual Conference workshop on MSL Competency Index!
Promoting MSLs to the next level is gratifying as an MSL leader; your efforts to develop MSL capabilities in your team that lead them forward in their chosen career is a leadership legacy with personal impact. Next time an MSL asks if they can be promoted, having developed your key MSL capabilities, defined MSL titles and job descriptions, and determined parameters for promotion on your team, you will be well equipped to handle performance evaluation discussions using clear, objective criteria and can point to MSL needs that will directly shape development plans with clear action steps and timelines for accountability. MSLs need to know what their development roadmap is and feel confident that they are progressing toward a well-deserved promotion. MSL team leaders will be better equipped to defend promotions to upper leadership and HR when the time comes! MSLs who have clear development plans and believe their leadership is investing in their development are much more likely to remain on the MSL team rather than scouting for their next MSL gig. Staff retention can be challenging, particularly in a competitive environment where experienced MSLs are highly sought for open positions, however a clear development path starting with an MSL Competency Index tool will help both leaders and MSLs navigate a robust and rewarding MSL experience. The prize for all this effort is retaining your MSL top talent and growing them for your MSL team, not someone else’s!