How to Identify High Performing Leaders in Life Sciences

The importance of going beyond the CV and the interview when recruiting leaders from a small pool of those who have the right domain and situational experience

By: Leadership Dynamics team


5 min

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This article is part of our series on leadership assessment

The challenges to identifying and hiring high performing leaders in life sciences are hard to overcome. The pool of leaders in life sciences is smaller than in many other sectors, which makes finding and competing for the right ones for your business difficult. This is because the domain knowledge necessary for each vertical is usually very niche, not easily transferable to another, making the pool even smaller. 

In addition, most of the company founders are academics who often harbour different priorities to investors, i.e. scientific breakthroughs as an end in itself rather than building a profitable and sustainable business. Which means there can be resistance to finding other leaders who can help them grow.

Finding the right person for your leadership team at a clinical research organisation, pharmaceutical company, medical device manufacturer or biotech firm means understanding the type of person who can thrive there, and how to conduct leadership assessments effectively.

What makes a good leader in life sciences?

The specificity of domain knowledge required in this industry is narrow. It’s very hard to transfer a CEO or a COO from one type of business to another due to the deep knowledge required to run each one. A leader in a pre-clinical research company would not have the right skills or experience for a clinical research organisation. And any commercial role needs an expert who understands the client base and can maintain the company’s credibility with scientists and academics.

In terms of leadership qualities, a good leader in the life sciences industry is one who possesses a results-oriented mindset, focusing on achieving both short-term and long-term objectives. These leaders are proficient in their field and stay up-to-date with industry-related advancements to make informed decisions. They display adaptability in the face of new challenges, as seen during the Covid-19 pandemic, where adaptive leadership was paramount.

Examples of high performing leaders in life sciences

In the life sciences industry, high performing leaders possess a unique combination of skills and talents. They often demonstrate an ability to envision the future, adapt to change, and foster innovation. 

  • AstraZeneca's Pascal Soriot: Since 2012, Soriot has led the pharmaceutical giant to a robust pipeline of innovative drug candidates and a growing focus on precision medicine. A key factor in Soriot's success has been his unparalleled ability to form strategic partnerships and collaborations with research institutions and other industry players.

  • Gilead Sciences' Daniel O'Day: Appointed as CEO in 2019, O'Day has broadened the company's portfolio beyond its established expertise in HIV and Hepatitis C treatments, making acquisitions in cellular therapy and immuno-oncology.

  • Royal Philips' Frans van Houten: CEO since 2011, he has changed Philips from a diversified conglomerate to a focused health technology company. By driving technological advancements and innovative healthcare solutions that improve patient outcomes and optimise hospital workflows, Philips is at the forefront of digital healthcare.

  • IQVIA's Ari Bousbib: Bousbib has led the organisation to become an industry leader for best-in-class clinical research services, having transformed traditional drug development processes for more efficient outcomes.

What makes a good leadership team in life sciences?

For a leadership team to perform at its highest level, it should comprise individuals with complementary skill sets and experiences. This allows the team to effectively seek different perspectives and solve problems collaboratively. Furthermore, a strong leadership team understands the importance of creating a sense of shared purpose, aligning the organisation's goals with the personal motivations of its members.

In the context of the life sciences industry, high performing leadership is defined by its ability to drive innovation, foster collaboration and remain adaptable in the face of change. By focusing on both individual leadership qualities and the elements of a strong team, life sciences companies can ensure the successful execution of their strategic goals.

Cognitive diversity

Cognitive diversity plays a vital role in the leadership of life sciences organisations. As the industry continues to evolve and adapt to new technologies, scientific advancements and global challenges, having a diverse set of cognitive skills within leadership teams becomes increasingly crucial for success.

One of the primary benefits of cognitive diversity in life sciences leadership is that it promotes innovative problem-solving. With various cognitive styles and thought processes at their disposal, leaders can better tackle complex scientific and business challenges. They can efficiently analyse intricate data and develop cutting-edge solutions in areas such as drug discovery, biotechnology and medical devices.

Cognitive diversity also strengthens decision-making within life sciences organisations. When leaders possess diverse cognitive approaches, they are better equipped to consider multiple perspectives, reduce bias, and make well-rounded decisions grounded in critical evaluation. This balanced approach to decision-making can result in more effective strategies for navigating the ever-changing landscape of the life sciences industry.

Achieving cognitive diversity is another matter. This may involve implementing hiring practices that seek out diverse cognitive styles. From our work, we’ve found that using people analytics to assess individuals’ behaviours rather than their personality traits is the best way to achieve the diversity required for high performance.

Effective leadership assessment practices in life sciences

Use behavioural analytics

Data-driven people analytics tools like personality tests, such as MBTI, FFM and HPI have long been in use to build personality profiles and identify leadership styles. However, they still fall short in accurately predicting future performance. 

By focusing on actual behaviours, rather than inferred personality traits, this approach can more accurately estimate performance levels. This data-driven approach has the potential to greatly improve the accuracy of leadership assessments and can help employers identify candidates who are more likely to excel in high-growth businesses.

Using our behavioural assessment model, PACE, leaders and leadership teams are benchmarked against high-performing behaviours based on data from the past ten years of successful private equity exits, highly relevant to private equity investors.

Consider situational experience

Domain experience in life sciences is an essential. Without it, a leader would not be able to convince a company full of academics and scientists to get behind their vision. What is often overlooked is their situational experience. Have they been through an M&A process, helped a company enter new markets or digitally transformed an operation?

People analytics tools can analyse a candidate’s situational experience to judge whether they have the qualities needed in a company at a certain stage of growth.

When should you assess potential leaders in life sciences?

Investors and their portfolio companies’ leadership teams should always have a succession plan in place, regularly updated by assessing employees with high potential for leadership. 

Succession planning in the life sciences industry plays a vital role in maintaining leadership sustainability and ensuring the continued success of an organisation. One key practice is to proactively identify potential leaders within the organisation and either promote or develop them so they can take the reins at critical junctures. By creating a pool of potential leaders, organisations can ensure they have a robust pipeline of talent ready to fill future leadership roles.

Employing data-driven leadership analytics tools during succession planning can help organisations keep a record of their past and future progression.

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