Did someone say crisis? Why executive search business grows but Life Sciences practices don’t

Recent numbers from big executive search and business consulting firms have confirmed a trend that shows throughout the industry. Even though business for executive search continues to grow the Life Sciences practices in particular don’t follow the trend. They seem to be in some sort of crisis. And, believe me, I’m the first one who can tell you why. So let’s shed some light on the issues.

Exponential changes in technology

The life science industry is – we’ve all heard it by now – undergoing some changes. The changes have to do with a lot of things: one of those is technology. The technologies need to change because demands change and technology needs to adapt to benefit patients and clinical trial productivity. What this goes along with is a significant increase in data volume, which means that there is an increased need for scale and security in the business. These kind of changes in technology call for major structural changes within life science companies who need to partner with large and small technology companies to derive insights from the high volumes of data. Who is in charge of making these changes work?

Geopolitical change

Not only technology brings a disruptive element into life sciences businesses, geopolitical changes have their share too. That concerns issues like pricing, securing market access, good value propositions, not to mention what comes with the uncertainties around geopolitical boundaries and policies, changing tax reforms and so on. In order to stay on top of changes like that it needs plans to mitigate potential risks, revisit investment decisions, and take advantage of potential opportunities. And who is in charge of making these changes work?

Who are the people you’re not looking for?

What I’m getting at is that although life sciences are deeply engaged in quite fundamental reconstruction processes there is an imbalance when it comes to getting the right people in at the right time to bring these processes along. Because life sciences today have an exponential need for people who are cross-functional, who think and see through whole change processes. These people are a) highly specialized, b) rare and c) hard to approach. Like a MSL position – especially when it’s a search across regions.

Life sciences companies need to change but can’t – or don’t want to?

But life sciences companies have a hard time making the ends meet. They avoid the risk when it comes to more challenging candidates; they have a hard time deciding who is the one to go to when industries fuse together. The tendency to follow old roads when it’s actually really time for some new ideas goes a long way…

The change within is the big challenge for life sciences companies. Because it ultimately means: organizations with less hierarchy and more autonomy at team and individual level. This is key. Culture is critical and it becomes more critical the larger a company is or becomes. Life sciences organizations need to center around redesigning jobs and assignments by using the more fundamental human abilities and incorporating them with innovation. That may mean that it’s important to set up cross-functional steering groups to incorporate R&D functions with commercial, medical affairs, clinical, market access and external partners.

The people are there but the positions don’t fit them

Building cross-functional teams can help life sciences companies break down silos, so that knowledge can be shared between departments and therapeutic areas. But that calls for people who are able to “cross-function” and although they exist, they more often than not don’t find their way into the right positions. Which is even more of a pity considering that life sciences are more and more a skills-based economy where talent will be a differentiator. So why is talent the area that causes executive search the most headache? What’s your take?

I often witness when I come into new search projects that many companies have a really hard time with transformation processes. Especially in life sciences, but really quite everywhere, companies are introducing new ways of working to large numbers of employees, with the goal of producing a transformation after restructuring. But my experience and also some research show that companies struggle with reaching these goals, or at least they don’t reach them quickly enough. 

What makes transformation processes fail?

There are a number of reasons for unsuccessful corporate transformation, just to name some of them: lack of workforce commitment, not enough support from the management, poor collaboration and low management credibility. All of this, quite understandably, causes a lack in moral and motivation among the workforce. How can the management lead by example and form a solid transformation process?

Change is created from the top

Everything starts with leadership. We all know that. So it seems. But do we? Changing leadership can be a challenging concept for many organizations, but it is vital that changes be made at the top first. I can’t stress enough how hard this is for a large number of companies. Yes, sometimes management members need to be replaced during this process, may it be because they wanted to go or needed to go because they didn’t have the right mindset or the will to drive transformation. That’s often a point where I come in because as a necessary part of transformation these executives have to be replaced with people with the right mindset and the right attitude.

Another effective technique is to rotate the existing positions, to create a new and fresh look on the situation. The management also has to share the same set of values, and these should be communicated unified and effectively. The management team should encourage open discussion, but decisions must be conveyed as a unified front.

And by the employees

Employee engagement is a key element of corporate transformation. Two important factors to succeed involve stating a compelling vision about the future, and the ability of showing every staff member where they fit within it.

It is important to keep the transformation on course, for example by implementing a specific transformation team lead by a person on the company’s executive team. He or she is the CEO’s right hand, and must possess the ability to keep the organization inspired and motivated as well as to see the business with fresh eyes. For this reason, it is an advantage if this transformation leader comes from the outside, and not from the executive board.


Moving fast and execution are, as I have said, two of the most vital ingredients of a successful transformation. It happens that executives launch initiatives, then simply keep their fingers crossed that the change will automatically come. Therefore, it is important to develop tools and systems used to monitor performance. I always try to push for an analytics-driven approach based on facts and figures. Here, the transformation team should meet regularly to discuss the specific project within the company and their progress and well as problems and possible solutions. 

A company’s leaders must be unified and committed to form a transformation program. This must also involve the role of the single employee. Once they have this, they must pay close attention to the changes within the own team, as well as develop systems to monitor the change – step by step.

By Stephan Breitfeld, Partner Life Sciences – ingeniam

Tel.:+49 (0) 69 / 959091989
Mobil: +49 (0) 172 / 6685350

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