Are you thinking about getting into pharmaceutical sales? Are you already in pharmaceutical sales and you want to get a new role? Do you want to get into pharmaceutical sales leadership? If you’re any of these people, then this episode is definitely for you. Join Samuel Gbadebo and his guest, Darren Leathers, the Senior District Business Manager for Oncology for Bristol-Myers Squibb, as they go into every aspect of getting into a pharmaceutical sales position. In the first half of this two-part interview, Darren shares the story of how he got from the lowest rung in the industry to the position he is holding now and touches on the qualities that hiring managers look for in potential pharmaceutical sales candidates.
I am excited to bring to you a guest that I know well because he was there when I first started in the pharmaceutical sales industry way back when in 2005. He’s a good friend of mine and a great rep because now he’s an Oncology Manager for Bristol-Myers Squibb. For all of you that are reading that have thought about getting into pharmaceutical sales, or you’re in pharmaceutical sales and you want to get a new role, or you’re in a different industry and you want to get into somewhere within pharma, or maybe if you want to get into leadership within pharma, you’ve got to read this episode. We go into a lot about what hiring managers look for when it comes to potential candidates. Those that have been in the industry for a while and those that have never been in the industry. There’s so much information. We go into every aspect of getting into a pharmaceutical sales position. We broke this episode into two parts. This is part one and I hope you enjoy the episode.
Darren Leathers is the Senior District Business Manager for Oncology for Bristol-Myers Squibb. Darren, why don’t you go ahead and introduce yourself?
I appreciate you having me on and it’s great to be a part of this. I lead a team of ten account managers, managing the Southern California area, specifically San Diego, Orange County, California and Hawaii. Those are nice, sunny and glamorous areas to manage.
It’s a sign of the times that I want to speak to and who knows when anyone’s reading this, but they definitely know what’s going on when they do. We have COVID going on and it’s difficult to get access the way we would normally do in the pharmaceutical world. How are you guys navigating that? What’s going on in the oncology space?
It’s like every other industry. It’s certainly changed the way in which we need to do business and need to adapt to these changes. We are wanting to still have interactions with our customers but unfortunately, we can’t have those interactions at a face-to-face live contact. What we have done as well as many others in the industry, we’re doing remote engagements with our customers to make sure that we continue to talk about our products so we can support them and most importantly, have the products available for their patients. It’s a sign of the times in how we’re going to engage with these customers. We won’t be out of the woods for a while. We probably will get to a hybrid situation where we will be doing live interactions with customers like we’ve done in the past, while still doing some virtual remote type of engagements to still engage with customers.
One question that people have is are there any advantages to what’s going on with the type of access you’re able to get with using the technology more? Is there an upside?
The upside is from a time-management standpoint. It’s certainly easier to manage your schedule and you’re not traveling or things along those lines, and bringing in or having lunches catered in. The downside is having a live connection is much better than doing something virtually or remote. You lose that personal connection. Another negative to it is it’s a different forum for our customers and sometimes they don’t want to participate in it. They don’t have the time and are not making it a priority for them because their lives have changed as well based on the COVID experiences. A lot of the interactions that we thought we could get are not coming as often as we would like because it has changed for everyone else. People are having to deal with technologies and have a little frustration with some of those things. Certainly, it’s not an advantage to do it virtually. It’s more advantageous for us to do them live where we have that option.
Would you say that a new skillset is being developed in your people or a new skillset is going to need to be considered when people are getting into the industry because of this?
No question. A new skillset for our people because no one had to operate in this environment in the past, neither our customers nor our representatives. That has offered them with a greater level of skillset and basically understanding the different technologies that are available with Microsoft Teams and Zoom. It’s understanding the different platforms and navigating through those different platforms on how you’re going to engage a customer and how you’re going to reach out to a customer versus the typical traditional way in which you would.
You’re gaining those particular skillsets. Would this be something necessary for someone coming in to the industry? Maybe not. It depends on when they come in. I don’t see this being the way of the future and I hope it’s not the way of the future. I hope we get back to the traditional ways in which we engage customers. In the short-term, we will probably see the virtual platforms being used much more broadly and as we start to transition into the live settings, you’ll see somewhat of a hybrid and hopefully, we’ll get transition out and get back to the traditional ways in which we see customers which are live interactions.
