As the pandemic drags on, many of us have chosen to move on. Whether out of choice or out of necessity, we’ve taken on new opportunities and moved our MSL careers forward despite the limitations of being virtual. Engaging with health care providers (HCPs) is the “bread and butter” of the MSL, and lots of great advice has been shared on how to excel at this in a virtual environment. This article takes a look at the less often addressed, but very important, topic of working with internal stakeholders in a digital setting.
I come to this topic from experience, positive and negative. I landed a great opportunity in February 2020 to lead a high-performing team of MSLs. I couldn’t wait to get out in the field and meet everyone, and then came March 2020, and everything face-to-face came to a halt. Before the pandemic, I took field rides, dinners at conferences, and bumping into people in the home office hallway for granted. Through live interactions, I naturally developed rapport and relationships without too much extra thought, and then I leaned on those for trust when conducting business. When work gets stressful and tensions rise, trust is essential to success. Therefore, even when you only ever meet with someone through a monitor, it is crucial to building relationships that foster trust.
Who are your internal stakeholders?
Stakeholders are anyone in your company you interact with on a regular basis to get your job done. This should be a 360-degree view. Your manager, your cross-functional field partners, and your MSL teammates are definitely on this list. Depending on the size of your organization and your role, you may also benefit from developing relationships with the field trainers, the strategy team, even (perhaps especially) the departmental administrators. For an MSL to be successful, each of these partners has a role.
From an MSL-manager perspective, your MSLs are your most important stakeholders. They are out there every day getting the true engagement and insight-gathering work done. You need to trust them to do their best, and they need to trust that you have their best intentions in mind.
Building Relationships Through a Screen
Building virtual relationships isn’t necessarily hard, but it takes effort. Start by setting up one-on-one time. Make it through video if possible so you can see their body language. Do not make it all about business. Find out what else matters to them? Ask them about their motivations and their biggest challenges. The more you know about what makes the person “tick,” the more likely you are to build foundational trust. On the flip side, it’s okay to be vulnerable. Share your motivations and your challenges. Don’t be afraid to share personal success and celebrate with each other.
These types of conversations are made easier when you have a hint of the personality type you are working with. Learn a personality profiling system (e.g. Colors, DISC, etc.) and apply your knowledge to these interactions. Just like a good MSL-Key Opinion Leader (KOL) interaction, flex into your stakeholder’s personality. When the conversation concludes, jot down some notes. Again, just as you would with a KOL interaction, it is really useful to be able to go back to them for the next time you engage with that stakeholder and keep building on your connection.
Going Beyond One-on-One Meetings
One-on-one and KOL meetings are typically interesting and pretty easy to stay engaged with, but what about those endless internal meetings? Internal people can tell if you are paying attention, and your attention and participation contribute to the continued success of your relationship; however, sitting behind a screen presents a real challenge in trying to stay engaged.
To start, ruthless meeting prioritization is key. Make sure your attendance is really necessary, the topic is directly relevant to you, and you are important for the decisions being made. If none of these things are true, look for a meeting summary or a quick debrief from a colleague. These may get you what you need to know and save you an hour of time that can be spent productively elsewhere.
When your attendance is important, you need to stay engaged. Force yourself to take notes and follow along. Volunteer to play an active role such as providing a meeting summary or leading a breakout. Consider fidget toys to keep your hands busy, and place your phone and other distractions far out of reach.
Did Video Kill the Phone Call?
For MSL teams the pandemic has vastly increased the prevalence of the video call. Remote communication has always been an MSL staple; conference calls were the easiest option for regular engagements with geographically remote internal stakeholders who are often in cabs and at airports. However, with the rise of completely virtual work, video calls have become standard practice. There are distinct advantages to the video call. It is preferable to be able to see your stakeholders at least some of the time, but is it always necessary? When on video, there is added pressure to be “camera-ready” and it may be hard not to be distracted by the video of yourself. In addition, you may inadvertently miss nuances and intonation of what is being said in a video call because it is visual by nature. We should all consider mixing video and phone from time to time to relieve that pressure and shift our focus.
The Future of Internal Virtual Interactions
Now that vaccines are more widely available, more and more in-person interactions will be taking place, but virtual internal interactions and relationships are here to stay. We can all get a lot done virtually while limiting the impact of travel on our work-life balance and the environment. Companies can source top talent from anywhere in the world if they are willing to work with them virtually. Virtual internal stakeholder interactions, relationships, and trust-building will continue to be imported into the future.
As MSLs we have always done at least some business virtually, but it will continue to be a bigger part of our worlds than it was pre-pandemic both in terms of how it is applied (e.g. the increased demand to be on video) and its prevalence (think about how much cost savings there is with replacing live training with virtual). Despite the challenges, virtual interactions with internal stakeholders can be very fruitful, and with intentional tactics, MSLs and MSL leaders can build and maintain virtual internal relationships and fuel success into the future.
Tips for Prospective MSLs in the Entirely Virtual MSL Interview
Over the pandemic, I have interviewed dozens of prospective-MSLs exclusively through a screen. Those that have quickly established rapport and started to build a relationship have made the best impressions. Just like the intentional engagement necessary during one-on-ones with your internal stakeholders, a virtual interview requires a prospective MSL to be intentionally friendly and engaging. Be interested in your interviewer and ask after their day or their weekend. Better yet, try to learn something about your interviewer that you can inquire about, and bonus points if it’s something you have in common. Don’t let the interview go straight to the business if you can help it. Start building a relationship right off the bat. Furthermore, when it is your turn to ask questions, this is another chance to start a relationship. Ask your interviewer about their motivations and challenges. Not only does this demonstrate your desire to connect with your interviewer on a deeper level, but the answers may tell you a lot about the company culture.
Nicole Gellings Lowe, PhD
Nicole Lowe, PhD., is the Women’s Cancer MSL West Regional Director at AstraZeneca.
Nicole received her Ph.D. in Cell and Molecular Biology from the University of California, San Diego, and San Diego State University. After completing postdoctoral research, she spent the first several years of her career in increasing roles of responsibility for medical advertising agencies, first as a medical writer, and eventually overseeing a team that conducted national and international speaker programs and advisory boards. Before joining AstraZeneca in 2020, Nicole worked for Sandoz in key medical affairs positions including medical science liaison (MSL), MSL director, and medical director. She is regularly recognized for her leadership, cross-functional collaboration, and innovation with her approach to health care provider engagement.