PMTips: Here with us today is Axel Meierhoefer, who is a Senior Development Program Manager at CP Professional Services. He is also an expert in program management and leadership development.
Axel, welcome and thank you for doing this interview.
Axel Meierhoefer: Yeah, wonderful. Thank you, Ana.
PMTips: You have an experience of over 20 years as an international and multi-cultural program management executive in the life sciences industry. What does it mean to be responsible for the planning and managing of projects in the life sciences industry?
Axel Meierhoefer: I would say it means to be aware of the regulatory environment and the need to be really focused and always remembering that we are making products that end up in a human being, with the aim to reduce the suffering or when that is possible even cure an illness. So that's on the one hand a huge responsibility, but it also can get lost a little bit in the day-to-day of tasks and goals and budgets and milestones and so on. So remembering this, and in the role of the leader of a project to remind people when, they sometimes start fighting over little stuff is in my view very important especially in that industry.
PMTips: Can you tell us what kind of challenges you have faced in your career and about the experiences that shaped you as a project and program manager?
Axel Meierhoefer: Well, one thing is that I'm pretty much very rarely, really, something like a subject matter expert in the project, and I have learned to be humble about it and admit that fact and literally kind of put that almost as a phrase, right. I'm making statements oftentimes, like saying, ‘I'm not the expert on this particular part of the science or this particular part of the manufacturing process.’ And when I am asked to put this in some sort of a frame I always say ‘My superpower is the ability to see the big picture and how actions can influence the outcome long before others do.’
And then the other huge challenge is oftentimes, in my particular case, the lack of authority with a team, because when I come in I'm oftentimes, or almost always, I'm being asked to come in as a contractor when the team is put together, and then asked to execute and deliver the project, and that can be pretty tricky in comparison to somebody who is like the senior director of projects and has basically people reporting to him or her and has the authority to actually do certain things or reprimand people. So it's a different kind of a relationship that can be tricky.
PMTips: You are currently working as a Senior Director Program Manager at CP Professional Services, where you are involved in helping cell and gene therapy companies advance quickly and efficiently towards commercialization. Which aspect of the commercialization pathway is most critical in terms of achieving project success?
Axel Meierhoefer: This is a pretty new field in the bigger field of Life Sciences, so in the gene therapy and stem cell therapy space, a lot of these companies are really excited and fascinated with the science and they want to get to commercial as quickly as possible. And so that also means that they basically look at almost anything through the lens of science and what I call ‘the left brain mindset’. So everything is basically a scientific problem and what I am trying to do is pushing to balance that out with kind of like the human component, the cultural component, the communication and performance components and stuff like that, and hopefully achieve that level of balance. So, it's not everything – that's really the aspect that I think makes the difference as a critical aspect here to success – is not to make everything be defined by cause-and-effect, but also take other components into account.
PMTips: You have worked as a Global Project Management Consultant for Roche, but also as project and program facilitator for Fortune 100 companies. Can you tell us if there is one universal rule that should always be applied when a successful project delivery is in question? Or does every project have a story of its own and the advice you give and approaches you suggest differ from one project or program to another?
Axel Meierhoefer: Well, I would say all project[s] have in some way their individual stories and they have their certain twists and turns that you only find in that project, but not necessarily in the other. But when you asked about like a universal rule, I would say for me it's basically a combination of two rules. The first one would be to always apply what's called ‘the golden rule’, which basically means treating other people the way you want to be treated. And then the second one, and combining the two, would be to put more emphasis on the development of great, lasting, trusting, dependable, respectful relationships than putting so much focus on processes and the financials, and the rules, budgets and milestones, and tasks, right – so more on the interpersonal side than purely on the mechanical and process approaches.
So combining, you know, the way you treat people and want to be treated by people, and then really putting an emphasis on the relationships and the main characters of the relationships, in balance, right. Like, you still need the other stuff, but those things need to be balanced, and when that happens – and I had the good fortune to have that happen a bunch of times – then the projects are really fun, not just from the outcome, but for everybody in it while you're doing [it].
PMTips: You have worked as a CEB Learning Project Manager for Bayer Healthcare in Berkeley. What determined the success of the expansion project for the Kovaltry product? Was the success determined immediately upon project delivery or by the measured results and effects on hemophilia patients long after the project was delivered?
