How COVID-19 Has Reset the Talent Game in Healthcare and Life Sciences

The sector is booming. Demand for top talent is strong. Compensation is surging. And companies that linger watch the best candidates slip away to their competitors. In this market, it is the flexible and responsive employers who come out on top.

March 21, 2022 – Healthcare and life science organizations have been turning to executive search firms more than ever to acquire world-class leadership. The most pressing challenge has been finding high impact, innovative leaders. Three months into 2022, the economic picture is improving. But what is going to light the match to overcome the economic impact felt from the COVID-19 pandemic? For executive recruiters, life sciences and healthcare organizations hold keys to the answer. Eager for investment, far more resilient than the S&P 500 during the crisis, and poised for a coming sea of divestitures, the life sciences space has boundless energy and pent-up talent demand – just as many organizations are getting the attention, and financing, from private equity firms seeking value investments. It also happened to be one sector that accelerated during the pandemic year.

There is significant growth in the life sciences market, according to Rebecca Forristall, director of biotechnology and life sciences at Direct Recruiters Inc. “The global life sciences industry has been on the rise, growing more rapidly than ever over the past decade, its trajectory only strengthened throughout 2020 and going into 2021,” she said. “COVID-19 has further pushed this trajectory forward due to mRNA technology opening the door to new possibilities. Because of this we are seeing a job market that is exploding. Companies have more open positions than ever which is resulting in a candidate market. By this we mean that candidates are being contacted weekly about job openings in life sciences and they are also getting more than one offer- sometimes three to four offers. This creates a need to stay very connected with candidates and understand all the job options that they have in front of them very early in the process.” Life sciences companies are aware this is a candidate market, but they have not necessarily processed it.”

“We have had to be both patient and persistent with these companies as we explain the market,” Ms. Forristall said. “We are very clear up front but, in most instances, it has taken the loss of a good candidate in order for them to be fully aware of how competitive the life sciences market is. This demand is creating a need for a faster interview process as well as high compensation packages. Some companies take our advice and move forward, others are stuck with unfilled positions.”

COVID-19 continues to create huge growth in life sciences. “mRNA discoveries have opened new doors and because of this, money is being made which then leads to additional drug development and research,” said Ms. Forristall. “All of this growth then leads to investments in other areas of life sciences such as technology and consulting, which in turn become growth markets.”

Robust Demand

The current demand for executive level talent in the life science/ healthcare sectors is robust, said Steven Hochberg, founder and CEO of Caliber Associates. “The activity is largely due to two main factors. First, there has been a tremendous influx of capital into the sector with companies being funded by VCs, private equity, SPACs, and crossover funds. The number of companies being formed or rapidly growing has increased substantially. With this influx of capital, companies have grown their research and development organizations rapidly. Additionally, given the enormous focus on both therapeutic and vaccine approaches to address COVID-19 pandemic and variants, government funding for these initiates have put programs on an incredible fast track, thus increasing the need for talent in virtually all aspects of research and development, manufacturing and operations, quality assurance, and regulatory affairs.”

Given the robust demand for talent, candidates are being deluged with outreach from recruiters, according to Mr. Hochberg. “It is not uncommon for key leaders in high demand areas of functional expertise to comment that they receive multiple calls weekly for similar opportunities they are qualified for,” he said. “This has created unique challenges in the search for passive candidates. It is now not uncommon for top candidates to be evaluating multiple opportunities simultaneously. Additionally, given the demand for senior talent, many perspective candidates lack time in position with their current companies. This makes it quite challenging to fully assess results accomplished.”

Another key factor impacting the search process is the rapid inflation of compensation levels and candidate expectations. “Often, this results in creating many challenges for client organizations,” said Mr. Hochberg. “The need to balance internal equity and current market trends has represented significant hurdles for companies to deal with. Another key trend relates to the level of flexibility a client is prepared to offer with respect to remote work environments. Expectations for leaders to be on premises vary and candidates have been displaying significantly higher leverage regarding this issue. Given the challenges of rapid growth there is a great focus on reducing search cycle time. Those companies that can demonstrate the ability to be agile and responsive as well as flexible are winning in the ability to attract top candidates.”

COVID’s Lasting Impact

“2020 was also impacted by the fact that no one would travel for interviews, no one wanted to change jobs, and several people stayed where they were, stopping the market for a bit,” said Marion Spears Karr, managing director at Comhar Partners. “Coming into 2021 and with the pandemic continuing, people have opened up. However, it is still causing issues where organizations aren’t making decisions and are concerned about the future. As far as how the industry recovered, it may not have recovered yet. It is starting to, but we will not see recovery until this year.”

The most important thing to consider now in recruiting leaders in the fields of healthcare and life science is commitment to mission, commitment to fit with the culture, commitment to making an impact for the people that the organization serves and internally supporting their team, according to Mr. Spears Karr. “There has been a lot written around servant leadership, empathetic leadership, emotional intelligence, and all of those key attributes that we’ve thrown around as buzz words, but the most important thing right now is that organizations need leaders that build trust, builds an authentic approach to what they do, create transparency, support the people that they serve and their teams,” he said. “Leaders need the technical capabilities to run a company and be impactful in the role that they play, but there is a much bigger emphasis on cultural fit and leadership attributes. At Comhar partners, we differentiate candidates based on skills, an understanding of the value that they bring to the table, and why it matters to stakeholders and people that they serve. If you have two candidates with the same qualifications, the one that is going to win is the one that has a high emotional intelligence, communication skills, demonstrates authenticity and draws others to them.”

