Lessons in Leading: Turning A Business Around and Treading the Pandemic

In-depth interview with Ian Santos, by Joe Escobedo, the “B2B Brand Builder” on his “A Cup of Joe” podcast. Joe is the CEO of Esco Media and author of “Asian Growth Stories” which became a #1 best-selling international business book on Amazon. Joe also used to write for Forbes Magazine and consult for LinkedIn. He is currently a Professor of Digital & Social Media Marketing at Singapore’s ESSEC Business School’s Masters in Management program. This interview was conducted when Ian Santos was Country Manager of Mundipharma Philippines.

Lessons in Leading: Turning A Business Around and Treading the Pandemic
Photo by Ian Santos

Joe: Hi Ian, thanks for joining me on “A Cup of Joe”. You have a very interesting background. I know you are very passionate about not only developing yourself but your team as well. You’re very active in terms of training as you are a trainer yourself, so I want to hear your thoughts about why training and development are so important for you as well as your team?


Thanks for having me, Joe. In any business, no matter what industry you’re in; numbers, sales, and other objectives are delivered by people. If I train and develop my people well, eventually it’s going to help the company deliver its goals and objectives. The bonus here is you also give your people the skills and knowledge that will serve them well in their careers. These are skills that are transferrable in other facets of life as well. That’s the reason I’m passionate about training and developing people.


Joe: I’m curious, what do you think are some of the skills that are very timely and most in-demand right now?


We all know that in the last couple of months, everyone’s been on lockdown to some degree, and it’s been a test of people’s resilience, agility, and adaptability. I think these three things have become very important not just for leaders, but for any employee for that matter.

You need to be able to get out of your comfort zone, adapt, and become flexible, while always looking at the brighter side of things. If you’re always focused on the negativity of the situation, then you’ll never move forward. It’s all about mindset and attitude. I think those are the key things that are important during these times.


Joe: Absolutely. A lot has changed right now, and a lot of people are having difficulties making the transition. For a lot of folks its hard as the economy is down in a lot of places. I think that’s very good advice for anyone.

You have always been passionate about training and development, but for executives and organizations who may not be at the same level of passion, how would you sell the importance of training and development to the CEO?


If you want your business to be sustainable, not just during these times but for the long term, you need to have a workforce that is adaptable and have the right mindset to overcome any obstacles and challenges. I always try to look at the brighter side of things and ask myself: “What’s good about what’s happening today?”. What’s happening today is forcing companies to really rethink how they manage, train, and develop their people. Especially since most of us are now working remotely.

Remote working is a relatively new concept in the Philippines, and today’s scale is unprecedented. I think it’s a perfect time for leaders and owners of companies to really rethink how they should continuously develop and train their people and ensure they are ready for the times.


Joe: That’s a really good point. I wanted to get your thoughts on something else as you’ve been in the pharma space the past couple of years, both in a leadership role as well as a sales role. What are some of the big challenges you see pharma companies facing nowadays?


Huge challenges, Joe. One is medicine sales in hospitals are generally down as people are afraid to go there and risk infection. So, you need to find a way to get your products to patients’ hands. Secondly, doctors are not keen to do as many face-to-face interactions as before, especially when the rate of infections reach critical levels in their area of work. These limits face to face engagement of pharma reps. Having said that, the companies that are agile enough to adapt quickly to this changing environment have started to move to more multi-channel engagements such as webinars and remote calls with doctors.

Companies who are able to pivot fast and rework their business model are those who will succeed during these times, as well as after the pandemic.


Joe: What are some of the other things you have done online that have helped you move away from the traditional channels which are difficult to implement right now?


Aside from webinars, we’re also doing online meetings with customers, as we do have retail customers that we do business with like pharmacy chains. As part of multi-channel engagement, we also send out sms, Viber and emails to our customers.


Joe: Mundipharma Philippines was awarded as the Best Global Large Affiliate in 2019 for its business turnaround, can you share more about this?


I have to credit the whole team for this, as no one person can possibly achieve this. Coming from 2018, which was not a good year for us, we were fortunate enough to build a strong leadership team that was a mix of solid veterans as well as new people coming in who reinvigorated the group’s culture and mindset.