Axel Meierhoefer: I would say it's – the answer is probably kind of, to some extent, both. So the benefit of the new drug for patients was very clear from the start, even before we [had] really gotten into the project, because in the past the patients had to inject the blood clotting Factor8, as it is called, everyday. And now with the new drug called Kovaltry they would only have to do it once a week, so that is naturally a huge improvement to convenience and to just quality of life. But then like in many other project[s] what was interesting was basically the evolution of the project. So first, when I first came in, my task was to come up with a strategy to teach German employees the manufacturing process of this new drug that only existed in one side in the US. And then, when the strategy was identified, the question of implementation was in focus, and we realized that we will need multilingual documentation, that we will need to find ways to train people while the actual production process was still ongoing, because that couldn't be stopped and we didn't have something like a simulator or a laboratory or anything like that. And then when the training program was basically created we ran into issues of union rules because the German employees were still under contract in Germany and had to follow their rules, as far as hours of work per day, the compensation, how much time off, etc.
And we learned a lot of things, so I have oftentimes said ‘I dream of the day when Bayer would come and allow me to write a book about all the lessons learned from the project,’ because it's not that often that you go that deep in a multicultural international project. And I think whether it's for a big company like Bayer or other companies who look into these international kind of projects, there were a huge number of lessons learned where we tried something and it failed and then we did it a different way and it worked, and through that process sometimes you'd be right [the] first time and sometimes it took two or three tries to be successful, and to put that all in one concise description, like a story – that would be kind of cool.
PMTips: What are the most common constraints in the types of projects you work on? How do you deal with any arising issues during the project lifecycle? Are the issues something that can be easily bypassed or do they require a certain kind of approach and special attention?
Axel Meierhoefer: Well, I often feel that the complexity of a project is underestimated and the resources you will ultimately need, both in money and human resources, is often mainly seen as an expense and not really put in context with the purpose or the benefit that the project aims to achieve, right. So in one of my recent project[s] it was necessary for some team members to be in Britain, in the UK, about 25 to 30 percent of the year, and this was like a three year [project] and it's still ongoing. I'm done with my part, but there are still things going on. And so basically these guys had to travel back and forth between the US and the UK every, you know, five to six weeks, and then they stayed on site for about anywhere between eight days, like a little more than a week, to up to three weeks. And during the high activity period of the project, when we were doing most of the part that I was involved with, I flew over between the US and the UK together with my associate project manager pretty much every six weeks for about seven to ten days at a time. And so when you take that frame and say ‘Okay, so how does this apply?’, I would be the first to say ‘Yes, you want to be frugal,’ right. But in this case the company insisted that everybody had to fly economy class, even on international travel and even when it was on weekends and overnight, and the reason given why was because the CEO of the company claimed to always travel using economy himself. Well, that sounds ok on the first glance, but then in those more than two and a half years that I was there, he came to the UK three times. We went every five-six weeks. So those are some and similar kinds of situations where you really literally burn out your team members, you frustrate them, you give them this taste that other people don't appreciate their effort, right. And as a project manager in charge I tried to motivate them, get them incentives – one year I was able to get them a bonus at the end of the year for all the extra work and extra time. I gave them time off when they came back from a trip, even though it wasn't considered vacation – I just said, ‘Okay, pretend you work from home,’ and stuff like that, but for them it felt like the organization didn't really recognize the challenges that that meant not only on them, but also on their families.
And, interestingly, in one of these kinds of projects, mainly involving German employees – they pretty much quickly started looking for new projects or left the company, which meant, if you really think of it from a project perspective, this is a core part. You have this kind of ramp up where you get to know each other and stuff and then there's this core part where most of the work happens and when people get burned out during that phase, then get frustrated and start leaving either during the project or shortly after. There is this enormous drain on knowledge, and in our case with this one project it was very obvious, because that knowledge about how this new piece of equipment that was to make the drug in the UK was supposed to be used was, and I believe strongly, will be very much hampered by the fact that the people who actually put everything together are one by one leaving, because they were just frustrated with the way they were treated. And as a project manager it is really hard to keep them motivated and keep them, you know, going on these trips and doing the best work they can when they don't feel that they are appreciated.
PMTips: During your many years of work, you have had the chance to lead a team of people of various backgrounds and disciplines. How challenging is it to lead cross-functional teams? How do you transform different variations of input into one cohesive final output?
