Guest Column | May 7, 2024

The Power of Putting People First in Driving Business Growth

By John Harlow, Chief Commercial Officer, Melinta Therapeutics

John Harlow_Melinta Therapeutics
John Harlow

Five easy ways leaders can adopt a people-first mindset, starting today.

It’s no secret that happy people lead to high performance. But it’s easy for organizations, especially when times are tough, to deprioritize their people’s well-being in favor of results. In my experience, this is to their detriment — growth is driven by the people behind it, and when you invest in them first and foremost, you’re going to see a positive impact on the business as a whole.

My first sales leader role on the senior-care sales team at global pharmaceutical company Novartis really taught me the value of a people-first approach. When you come into a new organization or take over a new team, it can be tempting to focus closely on the numbers to determine what is working and what isn’t working and to measure success. This was especially true for me coming from a Wall Street analyst background where it was solely about the numbers.

What I quickly discovered, however, was that this wasn’t a winning strategy. Not everything can be quantified. I was blinded by the metrics and biases of others and wasn’t considering my own observations and, most importantly, the perspectives of my team – the people. It was only when I started leaning on the guidance of some great mentors and looping them in on my plans that we really started to trust one another and thrive as a group.

It was this experience that ultimately helped me become the leader I strive to be each day as chief commercial officer at Melinta Therapeutics. As a small company, your margin for error can be very small, but we’ve been able to overcome our challenges and forge ahead because we prioritize our people above all, even as we continue to grow our business. I’ve experienced first-hand how putting people first is of huge benefit to organizations, especially in challenging times when it’s more important than ever to keep people informed versus focusing on the other KPI definition – this is when prioritizing how people feel and addressing their concerns far outweighs focusing on the numbers. 

Tips For Adopting A People-First Mindset

If you’re ready to adopt a people-first mindset in your organization, here are the biggest tips I’ve gathered over my 20-plus years as a healthcare leader at both small and large companies:

1. Build trust through proactive communication.

It’s important to be up-front about expectations early on and to make a conscious effort to understand your team’s needs and individual career goals.

Consistent and frequent communication with my team and sharing my thought process — and, in turn, regularly taking in others’ perspectives — not only aligns us on a clear path forward but also helps me build trust so that my team knows I’m invested in their growth and success. It also forces me to self-reflect on my weaknesses and how my team’s strengths could fill in those gaps.

2. Get out from behind your desk and spend time with people.

The best leaders don’t lead from up in their ivory towers (or more likely, their offices or desks) — they’re on the ground interacting with their people and they are out listening to stakeholders.

Constantly checking in with your team in person can open your eyes to new ideas and avenues. It also has a ripple effect, where spending time with even just one person demonstrates that your team can count on you to show up and make them feel seen.

3. Focus on the little things (and use technology to help).

My current team consists of over 80 people. I may not know each team member’s birthday by memory (my calendar helps), but I know everyone by name and a few things about them personally. It’s a small thing, but it is important to me. It signals that I think of my colleagues as people beyond their output or title.

This isn’t always an easy thing to do when you’re leading hundreds of people. But wherever you can, strive to get to know as much as you can about your team outside of their day-to-day roles.

4. Be responsive and adopt an open-door policy.

I try to respond to emails or text messages from my team within 24 to 48 hours. Even if I don’t have an answer right away, I aim to at least let the person know I’ve received their message, am thinking about it, and will get back to them as soon as I’m able. And when I forget, I remind them that it is okay to nudge me!

With this, I always try to make myself as available and accessible as possible. This might mean setting aside time to reach out to specific individuals about their wins or reminding my team that my cell number is in my email signature so they know they can get in touch with me anytime. By opening the door to anyone, not just my immediate reports, I’m breaking down the wall that executives often have that prevents them from connecting with all levels of their organization, and possibly building important connections.

I’ve found the most success with purposely blocking time on my calendar, either on a Friday morning or during my commute, to chat with whomever. That concrete reminder holds me accountable to my goal.

5. Practice listening without response.

Author and inspirational speaker Simon Sinek put it best: “Effective communications starts with listening. Be the last to speak.”

It’s tempting to want to immediately respond to every request, complaint, or piece of feedback that comes your way. But oftentimes, your team just wants to make themselves heard and understood, rather than expecting a specific reaction or outcome.

On my computer, I have a Post-it note that says “W.A.I.T” — which, beyond reminding me to wait before I respond, also acts as a nice reminder to ask myself: “Why Am I Talking?”

It’s easy to lead when business is booming. What makes successful leaders stand out is how they lead when it’s not — and it’s in those moments that a people-first approach becomes all the more crucial. By incorporating these habits into your routine, you’ll not only prepare yourself for the worst but in the process, elevate each member of your team to become the best version of themselves.

About The Author:

John Harlow is the Chief Commercial Officer of Melinta Therapeutics. He has a successful 20+ year history in healthcare working across multiple disciplines and therapeutic areas at large, midsize and start-up pharma and biotech companies including Novartis, Alpharma, Shionogi, J&J, Pfizer, and now Melinta Therapeutics.