Business & Economics

Leader Board: The DNA of High Performance Teams


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For team leaders of today and tomorrow, unlock the key to making high performance teams work by delving into this inspirational, relevant, and readily applicable story about a leader trying to do something very special with a team he's creating to deliver a best-in-class product launch.​

After the story, invest in the discussion to gain a trove of battle-tested resources that will positively transform your team dynamic!

The Negativity Trap

Sam Lombardi’s habitual lateness would have been a huge problem if he weren’t so good at his job. The problem was that the new senior management of Giant Pharmaceuticals didn’t know about his bad habit. It was 7:45 a.m. Sam was running late, as usual, and he’d just learned from his administrative assistant that his new boss, Senior Vice President of Global Marketing Jim Kelly, and the new president of Giant, Carl Reed, wanted to meet with him at nine o’clock. This was not good. An impromptu meeting first thing Monday morning?

It could only mean one thing: Sam’s illustrious career at Giant was coming to an end. Sam drove faster. Thankfully, New Jersey’s Interstate 295 South was cooperating this morning.

He pulled into the parking garage at 8:43 a.m. and willed his bum knee to move as quickly as he could stand it. When he reached his office on the first floor of the Alexander Building, he found his longtime assistant, Gaile Deegan, waiting. Gaile—reddish blond, five foot three, and full-figured—was a true tough New Jersey gal with Irish roots who’d raised three boys on her own. In her mid-fifties, with twenty-five years of dedicated service to the company under her belt, Gaile was almost as much of a Giant institution as Sam.

“You’re sweating, Sam,” she said, by way of greeting.

“Good morning to you, too, Gaile,” he replied. He noticed that she’d taken a few inches off of her characteristic bob. “Nice hairdo. Is that a new blouse, too?”

“Save the charm for the boys upstairs, Sam,” she replied with a smirk. “You’re going to need it.”

“That bad, huh?”

“Well, the last two people to be summoned for an impromptu meeting with the new boss ended up being escorted off the premises by security. So yeah, I’d be worried.”

“Gee, thanks for the pep talk, Gaile.”

“You’re the coach, Sam. For what it’s worth, I hope they don’t fire you.”

“Me, too,” Sam replied. “Now give me a sec to collect my thoughts.”

“And straighten your tie.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Sam retied his tie and studied his reflection in the mirror on the wall of his office. When did I get so old? Thankfully, he still had more black in his full head of hair than gray, but a trace of wrinkles cracked the smooth surface around his eyes. He kept his five-foot-nine frame relatively fit by playing tennis, squash, and golfing whenever his knee would allow, which wasn’t often these days—hence the troubling paunch in his abdomen. He remembered his early days as a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed communications manager, before he’d been moved from PR to marketing, where he’d been thriving for the past fifteen years.

Would all that come to an end this gloomy Monday morning? Only one way to find out. Chin high, Sam limped to the elevator and began the longest journey of his twenty-year career.


Founded in 1847 by American chemists Thomas Finn and Nicolas Edmonton, Giant Pharmaceuticals was one of the oldest pharmaceutical companies in the United States. The fledgling enterprise, originally called Edmonton-Finn, was a holistic medicine company based on the principle that the human body, if given a bit of help, could heal itself. In those days, all business was done at a farmhouse sitting on ten acres of land near the palisades that Thomas Finn had inherited when his father passed away. Today, the corporate headquarters of Giant occupied 240 acres in Washington Township, New Jersey.

After the flu pandemic of 1918, a Greek-American industrialist named Laurence Gigas became intrigued by Edmonton-Finn’s alternative medicine approach. He purchased Edmonton-Finn and rebranded the company as Giant, after the English translation of his last name. Gigas was inspired by the emergence of vaccination as a paradigm shift in medicine and made it his goal to create the world’s largest vaccine producer—a status Giant had definitively obtained by 2016.