Let’s take it back to when you started. I imagine when you were five, you weren’t thinking, “I am going to grow up to be the oncology manager at Bristol-Myers Squibb.” What was your childhood dream, what did you take into college and what eventually got you here?
In terms of a childhood dream, I probably was like a lot of other little kids who grew up playing athletics. I thought that one day I could play professional football. As a kid, everyone may have those aspirations, but that wasn’t the reality. People find out that that’s not the reality for most when you’re a kid. In college, I knew I wanted to pursue business. I didn’t know specifically in terms of what type of role that I would be pursuing, but I knew it was going to be business related. When I was in high school, I took advanced business classes and that gave me an idea that business was the path that I was going to be embarking on when I went to college.
I did major in Business Management. I went to the University of Cincinnati for my undergraduate degree and then went to USC for my MBA. I knew the business was in my future. When I left college, I didn’t know what type of role I was going to be pursuing. I think like a lot of college graduates, which was to find a job. Talking to many of my friends, they would always say, “You have an open personality. You’re outgoing. You’d be great at sales.” Quite honestly, I was not pursuing sales right out of college because my perception of sales were the things that you saw on TV, which were the used-car salesman type of personalities. Someone that’s moving, shaking and trying to convince you to do something you don’t want to do.
That wasn’t certainly the type of path that I was looking at. Talking to some recruiters, college counselors and other individuals that were in the professional sales environment, it opened my eyes to the different types of industries that were out there besides what you saw is not being savvy sales or professional sales. People started introducing me to the world of pharmaceuticals and giving me some insights into what that world looked like. My cousin was with a pharmaceutical company and was telling me more about pharmaceuticals. That intrigued me and I wanted to pursue pharmaceuticals. I was all in for pharmaceuticals because it truly was the Cadillac of sales. It was a sales environment that you had to be highly trained, highly skilled, and you were dealing with highly professional people being doctors and smart people. The conversations that you would have with a physician were conversations that could impact a patient’s life.
That could be positive or negative if you don’t provide some of the right information. It was a respected industry and not to mention a lot of the perks that come along with it. Once I understood what that industry entailed, I was all in for pharmaceuticals. Unfortunately, as I started to pursue pharmaceuticals right out of college, I wasn’t getting any hits and I thought that I was going to be able to get in right out of school. I interviewed with a couple of companies. Unfortunately, it was the telltale story of saying, “We are only looking for people with sales experience.” That was traditional back then. You needed to have sales experience. I, unfortunately, took on a job that was not that glamorous type of sales job, but that gave me an opportunity to get that sales experience. I got a job out of school. I was selling with Reynolds and Reynolds. It is a company that manufactured, produced and distributed business forms. Anything that had to do with ink and paper, we sold it. You would sell it to anyone from a small mom and pop shop to a large bank or group.
Was that inside sales?
It was outside sales, which was a pounding on the pavement, canvassing and looking for opportunities, and knocking on doors. It truly was a canvassing sales job. I call it a gritty, not glamorous sales job, because you’re out there hustling and working your butt off. It gave me the grip and the understanding of what sales was about, how to develop that level of grit that work out because a part of the salary was going to start to decline as the commissions incline and eventually, you were trying to get to a full commission-based performance pay. That forced you to get out there and work hard because if you don’t make account calls and sales you don’t eat.
How long were you in that role?
I did that for eighteen months. Fortunately, after that period, my cousin was working with the Johnson & Johnson pharmaceutical company. Some recruiters reached out to her and were trying to get her to sign on with SmithKline Beecham and were interviewed with them. At that time, she wasn’t interested but said, “I know someone that is interested and would be qualified for this.” She passed my name along to a couple of recruiters and within two weeks I was hired. It worked out well. I never looked back from the industry at that point.