Axel Meierhoefer: Well, it's definitely a difficult thing. I find it even more challenging when the team members come from different cultural environments, and as you know from my profile I work in North America and Europe, and often in cross-cultural, multicultural functional teams. So the biggest lessons I learned and can turn into suggestions for other project managers in similar situations I would say are three. The first one is: I put a lot of emphasis to learn what their personality and communication style is for each team member. And I have found some pretty good assessment tools, so whenever we put a new group together or I'm being asked to lead a new team, I'm actually trying my best to engage each team member in their style and I find out what their style is by doing the assessment. Now that still is not easy because you need to maintain your authentic style, but then basically try to be flexible with their style.
Then the second thing is, and people who know me know this, I'm a huge fan of Jim Collins’ book Good to Great, and the lessons that he describes for a level 5 leader, and one that I apply in this context is applicable for a level 5 leader when it comes to what do you do in a project:. So, the first thing it says is: if something really goes well, but you can't really say who was exactly responsible for the success, then just call it luck. The second part says: if something goes really well and you know who was responsible or who was the cause for the success, then praise that person or the people in the team who were responsible, and if anything goes wrong or doesn't come out the way it was anticipated or expected, then blame it on yourself, but not just by saying that to yourself but both admitting it to the team, and even most importantly defending the team and the project to the leadership, or to your boss, or to whoever you have to report to. So that will be the second thing, like follow those three aspects of how to handle situations in a project, according to Jim Collins’ Good to Great.
And then the third is that I basically, from a stylistic point of view, I start with the belief that people generally have good intentions. And they really mean it when they tell me what they will do, or commit to something, or promise me to change something, so I'm always happy to help them if they need coaching, or mentoring, or motivation, or just sit down and talk through something. But when they prove my belief in them is wrong, I am not necessarily very good at giving second and third chances and I tell them right up front, and I have had good success that way. So to say ‘Okay, if you commit to something I should be able to expect that you really do what you say. And those three things: looking at the personality and communication style, looking at things that happen in a project and how you rate them, who to praise and when to assume responsibility, and then really tell people, ‘Okay, you have every benefit of the doubt, just don't say and commit to things that you can’t keep up.’
And so with those things, and there are a few more things, I have found that I can work pretty much with any team and people from anywhere in the world, and if we follow those rules and our commitments, we not only complete the project together and are proud of what we achieved, like for example with this machine in the UK, but we often remain friends many years after that, after the work is complete, because of the relationships that were created.
PMTips: How important is it for cross-functional teams to be provided with information from all levels of management? How often do they need information traditionally used in strategic, tactical and operational decisions?
Axel Meierhoefer: Yeah, I think it's important, but I wouldn’t necessarily say it's so much a matter of how frequently, how often, right. I think it's more important – the more important aspect is what I would call the WHY. Way too often I have seen announcement of strategies or tactics, procedures or new rules, without the sufficient explanation of WHY. So there's a guy that I like, his name is Daniel Pink and he's an expert in motivation, and he calls that the purpose motive, which means in the context of motivation if I want my team members to follow a new rule or implement a new strategy, it's most important for them to understand the purpose or why they need to do it. If that's not answered, then they start the rumor mill and put all kinds of energy into trying to answer the question for themselves, and I have seen them come up with the craziest assumptions of why something is being changed or now done a different way because they weren't told what the real background was, and so they just make something up. And so the WHY only works when you have a trusting, respectful, appreciative relationship with your team members, on your team, and between you and each member individually, and that's actually the art.
You know, when people say, ‘Is project management something that is hard to learn or easy to learn?’, I always say there is a methodology part and then there is the art. And what I would say the actual artistic part of the project or program management is to develop those relationships. I mean, you can teach somebody to do a Gantt chart, or a task list, or identify milestones, but how do you make that program or that list, that sequence and then get people to actually follow it and meet it and hopefully even beat it? And so creating that team culture quickly and successfully, it's much harder to do, and those who can are much more successful in projects, and I can say for me that has always served me well and I always make a strong effort to find out the WHY. And if I don't hear it in a presentation, like an all-hands meeting, or leadership presentation, I don't hesitate to raise my hand and say ‘Sir, or team, or this group, can you please take a few minutes and explain to us why you want us to do this?’, and that also shows for the people on a team, our project manager, our team leader is standing up and getting us the answers that we need.
PMTips: Many teams are faced with a challenge when dealing with cross-functional dependencies and peers from other functions and it becomes difficult to create a collaborative atmosphere. How do you manage to push team members to go the extra mile and collaborate with other teams to achieve project goals?