Operating in over one hundred fifty markets worldwide, Giant was also a leader in allergy drugs, antibiotics, antivirals, and, most recently, cardiovascular health with the development of Induet—the world’s first safe cholesterol ester transfer protein (CETP) inhibitor—a compound that increased HDL (“good” cholesterol) levels by 40 percent on its own, and in combination with statins (which reduced “bad” cholesterol), lowered total cholesterol scores a whopping 60 percent at the starting dose, thus helping to reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke for high-risk patients.

Induet was Sam’s baby and had blockbuster drug potential, but previous management had not invested properly in launching the drug and now, twelve months later, the product was plateauing. New management would not want to hear some sob story about the previous team’s mismanagement of a product of this magnitude, which pretty much left Sam holding the bag.

With these thoughts on his mind, he entered the expansive lobby of the Magellan Building, which housed human resources (HR), global marketing, finance, and the senior leadership team (SLT). He wiped his forehead with a handkerchief—the hot June air and his own anticipation left him coated with a thin film of sweat. He could only pray his blue shirt was free from unsightly pit stains.

Why am I assuming the worst? Just because Al and John were let go doesn’t mean I will be. The launch isn’t going so bad—given our level of resources one could argue we’re actually overachieving!

Sam stepped into the elevator and pressed the fourth-floor button, reflecting on the book How Full Is Your Bucket? by the grandfather-grandson team of Donald O. Clifton and Tom Rath. Based on the simple analogy of a ladle and a bucket, their theory stated that each person had an invisible emotional repository, which was continuously being drained or filled by things said and done to, for, or by others. In this way, people were at their best when their emotional bucket was full, and at their worst when their emotional bucket was bare.

Getting out of the elevator, Sam knew the negativity he felt was a result of “empty-bucket syndrome.” Negativity was an outlook, energy, and willpower killer because it inspired “give-up-itis.” He needed to adjust his attitude quickly or risk carrying this energy into the meeting and creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. Another key element of the ladle/bucket analogy was that whenever a person chose to fill another person’s bucket, they in turn filled up their own. Readers of the book were challenged to take a fifteen-question positive-impact assessment, rating their agreement with statements that reflected how they had interacted with others during the day, including whether they had praised and/or helped their others, noticed the particular expertise of their colleagues, or felt that they made others feel accepted and appreciated in the workplace.

Sam needed to practice praise and knew just whose bucket to fill. He pulled out his cell phone and dialed.

“What did you forget, Sam?” his wife, Patricia, answered.

“I forgot to thank you for the spectacular breakfast you prepared this morning.”

“Uh, okay. Are you alright? You complained all morning that I was making you late.”

“I know. I shouldn’t have done that. I’m the luckiest man in the world to have you by my side. I don’t tell you enough how much I love and appreciate all you do for Michael and me.” Sam could tell she was taken off guard by his comments, so he closed the conversation. “Going into a meeting now. Love you.”

Sam hung up, imagining the flustered expression on the face of his wife of twenty years. He smiled, feeling fuller already. Maybe it is better to give than to receive.

“Morning, Sam,” greeted the Afrikaans-accented voice of his new boss, Jim Kelly. Jim’s athletic, six-foot-two-inch physique complemented his commanding presence. Forty-nine years young, Jim ran daily and the only carbs he allowed in his body came from Guiness—his beer of choice. He commuted to Washington Township from Manhattan’s Upper West Side, where he lived with his eleven-year-old daughter. Jim had more money than anyone Sam had ever known thanks to his previous job as CEO of a Canadian biotech firm called Jade Pharma (named after his daughter), but his life had been far from easy. Jim’s wife had passed away ten years back, so to better focus on raising his daughter, he’d sold Jade Pharma for the cool sum of eighty-six million dollars. Though he was technically set for life, he’d come out of semi-retirement to accept the Senior Vice President position at Giant.

“Morning, Jim,” Sam replied, shaking Jim’s strong, manicured hand. “How was your weekend?”

“Took Jade to a couple of casting calls,” Jim replied. “And I reviewed that brand update you got me so late on Friday.”

Uh oh. Sam avoided Jim’s intimidating stare. “I’d be glad to walk you through it this morning…” “

Save it. We’ll talk after the meeting.”