Related: Recruiting Diverse Leaders in Healthcare

The biggest challenge we are facing, from the candidate side, relates to willingness or ability to relocate for a role, said Todd Wozniak, vice president, search consultant at Cejka Search. “While the industry is gradually returning to something closer to normal operations, we are finding the instability that came with the pandemic has made candidates more risk adverse, as they are reluctant to uproot families because they are starting to see some semblance of normalcy in their family lives and communities,” he said. “In addition, the ability to work remotely and becoming accustomed to that environment has impacted candidates’ willingness to relocate to a work in an office setting. Many candidates, depending on the level of position are inquiring about working remotely.”

 How “Systemness” Has Impacted the Search Process

In this brand new episode of ‘Talent Talks,’ Hunt Scanlon Media host, Rob Adams, is joined by Rebecca Kapphahn, executive vice president and managing principal at Cejka Search. In this episode, Ms. Kapphahn joins the show share how healthcare organizations have been impacted by the global pandemic. Ms. Kapphahn then shares what “systemness” is and how it is affected the recruitment and search processes. Listen Now!

“The culture in healthcare is one that is very much team-oriented, collaborative and patient-centered,” Mr. Wozniak said. “Candidates that demonstrate a servant leadership style, high EQ, and a commitment to a culture of customer service and high quality are in great demand to ensure that those core cultural values are advanced.” To meet the needs of its clients, the focus at Cejka Search is to identify passive candidates currently working in the healthcare/ life science industry. “These are the candidates that bring the high level of experience and expertise specific to the healthcare industry and culture that our clients expect and require,” Mr. Wozniak said.

Mr. Wozniak says that for a number of years, DEI initiatives have been front and center for healthcare organizations, and specifically in the recruitment process as employers seek to not only expand the diversity of their leadership teams in terms of race, ethnicity, and gender, but also in diversity of thought. “The spotlight the COVID-19 crisis has retrained on the issue of health equity has only served to intensify this focus,” he said. “Due to stronger DEI policies and initiatives within our client organizations, it’s fair to say that the industry is more diverse than five years ago, and this is a trend we expect to continue. As an executive healthcare recruitment firm, we built these conversations and practices into our own recruitment process at an organic level, to ensure we are supporting our clients in best meeting their own diversity and inclusion goals.”

An Increase in Activity

While many organizations were reluctant or unable to pursue high-level leadership recruitments during the early and mid-points of the pandemic, in the last few months Cejka Search has seen an increase in activity, as leaders who had deferred retirement and other career moves are able to focus once again on their own career paths. “We expect leadership recruitment in the healthcare industry continue to strengthen into 2022, with a focus on clinical leadership roles as well as roles dedicated to clinical transformation, population health, and diversity and equity,” Mr. Wozniak said. “At Cejka Search, we partner with healthcare organizations to fill executive leadership roles in C-suite, senior executive, nursing and physician leadership across hospitals, health systems, medical groups, and academia. We have experienced a growing demand for physician leaders to help integrate the operations of healthcare with the clinical delivery of medicine.”

Medical Device Trends

“Our firm normally travels to over 30 trade shows each year to stay current on medical device trends, and to meet clients and candidates in person,” said Paula Rutledge, president of Legacy MedSearch. “I was at RSNA (radiology conference) after Thanksgiving and it was appreciably smaller, down over 55 percent from the last in-person meeting. Our clients are talking about the need to continue to attend trade shows, given that their target audience (physicians and allied medical professionals) are unable – or unwilling to attend.”

“While meeting people face to face still is the gold standard in placing candidates, recruiting at the executive level may rely more on video and phone meetings,” Ms. Rutledge said. “Another trend we are leaning into involves using AI – and we are investing heavily in that technology. With 600,000 medical device professionals in our database, AI helps bring the right people to the top of our pipeline. Even with technology, it’s still a relationship business and I hope tradeshows and conferences make a rebound because there’s nothing better than having a relationship with the people you work with.”

Overall, the effect of full employment in the medical device space has dramatically affected both the cost and supply of leading executives, according to Ms. Rutledge. “We are seeing this across the board but particularly in operations, supply chain, distribution and in functional areas like quality and regulatory with the changes in MDR regulation and enhanced FDA compliance,” she said. “Before we take a new search, we have a frank conversation with the company around both compensation and speed to hire, using data we provide which gives an accurate reflection of what the ‘new market’ normal is for salary and benefit.”

Related: Executive Search Industry Navigates a Crisis

Contributed by Scott A. Scanlon, Editor-in-Chief; Dale M. Zupsansky, Managing Editor; and Stephen Sawicki, Managing Editor – Hunt Scanlon Media

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