Axel Meierhoefer: Well, I think it's actually pretty simple when two particular things come together. I make sure that the team members have sufficient time and resources to do what is needed in my project, and if that's not the case I either go to whatever level in the organization is necessary to get the time, or resources, or brutally and bluntly tell those in charge that the project they want to accomplish will not work out. And I've been asked to leave a project because of it, and that wasn't very nice, but four months later the project was dead, so I feel if you don't have sufficient resources both in manpower and financially and otherwise, don't even try. And then the second aspect is to actually be the protector of the team members – and I hinted to that in some previous answers to your questions – but what I mean by that is they need to be able to trust me, come to me when things don't work as they should, tell me when there is a misunderstanding with another person, either inside or outside the team, so I can prevent it from turning into conflict. That's another one of my things, right.
I have learned, and research supports it, that most conflicts start out with a misunderstanding, so if I hear about it early enough and I can basically be the mediator when it's still in the misunderstanding state, most conflicts never really actually occur or become conflicts. And then I have often said a good leader needs to be a closet psychologist that everybody can come to and seek help, and the best projects have always been the ones where the team ultimately appeared, behaved and work, similar to a close-knit family. That does not mean there's never a conflict or an issue, but the purpose and the benefit of the community ultimately wins over the individual personal interest in the moment. There is this kind of like, you know, blood is thicker than water. You're kind of sticking together because you cherish the community, even if you don't always get what you want.
PMTips: What would your advice be to managers responsible for cross-functional teams? How can they increase the efficiency of their teams?
Axel Meierhoefer: Well, I would say learn the 9 influencing strategies that I use, and start when you start with influencing strategies with empowerment, and when you trust your team members you don't have to micromanage, know every little detail, or be involved in every little meeting. I mean, there're way too many meetings to begin with. I have said many times, almost like a mantra, when you are leading a project you should not manage the details. You can delegate that to your team members – they are the subject matter experts, anyway – so lead the team and help the members. And the best analogy I can find is that: You are the conductor of a great classical orchestra: make your team make beautiful music in harmony, each playing their best in their individual section with their instrument, while you are making sure that they have the best environment, the protection from outside influences, when at the end of the performance they have done great, they will get a standing ovation. And if the results are disappointing, then the conductor deserves to be blamed for not being able to get the best out of the orchestra, so be the best conductor of your orchestra you can be, is my advice. Realize that it takes practice. I mean, even if you have done projects before, and with this analogy I say no orchestra invites the public without any practice under their belt, so ask leadership for some patience when you don't have a perfect harmony in the first few weeks of a project. And, finally, don't forget that each new project requires you to shuffle the members of the orchestra and the instruments needed to put together the best performance possible. And if you look at it that way, I bet your projects will be more successful, or at least more successful than with an approach that is purely methodical – make MS project and make it heartless, and milestones, and stuff like that. If you really look at the team you have as the members of an orchestra that you are the conductor of, I bet you, you will have a better project.
PMTips: What would your advice be to all project managers? Which skills do you think they should focus most on developing in order to bring significant value to the projects they manage?
Axel Meierhoefer: Well, I suspect what I am going to suggest might be controversial, because, especially for those who push for everybody to have or get a PMI certification, I suggest putting as much emphasis as you can on the development of your communication and relationship building skills as you do on any of the other project management skills. And I think the better you can develop the relationships with all the people you encounter and communicate well with, the easier it will be for you to manage the project. As I said earlier, anybody can learn how to cook a meal following a recipe, right? If your project management is aimed to be comparable to the meal prepared by a five-star chef, you need to develop the art of communication and relationship building, so I would say: ask yourself ‘Do I want to be able to follow a recipe on the box or do I want to be a five-star chef that people can't wait to enjoy a dish from?’ If each project looks like a cookie cutter approach, like you making a cookie the same way every single time regardless what the project is, you probably have good reason to expand your skill set. And this point – by the way, Ana, I'm happy to help people with this, I've been doing this for a long time, and you can ask anybody I've been involved with in projects – it's really the relationship part, being the conductor, having the aim to do things at a level of excellence and not just following through the motions.
PMTips: Axel, thank you for joining us today, for providing advice and for sharing your professional experiences with our readers and listeners.
Axel Meierhoefer: Yeah, absolutely. You're very welcome and if anybody wants to look me up on LinkedIn or get in touch with me, feel free to do so. I'm always here and happy to help.
PMTips: Of course, thank you very much.
Axel Meierhoefer: Thank you.
Interview conducted by Ana Mitevska