And as I mentioned, once you focus on people and invest in their training and development, have them aligned to one common vision and ensure that the culture supports that vision, great things can happen.

We were able to collectively turn around the business and were awarded the best large affiliate throughout the global Mundipharma system. It’s the work of all the people in the company.

Joe: As you said it was a combination of the leadership team and getting people on board with the new culture, was there anything else instrumental in terms of helping turn the business around?


I believe what also contributed was our ability to quickly move on from the past, focus on things that we can do today that we haven’t tried before, and provide room for people to make mistakes along the way. So, we tried some new things, made mistakes while doing some of it, but ultimately achieved more success than failures to help the company eventually bounce back.

A new culture that gave people freedom and psychological safety was something new that we introduced. If you have that, people will be willing to share fresh ideas. We didn’t consider any idea crazy until we tested it, and it was a major change that we implemented in the way we did business.

Mia Mendoza of “A Cup Joe”: Hi Ian, I can just imagine that for such a big company like Mundipharma, trying to imbibe this kind of culture must have taken a lot of time and a lot of work on your part. What would be your tips for other companies, maybe more traditional companies, who may want to develop a similar culture among their employees?


It really starts from the top. It’s been said countless times, if the leader doesn’t do something that he says, it won’t work. So first it comes from the top, and the whole leadership team needs to be aligned as well.

I had to make sure the whole leadership team was aligned with the concept, the vision, and the culture. Otherwise, if you’re the only person advocating for something, people won’t feel the need to walk the same road. As a leadership team, you need to set the example, walk the talk, and do the exact same thing that you are saying.

Whatever you are doing needs to be aligned with the Vision, Mission, & Values printed on the nicely framed paper on your office wall. Many times, what’s on that wall is not exactly what’s happening on the ground. If people don’t see their leaders living the values, why will they follow them?

Mia of “A Cup of Joe”: I love that you brought up being such an active leader because I know that you’re an active thought leader on LinkedIn. You have such a strong presence and I’m sure that there are so many leaders out there who want to start developing that kind of presence and being more vocal about their beliefs and their values because their employees are looking to them for that.

How do you suggest they start doing that, especially for those who haven’t started yet?


I believe it’s different strokes, for different folks. The reason I’m active on LinkedIn is that I love to write down my thoughts and share them with others. Other people may not be that keen on writing. Some leaders may be more comfortable speaking at townhall meetings for example. Some would do weekly or monthly townhalls. So, I guess it’s a matter of communicating in the way you are most comfortable with and making sure that communication happens constantly.


Joe: I noticed that on LinkedIn, where we met, you’re active in sharing a lot of inspirational quotes especially from successful business leaders. Is reading up on autobiographies of successful leaders something you do as well?


When I was a salesman covering provincial areas back in the day more than 20 years ago, when I finished my workday and I was back in my hotel room, there were very few things to do as there was no Netflix or Spotify for instance at that time. I would usually have a couple of books with me during my trip and I would read mostly non-fiction books, including autobiographies and biographies of successful leaders. Fast forward today and I use some of what I learned way back whenever I share on LinkedIn.

Nowadays I would watch TED talks, watch business-related content on YouTube, and even digest some insightful content on LinkedIn. It’s not just you with the opportunity to share, but you also get to learn a lot from different content creators. I think LinkedIn is a very powerful platform.

I would add that one should not only read about successful people. I also try to read and learn from people or companies who failed, because I always believe you learn more from reading about failures more than successes.

Joe: That’s a very good point. I think that’s something we’ve been trying to do in our communications as well. In my case, people always see the success of our clients but what they don’t see are the struggles. So, one thing I’ve been trying to do is sharing some of the failures. As you said, people always see the tip of the iceberg and they don’t see what’s under it. It resonates with you a lot more when you see someone with struggles, trials and tribulations and how they’ve gone through it.


That’s great. I mean, we talked about how we were very successful in 2019, but many don’t know what’s beneath that iceberg. There was a lot of blood, sweat, tears and failures as well.


Joe: Absolutely, and those for me are the most memorable stories because you can see the entire journey and not just the successes.