Sam looked up, hopeful. There would be an “after the meeting.” That was a good sign. The secretary interrupted his thoughts. “Carl is ready for you.”

But am I ready for this? Sam stood and followed Jim into the conference room.


Thirty minutes later, Sam limped into Jim’s office and sat down across from his still-boss. His head was reeling from the abrupt turn of events. To calm his racing mind, he admired Jim’s décor. The man was quite the minimalist. Not a scrap of paper cluttered his desk; no family pictures on the credenza. In fact, there was only one picture in the room—a framed poster of Winston Churchill. Clearly, Jim patterned himself after the relentless British luminary.

“So, Sam, how are we going to get this done?” Jim asked. Jim was referring to the mission they’d just received from Carl: “As we all know, Giant is in significant financial trouble since the loss of our patent on Vyrtex. We’re bleeding cash and have nothing in our late-stage pipeline, so we are partnering with Harris Pharmaceuticals to bring our Induet-Lotor combination product to market. Signed the deal Friday, and the announcement comes out in an hour. This is a make-it-or-break-it moment for our company, and we want you to run the US market, Sam. Get us your initial needs assessment and budget by the end of the week.”

Sam blinked back the memory and cleared his throat. “Well, the first step is to build out the team. I don’t need to tell you how crucial this is. We’ve been under resourced since before we launched Induet last year.” “

Agreed,” Jim replied. “But I also need your team to handle Harris. They are known for bullying and outmuscling their partners. I need you to bully back. And we have to get Induet’s numbers up. The sales force isn’t delivering. Remember, once we launch the combo you will be the head of two discrete teams with unique missions – the Induet-Lotor product team and the Induet marketing team. Make some recommendations there as well.”

“Will do, Jim,” Sam replied, though he felt that mutual bullying would be unproductive to both sides. He would need to find a different path forward. “Thanks for the vote of confidence.”

“You’re welcome. Don’t make me look like a fool. Oh, I almost forgot. When you start building out your team, you should take a look at Dave Maxwell. He’s the marketing director on Taradil.”

“I appreciate the recommendation, Jim, but I have a pretty robust assessment process. We shouldn’t just cherry-pick people for roles, right?” Jim turned to his computer, signaling the end of the conversation. “I don’t care how you assess people, but I expect Dave to be in the mix. He’s a difference-maker and I trust him.”

Having received the message, Sam exited Jim’s office, already putting the action steps in order in his head. Step 1: call a staff meeting. Step 2: call HR to identify internal candidates (and meet up with Dave Maxwell). Step 3: get the needs assessment started.

“How did it go, Coach?” Gaile asked once he was seated at his desk again. His office was the opposite of Jim’s—stacks of paper everywhere, pictures and memorabilia from key moments throughout his career in every available space. The clutter may have created a bad impression, but it was him, through and through. Sam hung his head, feigning sadness.

“Time to get the boxes, Gaile.”

Gaile’s face fell, but ever the professional, she caught herself and replied, “Will do.” She turned to leave, and Sam stopped her.

“Hold on a sec, Gaile. We’re gonna need a lot of boxes, because we’re moving on up!”

She registered his words and her face widened in a smile.

“We’re not going anywhere, Gaile. Call the team in so I can give them the good news!”


Sam sat at his four-person conference table flanked by his team: Robert Rath and Tanisha Bilal, marketing directors; Alicia Barden, product manager; and Gaile.

“We’re done, aren’t we?” Tanisha blurted out once everyone was settled in. Coffee-toned with wide, expressive brown eyes, she was the team’s resident worrier.

“Is that what everyone thinks?” Sam asked, glancing around the table.

“I’m not assuming anything,” Rob said, ever the voice of reason. Rob reminded Sam of a professional newscaster with his broadcasters’ baritone and smooth demeanor.

“Come on, Coach,” Alicia said. Her trademark enthusiasm was subdued, dulled by the uncertainty. “What’s the deal?”

“The deal is,” Sam started, “we have a major brand to launch and less than fourteen months to do it.”

