Bill McEllen Of Fingerpaint: Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times

An Interview With Fotis Georgiadis

Lean into change. Just because it’s what you’ve always done doesn’t mean it will work in every situation or should continue being done that way. Be open to new solutions and ways of doing things.

As part of our series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Bill McEllen.

Bill McEllen has been a leader in global biopharma commercialization for nearly 30 years. As the global president at Fingerpaint, he serves on the executive leadership team and oversees all of Fingerpaint’s business units. Under his leadership, the agency has experienced exponential growth. His team has garnered 5 Agency of the Year awards in the last 5 years and won a CLIO in a category alongside Nike and Budweiser. Prior to joining Fingerpaint, Bill spent 13 years with McCann Health as president of both McCann Torre Lazur and McCann Echo, where he led his agencies to 14 nominations as Agency of the Year in various industry publications. Bill also spent the first 10 years of his career on the client side in pharma, gaining a deep understanding of the varied challenges our clients face across the full spectrum of commercialization.

Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your backstory and how you got started?

I spent the early part of my career (about 10 years) on the client side in pharma, gaining a deep understanding of the varied challenges our clients face across the full spectrum of global commercialization. The next 20 were spent on the agency side, leading exponential growth in revenue, talent, and capabilities, as well as earning many top industry awards. Now, as the global president at Fingerpaint, I serve on the executive leadership team and oversee all of Fingerpaint’s business units.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or takeaways you learned from that?

As a pharmaceutical sales rep, there are a lot of tactics you use to get to see a doctor. One of the most common ways to get past a gatekeeper is to tell them you are there to “check the samples” (loosely translated as, “I promise not to take up a lot of the doctor’s time”). I used this tactic once while working with my manager with an unintended consequence. While I was able to successfully get past the gatekeeper and see the doctor, my manager was none too pleased with the approach. When we got back to the car, she firmly and politely reminded me what I was getting paid for: “To provide the office with valuable information on our products. Most certainly not to check their samples.” For 2 weeks following that encounter, I had the pleasure of starting every morning with a call from her to remind me what my goal was for the day. Needless to say, it was most certainly not to check the samples.

Be clear what your goal is and the value you bring. Never lose sight of that.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful toward who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

My first job off the college campus was as a pharmaceutical sales representative. I had no prior sales experience to speak of but was given a shot to prove myself. As my first boss, Sandee Petway not only took a chance on me but also taught me the foundational lessons of what it takes to be successful, both in work and in life. I owe her a huge debt of gratitude.

Extensive research suggests that purpose-driven businesses are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, and what was its purpose?

Fingerpaint was founded on a simple principle: Put people first. When you put your people first, it forms a foundation of empathy that spills over into everything, from how we work with clients to how we approach a creative campaign.

We are also in the business of healthcare, an industry that is driven by a purpose of service and helping others. This allows us the opportunity to help other companies execute on their purpose-driven businesses by providing healthcare communications that facilitate that process.

Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you led your team during uncertain or difficult times?

The early days of the pandemic immediately come to mind. There is a tendency to say that there was no playbook for a global pandemic, and while that is true, if you lead from a people-first, empathetic point of view, you can get through almost any challenge you are faced with.

For example, in March 2020, we knew our first priority was to keep our people safe and support them through an uncertain time. That meant going beyond the basics of remote work; it meant supporting them and their families as individuals and not just employees. Initiatives included providing care packages and stipends for family meals and establishing flexible work schedules so that employees could look after loved ones, parents could get their kids set up for remote schooling, and everyone had time to process what was going on in the world.

We made it a point to ensure our culture transcended beyond our physical walls. We set up dedicated Slack channels devoted to common interests to stay connected, and we sent out routine videos from our leaders to not just give business updates but also to celebrate personal milestones like birthdays, engagements, and promotions. All of the things we did in the physical office became virtual.

Our goal was to bring confidence and a bit of comfort to our people during such a turbulent time. Being proactively transparent about the state of the business was a critical way for us to bring stability to the situation. We regularly shared that information in addition to new business wins, revenue projections, and other business strategies, which allowed our people to see exactly how we were handling the situation.

As we go into year 3 of the pandemic, that philosophy has not changed, and it will not change as we move forward. We are continuing to be transparent with our people in our approach to the business; we celebrate wins, whether they are personal or professional; and we ensure our people-first culture is felt across the company — no matter where someone is physically located.

Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?

The work we do — helping to deliver critical healthcare information at all stages of the commercialization process — is something that cannot be disrupted. When we receive an email from a client sharing with us that a project we worked on helped a patient get the treatment they previously couldn’t access, those are the moments that matter. That is the motivation behind everything we do, and it sustains our drive during challenging times.

What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?

There can be a lot of chaos and competing factors at play during challenging times. Taking a step back and always focusing on the goal can help leaders guide their teams through tough times. Keeping in line with the company’s mission, being mindful of what is happening around you, and leading with empathy are critical.

When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate, and engage their team?

Lean into your company’s culture, lead by example, and develop activities and opportunities to have fun, collaborate, and get to know your colleagues on a personal level.

What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?

Approaching difficult news from a place of empathy, transparency, and honesty is the best route. Keeping those 3 things in mind when having to communicate it can help guide the situation.

How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?

The only thing you can predict is change. In any situation, you do your best to assemble the facts, listen, and make decisions based on what you know at that moment. At the same time, you need to be open to being flexible and willing to pivot those plans as you get new information or if the circumstances change.

Is there a number 1 principle that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?

Lead with empathy.

Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?

During difficult times, it can be easy to get caught up in the moment. Pausing to refocus on the big picture can help prevent reactive decisions and instead lead to proactive decisions, which are, more often than not, a better choice.

Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?

No matter the economy, it boils down to planning ahead, sticking to the principles your company was founded on, and working within your means. Making sound decisions guided by those principles early on will set a secure foundation that can help weather turbulent times.

Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.

  1. Listen. It is important for a leader to truly listen to what is and is not being said. Having a deep understanding of a situation and hearing all sides, scenarios, and possibilities play an important part in decision-making.
  2. Ask the right questions. Asking a lot of questions is often highly regarded, but it is important to make sure the correct questions are being asked. Are they questions that will just get you the answer you are looking for? Or are they the questions that dig down and get you a meaningful answer, no matter what it is?
  3. Surround yourself with smart people who are not afraid to challenge your ideas. Just because you’re a leader doesn’t mean everything you say or do is the best or only way to do it. Having people who are able and willing to express their thoughts and opinions — and challenge yours — is how you go from a good solution to a great one.
  4. Lean into change. Just because it’s what you’ve always done doesn’t mean it will work in every situation or should continue being done that way. Be open to new solutions and ways of doing things.
  5. Keep an open mind. The first 4 points will not produce effective results if you don’t approach all of them with an open mind.

Can you please give us your favorite life-lesson quote? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go with others.” It’s easy to focus on individual performance, and sometimes it’s easier to get a job done on your own. However, that is a very short-sighted approach. Teamwork is crucial in life and in work. I’ve been fortunate to be surrounded by a strong group of supporters, and I hope I’ve been that for others as well.

How can our readers further follow your work?

You can follow Fingerpaint on LinkedIn and Twitter, or connect with me directly on LinkedIn.

Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!

Bill McEllen Of Fingerpaint: Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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