Search for executives in the new normal

The RSA Group, established in 1981, is a leading executive search company in the global life sciences. It offers a proof-of-candidate approach, based on evidence and in-depth benchmarking, to help clients make better hiring decisions. Nick Stephens has been a director of the company since 1986. He joined full time in 1995 and took over in 2000. Now executive chairman of the RSA group, he is also chairman of Neuro-Bio, an Alzheimer’s based company. in Oxford (United Kingdom). focused on biotechnology and as an independent director of Utah-based Soft Cell Biological Research. He also holds a number of non-executive director positions.

Here Nick is talking to Pharm Exec on the ups and downs of executive search activity over the past 12 months.

Pharm Exec: What have been the main problems you have encountered in recruiting executives in the biopharmaceutical space in recent years?

Nick stephens: There are three main themes:

1. COVID-19. The biotech industry, like the rest of the world, has been responding to COVID for a year. Initially, this involved crisis management and, for the lucky few, managing massively increased orders, revenues and workloads. This highlighted the top executives who had (or lacked) the agility and execution capacity to navigate such turbulent times. This has led to an increase in new and replacement hires within management and the board. Executives and administrators with these skills were in great demand.

COVID has also brought working from home to most people. This relative privacy combined with a natural desire for something non-routine meant people were easier to contact and engage with than ever before. However, separating the curious from the real interested has become a much bigger task for executive search firms than ever before.

2. Geography. Location has become almost unnecessary – except for tax / IP planning purposes and for resilient supply chains. This will continue to be true.

3. Money, money Money. The avalanche of money flowing through space and the sheer number of new businesses being created have pushed demand and compensation to levels never seen before. Great people are in demand more than ever, and the costs of a hiring error are higher than ever – diligence and expertise are more essential than ever.

What advances in diversity and inclusion (D&I) have you seen in recent years?

D&I has finally taken its rightful place at the forefront of people’s minds, of investor thinking, and it is evident that it leads to better business performance. At RSA, we’ve been campaigning for diversity on boards and leadership teams for over a decade and internally we live that out in our culture. The key issue in the life sciences is that of supply – there are more open roles than applicants. We are not there yet; this is a process that we must accelerate and urgent action is necessary to promote, support, supervise and actively recruit independent “trainee” directors is a priority.

Coming back to COVID, can you say more about how it has affected your business and the executive search landscape?

COVID has forced a shift in focus for the industries we serve. Health care delivery has shifted almost entirely to COVID; access to hospitals and healthcare professionals was impossible unless it was the COVID response. This meant that commercial and clinical trial activity was reduced worldwide, which was particularly damaging for biotech companies that had “cash flow” and even more so for those conducting clinical trials with difficult parameters. (like death), for example, in oncology.

The search landscape has changed as a result. Decision making in large pharmaceutical companies has been crippled and many companies have been overwhelmed by their own COVID response. This caused an interruption in hiring, but it was short-lived as companies switched to remote work and realized that hiring could continue without face-to-face meetings.

We have seen tremendous turmoil and opportunity in high-level diagnostic roles, supply chain roles, CFOs and, of course, businesses related to COVID. Digital health has grown 10 years in 10 weeks and has grown accordingly.

As the pandemic became the new normal, investors in financial markets have better understood the importance and opportunities in the life sciences space. A tsunami of money poured into space and we saw a huge demand for boards and senior executives, especially from our Asian and European clients looking to build teams or raise funds in the United States. The US markets activated and were even more dynamic than those before COVID.


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