Life Sciences Leadership: Get Creative in Recruiting Your Next CEO

By Jennifer Chase

For growing life sciences firms, it is critical to have a CEO with the skills and vision to match a particular phase of the firm’s evolution. A CEO that pioneers the science and vision behind a drug, diagnostic or device might not be the right person to orchestrate later clinical stages, major financing, regulatory approval and continued market expansion. Indeed, there are certain CEO archetypes for growing life sciences firms, as my colleague Morten Nielsen has written.

Good boards know this and often take a right-person-at-the-right-time mentality to recruiting CEOs. However, they must guard against fixating on an “ideal candidate” who will take them from point A to B, or B to C or C to D. In my experience, considering an ideal type of candidate is helpful in defining the CEO role and preparing a profile of the position, but it can be limiting in terms of successfully recruiting someone to fill the role. Very few executives will fit the mold of the ideal person the firm is looking for at a given stage.

Jennifer Chase

Therefore, it pays to get creative and look outside the box when considering potential CEO candidates. Some areas that emerging life sciences firm should consider as they start a CEO search:

  • Other sub-segments within the life sciences: For obvious reasons firms like to seek CEOs and top executives who understand their specific market niche. Thus, a biotech startup will want its next chief executive to be someone who has shepherded a biopharmaceutical through the approval process (for the FDA, EMA, etc.). This doesn’t always have to be the case, however, and firms should be open-minded to sourcing CEO candidates from across the life sciences and outside a specific niche.
  • Different product life-cycle stages: The same logic applies as above. Firms are often looking for a CEO with expertise in the specific product development phase that they are approaching. This, too, can inhibit their ability to find an exceptional CEO who might fall outside this narrow parameter.
  • Alternative funding and financing models: Growing life sciences firms typically have an established idea of the financial model they’d like to pursue as they ramp up – through venture capital, private equity, or a merger or acquisition, for example. Whatever the exit plan, companies tend to look for CEO candidates specifically within a given financing sphere, to leverage the executive’s knowledge and connections. While this makes sense, it’s a situation in which the “ideal” candidate might be hard to find. Can an executive steeped in VC guide the firm down a PE path? Certainly, so my advice is to be open to candidates who are financially savvy and opportunistic, and can also build networks rather than just relying on their current network.
  • Other industries outside the life sciences: Especially towards the end of their arc of growth, I see firms starting to look outside of the life sciences for potential CEOs – an executive who may have honed her or his skills on Wall Street or in Silicon Valley can be an intriguing candidate for many reasons.

A key question that life sciences firms should ask as they undertake a CEO search and identify candidates is, “How do we think outside the box?” This doesn’t mean that a candidate from outside the box must be selected. Rather, it is an important aspect of ensuring that the best possible person is chosen, even if the next CEO doesn’t fit the mold of the “ideal” candidate.

About the Author

Jennifer Chase is a managing director in the Life Sciences practice at Witt/Kieffer. She has more than 25 years of experience in the healthcare and pharmaceutical industries and over 15 years of experience in international executive search. She has recruited leaders from a broad range of industry backgrounds including pharmaceutical, biotech, medical device, diagnostics and healthcare services.

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