Leadership Recruitment

Leadership Recruitment

The transformational changes in pharma are having a major impact on leadership recruitment – shaping both the capabilities that companies require and how they need to operate to attract the best people in uncertain times

The major challenges facing the pharma industry are driving fundamental changes to business strategies and organisational structures, resulting in a rapid evolution in the leadership competencies and experiences that companies need to take their businesses forward.

In this transformational business environment, the demand for certain skill sets has increased exponentially in the last two years:

Effective change leaders: demand for CEOs and functional heads with proven skills in maximising business performance, innovation and efficiency by developing new business models is high – particularly in R&D productivity improvement. After years of struggle, there are signs that the industry is now generating real improvements in this area, with an increasing percentage of new medicines applications being approved by the EMA and fewer drugs being terminated in phase III. The focus on increasing R&D productivity will continue to be a key driver for the industry and its executive search partners, given the high cost of R&D innovation.  

M&A and partnering experts: the demand for M&A and partnering experts has never been higher as big pharma continues to seek to acquire or partner with specialty biotech and academia to improve its pipeline. With some $25bn being spent annually on licensing and other R&D alliances alone, people with the expertise to secure the right product at the optimal stage of development and at the best price are in demand.   

Market access and customer engagement: the demand for health economics, outcomes research, pricing and reimbursement, market access, and payer insight and engagement leaders has blossomed, as pharma changes its commercial model. We have seen a 50 per cent uplift in Board, VP and director level searches in market access in the last year alone.   

Convergence of technologies: the accelerating pace of technological and scientific change, the convergence of life sciences technologies and the development of personalised medicines, have increased demand for executives with pan-life sciences industry understanding and insight – people who can bridge the worlds of biopharma and medical technology.


Key talent is scarce: there is intense demand for key leaders in certain ‘high priority/low talent availability’ areas, including a higher than usual demand for C-suite, VP and director-level appointments. Other high-demand areas include observational research, translational medicine, regulatory affairs, drug safety, epidemiology and medical.  
Risk aversion: it can be more challenging for even the strongest companies to hire the right people in a downturn when candidates are more risk averse and less likely to be seeking a move.  

Meeting the demand for innovation: as the industry evolves and different business models emerge, individuals with the ability to bring fresh, innovative ideas are in high demand. This applies across the industry.

…and how to deal with them

It is more important than ever to think creatively about senior leadership appointments and to run a professional, well-managed, efficient executive search and hiring process that truly impresses prospective candidates.  

Differentiate your company: it is vital to communicate a compelling narrative to potential candidates; what is your company seeking to achieve, why is it different and exciting, and why should the candidate join you? It is also important to run a well-managed and engaging process to attract people. The way in which candidates are dealt with – from the initial contact onwards – is an important influence on whether they ultimately will join you.  

Accept that candidates are more reflective: allow time for their decision-making. In uncertain times, candidates are more cautious about moving, especially when they have built a reputation and have history at their current company. The decision to move can be tough, even for a fantastic opportunity. Search firms need to be supportive and rigorous; and client senior leaders need to be engaged fully in the search process. There is nothing more powerful than a call from the CEO or another Board member at the critical point in a candidate’s decision process.

Widen the net: historically pharma has recruited from within. I have lost count of the times I have heard it said that in order to work effectively within the industry, you need to have come from the industry. By widening the search, companies can gain access to new thinking and fresh perspectives. In my view, this means that pharma needs to be more ready to look to other sectors for some of its key talent. As one client said: “We have enough people who understand the pharma industry, what we really need is someone who can help us to really understand our customers.”  

Look to international markets for leaders: it’s increasingly important to search the International, not just regional, market for the best people. 

Flexibility: flexible working arrangements are growing in importance – and are increasingly feasible in our technology-rich working world. If you can be flexible about where a role can be located, or enable some element of remote working, you can gain access to talented people who may otherwise not be available. Flexible benefits packages are highly attractive, providing choices on how the total remuneration package is tailored to suit individual needs and, if appropriate, easily varied to accommodate the changing financial requirements of the individual.  

As the industry continues to reshape to maximise the opportunities presented by the challenging environment and economic conditions, I am convinced that the winning companies will be those who think laterally about where to find the best people and run a creative, candidate-focused process to attract them. 


Sue Rossiter
Sue Rossiter is managing director & European Practice Lead, Life Sciences, at global executive search firm, DHR International. 
Sue can be reached on +44 1727 857755 or at