Mia of “A Cup of Joe”: I love that you guys are talking about failure because this ties in nicely with our earlier discussion on culture and trying to get employees to be actively trying things and not be afraid of failing. I think that’s an excellent opportunity to come up with exciting stories from which other people can also learn.

And it’s scary sometimes for people to share these stories of failure, so I think it’s great that business leaders like you Ian and Joe and everyone else on LinkedIn are sharing their experiences; that it’s not a bad thing to share these stories of failure.


I think more people should share stories of failure. Because one, it shows that they’re authentic. And I’ll say it again: people learn more from failures than successes. Successes are rosy and nice to read but rarely do people really talk about what it took for them to be successful; what failures they went through before being successful.


Joe: Once again that’s a very good point. Even for me, you learn a lot more from the failures than successes. We started our company the past few years and everything was rosy. There were definitely some bumps along the road, but we were able to grow significantly. And obviously, Covid-19 hit and that wiped out a lot of things we had in the pipeline and the plans. So, we had to take some time and work backwards and re-do and restructure a lot of the processes, try to analyze what’s worked in the past, and be a bit more focused on our efforts.

So, I think to your point, now is the perfect time to reflect on what has worked and what hasn’t worked and put together a more structured effective plan going forward.


Agree with you there, Joe. People talk about this pandemic teaching them what the essentials in life are. All we need really, as part of our basics for instance are food, water, shelter, and of course the love of our family…. going back to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Similarly, I think this is the perfect time for businesses, whether corporate or entrepreneurial businesses, to really simplify things: processes, focus areas. It’s a great time to really think about what are the things that will help us grow and help our business. Take out all the unnecessary stuff, and really simplify.


Joe: Absolutely, very good point

Mia: I think nobody really has the complete answers to our problems today, and that gives everyone the opportunity to open up and share our experiences with one another because nobody has the correct formula on how to deal with this situation. We’re seeing people from different industries learning how a totally different industry’s practices can actually apply and help them in this situation.


Agree with you, Mia. There’s no one solution. It depends on what company you’re in and in what industry. But to your point, it's really worth looking at what other companies in other industries are doing because some of it might apply in your situation. Again, you have to tailor-fit the solution based on the situation you are in, considering your company, its size, and the industry you’re in. So, I agree that it’s very important for companies and people to share what they know in different channels and platforms.

Now is the time for us to really help each other out.


Joe: Absolutely. I think you bring up another good point. One of the things we’ve been talking about recently is: A lot of times people are so focused on looking at their competitors when they come up with ideas, and maybe we need to start breaking away from that. At the end of the day, a lot of times competitors are doing something very similar, if not the same thing.

I love your idea of looking at other industries, other fields not necessarily in the same space as you, so you can broaden your horizon and get different ideas. That’s something we’ve been trying to do as well, and we’ve been trying to just do certain things. One is trying to focus on the customer, so focusing less on the competition and more on the customers. Also just looking from the outside for more inspiration to come up with new ideas, push the boundaries and do something different in our space.


Right, and I think now is the best time to do that as well because the rules of the game have totally changed for all industries. Now is the time to re-assess your strategy, learn from others, and not be afraid to copy from other companies or industries. At the end of the day, whatever you’re doing right now, whether it's pivoting to one process, strategy, or tactic, simplifying processes, or focusing on a particular channel, you need to put the customer at the centre of everything you do.

Everything that companies are doing right now needs to make sure that the customer is the one benefitting in the end, whether it’s faster service, better product delivery, or better experience. It’s the customer who needs to be the centre of all those changes, pivots, and strategic moves. It’s the customer that pays for our business, so we need to make sure that the customer is happy.

Joe. Absolutely. I love how you put it.

Well like I said, Ian, this has absolutely been a pleasure that somehow, we had a chance to catch up. How can people get in touch with you if they want to find out more about what you do?


I am most active on LinkedIn, where I try to post weekly. I also have an IMS Coaching & Consulting page on LinkedIn for my freelance training services. And if I may share, I also have a Twitter page called "The Sales Sensei", where I've shared more than a thousand nuggets on leadership and sales.


Joe: Thank you so much for being on the show Ian, really, really appreciate your taking the time to share your insights, it means a lot to us.


Thanks so much, Joe. It’s been a pleasure and an enjoyable chat as well!