He watched as a mixture of excitement, fear, and anxiety rippled through everyone’s expressions.

“What are we launching?” Rob asked.

“Guess,” Sam replied.

“The combo?” Alicia guessed. She was smart as a whip. A product of the Florida A&M University School of Business and Industry, Alicia had been at Giant a mere three years and had spent just a year on his team but was already indispensable to Sam.

“On the money, as usual, Alicia,” Sam replied. “The Induet-Lotor combination will soon be a reality.”

“There’s more, isn’t there?” Rob asked. “We’re not going it alone, are we?”

Sam glanced at Rob, his right-hand man and the best strategic thinker he’d ever worked with.

“Unfortunately not, Rob. A joint venture is being created with Harris Pharmaceuticals.” “

Harris?” Tanisha asked incredulously. “There’s no such thing as a JV with Harris. They buy every partner they work with.”

Tanisha had a point, and she knew first hand. She’d been working at Medicia when they partnered with Harris to launch a new selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitor (SSRI). Within fourteen months, Medicia was acquired by Harris, and 75 percent of the staff, including Tanisha, was laid off.

Sam could see Tanisha’s worry and doubt infecting the rest of the group and said, “That’s been true in the past, Tanisha, but that outcome is far from a certainty. Either way, that’s not our concern now. We need to produce a complete requirements assessment by Friday. Rob, please work with our market research colleagues to draft an initial budget. Tanisha, I need you to evaluate our life cycle management program and recommend enhancements from a data standpoint to bolster our messaging. Alicia, you’ve got sales force programs— medical education, training needs, etcetera. I’m working on staffing us up to match up with Harris toe-to-toe. Any questions?”

No one spoke, so Sam let them go. Tanisha hung back— clearly, she had something to say that she didn’t want everyone to hear. Gaile closed Sam’s office door on her way out, giving Tanisha the privacy she desired.

“Everything okay?” Sam asked when they were alone.

“Sam, I don’t know how to tell you this,” she said.

“By telling me,” he replied, warily.

“This was a very difficult decision for me to make but…”

Sam had led enough teams to know what was coming next. Didn’t make it any easier though.

“…it’s time for me to move on. I’m leaving Giant, Sam.”

Sam felt his bucket draining at this news but hoped his face wasn’t reflecting it.

“Are you telling me this to allow me to counter offer, or is your mind already made up?” Sam asked.

“If I’m honest, I was on the fence before this meeting, but now I’m definitely decided. I don’t want anything to do with Harris! Sorry, Sam.”

He stood and gave Tanisha a hug. “Good luck, Tanisha. You will be sorely missed. If you need anything, let me know. And make sure you stay in touch.”

As she walked out of his office, Sam sank down hard into his chair. This deal was crucial to the financial future of the company and therefore hinged on delivering the best product launch possible. Meanwhile, most successful product launches usually required thirty-six months of lead time to fully deliver the requisite combination of insight, strategy, resourcing, execution, and belief. The fourteen months he’d been given were already pushing the limits of reality, and now he had to deal with breaking in new people? His mental pressure dial turned from intense to extreme. Sam dug through the mountain of paper on his desk and found the “positive impact test” questions from How Full Is Your Bucket?

He needed to do some more bucket filling to balance his emotional state. His eyes fixated on statement number six: “I am more productive when I am around positive people.” That brought his mind back to Dave Maxwell. With Tanisha’s exit, there was now a marketing director spot open. Sam had interacted with Dave on a few occasions and although he didn’t know much about his marketing acumen, Dave had a reputation for generosity and positivity. He pinged Gaile. “Please get Dave Maxwell on the line.”

About the author

Omar L. Harris has been creating high-performance organizations since 2006. He is a Gallup Certified Strengths Coach; a bestselling, award-winning fiction author; independent publishing guru; entrepreneur; and twenty-year veteran of the global pharmaceutical industry. view profile

Published on June 25, 2019

Published by The Pantheon Collective (TPC Books)

50000 words

Worked with a Reedsy professional 🏆

Genre: Business & Economics

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