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The leadership challenge

How smaller pharma firms can contend with the major players

NonStop Recruitment Abid KanjiLife certainly isn't easy for smaller pharmaceutical firms. They face ongoing challenges taking on their larger rivals, securing investment and generally trying to make waves in a sector dominated by major players. In addition, while there have been flickers of innovation in recent months, we're still well off pre-recession levels and that's before we even look at the hiring challenges.

As with many other sectors, the pharma arena is suffering from a shortage of talent, meaning that many of the smaller organisations have struggled to retain their star performers. One method of pushing out of this bracket and achieving growth is to take on an inspirational and potentially transformative leader who can make a real difference to an organisation - but how can smaller firms secure their services and which skills should they be looking for?

It goes without saying that the major players can generally offer, on the face of it at least, a considerably more attractive package than any of the smaller firms. After all, there'll be the chance to be employed by a household name like GlaxoSmithKline, Pfizer and Allergan (although how long those names remain in place is another question) and potentially the opportunity to work on blockbuster drugs. Sound attractive? It often is. However, working at a smaller organisation also comes with numerous benefits that will be better suited to a wide range of professionals. Much of the time, it comes down to how these opportunities are presented and communicated to candidates. For example, while an opportunity at a larger employer may come with the aforementioned benefits, a leadership position is also likely to come hand in hand with masses of red tape and bureaucracy to fight through. This isn't a criticism, just a fact of life at major players and while some will be well suited to these demands, others won't.

This isn't so much the case at smaller firms, here leaders are likely to have more of a chance to make a real difference in a hands-on role that they'll have considerably more control over. Obviously, the forensic detail of the clinical side of things will be largely out of their hands and operational methods will vary from company to company but it's safe to say that heading up a smaller firm will provide considerably more opportunity for freedom than would be allowed at a larger one. All of these factors need to be communicated by organisations when targeting talent. More broadly, firms should consider what makes them different and, crucially, an attractive place to work. Is the organisation operating at the cutting edge of innovation, or will the role allow for increased international travel? These are all factors that high-powered professionals who want to find their next, or even first, defining leadership role will want to know about, so make sure this is being communicated effectively.

A successful search
The next question to ask is where are these individuals? As mentioned, the sector is suffering from an ongoing skills shortage and your next potentially transformative leader isn't going to be logged on to LinkedIn or sitting by the phone waiting for you to get in touch. Yes, it makes sense to use professional pharma networks to see if there are any suitable and available professionals looking to change roles, but sometimes it can be more effective to expand your search. Heading up a company will obviously mean that the individual generally won't be directly involved in the clinical process and - while an understanding of the pharmaceutical sector is a must - that person won't need to be embedded in it to the same extent as someone at a more technical level perhaps would. Leaders are taken on for their business acumen and understanding of wider commercial opportunities. For this reason, it might be worth broadening your search and casting your net in other sectors like finance or IT, for example. We've already seen the growing trend of professionals moving from finance into technology and it's likely that we'll see greater number of leaders make cross-sector moves in the coming years. The applicable skills are often transferrable and there's no definitive rule saying that you have to hire someone with a relevant degree or background. History is littered with examples of people like Angela Ahrendts who've experienced success in different fields, and while it's tempting to be blown away by an impressive CV, you really want to hire an individual based on his skills and potential, rather than his experience of the specific position that you're seeking to fill.

There are no universal qualities held by all successful pharma leaders

Leadership qualities
Now you know how to attract candidates, but who should you be looking for and which skills should they possess?
There are no universal qualities held by all successful pharma leaders, but one method of ensuring that they have the requisite commercial understanding is to look for those with a postgraduate qualification such as an MBA or a Masters in Management such as that offered by the European School of Management and Technology. It's all very nice talking about having the perfect balance of technical and business know-how, but it's hard to prove that they can actually utilise it in a real-life situation before making an expensive hiring mistake. It's not a guarantee of success, but recruiting someone holding this sort of qualification is one way of ensuring that the individual 'gets' the wider picture, rather than just being a sector specialist.

The organisation's culture
In addition to commercial understanding, any effective leader will have the drive and confidence to believe in his own decisions, while also being flexible enough to listen to and take advice from his colleagues. This isn't reinventing the wheel, but these traits aren't necessarily easy to find, particularly in the current climate. Equally important is the 'fit' within the organisation. Obviously, leaders dictate internal culture to a certain degree but firms can't expect to hire a new business head if that person is not at least partly matched with the existing culture of the organisation. This is absolutely crucial. Leaders don't need to be best friends with everyone they manage, but they do need to understand and be able to function in the climate they're moving into. After all, if someone doesn't feel like he belongs at a firm, he's considerably less likely to perform to the best of his ability and is more likely to leave. Which, put simply, will cost the business a small fortune in both time and resources.

You don't have to look far to find examples of otherwise talented professionals who've failed in roles because they weren't well matched in the first place. Carly Fiorina, one of the republican candidates in the American presidential election and a highly successful businesswoman, is widely considered to have failed in her role as head of HP because of cultural differences. To use a sporting example, Angel Di Maria was unsuccessful at Manchester United the season after being named man of the match in a World Cup final because he couldn't get to grips with life in North-West England after a career spent in sunnier climes. No one can deny that both individuals were highly talented in their respective fields, but they both chose roles that were not a good 'fit' for them and failed. We all want to be good at our jobs, but sometimes cultural factors can have a huge impact that often can't be avoided. If a firm wants to avoid making a similarly costly mistake, it would be well advised to assess the candidate's 'fit' before committing to a decision.

Making the right choice
The major players may be able to get away with a hiring slip-up now and then. After all, they've got deep enough resources to cope with a longer recruitment process as well as any potential impact caused by hiring the wrong person. However, smaller firms don't have the resources and won't be so lucky. Making the wrong choice - particularly at senior level - can cause critical damage and it's vital for organisations to get their decisions right first time. If your business wants that inspirational and transformative leader, make sure you consider your options carefully and choose wisely.

Article by
Abid Kanji

is associate director at NonStop Recruitment

24th February 2016

From: Sales

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