From Concept to Reality: Michael Kurr: Building Internal Service Organizations for Excellence in Customer Experience

Michael Kurr | Global Head of Human Pharma Services | Boehringer Ingelheim
Michael Kurr | Global Head of Human Pharma Services | Boehringer Ingelheim

Michael Kurr leads Boehringer Ingelheim’s innovation and transformation as the Global Head of Human Pharma Services. With over two decades of corporate transformation experience, Michael has been a pivotal figure in shaping the success stories of renowned organizations like Boehringer Ingelheim, Novartis, Roche Diagnostics, Daimler, and Schott, as manager and leader or consultant.

Michael’s journey is marked by his expertise in building organizations from the ground up, creating teams that redefine industry standards. His leadership goes beyond business cases, transforming concepts into tangible realities with real human impact. It revolves around motivating and nurturing his teams, with a focus on individual growth and collective achievement.

Let’s explore the transformative power of leadership, innovation and a relentless commitment to improving the way organizations operate!

In your role as the Global Head of Human Pharma Services, what aspects of your work bring you the most fulfilment and what motivates you to continue driving innovation and excellence within the pharmaceutical services landscape?

There are many things that keep me going, but if I had to select three, those would be the following: Over the past two decades, I’ve had the privilege of supporting major organizations like Boehringer Ingelheim, Novartis, Roche Diagnostics, Daimler, and Schott. Witnessing these giants evolve and embrace change, even reaching a point where some are starting to dance, is profoundly inspiring. I’m particularly motivated by my team, some of whom I’ve known for many years. Guiding their growth and seeing them thrive is incredibly fulfilling.

Building new organizations from the ground up and creating teams that didn’t exist before is an unbelievable experience. Witnessing a business case materialize into real human beings, forming genuine teams and accomplishing meaningful work is truly special. Moreover, experiencing the gratitude of those who find purpose and joy in the roles I’ve helped them secure adds an exceptional dimension to leadership.

What brings me deep satisfaction is the measurable impact—the liberation of resources, be it time or money, that can be reinvested in other areas. Observing

how this reinvestment accelerates the company’s go to market strategies, ultimately aiding more patients, is profoundly rewarding.

In the context of pharmaceutical services, what do you believe are the key factors for ensuring operational excellence, especially in areas such as content operations and customer experience?

To address this question, I’ll use the framework of people, process and technology, to ensuring operational excellence:

People: Get the right people who enjoy getting things done. Operations are the core, contributing to business success by implementing strategies and improving customer engagement. Internal communication is crucial for recognition and career paths.

Process: Large-scale service organizations must have process design, process management and continuous improvement as part of their genetic program. The focus is on reengineering global delivery processes, optimizing make versus buy decisions and leveraging different service delivery locations. A deep understanding and cross-functional expertise in processes are crucial for the organization’s existence. Instead of the renowned ´structure follows strategy´ the full equation needs to be ‘structure follows process follows strategyto emphasize the role of processes in creating value. While structure is important, it’s the process that enables operational excellence and the best customer experience.

Technology: Automation is a key responsibility. Understanding technology and its application for global service delivery processes as well as their impact on the business is essential. Bridging the gap between business and IT is critical for success, enabling efficiency and optimizing resource utilization across functions.

Can you share a pivotal moment in your career that significantly influenced your leadership style and how it shaped your approach to leading teams in disruptive and ambiguous situations?

Throughout my career, I’ve encountered different managers, with very different leadership styles, some more inspirational than others. Reflecting on these, I consider several key leadership traits essential especially in disruptive and transformative environments. These traits guide my expectations for myself and others.

Transparency: My strong focus on output and efficiency sometimes tend to clash with corporate dynamics. I value transparency and dislike speculating on others’ motives. As a leader, I prioritize clear communication with my team, fostering trust, especially in uncertain environments. Many former colleagues joined me at Boehringer Ingelheim, likely due to this transparent leadership approach.

Respect: Respect is often conveyed through communication style, making it a key aspect of leadership. I once left a job in the past due to a continuous lack of respectful communication, emphasizing its importance to me.

Empowerment: I avoid micromanaging and allow my teams to make decisions, but it comes with accountability and trust. Empowerment is a give-and-take based on trust— one can’t be empowered without trust.

Fairness: For me, this is one of the most important things in life in general, not only in leadership. Fairness is key, no matter what.

Vision: You need to have a vision as it goes beyond having just a strategy or a plan. It involves knowing your destination, your North Star, especially when tasked with transforming the current operating model without a clear picture of the new model.