Eighteen months was traditional. You got that sales experience, were hitting the pavement and you jumped right into a role and here you are. When you started in pharma, was it what you thought it would be from what you would learn from the outside? Was it a completely different experience?During COVID 19, people in pharma sales are gaining a new skillset to be able to work with different platforms to engage customers remotely. Click To Tweet
It was exactly what I thought it would be in terms of the interactions that you would have with customers, with these highly educated people. It was exactly what I thought when it came to the training, requirements necessary to be prepared to come into this industry, which was a rigorous training program. It certainly met my expectations there. However, it was an easier selling environment than where I came from. That exceeded my expectations and it’s like, “This is a lot different. You’re going to get me a list of customers to call on? You’re going to give me a company car? You’re going to give me an expense account to support customers?” I had none of those things in the prior industry that I was in. It made me appreciate this industry even much more and validated why I want to be in it.
Tell us a little bit about how you were able to navigate from being a representative in the pharma industry to being able to lead people. How did you make that transition?
With any selling role that one gets in, the first thing that they have to do is perform in the role that they’re in and show the ability to perform and succeed in sales. That was what my mission was, which was to be one of the top performers and fortunately, within my first three years within that organization as a sales representative in that territory, two of the three years, I won back-to-back awards. That then catapulted me to be on the radar of someone that knows how to do the job and can do it successfully. That gave me a little bit more street cred or clout to say, “I want to do different things.” Those things, just because you wanted to do them, don’t come to fruition unless you still have someone that’s going to be helping you get to those different roles. That would include your hiring manager or the manager that’s working with you. Also, talking with others that can help or support you to get to those other roles.
I knew eventually, I wanted to be a manager and the path to become a manager at that point was to take on a regional sales trainer type role or a hospital role, and then maybe move into headquarters to get to the management level. After being in the sales representative role for about 3.5 years, I then wanted to move on and pursue those different opportunities. I did not elect to take the traditional path, which was typically going into a hospital role. I was able to fortunately move into the regional trainer recruiter role, which was a great role that prepares someone who wants to become a manager because you’re doing all that the first phase interviews for all the other managers. You’re doing all the regional training that’s necessary to prepare representatives before they go into the centralized training at headquarters.
That prepared me on a variety of ways. In that, you’re working with all the different managers so you get to see their styles and how they operate and function. You’re working directly and closely with the regional VP as well in that office. You get to understand more of that regional dynamic and how decisions are made at the regional level and even from the corporate level because it trickles down from there. It prepared me to the next phase of my career, which was then to move on to a national sales trainer role.
I relocated and moved to Philadelphia and was a national sales trainer and was responsible for all the new hires that came in for the brands that I was training. I did that for about a year and I knew that once I completed that, that was going to set me up for more success and broaden my options to where I wanted to go to become a manager. That’s what led me to move to San Diego. Had I not probably taken that role going into headquarters, my options may have been somewhat limited to the area which I lived in, which was Ohio versus moving to Philadelphia and headquarters. It gave me a greater level of exposure to then raise my hand for opportunities outside of the region that I worked in.
Was that a no-brainer then moving to Philadelphia to get that experience? When you were given the opportunity, did you jump at it?
I jumped at it. It was about the experience to broaden my learning and my network as well. When I was in the regional trainer recruiter role, I then moved to Philadelphia to take on this national sales trainer role. Within two weeks, our then VP had a district manager position that opened up in Cleveland, Ohio, and wanted me to take on that role as a DBM. He called me and I declined. He said, “What do you want to do? Why are you in Philadelphia?” I said, “I’m in Philadelphia because I want to become a manager.” He said, “I’m telling you, there’s a manager role in Cleveland to help you understand where the gap is.” I said, “I’ve already committed to taking on this role.”
I felt it would have been inconsiderate of me to commit to this role and two weeks later, abandoned it. That wouldn’t have been fair to the training department. I knew by going in there that my opportunities would have been greater by gaining that experience. My network would have been greater by gaining that experience. I would be a better manager by taking on that role as a national sales trainer. The skillsets that I picked up in that role, I would not have received in going straight to that manager role. Going into Philadelphia for that year made me a better sales manager, much more prepared when I came out to lead a team in California.
