Search Firms Help Life Science Leaders Navigate a Changing Landscape

Drug makers and other healthcare businesses need more than promising ideas and good products to succeed. To deliver results, they must place the right talent in the right jobs.

October 20, 2017 – As healthcare companies work to stay atop of their drug discovery and development pipelines as well as the competition, it is becoming increasingly apparent that their greatest need is to invest in people, according to Adam Bloom, president of the Stevenson Group, a New Jersey-based executive recruitment firm that specializes in the life sciences.

To succeed, organizations must have the right people in the right jobs. And that starts with aligning their talent strategy with their business strategy.

“Anticipating upcoming trends, identifying their implications, providing life sciences clients with a detailed landscape of the industry and mapping talent across the industry will help create that much needed competitive advantage,” said Mr. Bloom, who recently spoke with Hunt Scanlon Media about the changing face of the life sciences field and the role recruiters can play in helping leaders find their way through the thickets.

“A great partnership between a life sciences company and an executive search firm can prove crucial for the way forward,” he said. “It will allow companies to achieve sustainable success in the new health-outcomes-driven ecosystem where managing costs, driving innovative partnerships, hiring the right team to drive customer engagement and hiring multi-dimensional personnel that can wear many hats or have that rare mix of skills that a specialized scientific discipline requires.”

In addition to his current role, Mr. Bloom also co-leads the Stevenson Group’s life sciences practice. Previously, he served at Pfizer Global Pharmaceuticals, leading and executing cross-functional searches at a variety of levels. Mr. Bloom played a key role in the build-out of an internal executive search function and was an active leader of the organization’s corporate diversity recruiting team. Before his work at Pfizer, he ran his own search consultancy after spending several years with InSearch Worldwide.

A Field in Change

He pointed out that many specialized life science disciplines like gene and cell therapy, microbiome and genome-editing CRISPR-Cas9 therapeutics that were just conceptually promising and upcoming a few years ago have since gone mainstream. “In the earlier days, when drugs, clinical studies and targets were more traditional, hiring executives was easier because the scientific requirements were not extremely targeted and a more ‘generalist’ science executive could have done the job competently,” said Mr. Bloom.

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As pharma companies of all sizes begin using new technologies, “hard-to-drug” molecular targets, and innovative multi-pronged clinical trials, the need for executives that are highly knowledgeable in the more focused arenas of science are in great demand. But their skill-set is very specialized and hard to find. “At this point, it becomes crucial for companies to partner with a search firm that can find them the best talent leveraging their strong industry connections and knowledge,” said Mr. Bloom. “Based on the requirements for the role, executive search firms will deliver a slate of candidates with the right mix of knowledge, skills, and abilities along with the necessary cultural fit.”

“The details of the candidate’s track record needs to be outlined clearly so based on aspects like milestones in drug discovery, getting assets in to the clinic can be clearly annotated for the client so it helps them in making important hiring decisions and search firms clearly play a huge role in that aspect.”

Another key advantage of working with a search firm is that it allows leaders of small companies to spend their time more wisely, said Mr. Bloom. With a recruitment firm, busy executives speak only to candidates that are viable for the job instead of screening hundreds of off-target candidates that aren’t vetted extensively. “For a small company, the focus on finding and retaining experienced managers can lead to problems if it becomes overwhelming, and particularly if it results in the appointment of someone who is not right for the organization,” he said.

Different Needs

Too often the desire to bring in experienced management results in hiring someone who may be perfect for a larger company, but who lacks the requisite skills for a small and rapidly growing organization. “This applies equally to larger institutions as they might end up hiring someone who has exclusively worked at smaller companies and have only recently forayed into the Big Pharma environment and might not have taken in to account the functional – scientifically and operationally – and culture differences between organizations.”

The needs of different sized companies can be quite different. So it is that factors like flexibility and the agility with which candidates can switch between organizations become crucial. “For example, if an executive prefers to work more in a stable environment with focused scientific duties, a Big Pharma environment clearly proves to be a better option as opposed to a small company environment,” Mr. Bloom said. “Search firms can vet these aspects during their interview process. Also, it is important to manage expectations with the scientist leaving a Big Pharma position to join a small start-up company or vice versa so that they recognize the associated risks and rewards.”

What’s more, as the culture at Big Pharma companies evolve with the introduction of innovation centers and biotech-like incubators, executive search firms can leverage their networks and gauge the overlap of skill-set and cultural fits of all candidates that might be ideal for such entrepreneurial roles in a larger environment. “Leveraging the vast talent pool that search firms carry enables them to identify such interesting opportunities and place opportune candidates in roles that might fit their company and client needs perfectly,” said Mr. Bloom.

When a candidate search falls outside of an executive search firm’s expertise, recruiters can plug the knowledge gap with their domain know-how. “Newly-appointed CEOs might be surprised to find the conversation does not always revolve around the science,” said Mr. Bloom. “While it is easy to glamorize start-up science companies and potential for breakthrough treatment, there are basic principles like market value that also needs to be strongly taken into account, not just the science potential or potential benefit to patients.”

Benchmarking Talent

“For example, a company at that stage might need to consider getting some funding from venture investor and might need a credible, experience CFO or at least a VP of finance or if they are being approached by other players in the market about partnering on some assets, they might need a business development leader to help them guide the path to future collaborations.”

Big companies, meanwhile, might have internal talent that have proven successful and are being considered for a more senior managerial position. “While moving your own staff to senior positions is a logical move, it is important to benchmark whether they match up to the external talent that might be right for the job,” said Mr. Bloom. “Benchmarking internal talent versus external talent that the executive search firm can map out of the company often turns out to be crucial.”

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Searches for C-suite positions that report into the chief executive officer are usually too important to conduct without a search firm, said Mr. Bloom. Executives at that level can make or break a company. “A retained search firm can mitigate the risk because of their experience working with all types of executives in the past and their extensive network,” he said.

“Another huge advantage is the complete candidate assessment that search firms provide by performing comprehensive reference checking for all candidates as that really helps address some key factors that make them a great candidate or highlight some warning signals that had not come up during the interview and the other vetting processes. If there are two candidates that are in contention for one position and both have interviewed well, this process provides a great benchmark for who holds up stronger when it comes to their scientific and managerial prowess based on referencing from well-known scientific personnel from the industry.”

Special Needs

For now, the life science industry is focused primarily on medical therapies and pharmaceuticals. But growth drivers have begun to extend far beyond traditional therapeutics. Research is leading to dramatic technological innovation. America’s aging population, a high demand for healthcare and more holistic approaches to medicine are driving the future of the life science industry.

“Hence there is an increasing need for leaders who can manage outside partnerships, regulatory/operational requirements, as well as data analysis, health economics, and outcomes research,” said Mr. Bloom. “Additionally, we have seen high number of non-science hiring as the biotech sector’s focus shifts to product commercialization.”

Building strong teams quickly and efficiently should be a company’s focus, he said. And the streamlined processes that search firms offer can jumpstart the growth of a business. “Additionally, high profile executives need to be engaged very strategically in order for them to consider making career moves especially if they are migrating from a traditional career to a more risky but high-impact position,” said Mr. Bloom.

“As titles gets compressed and functional excellence becomes more important to leaders instead of big-title positions at smaller companies these days, it is still early days for us to say that it is a cultural change seen on a large scale and hence a search firm can help balance the needs of both the client and the candidate.”

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

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