The vision remains constant, but the strategy and the tactical plans may change. Effective leadership involves sharing a compelling vision that inspires others to follow.

In your extensive experience leading teams through digital transformation, what strategies have you found most effective in ensuring a smooth transition and maximizing the benefits of digital initiatives within a large organization?

In a global organization, identifying willing pioneers is crucial for a successful transformation. These are colleagues eager to make a difference, explore new paths and adapt quickly. Building relationships with them, even if it involves extensive travel, is essential. Transformation is never smooth, and at Boehringer Ingelheim, I found these pioneers in emerging markets who laid the foundation for a successful global services organization.

Demonstrating the value of the transformation is equally important but challenging, as stakeholders perceive value differently. Addressing the ‘what’s in it for mequestion is key, regardless of mandates.

Understanding colleagues’ perspectives, having open dialogues, while ensuring air cover and sponsorship from the top is critical.

In the context of an organization like Human Pharma Services, maintaining support from the top is mission critical. Unlike traditional service organizations like the typical GBS (Global Business Services), that are not disputed anymore in large organizations, service organizations like HPS are still a strategic choice and require an ongoing commitment to thrive.

As someone passionate about creating and evolving organizations, can you discuss a specific instance where you built a team from scratch, outlining the challenges faced and the successful outcomes achieved?

Together with my team, we built and continue to evolve the entire Global Human Pharma Services (HPS) Organization that I am currently heading in Boehringer Ingelheim. This team delivers services to all markets worldwide.

Since I joined back in 2019, we have built it throughout the last four years from scratch. It has been at full geographical scale for two years now, as we grow, mature, and professionalize ourselves and the environment around us continuously. According to a few external benchmarking studies, we have built one of the leading content supply chains in the industry.

Currently, my organization consists of five main pillars: Global Services Delivery Unit (owned by Boehringer Ingelheim)

  • A centralized delivery hub, supporting colleagues worldwide with Digital Support Operations.
  • Services include Campaign Execution and Automation, Webinar Enablement, Content and Digital Asset Management, Search Engine Optimization and Marketing, Data Visualization, Digital Analytics, Learning, Training, and ourrecently established Medical Affairs Services, which is our fastest-growing team focusing on Medical Publication support and Medical Writing.

Digital Content Factory

  • Large-scale offshore digital production outsourced to a global partner in India.
  • Producing emails, edetails (i.e., visual aid slide decks), websites, and banners worldwide for Boehringer Ingelheim.

 Creative Factory (Launched in 2023)

  • Operated by the same offshore partner as the Digital Factory to ensure seamless and consistent support end to end i.e., from basic creative work down to production and deployment.
  • Focuses on below-the-line creative work, emphasizing reutilization, omnichannel deployment, localization, and worldwide leverage of existing assets.

Global Services Operations Team

  • A team that globally oversees all end-to-end, cross-functional service delivery processes.
  • Manages global production partners to handle forecasting, reporting, data processing, and financials.
  • Co-located in the Delivery Unit, ensuring smooth operations behind the scenes.

Global Service Layer Organization

  • A team of eight corporate colleagues co-located in markets across the globe.
  • Connects the colleagues in the business with the global services organization including the offshore operations and the Delivery Unit.
  • Makes sure that the global model is working in context of the local realities without compromising on the economies of scale.

Leading a global, cross-functional team often requires effective communication. How do you ensure clear communication and collaboration among team members spread across different regions and functions?

In most of our early days, we were a purely virtual organization with all the new colleagues joining without ever having seen anyone in Boehringer Ingelheim personally. This was and is still a challenge we are continuously working on.

Crossing all time zones globally and forming a strong, multicultural team that can deliver and sustain the required change to implement this global agenda requires passion and commitment from everybody involved. When I started my journey in Boehringer Ingelheim, I was privileged enough to hand-select almost my entire team. Getting the right people on the bus is probably the first and most important step in such a transformational effort.

As a team, we meet once a week virtually to share and learn together, which means that some of us need to get on the call very early, and others need to dial in late evening. This poses a challenge to personal life, but our teams are agile in working around the situation, ensuring personal and relationship health at work and home. We also try to get into the rhythm of meeting in person once or twice a year, where we get to know each other well. These days spent together are a real highlight for the entire team.

What we all share is a passion to build something new, to navigate uncharted territory and to deliver transformation for the better. And to stay close as a team, we use many different channels.