You seem calculated in how you approached your navigation to executive leadership. That’s something that I hear both sides. I hear people that jump at opportunities that come, and then I hear the people that deliberately thought about the next moves they want to make. What do you suggest then to the candidates that they’re told to wait for the decision? They’d get a great interview. The hiring managers said, “You were great, but as far as getting an offer, it’s not decided yet.” They find out the next week or even another week, it’s still not decided and they are also pointing to other companies, but they want to work for your company. What do you suggest they do?
I would say that they remain patient because a lot of these decisions may take two weeks. There are other candidates that they’re looking at as well. Oftentimes, a candidate can do well in an interview and not get the job. It’s because someone else performed a little bit better than them or had greater skillsets that were necessary for that role. It’s not necessarily a reflection of that candidate. I would encourage that candidate to follow up with the hiring manager maybe via email a week later saying, “I haven’t heard from you. This is follow-up and courtesy. I’m wanting to see how the decision process is moving forward.” Certainly, keep in touch with that manager. That’s perfectly appropriate.
If this individual is without a job, I would continue to encourage that person to look for a job and still have their pans in the fire and looking for different opportunities because there’s no guarantee that they certainly would get the job on their number one list. They may have to go to number two company they’re looking at. That doesn’t say down the road that they don’t keep in contact with that hiring manager and say, “When something opens up, I still like to entertain opportunities.” Things along those lines to continue to have that network, but you don’t put all your eggs in one basket. If someone is with another company and they’re satisfied with that company, then they don’t have anything to lose if they’re not offered a job with the company that they’re pursuing.
If that happens with a candidate and you have to delay letting them know if they’re going to continue or if they’re going to get an offer. If they’re checking in with you maybe every week, is that something you receive? Do you see that as more of an annoyance?
I’m going to know within a week after my last phase of interviews if I’m going to hire someone. I don’t string anyone along more than a week or so. A lot of that’s predicated on how many other candidates I need to interview. Typically, when I schedule interviews, I try to schedule them over a couple of day period and then go to another phase and another round of interviews and things on those lines. It doesn’t stretch out beyond probably a week for me. The candidate that doesn’t hear from someone after a couple of weeks and they reached out to that person and that manager hasn’t respond yet, I don’t think there’s great candidate care from that manager.
I will always respond back to someone or our recruiting firm or our acquisition group will respond back to that individual to let them know where they stand. I don’t want someone hanging in the winds there. If they don’t hear back from someone within that organization after a couple of weeks, it’s oftentimes probably a good assumption that they probably are not the top candidate. They probably should be pursuing something else, especially if they reached out and they’re still not hearing things. I hope that that wouldn’t be the case because that’s not good candidate care that no one should have to go through.
What about getting feedback or giving feedback to the candidates that did not get the position? Do you typically give feedback? Is that something that you look to do? I’ve even heard cases where companies don’t even allow some managers to give feedback?
It depends if someone asks for feedback after the interview is over. Oftentimes, we will proactively give it to them. Especially, if I know that they have some major gaps and they’re not ready for this job and want to try to help encourage them to close those gaps. I’ll try to give some feedback. If it’s an internal candidate, it’s always customary to make sure that we give them feedback for their development, because we have other individuals who want to pursue oncology from our different business units that try to come over and they don’t get into the role. It’s a courtesy to give them that feedback. I will do that. If a candidate asks me for feedback that I didn’t hire and reached out to me and said, “What are my gaps? Can you help me with?” I certainly would do that.
Will everybody do that? The answer is no. If someone wants to continue to have that network and wants feedback, I’ll give it to them. There have been occasions where I’ve had candidates and I had a top candidate, another candidate got the job that was also a top candidate. I personally would reach out to those individuals and say, “You didn’t get the job. Here are a couple of reasons why you didn’t, but I found you to have a lot of the talents and attributes that I’m looking for in this job and I’d like to keep in touch.” There was an occasion where a young lady that I interviewed, I didn’t hire her and I kept in touch with her. I told her the reason why and weeks later, an opportunity came open and I was able to bring her on board. It worked out well.