Of course, email is still important, but MS Teams is allowing for a rich team experience even in a virtual setup. The colleagues share knowledge and light-hearted content, including pictures and stories, with each other, thus growing into a team with a strong sense of belonging, as they manage challenging scenarios by lending their colleagues a hand.

As a leader, what do you consider your most significant achievement in terms of talent development within your teams? Can you share a success story where you nurtured a team member’s potential, leading to exceptional results?

I joined Boehringer Ingelheim in 2019 to lead a small team called the Delivery Unit. Early on, we established a direct link to the Corporate Center and drafted plans to expand the scale.

In the global services business, scale is key and hence we need to grow to be successful and to deliver full value. We professionalized our approach, measured customer satisfaction, and capitalized on the location’s advantages, leading to remarkable development.

Now the team has expanded tenfold with a diverse range of digital services supporting global markets. The team’s spirit is thriving, and all the early team members have evolved into inspiring leaders accountable for significant global delivery teams. The value created, knowledge amassed, and rapid growth fills me with pride.

The pharmaceutical industry is heavily regulated. How do you balance the need for innovation and agility with the necessary compliance and regulatory requirements, ensuring that your digital initiatives meet industry standards?

Whatever we do, we do it in full compliance with regulations and guidelines. Having said that, what you experience every now and then during such a transformational journey is that ‘Compliance’ is almost used as an argument to avoid change. In my view, it is imperative for service team members to be familiar with the compliance rules and ask the famous ‘why’ question a lot.

And regularly, you will find out that there are ways to achieve our goals in a compliant and efficient manner. This means that you need to find your allies in all markets and work with them through these kinds of challenges, given the diversity in regulations and norms, which requires local team support.

Being a global internal services provider, we also have an opportunity to make solutions for these challenges an inherent part of our offering. What do I mean by that? For example, the content approval process (known as the MLR (Medical Legal Regulatory) process in the pharmaceutical industry) provides a huge opportunity to be optimized through smart service offerings, offshore support, and automation.

We are also exploring the world of modular content to generate custom content at a scale. Without challenging the traditional ways of looking at this regulatory environment, nothing of what the industry is envisioning currently is going to happen. This approval bottleneck is one example of the hurdles that we need to remove by managing it in a smarter way. This is a huge opportunity for teams like mine.

Can you provide insights into your approach to client relations in the pharmaceutical sector? What strategies have you found most effective in building long-lasting relationships with clients and stakeholders?

As an internal services organization, my clients are colleagues aiming to enhance customer experience and support patients. Key points for building such an organization:

Create Value by understanding various perspectives

  • Consider the perspectives of colleagues from different functions and backgrounds.
  • Offer support while ensuring value for all stakeholders.
  • Answer the ´what´s in it for me´ question.

Listen Actively and Adapt

  • Actively listen to local nuances and incorporate feedback.
  • Balance corporate strategy with on-the-ground realities.
  • Factor in local requirements to prevent resistance.

Be Present Onsite and Build Relationships

  • Spend time onsite to understand local contexts.
  • Make friends across the organization for support.
  • Travel and engage to implement effective change.

Structural Approach

  • Invest in a ‘Service Layer Organization’ team, that is close to the markets.
  • Close to the business and aware of local realities.
  • Crucial for making the global model work in the markets.

Lastly, considering your diverse skill set, which professional accomplishment are you most proud of and how has it influenced your perspective on leadership and the future of pharmaceutical services?

My career spans diverse industries, enabling solutions to numerous challenges and accomplishing project milestones over the past 20+ years in academia, consulting, and presently in the pharmaceutical sector.

As career highlights, I would name transforming the operating model of entire sales teams in automotive, introducing cross-site business process ownership models in diagnostics, strategically aligning and reengineering R&D departments, as well as establishing global services organizations in corporate pharmaceutical contexts.

My passion is to focus on creating meaningful change that improves organizations, emphasizing the importance of leadership, empowerment, and delegation. As a global leader in the pharmaceutical industry, I’ve learned that true leadership involves empowering others and enabling them to deliver.

Looking ahead, global service organizations will be crucial in navigating unprecedented changes brought by advanced analytics, AI, and quantum computing. Agile working and adapting to new technologies quickly will be key for survival and competitive advantage.

Lastly, I recommend following three basic management rules:

  • Avoid assumptions, as reality always looks different,
  • Be patient and strategic in corporate environments, don´t react immediately and
  • Stay up-to-date and stay relevant by embracing change proactively – cannibalize yourself, otherwise someone else will.