One of the reasons I love talking to you is because you’ve had experience and I’m even learning that you’ve had experience before pharma where you were in the field. You were hitting the pavement and then you got to experience it within pharma and then you got to see it from the position you are now where you’re leading. Talk to me about maybe the top 3 to 5 qualities that you are certain make a good representative.
You have to have that drive and passion to want to get out there, win and succeed. You’re not only succeeding for yourself. Especially if you’re in pharmaceuticals, you’re succeeding for the patients that will receive the medications that you’re promoting. That’s number one. You’ve got to have that drive for success. You’ve got to have a great strong work ethic. It’s a numbers game oftentimes. Are you going to outhustle or are you going to outwork your colleagues out there in the industry? A strong work ethic is important. Integrity is important as well, especially in this pharmaceutical industry. You’re having conversations with highly educated professionals. Some of the information that you could give could have a positive or negative effect if not given appropriately. Integrity and understanding where to say yes and no to the business are important as well.A good pharma sales rep needs to have passion, a strong work ethic, integrity and the aptitude to learn the science behind the products. Click To Tweet
Also, wanting to make sure that you’re out there trying to do the best that you can to increase more patients to get your medications. In the pharmaceutical industry, you have the aptitude to learn and understand the sciences behind what these products entail. A lot of people sometimes don’t like delving into the sciences, biology and things along those lines. Being able to have that aptitude to learn these detailed sciences that oftentimes we’re not familiar with prior to coming into the pharmaceutical industry.
Those are some of the main characteristics or qualities that you have to have to come into this industry. At the end of the day, what attracts me in the beginning is what success has this individual or individuals have had in the past to show their successful track record in sales. Oftentimes, the previous sales successes can translate and hopefully will be your future successes. You’ll be able to take those same skills that made you successful in the past, that you’ll transfer over to this new role and allow you to be successful here. Having a consistency of sales performance that has been successful is highly attractive for me.
Back in our good old days, there was always this debate of what’s going to help determine your success as a representative is the territory you’re put into. If it’s a high potential performance territory, you can shine. If it’s a territory with no access, you’re not going to get anywhere. With that being said, I’d meet representatives though that it seemed like they would be able to make it happen regardless. What would you have to say to that? Coming from your perspective and leadership perspective, how do you see the territory determining the success of the rep?
Territory dynamics certainly can play a role. If access is better, then the opportunities are greater to interact with the customer. However, I say that the playing field is equal for your competitors as well. Are you going to outwork your competitors, even if that territory is not accessible because your competitors have the same format or situation? The same holds true for a territory that is highly accessible. Your competitors have a lot of access to those customers as well. It’s going to come down to are you going to outwork your competitors out there in your dynamic and environment? It’s all relative to the territory that you have. As an example of that, I go back to even when I first came on board with SmithKline Beecham. The territory that I was picking up was a territory they call Pill Hill because it was around the University of Cincinnati. A lot of medical offices surround the university.
There were a lot of offices saturated in this area and a lot of competitors. Prior to me coming on, this territory didn’t perform well. My then manager even said, “You’re going into this territory. It’s a tougher territory to work but I can work it and I can do well in it.” I was the first person to perform and win a winner circle or they called it a diamond award back then. It says, “Can I outwork those individuals?” Oftentimes, when you tell a person that they can’t do something, they’re going to try to do it even harder because you told them that they can’t succeed in it. Can a territory with open access be more successful than a territory with lower access? It could be but it depends on how you’re measuring what success looks like. You have to look at it that way.
It sounds like when you have maybe representatives on your team and they’re in different territories, and one is performing exceptionally well because of the territory and because of who they are as a rep. You then have another rep that you see is strong, but their performance is not there because they have navigation issues in that territory that everyone knows and is aware of. What do you do in that situation?
It comes down to the behaviors and that’s what I look at. Oftentimes, some dynamics that are in a territory out of one’s control can be formulary decisions that are driving the decisions for a physician and the representative doesn’t have control on how oftentimes those decisions are made. If I see that these dynamics are affecting the sales and their performance, and I see that across the board, and with my competitors as well, I recognize that this is not unique to my individual representative or the people on my teams. It’s unique to this geography itself. How am I going to measure the success of that representative? How am I going to measure the success of their behaviors? Are they out there working every day? Are they delivering the appropriate messages? Are they trying to employ different tactics to try to engage with the customer? Are they networking with different matrix partners to try to gain some different access points?
They’re doing all of the right things and their behaviors show that they’re doing the right things. I still have to reward them for their effort and recognize the behaviors because the behaviors are positive because you can have the opposite of that. You can have someone with full access and formulary acceptance, all these different things and that representative is not exhibiting those behaviors and not performing because things are so open for them. They can even take that for granted but their competitors are now out hustling them and they’re not performing. You have to look at each individual differently. That’s my style on how I lead people. It’s a matter of treating everybody the same. I live by the philosophy of I treat everybody the same but I manage them differently. I manage them differently based on what’s going on with their needs, world, territory, and how can I help get them to be more successful.
That was part one of our two-part episode with Darren Leathers. I loved this episode because he talks about how he got to the space he’s in. He touches on what he values in a potential candidate. He’s been managing since I’ve known him. He’s been managing many different levels with many different roles and now finally oncology. He’s always had a rock star team and he knows how to put a team together. To get some insight into what he values to make a team successful is something special and insightful. In this episode, we talked mostly about his career and how he got into this space that he’s in. We touched on what’s valued in a candidate and what to consider. I want you to tune in for what’s coming because next episode, we’ll get into the nitty-gritty on every little piece that a candidate needs to bring to the table to help themselves stand apart from the others and vibe for this position and get an offer letter and get into the role.
This is information that we all want to understand if we’re trying to get somewhere in our careers. If you’re in leadership, if you’re someone that’s been driving the helm that you’re developing in your career and you’re taking off, you probably don’t want to stop regardless of what level you’re in. If you’re starting out or you’re coming from a different industry, the future is bright. There are many places to take your career, especially if you decide to go into medical sales. I want you to tune in to the next episode so you can get those essentials that matter if you want a pharmaceutical sales position.
In these two episodes, we are talking about pharmaceutical sales. This applies to any type of medical sales position. I’d like to go as far as to say that it applies to getting a position, especially a position in sales, but particularly useful for when you’re going after a pharmaceutical position. It still can be applied to anything along the lines of medical sales, whether it be device sales or software tech sales, medical or genetic testing or diagnostic lab sales, it all applies. It’s all useful information that anyone can use and should pay attention to. This is what hiring managers are thinking about when you step into the room and you’re making the case for why you should get that position.
For all of you that are looking into getting into the industry or getting your next role in any type of sales within the medical field, I want you to visit EvolveYourSuccess.com and take the assessment. We have a program there that helps people get positions. We have many success stories that we’re glad to be able to share. In some upcoming episodes, I’m going to have some of my successful students get on the show and talk about what they experience. I want you to go ahead and visit the site, take the assessment and look at the career-building program. The assessment is good because it’s going to give you some insight into what you can develop as you continue your search for your medical sales position. It applies to everything within medical sales.
As always, I want to leave you with a challenge from this episode. Towards the end of this episode, we talked about some of the characteristics that are valued. Darren touched on you’ve got to be someone that has that drive. You’ve got to be someone with a strong work ethic. You need to be someone that knows how to operate with a strong sense of integrity, and you want to do everything you can with the patient in mind.
My challenge to you all out there is I want you to give yourself a little self-check. Whatever you’re choosing to do with your career or with your role, is the drive there? You know the answer to this question. You can’t fake or lie to yourself about this answer. I want you to think about, is the drive there? If the drive isn’t there or if that strong work ethic that you know you can operate with isn’t quite there, I want you to analyze why not? What can you do? What action can you take to put you in the right direction towards instilling that type of drive to be the successful career professional that you want to be? Thank you for reading and make sure you tune in next episode for part two.
With a proven track record in the Pharmaceutical industry, over the past 16 years I have held commercial leadership roles with increasing responsibility to include: Sales Leadership, Marketing, Corporate Training, Hospital Sales Leadership and Strategic Operations. A results driven, strategic, effective and inspirational sales leader that consistently delivered strong performance and exceeded sales goals.
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